Why editors shouldn’t have “delete” keys anymore

by Jason Preston on August 26, 2008

There is a cookie-cutter outline for a good piece of journalism. It conveniently lets an editor lop inches from the bottom of a story—as necessary, of course—without losing the most essential pieces of information.

Here’s how you construct a good news story. You write things in this order:

  1. Event
  2. Impact
  3. Reaction
  4. Quote
  5. Scene

For a long time, the rules of economics have kept newspapers from printing all kinds of things. It’s expensive to put ink on paper and deliver it to every doorstep in town.

Editors are trained to cut the extraneous. To keep newspaper writing lean, mean, and to the point. And to their credit, their skill with the figurative scalpel has improved the writing of many, many writers (I’m sure my posts would be better if I had one here).

But this habit has one unintended side effect that is problematic on the internet: it creates a tendency to publish less.

More is more

On the internet, more is better.

The ad-based online publishing model relies on massive amounts of content to support itself. Newspapers can and should begin soliciting user-submitted articles to fill out their content inventories.

Remember that publishing anything online costs nothing beyond they money invested in its creation. It just sits there and generates ad revenue.

By that logic, you’d be stupid not to publish everything you can. Reporters generate tons of content that is never published. Incredibly valuable research is left in notebooks or in the bottom of a Word document.

Out of the conversations recorded or quotes written down, I’d bet only 10-15% of them make it into published articles. That’s all valuable to someone. Even if it only gets clicked on twenty times each year, it’s sill a positive return.

Free to the user

John Scalzi intelligently notes the difference between “free to the user” and “unpaid for the writer,” which are two entirely different business propositions.

In my mind, “free to the user,” should really be “free to some users.” The news habits of the minority could and should subsidize the news habits of the majority. Newspapers should look into creating community and memberships to replace its falling subscription revenue.

The good news about publishing new types of content is that it’s not part of the existing “free” paradigm. Every new service can be introduced as a free offering or as a premium membership benefit.

The average consumer might not care about reading a reporter’s notes, full transcripts, or having access to a photographer’s entire roll, including the rejected shots. But the news junkie probably would.

Market research is probably needed to figure out if selling premium services will work. Or you could just try it.

To learn more about the business of online publishing, check out the Online Publishing 2.0 series

{ 1 comment }

1 Hannah 09.06.08 at 1:41 am

That’s very reasonable, I agree

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