If you eavesdrop on a typical meeting in an Indian newsroom, especially one where long-term strategy is being discussed, you’ll find that at some point, there will be a dire pronouncement made (usually by the marketing or sales people, who actually have no business being in the room) that audience attention spans are dwindling, for a variety of reasons, usually the Internet. This is cited as the cause for drops in readership, circulation and, to hear them tell of it, souring of milk, panic in the streets, general mayhem, dogs and cats living together, the biblical end times, and Taher Shah’s musical career.
Of all the atrocities committed in the Indian news landscape, most are committed in the name of appeasing the audience’s perceived lack of attention. From drastically shortened article sizes in newspapers and magazines, to the wanton usage of callout boxes and bullet points (to the extent that most articles nowadays seem to be comprised of bullet points and callouts alone) and even to the usage of SMS lingo, there is nothing sacred enough to avoid being sacrificed to the God of Brevity. If we could encapsulate everything in 140 characters, we would.
At this point, some disclosure: I too, have been guilty of this. In my career as a journalist and editorial staffer for two of India’s largest news media companies (although I didn’t work in the newspaper, just a small youth magazine at each place) I made the same decisions, to cut copy, to reduce the processing power needed by the audience, to make things ‘easier to scan’ rather than informative, and I even embraced bullet points. While I don’t think I ever stooped low enough to use SMS slang, I’m pretty sure I must have considered it at some point.
All of the above I did, genuinely believing that the people who were reading my articles and my newspaper were slowly evolving into creatures incapable of higher thought, whose every waking moment was being saturated with information at such a high rate that their primitive meaty minds were overwhelmed and unable to process any more facts. I was doing them a favor, I said to myself. And, along the way, I was ensuring that it was my words that would be read, because they were easier to read.
I believed in this until last month. Which is when, for the first time ever, I started reading newspapers regularly. Real newspapers, that is, not the trash that currently passes for news in our country. I had read articles on foreign news websites before, and had even picked up editions of foreign newspapers when I traveled abroad. Each time I would read the entire thing and wonder at the folly of the people who printed such beautiful stuff that would never get read except by diehards like me. Did they not care about the falling attention span disease?
Living in the US for a month, though, meant I had a chance to read a newspaper every day. And rather than getting bored of the long articles and stories, rather than putting the newspaper down and logging onto Twitter or Facebook for more bite sized content, I found myself getting more and more absorbed in the long form articles that newspapers here were carrying. It seemed strange and anachronistic to me, from India, that newspapers should have articles whose word counts went into the thousands. That captions and headlines should not have puns or punchlines more suitable to a third rate standup monologue. That there wasn’t a single bullet point to be seen on the horizon.
Newspapers here present the news. The whole news and nothing but the news. They report what is provable, in an objective and fair manner, without besmirching their integrity and, in the cases when they have failed the public trust, they haul themselves over coals as well. And that shows, immensely. All journalists go through a trial by fire here. Each story is tested in the crucible of the edit room before being green-lit. All angles are pursued, no assumptions are made. The fact that it’s a daily newspaper, that one needs to go through this exercise every single day makes no difference to the people here. It’s a process that needs to happen. No story could ever be wrapped up in 800 words, with such strict need for objectivity.
Compare this with our colored and lurid coverage of everything from politics to Bollywood. There is nothing considered or graceful or respectful about our media. We are the screaming horde. We have spectacle and no analysis. Like ADD-afflicted teenagers, we latch on to the story of the day, find an angle and proceed to rapid-fire at it. Of course, the US has more than its share of trashy organizations too. Cable news networks are all about over-reaction and hype. The tabloids here make our gossip rags look tame. But while we have managed to emulate the worst of this culture, we have failed to bring in the best.
Or rather, we have allowed the better parts of our news reporting culture to fall by the wayside, and mostly due to our perceived fear that audiences don’t want to hear what we have to say. That they want the sound and the fury signifying nothing, the tamasha of Arnab Goswami and the puns in the Times Of India. We’ve allowed this feeling to actually become a sort of crutch. Instead of challenging ourselves to write better long form articles that could successfully compete with the additional sources of distraction that audiences legitimately are bombarded with, we’ve chosen to cower in front of the bogeyman and dispose of our integrity to bolster our flagging readership in the easiest way. By selling out on our craft.
If we hadn’t done that, if we had maintained our honor and damned the marketing types who insisted on cutting copy and making things easy to read and sell, perhaps a lot of us would have lost our jobs. Perhaps many more newspapers and magazines may have shut down. But the very best would have risen to the top, as examples of journalistic ideal, people and organizations that could publish three-thousand word articles that are so good even an Internet news junkie who’s subscribed to 50 different Twitter accounts and who needs to have his information in bite-sized portions would pause and read the whole thing. Could this actually happen? We will never know, unless someone chooses to pick up the gauntlet. Some people have tried and are having moderate successes, but the important thing will be sustaining this movement. That’s where you, the reader, comes in. Oh and just in case you think it’s impossible, you made it this far – this blog post is exactly 1,134 words long. Congratulations, you have an attention span longer than most.