What blogging is teaching me about writing for print vs. online

A confession: Until two months ago, I had never (regularly) written for a blog.

Before I started as a guest editor at MyTwoCensus in November, my blogging experience had consisted of very occasional posts and editing duties for two now-defunct DP blogs.

I’ve read the recent flurry of articles about whether newspaper articles are too long with great interest — and writing for MyTwoCensus, I’ve also been conducting my own case study on writing for print vs. online.

This debate in the blogosphere and twitterverse started with a Michael Kinsley article in the Atlantic. It received both a lot of support and many defenses of long articles.

What Kinsley fails to acknowledge is that there’s a difference between writing to tell people what happened, and do it quickly (one of the best uses of journalism on the web) and writing as the paper of record. He criticizes the New York Times for leading a story on health care reform with “Handing President Obama a hard-fought victory, the House narrowly approved a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system…” and says newspapers devote too much space to describing sources.

Was it necessary for the Times to say the passage was “hard-fought victory”? Or that the bill was a “sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system”? Kinsley argues that anyone reading would already know those details. And in the paper’s first online update on the passage, I’d hope they weren’t there.

But in the final version of that article — the one that future reporters and historians and researchers will look at for a years-later look at health care reform — those are probably a few of the things you’d want to note.

Writing for print and the web are just different, and news organizations are still clearly figuring out how to reconcile the two. Felix Salmon and Megan Garber defend the long stories in newspapers and the authority papers like the Times have. And I agree — the full stories, with all their context and identifying descriptions and the editorial authority — still have a place.

However, writing for online readers, the people who want and need the quick and clear update, is something else. Writing for MyTwoCensus has taught me how to provide context and description in a different manner. When I wrote this post, for example, I linked to articles rather than summarizing them — so if you haven’t read them and want to, it’s easy to do so. If this were an essay in a print publication, though, I probably would have written more about the arguments in the pieces.

When I mention politicians and other officials on MyTwoCensus, I don’t include long identifying descriptions — I link to the blog’s archive page on the person or the official’s web site. I briefly reference past events and provide a link, rather than writing a paragraph-long recap. I use tools like tags or categories to show how an article relates to others, without always writing a full explanation of those connections.  And whenever possible, I provide the source of information or data (as I did here), eliminating the need to tell readers where the data came from and why they should trust it — I can show them.

This doesn’t mean we need to get rid of long articles that aim to be definitive accounts, even on the web. But we do need to recognize that, for online-oriented news organizations, those articles can’t be the sole (or even main) focus.

The differences between online and print news extend beyond the mode of delivery; the writing itself serves a different purpose. I see a lot of definition issues on newspaper web sites. They’re trying to be both that definitive record for posterity and the place for breaking news in their communities. Both functions are important. Figuring out how to preserve the former while improving the latter is going to be a big struggle for news organizations as they continue to adapt their presentation formats, news-gathering approaches and yes, writing styles, to the web.

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One Response to “What blogging is teaching me about writing for print vs. online”

  1. albert

    Great points about how writing for online and print are different. My opinion on the matter though is that since news organizations are having so much trouble succeeding in the present, they can’t afford to worry about posterity.

    Worrying about how future historians will read the article shouldn’t impact delivering the news effectively to present day readers.

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