Magazines and YouTube, Story and Image

This post originally appeared in Medium.

Written by Lee Schneider

Seeking long form journalism, do we gaze into an iPad to find the future, or do we browse YouTube?

Walk along Hudson Street in New York. Look at magazines and publishing houses. Their death is announced daily. But for something that is dead, magazines keep mysteriously filling newsstands and mailboxes. Books turn up everywhere, even made of paper, even in libraries. Look at long form content. Everybody talks about the supremacy of 140 characters, but Longreads thrives, Atavist is healthy, and Amazon’s Kindle Singles is a lively home for reportage, humor and novellas.

Come along to Silicon Beach in Los Angeles. Look at metastasizing production houses sprouting along the streets of Santa Monica and Venice where I work, all laboring to make viral YouTube videos. Since each viral video is viral for a different reason, all previous speculations explode.

YouTube Channels, cheap, fast and out of control, laughable at times, scary at others, might prove to be the killer of the word, or at least a willing accomplice. The short form video interview does a reasonable impression of a magazine article. The medium-length NASA video does a good impression of a documentary. The cat video, taken collectively, might replace the collective memory of Jack Paar. (Mee-ow!)

We now live and die by pixels. What does this mean for long form writing? Bora Zivkovic, blogs editor at Scientific American, visiting scholar at NYU school of journalism and co-founder of Science Online, responded this way when I emailed him with that question:

While visual stuff — images, videos, infographics, animation, etc, will be a big part of the future media ecosystem (including as part of magazine offerings), I believe there will always be a big — perhaps bigger — market for text. I have written before about the changes in text — the “disappearance of the middle” — suggesting that the 500-word news item will become rare, and that the two extremes will come to dominate: super-short (e.g., a tweet or something close to it), and super-long (in-depth, detailed stories). And never forget the importance of sound. Podcasts in various forms (not just people talking, but also other uses of sound) will be really big in the future. When this very question was asked in Helsinki last month, during the #sci4hels session at #WCSJ2013, Kathleen Raven answered, IMHO quite rightly: “Sound, sound, sound!”. And then she added that, and this is important, even the best video is crap if its sound is bad.

Something frightening will happen to you if use the Internet. You will not be able to stop. Just the other day I could not stop compulsively subscribing to YouTube channels. I sat before our internet-ready TV, imprisoned in a large, comfortable chair, hooking up to Huffington Post Live, Science Magazine, Smithsonian, Design Milk, TEDTalks, Smart History Videos, and watching Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams riff together, all the while crying into my Chardonnay, mourning the demise of long form journalism. It was a sorry sight, but completely unnecessary. I had inadvertently discovered an online truth: Search-and-graze is the pleasure and pain of the Web. The pleasure of print is not in the hunt, however. It is in the discovery of things delivered to you between pages.

As Chandra Turner, president of ED2010, told me in a phone conversation, “The nice thing about print is you can be surprised and delighted and informed about something you didn’t know you were looking for, whether it is in print on a device or tablet, or in a magazine that you hold in your hands. I don’t think print is dying. I think that print and video work together. Lots of things are easier to see in video. Lots of other things are easier to read about.”

I wanted her thoughts because she helps people start their careers and find internships in the magazine industry, and in my view that puts her closer than I am to how Millennials might be thinking about media. I asked her about tablets, like iPads, and their place in the magazine world.

She, like others in the mag business I asked, said the tablet hasn’t replaced print, and probably never will. “The staff is still creating the print magazine, for every staff that I know, they put out a tablet edition.”

Numbers? Okay. I asked for some from Anthony Sarcone, Senior Vice President, Marketing Initiatives and Insight, MPA.

“The Spring study by GfK MRI shows tablet audiences alone growing +72.9% compared to the same period a year ago. And we’ve also seen advertisers follow the audiences onto the tablet. Preliminary research by PIB and Kantar Media has shown that for the 58 Magazine Media titles that measure both print and iPad advertising, print ad pages and iPad ad units grew +7.0 % during the first half of 2013, compared to the same period in 2012.”

This was enough to make me put down my tear-diluted Chardonnay for a sec. Maybe the print magazine business was looking up? According to Sarcone, people are social with their magazines, too, connecting with magazine brands on Twitter and Facebook.

For others, however, tablet use is growing slower than it should be. Joe Germscheid, Director of Consumer Engagement and a senior partner atCarmichael Lynch in Minneapolis suggested this:

“Tablets and magazines are just friends waiting to meet each other.Tablet content should be bigger than it is right now. I blame the publishing community. Most publishers are dragging their feet developing usable digital versions. Therefore, tablet “readership” is lagging. Most publishers have merely snapped a digital picture of a printed page and put it on an app to read. Lame. Tablet owners (nearly 100 million in the U.S.), prefer reading magazine content on our devices over paper. The problem is, publishers are not incentivizing readers to switch to digital.”

I think he’s right. Tablet editions of print publications can be lame. Compare your average magazine experience on a tablet with what you can experience with Zite or Feedly and you get a sense of what you’re really missing. Therefore, will video swoop in to fill that void?

I think not.

Not only have I sobered up after three cups of coffee, but Joe at Carmichael Lynch made some very good points in his email. This is what helped snap me out of my malaise:

“The print industry will probably adopt more video in presenting stories, but it won’t go completely visual anytime soon or if ever. Video is too slow to edit and develop (see how long it takes to make a documentary). The public’s attention in news and new developments won’t wait for production of a video. Writing is just faster. And more clear.”

Yes! As a video producer I can assert that most people take much longer to explain something in video than it would take in print. From my days of writing news scripts for local and network television I can tell you that the spoken word is the least effective way of imparting information. If you want to know something in depth, you’ll need to read it, and re-read it, and even mark it up.

If you want detail, and context, you need a story, as Bora Zivkovic writes, “a narrative that builds up slowly and has resolution at the end.” His blog about science storytelling is worth absorbing, and particularly fascinating is his reference to Paul Bradshaw’s news diamond as a 21st Century alternative to the old news pyramid. Sometimes you need a story told quickly, probably on Twitter in 140 characters. Sometimes you want detail.

tl;dr version: It’s not about short form storytelling vs. long form. It’s about speed vs.depth.

Disclosure: I don’t drink Chardonnay. I wrote that only for a cheap laugh.

Image Credit: John Bell via Creative Commons