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Megan Garber's article on Slate's foray into long-form journalism will make you very optimistic about online news, and so will Matthew Yglesias's comments. I'll just add two things that make me yet more optimistic.

First, I think people really underestimate how much further we can go in using the Web's abundance of space to increase the amount of information we give to readers. Most media outlets have blogs and occasional interactive features, but the basic articles that we publish have remained almost exactly the same. Which is weird. The way we do the news was developed around the tight space constraints of print. There were only so many pages, and there was a lot of news, and so everything had to be written and condensed and squeezed into the paper. But now we have the vast expanses of the web. That changes everything, even though it hasn't changed everything quite yet.

Take interviews. A news article you read on the front page of the Los Angeles Times is the product of at least six or seven interviews. But because the Los Angeles Times prints only a certain number of pages each day, the vast majority of those interviews are thrown out. That's a waste. Readers who are interested in the article are probably also interested in the interviews that went into it. But no newspaper or magazine, to my knowledge, has made a serious effort toward posting even a small fraction of the interviews conducted in their newsroom each day. That's a huge untapped source of value for readers -- and particularly for elite readers who need lots of information, and who advertisers really love -- and I imagine someone will eventually capitalize on it.

Second, I think we're just beginning to see how much the Web can do to integrate new and old information. The weakness of the news is that we're reporting, well, news. New stuff. The things that happened yesterday, or an hour ago. But readers often need to know what happened up until this point. There was no way to give them that information in every issue of the print edition. But you can give it to them online -- and to do so, you need to write it only once. Every article can link back to a expansive explanation of the bill under discussion, a graphic display of the numbers that're being talked about, a series of interviews with the key players. I think that type of old news is much more important for readers than we give it credit for.

Now, part of the reason none of this happens is that newsrooms aren't set up for it. Who's going to transcribe and edit all those interviews? Who's going to write the summaries of the bill and keep them updated? But at some point, media outlets also didn't have anybody who coded HTML or managed Twitter accounts. Now they do. So things change. For all that it feels like we've been talking about the Web forever, we're really not that long into the Internet age. In the news business, I think we're still trying to figure out how the web affects presentation, accessibility, and revenues. But as time goes on, I think we'll see more changes and additions to the core product, as well. And all that will be good for readers.

Photo credit: Cesar Manso/AFP/Getty.

By Ezra Klein  | September 21, 2010; 12:30 PM ET
 
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Comments

coders and Twitter management were necessities, for survival and competition. I'm sure news orgs's core offerings will transform over time, but less profitable new content will only make it in if the organizations can grow revenue via other new valuable content and ad placement.

Posted by: andrewlong | September 21, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

I agree that longer format and the wealth of information at one's fingertips are promising features of online news. But the day of the local paper being a place where ALL members of a community would share in common has passed unfortunately. The papers I grew up with would sometimes have op-eds and other pieces that I (or my family, when I was growing up) didn't agree with, which is a good thing. Nowadays, you can just read what you want to read which often is not chosen by an editorial staff that feels accountable to its community. Of course there are "online communities," but they're not real communities in the sense that all members have a shared fate and that it's hard to drop out of it if you don't like it.

Cass Sunstein has written a lot about this:

http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2009/11/02/091102crbo_books_kolbert

showing how the polity becomes polarized and reality gets distorted when people can choose to read only what they want to hear. We've always had rumors and untruths circulating around; but the rise of blogs and being able to read narrowly defined segments of all that's available have made untruths particularly virulent; you end up wasting your time putting them down and never debating the real issues at hand.

Posted by: Lonepine | September 21, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

The first point here is one of the reasons I love Frontline. You can watch a one hour episode and learn a good amount, and then you can go online and read or watch the entire interview to learn even more. They really do a great job, in my opinion, of posting online so much of the background information that goes into each episode.

Posted by: mpraske | September 21, 2010 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Klein: follow the money -- as soon as the media have figured out a way to make money off your suggestions, you will surely see them implemented.

The Dallas Morning News has a website but like most newspapers, it hides its historical articles behind a paywall.

I suspect what you describe will be viewed as "premium content" by the media and so they will charge users for access to it.

The DMN tried this once for premium access to its Dallas Cowboys historical articles. But charging for the content failed so its "Classic Cowboys" area is now freely available.

They haven't reached that point yet with their historical archive of PDF files.

Posted by: fgoodwin | September 21, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

I think the fact that the LA Times (or whoever) distills seven interviews into a coherent narrative is a feature, not a bug. I don't want to read rambling transcripts of interviews. I want a professional to choose the most relevant quotes.

Posted by: mnlp | September 21, 2010 5:49 PM | Report abuse

Online writing must undergo style reformation. When I, a former print journalist, began writing online 15 years ago, I developed the following rules:

* Minimize prepositional phrases.

* Eliminate unnecessary articles – all those "a"s and "the"s.

* Eschew semicolons and colons. They're hard to discern – especially for the bifocaled.

* Hyphenate for quick-scan comprehension.

* Keep sentences short.

* Maximize active verbs.

* Embrace incomplete sentences.

* Absent copy-reader backup, hone copy-reading skills.

* Avoid "stylish" writing.

* Think only of readers' ease and time constraints.

Posted by: fredbrack | September 21, 2010 8:43 PM | Report abuse

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