Jonathan Glick is CEO of Sulia, a real-time media company.
Mobile technology is pulling apart the centuries-old format of the article. News and analysis are getting a divorce.On smartphones, through which the vast majority of the world’s population will get their news, people love succinct and scannable information. We are gravitating to formats that do not require us to click through and consume paragraphs of prose. The update stream popularized by Facebook and Twitter — and ultimately derived from the phone-indigenous SMS — is ideal for breaking news, but it is ill-suited to deeper analysis.
Meantime, the classic article is a carefully crafted bundle of facts, photos, and quotes bolstered with historical background and analysis. But when the news is already known to the reader — thanks to the stream — these bundles can become confusingly out-of-sync even when they are just a few hours old. And more and more news content is being created on mobile phones: celebrity tweets, handheld videos, location-specific checkins. Taking the time to turn these short-form nuggets into articles adds limited value, so they are made and viewed in a mobile-friendly format, cutting the article out altogether.
These are the irreconcilable differences, and they are cause of the inevitable divorce.
Jeff Jarvis recently came to a similar view but spun a different conclusion. Noting some of the same forces at work, Jarvis carries this to the extreme and describes “the article as luxury or byproduct.” Many of his readers took this to mean that long-form journalism will become an inessential relic. But that’s wrong.
Long-form writing will survive and will do so by abandoning news nuggets. What emerges will offer a liberating business model for writers. Within the next ten years, long-form writers will accept that their readers have seen the facts of the story live as it happened, probably elsewhere. The longer content that succeeds in that environment will be pieces that provide the most value as backgrounders, news analyses, and commentary.
The good news for writers is that this dovetails with their financial and intellectual interests. Via a variety of social-mobile platforms, they will pass along facts and pictures as soon as they obtain them — or verify them, depending on the writer’s journalistic standards. Writers who are especially good at doing this real-time reporting will develop audiences who are attentive to their mobile alerts. News nuggets are highly viral, so successful reporters will very quickly be introduced to huge numbers of readers.
Through this loss-leading channel, writers will then be able to notify their readers about longer-form articles they have created. Unlike news nuggets, which cannot be protected and whose facts are instantly everywhere, personal pieces reject commoditization. Their value will hinge on the author’s subjective perspective, experience, or knowledge. They may be longer than news articles today, uniquely styled, visually interesting, or delivered via video or audio. These pieces will written to be saved to read later — for that time when the reader takes a moment to relax, learn, and enjoy resting by the side of the stream. Social and mobile platforms make payment much easier, so it will be practical to charge a small fee. Fifty cents for thoughtful analysis is inexpensive, and yet it is the cost of an entire newspaper today.
There is nothing sacred about the article for the transmission of news. It is a logical way of packaging information for a daily print run of a newspaper and a useful format around which to sell display advertising. It has survived into the Internet age for reasons of tradition and the absence of better formats. We have come to accept it as a fundamental atom of news communication, but it’s not. Given faster, easier alternatives, the article no longer makes sense to mobile users for consuming news.
News will go one way, into the stream as scannable updates, and analysis will go the other, toward a new long-form business model for writers. I believe it will be a happy divorce.