Friday, August 21, 2009

Why The 800-Word Columnist Must Change

You really must read Spencer Hall's obituary for the 800-word "generalist" sports columnist.

He nails it, but let me add some context: 800 words was a construct of the space the newspaper had to work with. The generalist was a function of the newspaper's monopoly in a community.

That's it. There was no consumer-focused or "journalistic" rationale for the format or form.

That's why Bill Simmons found a market for 3,000-word columns -- even before, when he was building his brand at AOL Digital Cities.

That's why Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon would have simply had a more timely, two-man version of "Sports Reporters" if not for the innovative format layered on top of "PTI."

And, personally, that's why I found a national market for an 800-word "generalist" column that was atomized into 50 different pieces and storylines, tagged to daypart and consumer habits.

Among other reasons, because I recognized that FUNCTION was as important as form, at least as it related to the new consumer of sports news: First thing in the morning, "just enough."

As soon as you start building a column around the number of inches your editor needs to fill a newspaper page, you are going to pad it with too much -- or not back up your argument enough.

Here is the reality -- and you can see this at the Quickie, on Deadspin, on PTI, on Twitter: Making an interesting point doesn't take a lot of time.

It is potentially HARD (harder than fluffing an 800-word column with a lot of stuff your reader wouldn't need to understand your argument or develop their own p.o.v. about it.) But it doesn't take a lot of room.

That's not to say there isn't brilliant analysis or perspective that takes way longer than 800 words to explain -- and when it is good enough, fans are more than ready to give time to it.

(To Spencer's point, the standard "generalist" column was rarely that brilliant -- and if you told the writer they could have 300 words or 3,000 words, their arguments would be better... at least when executed by the rare brilliant generalist.)

There is one point that sticks with me:

Let's stipulate that "800 words" did not come from "optimal for consumer" or "optimal for creator," but "optimal for newspaper space." And, in a world of specialization, strict "800-word generalist" is unnecessary -- unless you are the uber-rare talent.

Why, then, do so many major Web sites -- in and out of sports -- still promote the "800-word generalist" take as some sort of ideal?

As ex-newspaper columnists find homes online -- and this has been for YEARS now -- they aren't joyously taking advantage of the limitless potential of the new medium's flexible format rules.

They are churning out the same old 700- to 800-word columns that they wrote in the newspaper. And they (and their editors) will eventually run into the same problems:

Fans don't want that. They are too busy, with too many other great things out there to consume, to deal with your standard 800-word column.

(Especially when that column isn't by a topic expert, but a generalist. But even when the 800-word column is written by your sport-specialist columnist, it still fails as a matter of format.)

This isn't meant to dump on ex-newspaper columnists who now find themselves recycling the same old "800-word" strategies online.

This is meant to challenge them to break out of the "800-word" newspaper-column-inch format and experiment with other formats and other forms beyond the lazy unreported take.

Writers who have been competing online in the blog era -- or even beyond -- are already, for the most part, intuitively constructing new forms and formats to try to engage and enlighten readers.

If you don't do the same -- and what a wonderful freedom that should sound like to you! -- your content won't ever be as powerful as it could be, because fans will find it easy to tune it out.

The cynic in me thinks that the ex-print folks can't think outside of the "800-word" box, because that was how they were trained, it was what they aspired to -- before their industry collapsed. Some, to their credit, have tested other formats for their perspective. Others, lamentably, think "other formats" exclusively means "when is my TV appearance today?"

The optimist in me thinks that between consumer feedback, editor prodding (ex-newspaper editors, lose the "800-word" mindset!) and the columnist's own enthusiasm for the opportunities within the new medium -- even if that enthusiasm is underlined by fear of their own potential irrelevancy -- we may yet see innovation from the "800-word" set.

-- D.S.

(Ironically, this was a 769-word "straight" column-like take. I needed to include more bulleting, more bold-facing and more interlinking; chop it into a couple of posts; add a clever photoshop and a YouTube clip; curate some aggregation of the best analysis on the Web of the "800-word" form; call for reader comments and feedback; and create some Baseball Prospectus-type statistics to support my case, ideally with a hip acronym like "J.E.N.K.I.N.S." -- Just Enough Newspaper Knowledge to Increase 'Net Success.)

UPDATE: E-i-C Rob King just tweeted: "Re: General sports columns -- Editors see them as luxuries, and some writers consider them birthrights. But thoughtful, caring work thrives." Totally agree. My only point would be that too many fit that into an artificial 800-word box. The most thoughtful/caring is often 200 -- or 2000. They take what they need, which is probably a good rule of thumb.

I think the better ex-newspaper (turned-online) columnists totally get that -- and have gleefully adapted to the creative options (and consumer habits) of the online medium. I think the bad ones still stick to the old norms and forms, and consumers can totally see it. At that point, I guess it is half on the columnist and half on the editor, who should be pushing for more online-embracing methods and execution based on their judgment, best practices from around online journalism and what we constantly find out about consumer interests.

I'm up for finding this innovation anywhere. Would be thrilled to see some of it come from the columnists, generalists or otherwise.

UPDATE 2: Must-read from Chris at Smart Football, about Grantland Rice and modern sportswriting.

1 comment:

Chris said...

I completely agree with this. I also think that one problem with 800 word columns on the sports page vs. many (not all) 800 word columns on the Op-Ed page is that those are often 1600 or 2000 word columns condensed into something that fit the space. Sort of the old Abraham Lincoln quote, "Sorry that this letter is so long, I didn't have time to make it shorter."

By contrast, by largesse, or time demands (not easy to churn out a column of a certain length on demand to fill a set space, that in and of itself is a skill that has now been diminished), were guys turning twitter posts into 800 word columns. The internet allows them to leave those thoughts as twitter posts.

Now it's not fair to compare every sports writer to an HL Mencken who could consistently fill the space with more thoughts than you'd think that space would allow (and elegant prose to boot), but the business stopped being about that. And the incentives weren't there: you produce a bad column, and guess what, you still have a gig a couple of days later.

The internet is more immediate, and my biggest gripe with my own stuff is that I can't afford to edit it more, but I do get pretty instant feedback. People either care about what I wrote or they don't. I might think an idea is great; the masses might disagree. That is a humbling and disciplining force not present in the old world.

The counterpoint for blogs, etc is the limitless space and no editing whatsoever. That is a problem. But people seem to want immediacy over something gone over as many times as a New Yorker article might be, and we have spaces like twitter character limits and page views that help discipline you to stop being so prolix. (Not helping me just yet.)

Anyway, great thoughts.

- Chris (