I woke up Sunday morning to watch John King’s Dick Cheney interview on CNN. As the two men finished, I began to write a blog post about Cheney’s comments on Iraq, which seemed to me both overly rosy, and unfair. (“We did, in fact, accomplish what we set out to do,” Cheney said, at once overstating the long-term stability in Iraq, and cynically handing ownership of any future setbacks to Obama.) But, because of a previously scheduled TV hit, I never had time to finish the post.
Later in the day, I went online to find a transcript of the CNN interview, and came across a Politico story by their ultra-productive reporter Mike Allen, titled “Cheney: U.S. ‘succeeded’ in Iraq.” A few more clicks, and I discovered that Allen had in fact written two other stories on the Cheney interview. One was called “Cheney: Obama wants ‘massive expansion,’” which included the comments about success in Iraq, in the form of a transcript. Another was called “Cheney says Obama endangers U.S.,” which focused on another part of the speech. Another Politico reporter, Carrie Budoff Brown, wrote six other short pieces on the Cheney interview in a blog called Politico Live. One was called, “Cheney: Hill is no Crocker.” Another was called, “Cheney: We left Scooter ‘hanging in the wind.'” Each story was, like Allen’s three, short and focused on a single quote. In other words, a Politico reader who wanted to know what happened during the Cheney interview on CNN would have to read as many as nine different stories on the site.
What struck me about all this was not just that Politico had created a hassle for me, the reader. It was that they were doing news online smarter than the rest of the old-school organs of print journalism–from the New York Times to TIME magazine–and that Politico’s insights about how the web works could have ill effects for the future of my profession, political journalism.
Here’s why: The Internet has changed the incentives for news producers. Once upon a time, the incentive of a print reporter at a major news organization was to create a comprehensive, incisive account of an event like Cheney’s provocative interview on CNN. (Open the New York Times or the Washington Post tomorrow, and you will still be able to read versions of this story.) That account would then be packaged into a container (a newspaper, a magazine, a 30-minute network news broadcast) and sold to the consumer. In the Internet-age, by contrast, what matters is not the container, but the news nugget, the blurb, the linkable atom of information. That nugget is not packaged (since the newspapers, magazine, broadcast television structure do not really apply online), but rather sent out into the ether, seeking out links, search engine ranking and as many hits as possible. A click is a click, after all, whether it’s to a paragraph-length blog post or a 2,000 word magazine piece. News, in other words, is increasingly no longer consumed in the context of a full article, or even a full accounting of an event, but rather as Twitter-sized feeds, of the sort provided by the Huffington Post, The Page, and The Drudge Report. Each quote gets its own headline. Context and analysis are minimized for space. The reader, choosing her own adventure as she clicks, creates her own narrative of the world, one that is largely dependent on the aggregators she employs. (More after the jump. To keep reading, click below.)
Because more and more people are getting their news online, this shift is not isolated to online-only publications. It effects all print media, since publications like TIME magazine, and the New York Times, are increasingly emphasizing their web presence, and wrestling with the physics of the Internet. That means this new Twitter-sized view of political news will increasingly dominate. Even if I am not being asked to do this sort of journalism now (I only write one story about the events I cover), more reporters like me will certainly be imitating the Politico model in the future, because it works, generating more hits, more links and a more immediately digestible reading experience than the classic 1,000 word newspaper analysis. (As can be expected, one of Allen’s three atomized stories got a Drudge link. Huffington Post, meanwhile, acted in the same way as Politico, creating at least three different stories out of the Cheney interview.)
Already this taste for atomized news nuggets has changed the way people understand Washington politics. The news is increasingly reduced to its most elemental form, a series of instantaneous, always new, constantly updated, transient and often superfluous information bites, which preferably jolt emotional reactions and can be sold to a particular affinity group, thus garnering links and attention. Just look at how we have digested some recent news cycles over the past few weeks, and how the nugget format has bled away context or meaning. There was, for instance, the oft-repeated fact that Rush Limbaugh said Obama should fail, which is repeated often without clarifying Limbaugh said this in the middle of a discussion of Obama’s policies, not the nation’s future. There was the Republican Senate claim that Congress has spent $1 billion an hour in the administration’s first 50 days, a talking point peddled by the GOP, which does not mean what it seems to mean. There was also the endlessly repeated question of whether or not Obama was doing too much at once. Having spent several days reporting out this latter question last week for a magazine story, I can assure you that it does not lend itself to a bite-sized discussion.
These nuggets are then consumed by the rapid-fire cable news shows, reacted to by bloggers and commenters, and spit back out at us in the online echo chamber, which in turn is used by cable news producers and assigning print editors as a way of deciding what should be covered next. Without context, the nuggets drift further from the original event. Is it okay for Rush to want Obama to fail?, asks the cable host. Is Obama trying to do too much at once? You have 10 seconds to respond.
Don’t get me wrong. The sky is not falling. There are also clear benefits to this shift. As we move to smaller and smaller bites of news, we are also becoming smarter news consumers, able to consume more information in a shorter amount of time than ever before. We also have more control, and more potential information available at our fingertips, at least as long as the economic model for journalism continues in some form. This is the marvel of the Twitter feed, of which I am a recent, if reluctant, convert: We have a constant stream of any information we choose, in an instantly digestible form.
But I do wonder where it all leads. I wonder how long it takes before people view a 600-word web story as too long? What about a web story that is longer than 140 characters? What about this very blog post, which is now more than 1,000 words, two or three times the length of a proper blog post? I am sure most of you have stopped reading. I had originally titled this post “More On The Internet’s Distorting Effect On News.” But that does not play well enough to the ether. I should have just posted this as a Twitter feed: “TIME Blogger: The Politico Is Transforming Our Approach To News.” You probably would have clicked on that off Huffington Post or Drudge, right? So why not play the game?
That’s why I am changing it. The new headline does not really tell the whole story, or explain my entire point. Politico is not the villain here. It is just among the smartest early adapters. The Internet is changing news, not Allen. And the truth is I am just like him. I want your clicks. I want to give my readers information they can use, in the forms that they want it. As time passes, I will worry less and less about whether you read to the bottom of my longer stories, as long as you keep clicking. Please.