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.