Sunday, April 18, 2010

The narrative princess and the online ogre

Part 3:  The paint job

The following articles represent a series of reflections on the process of starting a music magazine. (Read the rest here)

Read part one
Read part two

In my last post on this theme, I reached the conclusion that long form journalism sits best in print, mainly because of people’s online consumption patterns. Each person’s reading path is different online – when there are so many possible places to go (links, multimedia), it is almost impossible to choose which way a reader will go. Or… is it?

The so-called “mapped writing model” and the “tumbled pyramid model” are two ideas which were both born as a result of this question and from the need to find a replacement for the old fashioned inverted pyramid, which, after years of faithfully serving journalists, has now become outdated, with the progress of online media and the slow and painful agony of print press. They both serve the same cause and they could both offer a solution to whether long form journalism could ever be friends with the web.  

Let’s take a look at the mapped writing model. The author describes it as viewing the news story:

“…as a whole and parts. First comes a summary of the main elements. Then the story breaks into an orderly conversation of one element or thread at a time. It’s up to the writer to define the content threads. Each thread starts with a subhead that clearly conveys what comes next, for example: “what happened,” “what witnesses saw,” or “next steps in the process.” The subheads function as a map, telling readers ahead of time where the story will lead, what turns in the road they can expect, and reminding them where they are. This form seems to work best on longer news and feature stories.”

As I understand it, the mapped writing model is derived from the idea that, in order to learn how to cope with the avalanche of information that it is being subjected to on a daily basis, the human brain had to reduce its attention span, something I’ve already mentioned in my previous post. Basically, a headline is the easiest way of identifying what it is that you’re reading about and it shortens both the time you need to spend reading that text, and the time spent choosing which bits of information are most relevant to you, as a reader.

Is it efficient? According to its author, applied on the internet, it might be. In print, however, it didn’t seem to work as well, because that is an environment where people’s reading patters are already established, whereas online, they are still forming and they are very flexible.

Joao Canavilhas’ tumbled pyramid is not so different from the mapped writing model and is also the result of a rethinking of the inverted pyramid. After reaching the conclusion that a hierarchisation of news based on the relevance of related facts is not a good strategy when it comes to online press, as the journalists’ criteria in arranging information does not necessarily match the readers', Canavilhas stopped to wonder: why stick to the old top-to-bottom routine? Let’s tumble the pyramid, arrange the information not on a vertical, but on a horizontal axis. Therefore, the story is organized on four levels:

  • Base Unit (lead). Here the key questions are answered: What, When, Who, Where.
  • Explanation Level. This answers Why and How, completing the essentials on the event.
  • Contextualisation Level. Further information is provided on each of the previous W’s, whether in text format, video and sound.
  • Exploration Level. At this level, the news is linked to the publication’s archives or to external ones.

Thus, the reader has the liberty to read as thoroughly as he wants, without missing anything form the story, he is not constrained by space, as the internet has plenty of room for any amount of documentation, and can choose, just like in the mapped writing model, what is relevant to him and what’s not.
  
At a first glance, both of these models go along perfectly with Axel Bruns’ concept of “gatewatching”, which he defines as “the observation of the output gates of news publications and other sources, in order to identify important material as it becomes available”. Basically, the old fashioned gatekeeping no longer applies for online media. Instead, he sees the process of news production more as a conversation, where people constantly bring new ideas into discussion, than a well established and inflexible structure, created by professionals for certain audiences. Again, it gives the reader (who, in Bruns’ view, is also a producer - or a "produser") the maximum amount of freedom possible. 

If we admit it stands as a valid concept (although there are some criticisms to it), from a certain point of views, gatewatching can be seen as just an unfortunate consequence of the online revolution that made information so rich, so available and so cheap that journalism rarely means more nowadays than the art of collecting information from online sources, a concept that institutionalizes the so-called “Google journalism” and that shakes the foundations of news production, that clearly separate the reader from the writer.

However, in the context of either one of the two models I’ve described above, the concept of gatewatching might actually fit online long form journalism. Gatewatching involves permanent change, whereas traditional narrative pieces are static, have structure that is hard to change whenever new information arrives on a subject without ruining the whole construction. But what if readers could participate in the story, add new information and perspectives, without destroying the whole construct? With either one of the two models above, this might just work, because the reader is properly guided by the way the information is layered. He won’t get lost; he won’t mess up the whole story. He knows exactly where his views are needed.

What all of these models have in common, outside of the fact that they both try to answer the same question, is the fact that they both answer it in a way that provides the reader more liberty. They offer him options. Because this is one of the main reasons people choose online news in the detriment of print press. So perhaps a simple rethinking of the way a narrative piece is packaged before it reaches its audiences might be what’s missing. In The Tipping Point, Malcom Galdwell often talks about how minor changes in the way things are done are the key to getting an idea to spread. One example that comes to mind is the one about how the drop in the criminality rate in New York started with merely a paint job of the subway.

