Newswriting in the near future

 

Acceleration, with attention to accuracy, is the characteristic of news writing today.

The speed of the Internet and the World Wide Web in disseminating information has forced editors and journalists to rethink the way they present news and the structure of writing.

Consider this:

  • The Internet and the Web have brought the speed of live broadcasting to the written word. People turn to Web sites, RSS feeds or other devices to get news, and they expect it to be immediate and up-to-date.
  • Twitter (and tweets that show up on Facebook and other social media) has become a chief way in which news is conveyed. But Twitter limits writers to 140 characters for each tweet, not nearly enough to develop even a short story.
  • Journalists are increasingly using Twitter, Facebook, social media and updated blogs rather than the Web site of their news organizations to present their reporting.
  • Mobile devices—cell phones, smart phones, Blackberries and other handheld gadgets—are increasingly popular and convenient to use. With a click, a slide and a glance, you can get your news as you are walking from class to another.
  • These developments are beginning to make the inverted pyramid news story structure—which once seemed ready-made for the Web—look old and slow. Is there a new structure of writing news that will emerge to fit into this fast-paced environment of information dissemination? Will such a structure be adaptable to the environment but also preserve the values of accuracy and verification that are the hallmarks of journalism?

What does all this mean for the future of news writing?

Professional journalists and communication scholars are thinking hard about these questions. What is emerging is a form of writing that no longer adheres strictly to the inverted pyramid structure. The form, which is as yet unnamed, consists of a headline, a summary (if a content management system demands it), a lead paragraph, and bullet points of information that give the reader some quick, up-to-the-minute information about the story. The bullet points stand independently. They are not tied together in a narrative structure. They are usually less than 140 characters long, allowing them to fit into a tweet.

Forms of this kind of journalism are on display most prominently on Web sites such as CNN, which uses the term “highlights” for its bullet points that top each news story. Another term for this kind of reporting is “link journalism,” which is simply covering an event or subject through a series of bullet point statements.

The online environment resembles what we think of the “wild west” where anything goes and any off-the-wall idea might just be crazy enough to work. One such idea was Twitter itself, where people originally thought of it as a way to broadcast (or Webcast) “what are you doing?” Twitter has since changed its call for tweets to “What’s happening,” which reflects the way that people are increasingly using it—as a news and information outlet rather than as a personal diary.

What’s next? And where will it settle? We do not know that, and this is what makes many traditional journalists nervous. It also makes the world very exciting for those who are looking to the future.

Note: A version of this essay will appear in the ninth edition of Writing for the Mass Media, which will be published in the summer of 2014 by Allyn and Bacon.

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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