CNN: Leading the pack in. . .newswriting?
I’m only sort of kidding.
Click here. Or here. Or, what the heck, here. [Note from author: CNN doesn’t have permalinks for its content, so these links keep going dead. If you wind up at a missing page, just click on any news story and you’ll see the feature I’m talking about.–cs 5/28/08]
Notice that each of these stories appearing on the CNN website is topped by a bulleted list titled Story Highlights. The following text rides in a box alongside the headline of a story, “Russia: We did not drop missile”:
- Russia says it could not have dropped a missile in Georgia earlier this month
- Georgia accuses Russia of “shameless Soviet diplomacy”
- Experts from the U.S. among others have identified the missile as Russian
- Incident reignites feuding between Russia and its pro-Western neighbor
The folks at CNN have figured out what editors of newspapers figured out by the 1920s or so but then (how?) forgot when they made the transition to the Web: Above-the-fold matters. People skim the news, scanning headlines, decks, picture/captions, and reading (sometimes) ledes and (rarely) the story to the jump and (very rarely indeed) all the way to the end.
But the biggest group of people skims headlines, decks, pictures and captions. This is the news consumer, both in print and online.
The most successful newspaper websites don’t seem to get this. Many use only the headlines that appear in the day’s paper, or those that come on top of wire service stories. The best of them handcraft blurbs for stories that get bigger display. A few get pictures and captions.
But click on the article itself and get this from USA Today.
This from the New York Times. [This link is behind a pay wall. Again, any Times news story will do.–cs]
This from the Washington Post.
In these examples you’ll find decks, some multimedia enhancements, links, and so on.
But none of them has what, arguably, would be the most valuable service to Web readers of the news: A succinct summary on top of the story, above the fold, that needs no clicking or scrolling to consume.
My deduction: CNN creates very little original news–and, as a broadcast culture, accepts intuitively how short a news consumer’s attention span is. (Recall the ribbon of text scrolling across the bottom of its newscasts.) It has no vanity associated with its original news reporting, no need to spool out the whole 43-inch wordroll in order to comfort the top print editors, who (still!) insist their marquee work in the paper be marquee work on the Web, repurposed with little disruption to the version that is trucked each morning to readers’ homes.
CNN’s news summaries are often not very good. The language is sometimes dull, the details are poorly selected, insights are heroically resisted. They read like the work of junior producers in a hurry.
But the summaries exist, high up, bulleted and readable. This fact alone gives a majority of Web news readers–skimmers and dippers–a better experience.
The only website I’m aware of that campaigns to package news stories with this kind of efficient skimbait is the give-’em-a-break-they’re-still-in-beta site Newser. Its stories are topped by 100-word blocks of text, written by newswriters, and more insightful than CNN’s. But they are presented as blocks of text. No white space. Small text. From a usability perspective, these better writeups score lower than CNN’s bullets. Compare the Newser link above with any of the CNN links at the start of this blog entry and you’ll see what I mean.
I’d say it’s ironic that a broadcast website understands how to present news to an electronic user better than newspaper publishers that pay for serious reporting and news analysis.
But it’s not.
If newspapers took a cue from CNN’s packaging, and topped their full reports with easily skimmable summaries, they’d have the best of both worlds: Important, original news that carries out the vital functions of the Fourth Estate–and reaches the maximum audience.