News writers wrestle daily with a formidable paradox — how to get you to read a story in its entirety while making sure you don’t have to. We of course would like you to read every precious word we print, but we also know you won’t. The salesperson in us wants to blurt out, “Hey! You don’t know what you’re missing by leaving that story on the potential tax increase after the third paragraph.” But, the realist in us also wants to emphasize, “We understand your time is valuable, so let’s just start with the main details and grow more and more specific as we go along, and you can break off anytime you think you’ve got what you need.”
It’s a pretty good arrangement, actually. While we don’t write every story this way — in what you may have heard called the “inverted pyramid” style — we do strive to leave you in control of the depth of information you consume. It’s a practical approach to presenting news that’s grown even more valuable in the age of the Internet, when readers’ attention spans can barely manage a 12- by 17-inch screenful of pictures and text before rushing on to find, as Jerry Seinfeld might say, not what’s on the Internet but what else is on the Internet.
In fact, accommodating your constantly changing interest level is a significant challenge in our presentation of stories on the web. Slate.com, the online newsmagazine, describes both the science and the frustrations of reaching an audience online in an engaging article published this week. Its bottom line, and one that bears repeating, is that most of you who began this column haven’t made it this far, and I’m losing more of you by the word — even, I suspect, if I start using words like “puppies,” “brutal murder” or “naked” -- though we know from experience terms like these will get you into a story almost more than any other.
But another thought on the subject that bears repeating is this: We understand. Sure, you’ll get the most out of any news story if you read every detail. But we know that you neither want nor have time for that. So, we design most of our stories to give you the key information from the outset and then to lead you through the remaining details from there.
This approach, I hasten to add, is not just practical but also guilt free on your part. The readers website goodreads.com recently published a list of the top 100 books its followers said they had begun but never finished, and that led to a Wall Street Journal story headlined “Guilt Complex: Why Leaving a Book Half-Read is So Hard.” That story portrays the mixture of guilt and lost opportunity many readers feel — and the lack of it in others — about pushing aside “Life of Pi” or “The Corrections” or “Atlas Shrugged” or any of scores of other books before “cleaning their plate” as it were by reading down to the very last page.
For those of us who love to read and to write, the thought of an unfinished article can be a disappointment in the former case and a slight in the latter, but with newspapers and news websites, it doesn’t have to be either. From us, you won’t hear your metaphorical mother scolding, “You read every word of that story! Don’t you know there are readers in Syria and Egypt and, yes, even China, who don’t get anything more than a 140-character tweet or an Instagram snapshot every day?”
Online or in print, we give you the full story, but we design it so you can decide just how much you want or need. I think the fitting literary reference would be that this means “you never have to say you’re sorry.” But I have to admit I’m not sure if the context is right. I never finished that book.
Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.