Writing for ‘new media’? The old still serves the new

As profs consider changing the names of their schools of journalism and (mass, strategic, public, etc.) communication, they are hurriedly reshaping writing curricula to reflect changes in the media of information delivery and, more importantly, prospective students’ attitudes that journalism is a dying profession.

The instruction of writing in the Age of New Media is under the microscope. But some (not all, but enough) journalism educators, methinks, approach teaching writing for “new media” as if it requires a brand-new skill set taught in courses with names that suggest the same. We must ask: Are educators entranced by “new media” overlooking the core learning goals of students in a journalism and communication program — to observe faithfully and completely, to record accurately, to analyze thoughtfully, to organize sensibly and to present compellingly?

No matter the medium of distribution, those traits of a good communicator have not changed. Nor has an old, reliable maxim all good writers must learn and that profs can use to distinguish writing for a newspaper vs. tweeting at Twitter.

Anyone’s who worked as a journalist – or in any writing-intensive profession – has heard these words: Write to fit.

That’s because journalists have always had to live within limits. Write to fit is an expression of that. A reporter will return from an assignment and, much of the time, be told by an editor I need eight inches of copy. Or a reporter will turn in a two-take, 30-inch masterpiece combining news, depth, and context only to be told Hey, cut it to 12. Space is tight.

And that editor? She has limits, too: She has to capture that 12 inches of copy in a two-column, two-deck hed – perhaps five or six words on each line – that invites, entertains, informs, and otherwise urges readers to have a look at the story. She has to write a front-page reefer to the story, too, in maybe a dozen words.

Broadcast journalists face limits as well: Caps on seconds per story (rarely minutes), stories per segment, and so on. Broadcast folks compete, too, for time and space with other voices and videos. And those stories get reduced further to promos and tags.

Write within limits. Journalists learn that quickly – or they flee newsrooms to write novels (which breed their own limits). The notion of information restrained by limits applies more in the digital present and future than it did in the print yesterday. That’s ironic, given the perceived promise of the World Wide Web 15 years ago as a virtual space without limits. That brave new medium promised to give journalists free reign to explore long forms unrestrained by a page six 13-pica columns wide by 21 inches tall. Well, that promise of an Internet utopia for journalists didn’t turn out so well, did it? (After all, website owners had to make money.)

For more than a decade, journalism educators have tried to figure out how to teach new writing techniques for what many of them call the “converged media.” Profs continue to develop such courses with catchy names like Wordsmithing featuring these presumably “new” writing techniques and styles for the “new media.” But I wonder if this new instruction in online writing overshadows what should precede the writing – fundamental reporting and research skills (to say nothing of mastering the nuances of vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, and style common to all journalistic writing).

Consider some names of courses in which such “new” techniques are taught: Writing for All Media, Online Writing, Writing for the Web, New Media, Writing Across Media, even Cyberjournalism.

Some programs, even mine, now teach journalistic writing and reporting in courses that no longer have the word news in their names. I used to teach News Writing & Reporting I and II. Now I teach Writing & Reporting I and II. News, methinks, is vanishing from journalism course names for marketing reasons: With so many students hellbent on studying what follows the conjunction in journalism and mass (or strategic, public, digital) communication, news in a course name has become a turnoff to current and prospective students (and their tuition-paying parents). News, that audience seems to believe, refers to a dying profession with no hope of good jobs.

But, as usual, I digress.

There’s little new under the Internet sun. Teaching writing to students who wish to tweet, text, blog, or facebook (oh, god, I used it as a verb!) let alone write news stories or magazine-length takeouts or advertising plansbooks still requires an understanding of basic precepts but danced on different media stages.

Write within limits.

In my opinion writing course this fall, my students continually faced limits: They wrote editorials between 225 and 250 words and op-eds between 450 and 500 words. Then I required headlines: six to 10 words. Then a promotional tweet of no more than 113 characters (need to save room for the URL). And, of course, Facebook status lines are necessarily short (and often vapid) as well. Sometimes I confined their work to words of no more than two syllables, then words of one syllable. Or I’d limit the length of their sentences to no more than 12 words. Or I’d forbid passive constructions.

They learned to identify the limits of the medium in which they wished to communicate along with an understanding of that medium’s intended audience — then wrote within those limits.

The fundamental instruction needed in a course called, for example, Writing Across the Media is just that: For each medium, understand its limits. Then write within those limits, be they 250 words, 160 characters, six words, 140 characters, 20 seconds, five seconds, a minute 30 seconds, or 2,500 words.

Add to that instruction basic premises long known to communicators: purpose, audience, message. Those represent still more limits. If the writer is a PR practitioner, then her purpose may differ from that of a journalist. All communicators need to understand their audiences to best craft meaningful messages. Understanding these restrictions on creating meaning directs the choice of the best voice, which the great Don Fry called “ the sum of all the strategies used by the author to create the illusion that the writer is speaking directly to the reader from the page.”

Or, in the the new media world, to speak directly from the voiceover of the YouTube video, the blog post, the status line, the online letter of the company’s CEO to clients or customers, the tweet promoting a new product or service, or running texts or tweets in the coverage of an issue or an event in “real time.”

