Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Terms of Simplicity

We’ve all heard how the proliferation of free news sources on the Web is threatening traditional forms of media, especially newspapers. We’ve also heard that if newspapers are to survive, they must adapt to the evolving trends in both how news is delivered, and how it is consumed. This may be why the SJ-R has recently run two articles written in the Frequently Asked Questions format that is so popular on Web sites.

Yesterday's article on the hiring scandal surrounding the governor’s administration and a previous article explaining CWLP’s proposed deal with the Sierra Club were both given the FAQ treatment.

It could be that the decision to run these stories in this manner was based on some feedback that the public wasn’t grasping the issues involved and so a more elementary approach to presenting the facts was employed. There may be some evidence that this is the case.

A recent statewide poll on the governor’s race recently showed that Blagojevich had a double digit lead over Topinka, despite the recent onslaught of negative press and the revelation of an ongoing federal investigation into his administration. Over on the Capital Fax Blog, two interesting schools of thought were offered in explaining these results: people don’t care about the investigation and lawsuits, or, they don’t really understand their significance. If a lot people really think that these stories are just typical election year mudslinging, then the SJ-R story in today’s paper might help explain to them what’s going on and why it does matter.

My personal reaction to the FAQ style of reporting a story is that it is fine for a sidebar, but that it comes across as somewhat remedial as a front page article. But I have to remember that not everyone has reading comprehension skills as advanced as my own. I was, after all, reading Plato in the original Latin when I was eight years old.*

All lying aside, I would hate to see newspapers go too far in adopting a Web style of writing in order to accommodate the online generation of news consumers.

In my career as a business writer, I’ve been involved in providing copy for Web sites. Studies have shown that people don’t tend to read Web sites, so much as scan them for the particular information that they are looking for. To facilitate these tendencies, good Web copy will be written in short paragraphs, with a lot of subheads and bullet points. This is good when you are searching for a company’s mailing address or hanging around myspace where most of the people are illiterate anyway, but it’s less effective when trying to comprehend a compelling story.

Granted, most people, myself included, don’t give the newspaper a thorough going-over either. The common approach is to scan headlines for articles of interest. But once I find an article of interest, I don’t just want the facts, I want that story. I want the reporter to explain it and put it into context. I want them to convey the proper emotion when appropriate, and to inject some style into the writing.

The FAQ style isn’t as extreme as simply publishing a bulleted-list of facts and I don’t mean to suggest that a radical shift of how stories are written is taking place. I can, however, certainly foresee a time when pull quotes are replaced with a short summary of key points summarizing a newspaper article. And perhaps, after readers have grown accustomed to merely reading the summaries, then narrative reporting will be relegated only to human interest stories.

It would be a shame if today’s increasingly fast-paced lifestyle led to the abridgement of the daily newspaper until all of the life was completely sapped from its pages.

Imagine if this famous passage:

Outlined against a blue, gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.

Was rendered for posterity as simply:

Notre Dame 13 Army 7

One advantage newspapers have over online news sources is that they can be and are at times read at length. While Web sites are surfed through quickly, people will spend quality time with a newspaper, whether it’s when curled up in bed on a Sunday morning, plopped down on a train for a long commute, or holed up in the office restroom for a long break. Let’s hope that newspaper publishers take advantage of this competitive advantage and don’t reduce the day’s events to a series of instant messages.

*I know, Plato was Greek. But did you know that Mickey Mouse had a gay dog?**

**A BFS T-shirt, should they ever become available, to the first person to identify the origin of that joke.


Anonymous said...

Soap: Episode Number: 35 Season Num: 2 First Aired: Thursday November 30, 1978
In a conversation between Jodie and Jesica, Jodie mentions to Jessica that Plato was gay. Jessica responds "You mean Mickey Mouse had a gay dog?"
Can I have my t-shirt now?

ThirtyWhat said...

Awwww ... you beat me to it!!! :)

"In the much-loved American comedy series Soap there was once a particularly memorable exchange. Billy Crystal's character had broken the news to his mother that he was gay. She denied it, claiming it was just a fashion nowadays to be gay and people never used to be gay in the old days. Gently, he informed her that Homer was gay, that Alexander the Great was gay and that Plato was gay. Only at the latter did she balk: "Plato was gay? You are kidding me?" He assured her he wasn't. "Plato was gay?" she mused in disbelief. "Micky Mouse's dog was gay!"

BlogFreeSpringfield said...

Very comprehensive answers. I also would have accepted "Soap".

Thanks for playing,

Laura said...

I think Google and all those other bottomless-pit-of-useless-information web sites and search engines have taken all the fun out of pop culture trivia. It's no longer what you know, it's how the hell fast you can find the answer online. And I think its a total travesty and very un-worthy of a BFS t-shirt.

Monkey Boy said...

Well-said Laura!

As you can see anonymous 9:46 and thirtywhat have some conflicting information.

Jessica was Billy Crystal's aunt not his mother. Therefore, I suggest that Dan proclaim anonymous 9:46 the winner (With an asterisk for using the Internet. Unless he/she happens to have the script to every "Soap" episode at his/her fingertips.)

