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Writing for ‘new media’? The old still serves the new

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As profs consider changing the names of their schools of journalism and (mass, strategic, public, etc.) communication, they are hurriedly reshaping writing curricula to reflect changes in the media of information delivery and, more importantly, prospective students’ attitudes that journalism is a dying profession.

The instruction of writing in the Age of New Media is under the microscope. But some (not all, but enough) journalism educators, methinks, approach teaching writing for “new media” as if it requires a brand-new skill set taught in courses with names that suggest the same. We must ask: Are educators entranced by “new media” overlooking the core learning goals of students in a journalism and communication program — to observe faithfully and completely, to record accurately, to analyze thoughtfully, to organize sensibly and to present compellingly?

No matter the medium of distribution, those traits of a good communicator have not changed. Nor has an old, reliable maxim all good writers must learn and that profs can use to distinguish writing for a newspaper vs. tweeting at Twitter.

Anyone’s who worked as a journalist – or in any writing-intensive profession – has heard these words: Write to fit.

That’s because journalists have always had to live within limits. Write to fit is an expression of that. A reporter will return from an assignment and, much of the time, be told by an editor I need eight inches of copy. Or a reporter will turn in a two-take, 30-inch masterpiece combining news, depth, and context only to be told Hey, cut it to 12. Space is tight.

And that editor? She has limits, too: She has to capture that 12 inches of copy in a two-column, two-deck hed – perhaps five or six words on each line – that invites, entertains, informs, and otherwise urges readers to have a look at the story. She has to write a front-page reefer to the story, too, in maybe a dozen words.

Broadcast journalists face limits as well: Caps on seconds per story (rarely minutes), stories per segment, and so on. Broadcast folks compete, too, for time and space with other voices and videos. And those stories get reduced further to promos and tags.

Write within limits. Journalists learn that quickly – or they flee newsrooms to write novels (which breed their own limits). The notion of information restrained by limits applies more in the digital present and future than it did in the print yesterday. That’s ironic, given the perceived promise of the World Wide Web 15 years ago as a virtual space without limits. That brave new medium promised to give journalists free reign to explore long forms unrestrained by a page six 13-pica columns wide by 21 inches tall. Well, that promise of an Internet utopia for journalists didn’t turn out so well, did it? (After all, website owners had to make money.)

For more than a decade, journalism educators have tried to figure out how to teach new writing techniques for what many of them call the “converged media.” Profs continue to develop such courses with catchy names like Wordsmithing featuring these presumably “new” writing techniques and styles for the “new media.” But I wonder if this new instruction in online writing overshadows what should precede the writing – fundamental reporting and research skills (to say nothing of mastering the nuances of vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, and style common to all journalistic writing).

Consider some names of courses in which such “new” techniques are taught: Writing for All Media, Online Writing, Writing for the Web, New Media, Writing Across Media, even Cyberjournalism.

Some programs, even mine, now teach journalistic writing and reporting in courses that no longer have the word news in their names. I used to teach News Writing & Reporting I and II. Now I teach Writing & Reporting I and II. News, methinks, is vanishing from journalism course names for marketing reasons: With so many students hellbent on studying what follows the conjunction in journalism and mass (or strategic, public, digital) communication, news in a course name has become a turnoff to current and prospective students (and their tuition-paying parents). News, that audience seems to believe, refers to a dying profession with no hope of good jobs.

But, as usual, I digress.

There’s little new under the Internet sun. Teaching writing to students who wish to tweet, text, blog, or facebook (oh, god, I used it as a verb!) let alone write news stories or magazine-length takeouts or advertising plansbooks still requires an understanding of basic precepts but danced on different media stages.

Write within limits.

In my opinion writing course this fall, my students continually faced limits: They wrote editorials between 225 and 250 words and op-eds between 450 and 500 words. Then I required headlines: six to 10 words. Then a promotional tweet of no more than 113 characters (need to save room for the URL). And, of course, Facebook status lines are necessarily short (and often vapid) as well. Sometimes I confined their work to words of no more than two syllables, then words of one syllable. Or I’d limit the length of their sentences to no more than 12 words. Or I’d forbid passive constructions.

They learned to identify the limits of the medium in which they wished to communicate along with an understanding of that medium’s intended audience — then wrote within those limits.

The fundamental instruction needed in a course called, for example, Writing Across the Media is just that: For each medium, understand its limits. Then write within those limits, be they 250 words, 160 characters, six words, 140 characters, 20 seconds, five seconds, a minute 30 seconds, or 2,500 words.