Yes, some new-media distinctions exist. Online writers learn to link to other resources from their pieces to allow readers a presumably richer information experience.

Bloggers learn readers hate scrolling. So they write a suspensive line or question just before the read more link to lure readers to the jump. But that’s nothing new: For decades, writers of television comedies and dramas have been doing the same damn thing before the commercial break to hold viewers on station.

Now writers must be aware of audience habits that may not have been as apparent in the old world of print.

The extraordinary amount of information flooding the Web and flowing through laptops, cell phones, iPads, and other mobile devices has created an audience of scanners, not readers. Therefore, writing must be tightly edited and to the point. Omitting needless words is critical. If scanning requires a reader to sift through unnecessary words, readers click somewhere else. Scanable writing means the careful use of headers, boldface, italics, images, and white space that identify discrete, discernible, easily digestible “chunks” of content. These help keep readers’ eyes engaged.

Again, such design elements aren’t new and don’t require a three-credit course in Digital Media Design to grasp. Information design, no matter what the means of information delivery, has always served as instruction to the reader on the relevant importance of different content.

Today as yesterday, The Big Principle overrides other considerations: Keep readers’ eyes on your writing. Because so many, if not most, Internet sites now represent a vast, free-for-all competition for hits, the old advertising adage still applies: Money follows eyeballs. Write too long (or too boring), and the eyeballs (with the money they represent) go elsewhere.

As my colleague suggested, perhaps what the Web has become — commercialized — is to blame for making writing within limits even more crucial. The competition for attention is so fierce that being read requires rigid adherence to common-sense limitations. Write tight, write bright.

It’s ironic, however, given the initial premise of the Web as an endless information opportunity (with a present estimated data content of 1,000 billion gigabytes), that the principal limit writers must recognize is the attention span of their readers.

As my colleague explained to me, the unlimited expanse of the Internet allowed creation of so much content that people stopped reading anything in great detail or depth online. That, of course, has consequences. Consider what the late, great muckraking columnist (and 1972 Pulitzer Prize winner) Jack Anderson said decades ago:

Americans still get most of their information in very shallow bites. That’s no way to inform a democracy.

Sadly, write to fit these days usually means write short. I find it ironic that I teach a professional behavior — write to fit — that magnifies Anderson’s concern. Given the brevity of many online writing forms today, and given audiences’ attention span many say is pitifully short, teaching students to write to explain without limits is a rare occurrence in my classroom.

Consequently, I stress one more maxim side by side with write to fit — make every word count, and these days, make every character count. Waste no words; waste no characters.

Many journalism schools are intent on curriculum revision with an eye to luring students with heavily promoted, fancifully named “digital media” courses. Those programs should remember that foundational writing courses can easily be structured to stress the limits inherent in choices of voice, medium, purpose, audience, and message relevant to any career path in any medium.

More than ever, the information universe requires versatile writers capable of working in any medium — converged or not — with a full understanding of the limits and opportunities of media old and new.

And if your attention span was sufficient to arrive here — thank you for sticking with me.

h/t: Shelley Jack, visiting professor, St. Bonaventure University

7 comments on “Writing for ‘new media’? The old still serves the new

  1. This four letter acronym is the bane of my existence these days, and one of the major reasons I’m still having trouble self-motivating to write: “TL;DR” Too Long; Didn’t Read. There’s nothing like specializing in long-form, in-depth analysis and then finding that people don’t read it because they lose interest or are too scattered to focus long enough to get to the end, especially when the issues being analyzed defy simple explanation. You know, issues like science and climate disruption.

    Writing shallow is easy, even when it’s got to be tight. Writing deep, especially combined with tight, is hard.

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  3. Thanks for the post Denny and for the hat tip. I agree that the fundamental writing principles still apply and that no matter the media, we must write to fit. As someone who teaches those ‘fanciful’ new media classes (adjective used in the Facebook lead to this story), I do believe they have great value in preparing students for the modern workplace. They are not passing fad programs named as such for marketing purposes. In my experience, these courses do not teach new writing techniques, but rather help students learn about the channel and apply their writing to it.
    While it’s important to identify the similarities and to recognize that good writing is good writing no matter the channel, differences do exist. Writing foundations remain at the core, but writing for a newspaper is not the same as writing for a press release. Writing on a corporate blog is not the same as writing for a website or on Facebook.
    Each channel has value and purpose. I agree, we shouldn’t be ‘entranced’ by digital and emergine media. However, we should seek to understand it fully, both as professionals and as educators and align that understanding with the goals of our universities and corporations.

  4. I’d like to challenge one of the assumptions that seems to be built into this discussion—that a decision made for marketing purposes should be dismissed as shallow and vapid. Let’s not forget, though, that a university is a business, and regardless of how unique that business might be, a business needs customers. So, while traditionalists and academic purists may scoff at changing course titles to attract students, the inescapable, undebatable bottom line is this: no students = no university.

    As a journalist, you know the hook’s the thing. A good course title is like a good headline; it grabs a student’s attention and makes them want more. A good course description is like a good lead; it hooks a student’s interest and entices them to go on.