Personally, I don’t see the mapped writing model or the tumbled pyramid as something radically different from the way online magazines already structure their information (although it’s on a different scale, we’re not talking about a single story, but all their content). For example, let’s take a look at the NME website. NME is a magazine with a long history, one of the dinosaurs that had to adjust the new order of things and who did it in a very radical way, avoiding the trap that got the best of most newspapers - that of simply reproducing print version’s content online. NME has short, concise articles, it uses multimedia to a maximum, and offers its readers daily incentives to visit the website, through free downloads and by recommending them the newest, coolest music. The front page is nothing but a collection of links. If anyone is interested in anything, they just go ahead and click. There’s no bias in how information is organized, therefore NME’s criteria for arranging the information will never interfere with the readers’.

NME’s online form, however, has completely abandoned long form journalism, in spite of its tradition. Pitchfork, on the other hand, has a bit of a different approach. They haven’t abandoned long form journalism. In fact, they practice it on a regular basis, through articles and columns in the Features section.(here's a sample) .They don’t do anything to help the reader, to ease his work – no fancy way or arranging the information, no sub-headlines and the smallest font possible. Just a big chunk of text. And yet, readers have not turned their back on them. Why is that?

The answer might be found in a study by An Nguyen about the relationship between online news advantages and its post-adoption consequences. One of the conclusions of the study were that there are a few things online news consumers expect from the online news providers: immediacy and continuous updates, quality content, the possibility to receive tailor made news that fit their preferences and a successful cocktail of news and other online purposes. Moreover, one of the most important factors in their choice of online news over print is cost. Pitchfork offers its readers all of these and French fries on the side, in the form of long narrative pieces, dedicated to that particular audience that appreciates them.

***

In order to get a clearer picture of this matter, I thought it might be helpful if I asked someone in the industry (someone who is also interested in finding a way to make long form journalism work online) some of the questions that my research has raised so far. Here is what Gareth Main (Bearded Magazine) thinks about this issue:

What do you think the relationship between long form music journalism and online media is? Are they compatible? If not, do you think they could get along somehow?

That's the million dollar question really - nobody knows and nobody seems to want to find out. Not many people try and utilise long-form music journalism online - Rolling Stone and the Quietus are two sites that do, but I'm not sure what success they have. There is certainly a way it could work - in my opinion - what that is though needs research.

Do you think there is still an audience out there that reads (or would like to read) long narrative pieces, in an age when people read the news on their iPhones?


Absolutely! I read long pieces on my iPhone!

And if so, is anybody still willing to pay for those narrative pieces?

Hmm, no I don't think so. The age of charging people for news is long gone.

What’s keeping the print industry alive? Old habits die hard or there is actually something out there on paper that can't be replaced on screen?

A bit of both I think. There's no doubt there is an audience who loves print, another one that doesn't work online and another one that doesn't see the value of print. I relate to all of them really. The fact of the matter is that print can do a lot of things the web can't do, and the web can do a lot of things print can't do - the key is to have those mediums working together and covering all your potential audience. The problem with that is that print - especially quality print - is a lot more expensive than publishing on the web, so most publishers choose to save the money (or can't raise it) to facilitate the print side of things.

Do you think music journalism should align to the same standards of objectivity and rigor as any other form of journalism? Or is it more flexible when it comes to the author’s personal views?

Well a lot of 'music journalism' is critical writing - reviews and such. There are fewer interviews, and more opinions - I don't think objectivity is too much of a problem.

Does music journalism still exist in an environment where any blogger with a passion for music can call himself a music journalist? And does it still make a difference to the audiences and the bands?
 
It makes a difference to the bands who sell records off the back of good reviews, but we're in a situation where the bands can interact with their audience without a middleman. Audiences don't need journalists to get intimate with a band, and bands don't really need a blogger or music journalist to get their music across. But bloggers and journalists are still important - a band will find it easier to get gig bookings if they've got a good review on Drowned in Sound and casual readers of websites and magazines will always stumble across something that sounds intriguing. It all adds up to a fabulous web of communication - and although music journalism isn't a paid profession anymore, they're still important.

***

Gareth Main is optimistic, but he does emphasise an important problem: the lack of research in this field. Without it, we’re in business just with a lot of passion and a gut feeling.

As you might recall, the reason I started this series of articles is because, soon enough, I will have to turn all this talk about starting a music magazine into practice. And I did not want to go in just  with passion and a gut feeling. It would be very easy to do that, because I like long form music journalism. I like that it has absolutely no practical advantage, but that it can be a gorgeous form of art in itself, in a way that so few things are nowadays, especially whenever we’re talking about something that takes place online, where everything has to serve a practical purpose, has to save time and money and can’t afford to simply be nice.

But have I answered my questions? Is there a market out there for long form music journalism? And is there a way it could work online? I’d say yes to both questions, although I do think a lot of research has to be done in this direction. And who knows? Maybe it could be as simple as a paint job.  
_____________________________

References:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychotic_Reactions_and_Carburetor_Dung
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Bruns, A., 2008, Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond, New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc.
Bruns, A., 2005, Gatewatching: Collaborative Online News Production, New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc. 
Gladwell M, 2000, The Tipping Point, New York: Little, Brown and Company

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