Monday, July 19, 2010

When Is Long-Form Journalism Too Long?

Washington Post's "Top Secret America" Might Be Too Much of a Good Thing

My first thought after seeing the opening salvo in the Washington Post's on the unwieldy national security and intelligence apparatus was wow. Simply wow.
First off, look at the front-page layout above from today's paper. The story is basically the front page. But that's just the intro. The real saga--the first of three parts--starts inside and goes on for four open pages. Four.
Granted, there are graphics, sidebars, links, refers and other stuff of 21st-century newspaperdom. And I've committed to reading it. Honest. If the Post can spend two years putting together this mastodon-sized piece of Pulitzer bait, then it behooves me to see what they can do.
But therein lies the rub. I'm a newspaper dweeb. Always have been, always will be. But the question is, how many like me are out there. If you're crammed onto the Metro on a Monday morning, are you going to start chewing on a massive enterprise piece, no matter how worthy?
To be sure, if you are not one of those people, the story's website does a more-than-adequate job of bringing the story to life. You can then digest it at your own pace. And you should.
My first question is, why try to cram this behemoth into three days? It seems you could just as effectively tell the story in five or six days as you would three. The yeoman work put in by reporters Dana Priest and William Arkin would have resonated just as loudly. But faced with four open papers to sift through, I fear a lot of readers will simply skim or give up, rather than dive in.
That might have been different if the Post had started the series on Sunday, when people have more time. Which leads me to my second question: why didn't it start then, especially when the Post has a much-larger circulation, 798,000 compared to 578,000 during the week?
One answer came from managing editor Raju Narisetti, who told The New York Times that news sites see dramatically more users during the week than on the weekends. "In my view, it's the first project done at The Post where the power of the project lies online," he said.
Ah, so. It makes eminently perfect sense. Yet, print is still wagging online's dog when it comes to revenue. The Post didn't take up the better part of five pages just to provide fodder for an online venture. Or, maybe it did. If all those extra page views turn into bigger ad bucks, then we'll know the real back story.
And it won't be a secret.

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