The Death of Headlines. Maybe.

by by Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Web Exclusive: January 10th, 2011

A fellow I know who works in online publishing (posting?) thinks that if journalism wants to stay relevant, articles will have to prove their worth to readers within a few seconds. In other words, much journalism, both of the magazine and newspaper variety, will bother less with ‘what happened?’ than with “Why You Should Care.’ Forget a plodding lead—readers won’t tolerate even a dull headline. That’s why headlines are increasingly framed as cliffhangers, or answers to questions we didn’t know we had. Take the latest issue of The New Yorker, which features a story on varied divisions in present-day Belgium, political, ethnic and geographic. The story is called Le Divorce (a reference to the eponymous Diana Johnson roman de mannieres) with the sub-head Why Belgium, home of the European Union, has never been more fractured.

Why the Why? First off, adding Why implies we should have by now figured out that Belgium is super-fractured and are now eager for the explanation. This is a nod to the saturated state of news media, which for all its doomsday soothsayers, is prone to redundant reportage. Second, it belies a lack of faith in the patience of the readership. If that why weren’t there, perhaps we’d turn the page, having already gotten the point of the story.

The next piece in the magazine, about the old Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad, uses the same tactic. The story is called The Toppling (not a Diane Johnson novel, I don’t think): How the Media inflated a minor moment in a long war. Not to be outdone, the following piece asks us straight out, urgently, Dr. Freud: Does psychoanalysis have a future in an authoritarian state? Does it have a present?! Who cares? Onward, ho!

The headlines do not pose a problem with magazine essays per se, which as David Brooks noted last week in his “Sidney Awards”, seem to get better each year. Rather, they reveal an editorial nervousness about the attention span and loyalty of contemporary readers, who have unlimited choice about what to read. If long-form journalistic writing (magazines, etc…) survives it will probably be because iPads and their heirs make reading both pleasant and cheap/convenient/interactive. If short-form (daily newspapers etc…) journalism is to rise again it will have to channel the platform of blogs and hybrid publications (Politico, Huffington Post) which appeal to reader impatience and thirst for opinion, as opposed to dry reporting. This impatience with “boring” has much to do with the decline of CNN and the ascendency of MSNBC and Fox.

Whether one is fatalistic or optimistic, it’s evident that the long-term existence of newspaper and magazine journalism is tied to the internet. Most of our reading will be done on internet-capable machines—so the biggest competition for The Boston Globe or Harper’s may not even be other publications with better websites, but just other websites, plain and simple. The Atlantic reported in January that in 2009 teenagers 15-19 read 6 minutes a day on weekends compared to 15 minutes in 2009. The earlier and earlier early-adoption of facebook and Twitter probably have something to do with this. Factor in 200 million minutes of Angry Birds per day in 2010 and the reading statistic is probably doing a nose-dive.

The decline in reading and the emphasis on news “consumption” rather than nourishment, if it persists, will lead to a certain divorce of its own. The cover story of the same January Atlantic issue profiled the emergence of a new “global elite” of financiers and businessmen who have blasted off from the rest of us. A new intellectual elite will also soon break from the rest, and who makes the cut will in large part depend on who can stay the least distracted. Jonathan Franzen said that in order to write Freedom he locked himself in a bleak, blank office with a computer permanently disabled of internet capability. An even more important factor may be who even wants to make the cut. In a present environment in which roughly 50% of Ivy League graduates choose jobs (finance and consulting) which require no cultural training, the potential for know-how is valued higher than the possession of knowledge.

If the exchange of ideas on the internet or elsewhere becomes more viable as a hobby than as a profession, this emerging class, however enlightened, will turn into a bitter and self-righteous class of muted, discarded scribes. Which is still better than angry birds.