Anonymous said...

I think there was a lot of confusion over the deal so the Q&A was probably a response to that. It should be pointed out that some of that confusion was created by the SJ-R when they reported bits and pieces of the agreement, getting some of it wrong, when an alderman opposed to it decided to leak the story in advance of the agreement being released to the public. The SJ-R confused the public and allowed themselves to be used by one or two alderman with an agenda, all so they could break the story. I'm not impressed.

Anonymous said...

Well now, Comrade Laura. You'd fit in right nice with the Chinese government.

Laura said...

Anon 5:31,

Google your heart out - I couldn't care less. All I'm saying is it's not prize-worthy (which is just below sponge-worthy on the worthiness scale - see Google for more information) and actually could be called cheating to spoil a trivia question by looking up the answer online. And anyway, I'm not sure 'Mickey Mouse had a gay dog' would be all that funny when translated to Chinese.

Anonymous said...

A CHEAT! Comrade Laura has the audacity to call me a cheat. Ha! Where do you get off making up the rules. This is Dan's blog not yours. I don't recall Dan establishing any rules. Regardless, it does't matter one iota where I gleaned my information (notice that I have not admitted to Googling....Deny, deny, deny....admit nothing and demand proof. Ain't that right Monkey Boy?). Dan has accepted my response and Monkey Boy has declared his support of me being the winner. What is done is done. Your just jealous because I get the BFS t-shirt (if they ever become available) and you don't.
Comrade Laura I think you missed the point. The Chinese government has banned Google in China. Of course you have read that in the SJR. I'm also guessing that before Google, you were also in favor of burning all the billions and billions of 200 lb. 32 volume sets of encyclopedia found in the basement of every home in America.
I'm curious, is "Sponge Bob" the result of a defective sponge?

Laura said...

Um, yeah, I'm aware that they banned Google in China. But - I missed the point?? I made a pretty innocuous comment about how people looking up answers online takes all the fun out of trivia questions, and from that you deduced that I am a communist who is not in favor of search engines in China or World Book in general? Whatever.

Why does Dan have to develop rules for us to know what's acceptable and what's not? If the teacher doesn't tell your kid not to rip off answers from the kid next to him while he's taking his math test, does that mean he's free to use that 'resource' as he sees fit? Sorry to drag your children into this, but I just think 'nobody told me I couldn't' is a pretty sorry defense.

Anyway - Sponge Bob. Yeah, what's up with him anyway?

Sergio said...

Laura comments:
"Why does Dan have to develop rules for us to know what's acceptable and what's not?"

But YOU get to make up the no Google rule???? Geez, talk about pompous!

Dan, I enjoy your column and the considerable hostility of your respondants. Maybe you should be doling out valium instead of BFS tshirts?

Monkey Boy said...

This is fun and sad all at the same time.

I believe Laura's (what will now be known as the "No Google Rule" or 'NGR' for short) intentions were to scold those who rely on a relatively new form of "cheating." That being using the Web. I concur with her. Anyone who is proud of their abilities to type quickly into a search line and then cut & paste needs a new moral compass or a severe beating. I'd be happy to help with both.

The NGR is for those who like competition and fair play.

And at this time I call upon Trivia Commissioner Dan Naumovich to step in and settle this debate.

BlogFreeSpringfield said...

Thank you.

Speaking specifically to the Mickey Mouse's gay dog question, I happen to know for a fact that the person who first answered the question knew the answer without any artificial intelligence courtesy of Google. So even if the NGR were in effect, it wouldn't have been warranted in this situation. This person did go to the Web to find supplemental information to put the answer in context for those unfamiliar with the the show. For that, no punishmentment is warranted.

In the interest of fair play, I support the NGR that Monkey Boy proposed and Laura would surely second, and appreciate their efforts in fighting to maintain the integrity of trivia contests. Alex Trebek would be proud.

However, until which time I actually start giving away t-shirts, I don't feel I should be establishing any rules.

Thanks for commenting.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I'll apologize for calling Laura a pinko commie (although I did hear that she reads IT). Not wanting to be scolded by Laura or beat by Monkey Boy, I'll relinquish my rights to a BFS t-shirt (should they ever become available) if Laura promises to not tell my wife I've got kids. Can you believe those little s**ts? Rubbernecking to cheat on a math's simply incomprehensible. I always wrote the answers on the palm of my hand.

Anyway, so be it, Monkey Boy has declared that the "NGR" is now in effect. "Let the Games Begin".

I don't know about SpongeBob. I'm hearing rumors that he is gay.

Monkey Boy said...

Very diplomatic. I like it and appreciate it.

See, I like the easy route on occasion too. No beating, no bail.

Laura said...

Ok. I accept your cease-fire and I apologize for accusing your illegitimate children of being cheaters. As far as the Illinois Times is concerned, let me just say this. The stretch you used to equate my opposition to the use of Google when answering a trivia question to communist regimes in China was so great, you surely must have pulled a muscle. But your ability to draw such conclusions would probably make you the perfect addition to the IT reporting staff.