Today’s online news: too much surface area, but too little depth?

Even though I had followed the latest financial crisis since its inception on every news site of relevance, I had to wait for the Atlantic’s cover story on the topic to understand where Wall Street had gone wrong (at least to the extent that anyone understood it).

While online news as it exists today is great for 24/7 access, real-time updates, increased transparency, and multiperspectival discussions, it still lacks the depth and detail of a feature story in a print magazine.

As a proponent of digital communication, I can appreciate the pervasiveness of news coverage in the online age, but as a student of journalism I often crave the completeness of long-form journalism, which is lacking on the Internet.

In a very enlightening article in the Nieman Reports’ fall edition, Matt Thompson brings up this very point about digital journalism. Thompson writes that while each new day brings with it an array of breaking news stories on various topics, virtually none of them purport to explain the significance, context or relevance of the subject at hand.

This is hard to deny. The home page of almost every popular news site looks like a commercial for news stories other than the one you’re reading: a video clip of the funniest moment on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show from the previous night, the latest gaffe by the dumbest politician, and/or a crude moment of incivility by the celebrity newsmaker of the week.

The fact that these sorts of blurbs beg the reader to go off on various tangents is not the Internet’s greatest fault. The very nature of reading on the Web—short blog updates on the latest event preoccupying the media, hyperlinks that often take one through tangential stories neither directly relevant nor any more detailed—cater to the sense of urgent consumption that occupies Internet users and feeds them with an ever-increasing number of trivial details, while taking them farther and farther away from the big picture.

The Web is certainly not alone in this. Newspapers offer mere snippets of important stories for lack of time and space, and broadcast shows are well known for distilling big issues into high-impact sound bites.

I applaud the fact that the Internet can offer information on obscure topics, and promote the sort of analytical thinking and reasoning that the restricted space of print cannot provide. In fact, comments threads of blogs have some of the most insightful analyses I have ever seen. But this is all the more reason why journalists should be doing more to stimulate this sort of debate and discussion by talking about underlying themes and broader perspectives.

As Thompson points out, lay readers lose interest in complex issues because the absence of context and background often makes it impossible to grasp for anyone that is not an expert in the field.

“I came to think of following the news as requiring a decoder ring, attainable only through years of reading news stories and looking for patterns, accumulating knowledge like so many cereal box tops I could someday cash in for the prize of basic understanding,” he writes of his experiences as a young news consumer before he became a journalism student.

In this environment, it’s often easier to read a story about Britney Spears, which requires no in-depth knowledge of her life, than to assimilate the complications of single-payer health care in America without putting it in context of earlier attempts to do so.

Thompson suggests that bringing a Wikipedia-style format to online newsrooms could prove to be a step in the right direction. He might have something there. Every time I want a quick education on a topic I’m unfamiliar with, I head to Wikipedia. As a responsible journalist, I’ve been taught to double-check all the facts I use from the site with primary sources, but the user-generated encyclopedia provides more context and background to an issue than any news Web site I know. In addition, it boasts of updates in almost real time.

As Thompson writes, there is “something quite remarkable about how stories are structured on the site, how breaking news gets folded into an elegant, cohesive record, enabling site visitors to quickly catch up on a topic without having to sort through a torrent of disparate articles and headlines.”

That this is not merely beneficial to lay consumers of news is evident from the observation that journalists themselves often turn to Wikipedia to find a clear “road map to troves of valuable information,” albeit gingerly.

Again, as journalists, they verify their facts with more authoritative sources that the links below entries amply provide. If news Web sites were to offer the same sort of time line and narrative that Wikipedia does, information consumption could be made that much easier for the casual reader.

It is true that there is only so much reading that can be achieved on a celluloid screen. Much has been written about the various adaptations the brain undergoes in processing information from a light-emitting screen as opposed to static paper, but multimedia has its own advantages to combat such extensive reading.

The New York Times site, for instance, has been using interactive tools to provide more depth to its stories, in topics as wide-ranging as Roger Federer’s footwork on a tennis court to the history of health-care reform in the US. As has CNN with its in-depth specials, such as one exploring Afghan invasion through history and another detailing basic facts about the religion of Islam.

The BBC, arguably an exemplar in multimedia use, has a whole section devoted to historical accounts on various topics of reader interest. The Guardian has a series of interactive time lines on items that span a light-hearted World Cup narrative and the more disconcerting history of unemployment in the UK.

While these are great as standalones, news sites should be doing more to incorporate such features into their daily news stories so that users can make the most of real-time updates.

While the Web has different methods at its disposal to provide long-form journalism (in addition to endless lines of text), it can still do the same thing that a long feature in the Atlantic or a special report in the Economist does. And it can often do it better.

The media has often been guilty of using technology for technology’s sake. In the early nineties, CNN was criticized by media scholars for ushering in the age of “television camera” news, where the 24/7 network offered round-the-clock coverage made possible by satellite-fed communication, but did little else to offer background to its stories. Now, real-time updates, context-lacking blurbs, sound bites and viral videos are being popularized because of Internet technology.

Fortunately for us, that same technology that allows us to transmit snapshots of news in real time also has the potential to provide contextual and in-depth information in exciting and innovative ways. Here’s to hoping news organizations will use it.

7 thoughts on “Today’s online news: too much surface area, but too little depth?

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  4. Deepak Nanwani

    Hi friends its great to see some great discussions on this forum
    I would like to introduce you to http://www.gluewall.com – an online journalism start up by two IITians. Still in its budding phase it aims at creating a platform for expression of alternate opinions which are often ignored by the mainstream media. Do check out!!!

    Reply
  5. Cindy

    I understand the concern, but online news can have depth. Look at how twitter revealed the protesters of Iran. Regular media could not get the story. The details came from the people.

    Reply
  6. Greg Watts

    You make some interesting points. I think online news can have depth. It’s a matter of giving a story enough depth in perhaps fewer words than might be used in print.

    Reply
  7. Pingback: Mario Simonovich » Cómo lograr más profundidad en el periodismo digital

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