    You call it journalism; I call it marketing. Two sides of the same coin. In that context, no one is going to argue that good writing skills aren’t crucial—you’re definitely right that they are.

    Beyond skills, though, students need to understand conceptual approaches to writing like purpose and audience—and here’s where the changing media landscape makes it tricky. Different media do different things for different audiences, so it’s important to understand those distinctions. It’s important to understand the distinction between objectivity and advocacy. It’s important to understand the difference between informing/educating/persuading/entertaining. I know you peg all this stuff in your courses.

    This is the substance that backs up the marketing—because marketing-based decisions ARE shallow and vapid if they’re nothing but smoke and mirrors. However, well-considered, well-researched markting-based decisions—like the ones we’re making to our own curriculum—can ensure long-term survival by bridging the gap between students wants, university needs, and industry expectations.

  5. Denny, you’re right on when you say that the focus of solid writing is key to any medium, and that many existing courses can be adapted to include new forms of communication. For the past four years of college, these specialized courses didn’t exist, but I still learned important Web communication skills from your basic writing courses that you “tweaked” to include new media.
    Chris is right when he says courses need to be backed by a solid foundation, ie. more “steak”, less “sizzle”. But marketing is, and should be, packaging, and I think Denny’s understandable concern is that the importance of the steak is being downplayed in pursuit of the sizzle.

    The convergence of marketing and journalism, especially in journalism schools and usually among faculty with less real-world journalistic experience, is vastly overplayed. Yes, journalists market their own product more than they ever have. But the intent is different: marketers seek page views for money; journalists seek page views to inform. While the goals of the two may, in many areas, be the same, the intent is always different. The emergence of new technology does not suddenly make it ethical (or even desirable) for journalists to become servants to the bottom line. That’s why advertising departments exist (and, one thing not often mentioned in classes is that they still exist, in the majority of media companies, in their traditional forms) Newspapers and TV stations are seeking new ways of communicating as technology changes, but the majority of recent changes within the communication industry are being made to adapt to a failed business strategy, not a failed newsgathering strategy.
    Furthermore, colleges are grossly underestimating the average student’s existing knowledge of digital media. Teaching classes on how to Tweet and Facebook may seem hip now, and the skills learned in these classes can be useful, but they merit no more emphasis than an elective or graduate course/major. That’s because of two reasons: 1) They are not the foundations of communication in any field, and should not be falsely packaged as such. They are important tools that are becoming necessary in the communication world, not core principles on which professionals base their everyday work (unless their job title and description expressly calls for this, in which case a solid foundation of writing and editing would still be essential and should be primary). Some current students may not understand this, but they’re not the ones working in the field everyday. That leads to point 2) Technology changes and evolves at a rapid rate, and focusing too much on mastering the current technology at the expense of the basic, lasting tenets is frankly a waste of students’ and parents’ money. When I was an intern at NBC’s Meet the Press, David Gregory once told me that an education in journalism was a waste of money because the technology in TV news evolves so rapidly that by the time you leave school, you’ll have to master a new technology. I realized that, in my case, this was wrong because the Jandoli education addressed the new technology, but only as a tool to be used in conjunction with the basic tenets: writing (to fit), editing, ethics. By learning those, I got my money’s worth, and my parents also understood that. I write at a major daily newspaper today, and I Tweet and Facebook (promote) my work. I also blog, live blog and use video. These are, at this point in my industry, the standard of what’s necessary for a journalist. Occasionally, I’ll see new, useful ways of promoting my work on Web sites. Usually, a quick Google search can teach me how. And while I’m glad I learned a few tips on how to use new technology, I’m more thankful that my journalism school education taught me things that can’t be learned through a Google search. And I hope at St. Bonaventure and other journalism schools, it stays that way.

  6. Don’t forget, Charlie, that marketing isn’t JUST promotion, although many people have the misconception that that’s all it is (not implying that YOU have that misconception, btw). One of the key components of marketing is product development: using research to determine consumer needs/wants, then adapting the product to best meet those needs/wants. In our case, we have to know what the industry wants/needs, too.

    Inherent in all that is having a good product. You have to have something to sell–the steak. Otherwise, the sales pitch–the sizzle–just fizzles. The million-dollar question that so many programs are wrestling with is “What should the product look like.”

  7. Thanks for the post Denny and for the hat tip. I agree that the fundamental writing principles still apply and that no matter the media, we must write to fit. As someone who teaches those ‘fanciful’ new media classes (adjective used in the Facebook lead to this story), I do believe they have great value in preparing students for the modern workplace. They are not passing fad programs named as such for marketing purposes. In my experience, these courses do not teach new writing techniques, but rather help students learn about the channel and apply their writing to it. While it’s important to identify the similarities and to recognize that good writing is good writing no matter the channel, differences do exist. Writing foundations remain at the core, but writing for a newspaper is not the same as writing for a press release. Writing on a corporate blog is not the same as writing for a website or on Facebook. Each channel has value and purpose. I agree, we shouldn’t be ‘entranced’ by digital and emergine media. However, we should seek to understand it fully, both as professionals and as educators and align that understanding with the goals of our universities and corporations.

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