On June 6, Farhad Manjoo wrote a column headlined “You Won’t Finish This Article. Why people online don’t read to the end” for the online magazine Slate. To find out why they don’t, you must read to the end and learn that “we live in an age of skimming. I want to finish the whole thing, I really do. I wish you would, too. Really – stop quitting. But who am I kidding? I’m busy. You’re busy. There’s always something else to read, watch, play, or eat.”
How does Slate, founded in 1996, attract about 3 million monthly Internet visitors in the United States alone (about 5 million worldwide) if Manjoo is right about current reading habits? The magazine is described as a source of news about politics, culture and the arts “skewed for the hip and erudite” and as a “highbrow conversation starter.” And what can a publication such as the New Republic (TNR), which started in 1914 and long has been considered the must-read voice of liberalism in Washington, do to compete with Slate for Internet attention from readers with the same reading habits?
TNR’s new publisher, 30-year-old Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, made it clear that this was his goal after he bought the magazine in 2012.
“We’re holding on to the heritage of the magazine while trying to make it more responsive to what people are interested in and how they read in 2013,” he said.
To achieve that goal, both publications practice a journalism geared to the perpetually busy and easily distracted – to readers obsessed with lifestyle issues, and with obtaining the best advice for getting their own lifestyles in line with the latest trends in relationships, parenting, career, health and fitness, food, entertainment and travel. If you recall a widely popular column once found in more than 600 papers, “Hints from Heloise” for household chores, today’s readers want hints for every area of their lives, presented in an entertaining, skimmable and often snarky way. Here’s how the publications do it. (Articles from Slate are identified by (SL), those from the New Republic by (TNR).
Four types of articles dominate among the many on each website designed to capture skittish readers on the Internet.
First are the attention-grabbing “nothing is what you think it is” pieces:
(SL) “New Study Confirms It! Breast-Feeding Benefits Have Been Drastically Overstated!” The author delights in informing readers that women who don’t want to breast-feed now can tell the “breast-is-best purists to piss off.”
(TNR) “Your Email Address Isn’t Personal Information. Get Over It!”
(SL) “Don’t Let the Snow Fool You. January wasn’t cold at All.”
Readers in New Orleans (“One of the Coldest Mardi Gras Ever”), Washington, D.C. (“141-year record low”), Des Moines, Iowa (“1884 record shattered”) and Atlantic City, N.J. (“Coldest since 1874”) likely will not let the Slate article fool them.
Second are the “this is about nothing, so enjoy” kinds of articles:
(TNR) “Kiefer Sutherland and Ray Liotta Are the New Most Interesting Men in the World?”
(TNR) “You Won’t BELIEVE These Weather Channel Headlines.”
(SL) “This Crazy Supermarket Commercial Provides a Window Into German Culture.” The commercial, which features a popular entertainer taking a milk bath, provides as much a window into German culture as the talking frogs (one said “Bud,” the other “Weiser”) in the Anheuser-Busch ad provided into American culture. Sometimes a commercial is just a commercial, even in self-examination-bent Germany.
Third are the humorous articles, which are very funny. Or not:
(TNR) “I’ve discovered the Internet’s Most Internet Sentence, and You’re an Idiot if You Disagree.” If you haven’t guessed, after looking at the headline, that the sentence is “You’re an Idiot,” well then … funny? You be the judge.
(SL) “Oh, You Think Tights Are Evil? You’re Evil.”
(SL) “I took the Dalai Lama on a Ski Trip and he taught me the meaning of life.” The piece is dull and sad. The Dalai Lama said that “the meaning of life is happiness.” You get better wisdom from a Chinese fortune cookie – and a funnier answer to the question from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Finally, both websites offer columns of advice, called “Service Journalism” on TNR:
(SL) “Is it OK for a Gentleman to say ‘Hey Guys’ to a Group of Women?”
(SL) “My wife will have sex with me only when she’s drunk.”
(TNR) “What is the Fastest Way to Get Drunk? Here’s What Science Says.” Only the heartless could not wish that the gent whose wife mixes sex only with alcohol read TNR as well as Slate.
Most of these and similar pieces found daily on both websites have little or nothing in common with the old journalism practiced in the age of print. They share a faux shock and condescending amusement shown toward the human follies and foibles they chronicle. Nothing can become a “big deal”; all is written about as a sitcom, as chatter over coffee at Starbucks or as one-liners exchanged at the office water cooler. The tone is chirpy or snarky. Most items are brief and aim to be entertaining. They are as forgettable as they are skimmable. They thus are eminently suitable for the 24-hour news cycle in which their authors work. They lead not to reflection or rage or despair.
Both publications post serious and thoughtful articles and columns. Those, especially the longer ones on TNR, are not right for the Internet reading habits identified by Manjoo. And they seem somewhat out of place in the sea of skimmable fluff around them – like two elegant sailboats surrounded by a fleet of chintzy but fast little motorboats.
After devouring a day’s worth of skimmable stuff, an hour later you’re hungry for content and context.