The tchotchkefication of The Times

I won’t mince words: I hate the new and expanded news summary The New York Times introduced today on pages 2 and 3. It’s inefficient, wasteful, and ultimately insulting.

It’s not hard to see where this comes from. I’ve sat in no end of whither-newspaper meetings in companies and conferences in which the alleged shortened attention span of the American public is lamented. This is the most common cure. I’m sure the updated rationale includes blaming the internet: People read short things on the screen so they must want it in print.

But this is nothing new. In 1976, I was assigned — kicking and screaming — to be one of two editors to create the same news summary on the back page of the first section of the Chicago Tribune. Daily Briefing, it was called. Editors have tried putting them on the front page, on page 2, on the back page, everywhere. Never works. The Tribune’s feature died (after I quit in frustration and went to the San Francisco Examiner).

The problem with The Times’ latest effort is first that it’s inefficient and inappropriate to the form. They forget one of the still-great advantages of the interface of the paper: As I browse, I see every story and I get to decide then and there how deep to dive in: the headline or caption may tell me enough, the lede may, the first five grafs may. The beauty is that it’s all right there. If instead, I see a story of interest on The Times’ new page 2, I have to go shuffling through the paper to find it and keep reading.

The second problem, I think, is that it’s wasteful. As newspapers lose space and staff, I think they should be using both precious aassets to go deeper, not shallower.

Third, I do not think it’s true that our attention spans have shorted. Our choices have increased. And that means that our selectivity is greater. So we may give shorter attention to the stories newspapers fed us when they controlled our media choice. Now they don’t and we read what we want to. Indeed, we can dig deeper into a topic of interest and follow it longer. In that sense, our attention spans are longer when and where it matters to us.

While I don’t like The Times’ summary, I do like its new page 1 promos — reefers, we call them in the biz — because they use the unique value of a front page to give us more of a sense of what’s inside and what to look for; they are like links.

The other big change is a big promo box for on page 4. I’ll also quibble with that, for it ghettoizes digital (as do most such boxes in newspapers and magazines everywhere). The Times has already been doing a better job of merging the two by printing meaty chunks of the Bits, Caucus, and other blogs, bringing a new journalistic voice into the paper. I say do more of that and less tchotchkefication of The Times.

  • MarjorieW

    Here’s a fun media tchotchke – a poll asking who’s the biggest pig in politics. My guilty pleasure:

  • A waste of three news holes, but it’s cheaper than paying three reporters to file stories to fill the space, I guess.

    It doesn’t even make sense for the subway rider who wants to keep the number of page turns to a minimum while standing in a crowd…

  • simon h

    The Times (of London) did this about ten years ago and it was hailed as a great innovation. Not sure it shifted a single extra copy, however.

    Shortened attention spans or not, there is clearly a place for this compacted short-form journalism and that is on the train to work. The Metro in London is filled with stories that can be read between two stops when you’re strap-hanging.

    There’s nothing new about this, either. Read the melancholy New Grub Street and you’ll find a description of London magazines that were written so that no single item tok longer than two Tube stops to read. And that was in about 1880.

  • Mike G

    You’re exactly right. It amazes me how determined the newspapers are to go after people who don’t read newspapers, while neglecting the people who do.

  • Paul Neely

    The box makes more sense than the giant p.2-3 index. If you want people to read both the paper and the website, then indexing the web extras may be appropriate promotion and an encouragement to digital migration. The internal news summary, however, is an echo of mid-sized dailies, where it passes for breadth of coverage and is often combined with a dash of celebrity news. It might be an encouragement to go farther inside the paper; it might also be a reason to go no farther. For The New York Times to provide an easy way to “keep up” without having to consider the details — well, that hasn’t been the mission of the Times until now, has it?

  • Jeff,

    It depends.

    You can do stupid summaries for stupid non-readers, or you can do better summaries for smart readers,

    As you can see here

    INNOBVATION did in 2003 this 24 Hours briefing on six pages for a new newspaper that wanted to be like a daily Economist.

    Some years after, the same idea and design has been introduced a few days ago by LA GACETA in Madrid.

    The rational behind this daily briefing was to present the most relevant news, pictures and graphics of the last 24 Hours in order to devote the rest of that compact newspaper to the best stories of the day.

    So, we give you the news of the world in six pages and now we will give you more pages for the stories that really matter.

    The new formula was:

    20% of the space for the 80% of the news.

    80% of the space for the 20% of the most relevant news.

    Do it with first class design and graphics.

    And do it with what INNOVATION calls the RADAR team that tracks the news for the online operations.

    In a newspaper like The New York Times that still uses and abuses of the “jumping” disease, this new News Summary is, if I may say so, an excellent step forward.

  • Pingback: Right and Wrong on Attention « Network(ed)News()

  • Richard A

    Hi Jeff. It’s awful, and it won’t last. In fact I give it six months.

    It’s always been a mystery to me (well, no but I’ll explain) why US newspapers fail to make use of page 3, their best display page after the front. The reason is that it’s prime ad display space – and the fact that advertisers know that should, you’d think, have tipped off newspaper designers and editors that maybe they could use page 3 better. But they prefer the revenue I guess.

  • I guess my only quibble with this is with the content this seems to replace: these were largely international pages — the so-called vegetables in that metaphor everyone has used too much.

    I actually haven’t done a count — has anyone? — so it might be possible that other “A” section material has been offered up as sacrifice. But fundamentally I don’t think this is a detour into the dark side.

    Also remember to take pity on those of us who read the paper on the subway: the fewer times we have to brace and fold a broadsheet, the fewer enemies we make of our fellow riders.

  • beloml

    Page one space can’t be that valuable. The Houston Chronicle had a grocery store ad running across the bottom of page one within the past week.

  • Jeff Prescott

    What a total waste of space. If you read the NYT, you already “get it.”
    Or else you’d be reading USAToday.
    Why is The Times dumbing down?
    They don’t have to!
    I’d trade those 3-pages for 3-more pages of New York news, a national TV listings page or another sports page! The results from Aqueduct are more beneficial to me………


  • Pingback: Mediablog - 20 Λέξεις » Inside the Times, A good Idea()

  • Pingback: The Column » Blog Archive » Less Than Candid()