Add to that instruction basic premises long known to communicators: purpose, audience, message. Those represent still more limits. If the writer is a PR practitioner, then her purpose may differ from that of a journalist. All communicators need to understand their audiences to best craft meaningful messages. Understanding these restrictions on creating meaning directs the choice of the best voice, which the great Don Fry called “ the sum of all the strategies used by the author to create the illusion that the writer is speaking directly to the reader from the page.”

Or, in the the new media world, to speak directly from the voiceover of the YouTube video, the blog post, the status line, the online letter of the company’s CEO to clients or customers, the tweet promoting a new product or service, or running texts or tweets in the coverage of an issue or an event in “real time.”

Yes, some new-media distinctions exist. Online writers learn to link to other resources from their pieces to allow readers a presumably richer information experience.

Bloggers learn readers hate scrolling. So they write a suspensive line or question just before the read more link to lure readers to the jump. But that’s nothing new: For decades, writers of television comedies and dramas have been doing the same damn thing before the commercial break to hold viewers on station.

Now writers must be aware of audience habits that may not have been as apparent in the old world of print.

The extraordinary amount of information flooding the Web and flowing through laptops, cell phones, iPads, and other mobile devices has created an audience of scanners, not readers. Therefore, writing must be tightly edited and to the point. Omitting needless words is critical. If scanning requires a reader to sift through unnecessary words, readers click somewhere else. Scanable writing means the careful use of headers, boldface, italics, images, and white space that identify discrete, discernible, easily digestible “chunks” of content. These help keep readers’ eyes engaged.

Again, such design elements aren’t new and don’t require a three-credit course in Digital Media Design to grasp. Information design, no matter what the means of information delivery, has always served as instruction to the reader on the relevant importance of different content.

Today as yesterday, The Big Principle overrides other considerations: Keep readers’ eyes on your writing. Because so many, if not most, Internet sites now represent a vast, free-for-all competition for hits, the old advertising adage still applies: Money follows eyeballs. Write too long (or too boring), and the eyeballs (with the money they represent) go elsewhere.

As my colleague suggested, perhaps what the Web has become — commercialized — is to blame for making writing within limits even more crucial. The competition for attention is so fierce that being read requires rigid adherence to common-sense limitations. Write tight, write bright.

It’s ironic, however, given the initial premise of the Web as an endless information opportunity (with a present estimated data content of 1,000 billion gigabytes), that the principal limit writers must recognize is the attention span of their readers.

As my colleague explained to me, the unlimited expanse of the Internet allowed creation of so much content that people stopped reading anything in great detail or depth online. That, of course, has consequences. Consider what the late, great muckraking columnist (and 1972 Pulitzer Prize winner) Jack Anderson said decades ago:

Americans still get most of their information in very shallow bites. That’s no way to inform a democracy.

Sadly, write to fit these days usually means write short. I find it ironic that I teach a professional behavior — write to fit — that magnifies Anderson’s concern. Given the brevity of many online writing forms today, and given audiences’ attention span many say is pitifully short, teaching students to write to explain without limits is a rare occurrence in my classroom.

Consequently, I stress one more maxim side by side with write to fit — make every word count, and these days, make every character count. Waste no words; waste no characters.

Many journalism schools are intent on curriculum revision with an eye to luring students with heavily promoted, fancifully named “digital media” courses. Those programs should remember that foundational writing courses can easily be structured to stress the limits inherent in choices of voice, medium, purpose, audience, and message relevant to any career path in any medium.

More than ever, the information universe requires versatile writers capable of working in any medium — converged or not — with a full understanding of the limits and opportunities of media old and new.

And if your attention span was sufficient to arrive here — thank you for sticking with me.

h/t: Shelley Jack, visiting professor, St. Bonaventure University

xpost: Scholars and Rogues


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

December 20, 2010 at 3:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. Dear Doc Denny;

    Good piece. I’m also struck by the irony of all that space on the web while everybody tries to write short. I would use that space for original documents (e.g., whole speech texts), but still write short. As the great Elmore Leonard said, “I leave out the parts readers skip.”


    December 20, 2010 at 3:55 pm

  2. Thanks, Don. I appreciate the length of your attention span. 🙂

    Dr. Denny

    December 20, 2010 at 4:01 pm

  3. […] Go here to see the original: Writing for 'new media'? The old … […]

  4. I’ve embraced writing for the Web and microblogging precisely because it demands we omit needless words.

    While Mr. Anderson makes a good point, I’m not overly concerned with the nature or direction of digital journalism.

    First, the thrill of writing to fit on deadline was my favorite part of the job when I was in the newsroom and I still enjoy the challenge as a writer. As a reader, I also appreciate others’ ability to inform me succinctly.

    Tthere are still audiences for longer pieces on the Web, if we can entice them to keep going as you did here.

    Shane M. Liebler

    January 6, 2011 at 12:36 pm

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