There is an article in the most recent edition of The Economist that looks at the fraught relationship that exists between newspapers and Google. The short version is that newspaper publishers across the globe are looking to get compensation for their work appearing on, in particular, Google’s news aggregation services.
Being The Economist it then somewhat inevitably goes on to talk about financial solutions to this problem, mostly in the form of paywalls. But it strikes me that part of the problem is that editorial forms designed for the print world don’t serve the needs of the news producers in the digital world.
There is a very established literary form used in the construction of news stories, and it’s known as the pyramid. Essentially, rather than being made up of a beginning, a middle and an end, a newspaper story starts with a precis of what is being reported, and then gets into further and further detail (hence expanding like a pyramid). This form works brilliantly in traditional printed forms because it means the reader can quickly scan a paper, get the gist of everything, and then explore more deeply into those things of particular interest. You can “read” the whole paper without having to read the whole paper.
In digital form, however, and in the context of news aggregation sites, this wonderful structure falls apart or, as The Economist put it:
Giving away the headline and first sentence of an article supposedly dissuades readers from clicking through to the newspaper’s website to read the entire story.
This is the pyramid structure in action – newspapers are, in effect, creating their content in a way that actively dissuades people from finding out more – because if it’s done well, you don’t have to.
The solution? Well, maybe rather than either banning search and aggregation services, or putting up paywalls (which, for as long as there is free news, will surely always act as a barrier to the majority), maybe rethinking the basic structures of news stories so that the first lines intrigue and seduce rather than inform?