Digital Readership and Narrative

The New York Times finds itself in trouble with it. Huffington Post and Buzzfeed are thriving in it. Quartz and Circa are breaking it and remaking it.

What is it? It’s narrative.

Narrative is changing.

Narrative, particularly journalistic narrative, is being reshaped. It’s kind of a mess, pushed by readers on one side, tech on the other. Let me see if I can find my machete, or maybe a backhoe, and thrash my way through it with you.

Narrative has found a comfy, traditional long form home on, of all places, television. When you watch the writers of ‘Mad Men’ or ‘Breaking Bad,’ or ‘The Good Wife’ spool out longass story threads, episode after episode, that’s long form narrative. Do I really have to wait a year for ‘Mad Men’ to finish? Yes, apparently, and since I am willing to wait, that is the power of long form narrative in action.

For many years the New York Times has dominated in the one-off, long form narrative that digs deep and lasts. Another way to put this is to say that the New York Times is winning at journalism, as its editors recently wrote about themselves in a report I’ll quote from more in a moment. But those same people at the paper realize that readers look for stories in different ways now, and the beautifully-researched, longass news story that bleeds journalism and digs deep is being read by fewer people than ever before. Each month the Times reaches 1.25 million print subscribers and 30 million web readers. That might be good news, but not when you consider that the Times’s homepage views have dipped by 30% since 2011. Page views are pretty flat, and time spent reading articles is diminishing. Even the Times iPhone user base is shrinking. When your mobile base shrinks, you know part of you is dying. The numbers are all from the Times’s internal report about how the paper sucks at digital.

The Times sucks at digital.

Let’s say  you’re the newspaper of record winning at journalism, while losing at getting people to actually read your stuff. Do you get depressed? Yes, you do. Because narrative exists to be listened to, read, experienced. The winning players at the digital readership game are Huffington Post, USA Today, and Buzzfeed, number one, two and three in reader traffic. They got there by changing the meaning of narrative.

They didn’t just write a few grabby link-baity headlines. They wrote lots and lots of them, and they offered shorter articles, added images and slide shows, and reduced the idea of a story down to a checklist or even a GIF. They realized they didn’t need to tell original stories, only repeat original stories written by others. They removed the emphasis on the front page as a destination and atomized narrative, making stories that could surface in different ways on different platforms.

Here’s another way to look at this. Google indexes your home page, so getting visits there is still important, but when I write a blog that connects, more people find it when I post it as an atomic fragment on Twitter, or Reddit, or LinkedIn. Most of those readers never go to the Red Cup home page. There’s a different point of entry for them, and things are going to stay that way.

The Times admits to other failings in its report, like failing to tag stories as assiduously as any half-assed blogger would, failing to offer ‘you might also be interested in’ links as well as Amazon does, and overall, failing to see news as something promotable, malleable, and recyclable. They made the mistake of believing the journalism was done as soon as the story was written.

Borrowing the courage (and journalism) of others.

As any blogger knows, old posts that do well the first time are worth reposting many times, and other people’s writing will do just fine if you can’t think of anything better to write on your own. The Huffington Post gets more online play out of the Times’s articles than the Times does. Gawker, Circa, and Flipboard repackage narrative from the Times and more people see it than (often) do in the original source. Narratives need to be offered up on a variety of platforms; they won’t surface on their own.

Is something wrong here? Maybe, but I don’t think so.

Despite all the fretting about diminished attention spans, visual literacy overtaking text, lack of substance, it remains that there is a huge appetite for news.

People want to be informed, and informing more of them is not a bad thing at all. First Look Media’s digital magazine ‘The Intercept’ has launched, has made it on to my Feedly, and has 57.5 million Twitter followers. Just like that.

There will always be a need for longass journalism in all is beautiful detail. Its practitioners are heroes. The point of entry for many people has changed, though, and narrative is squeezing itself to fit, atomizing itself, and going nano.