I was in Austin earlier this month for SXSW Interactive, one of the world’s biggest digital media festivals. Below is a roundup I wrote for Sparksheet.
Over the past decade or so the formula for success in online publishing has been something like this:
Post a lot of content.
Keep it short.
And do it fast.
The assumption here is that people look to the internet for simple, snackable content in “real time.” And with its reverse chronological template, the web’s first indigenous news medium – the blog – was designed to deliver just that.
But over the course of the weekend here at SXSW, this model has finally been challenged and it seems as though fast, short and abundant may be giving way to slow (read: thoughtful), long (read: in-depth) and scarce (read: quality over quantity).
This web publishing paradigm shift became apparent to me during a Saturday morning session entitled “The Curators and the Curated,” featuring an all-star panel with David Carr, the curmudgeonly New York Times media critic, Mia Quagliarello, content curator for digital magazine app Flipboard, Max Linsky, co-founder of longform.org, Maria Popova, a blogger, and Noah Brier, co-founder of brand curation tool Percolate.
Although the panelists failed to see eye to eye on the monetization question (Carr: “I’m so glad you’re all here to repackage and repurpose me. By the way, that’s how I eat!”), they agreed that content should be judged on relevance rather than timeliness.
Popova decried what she called the “newsification of the web,” while Carr lamented “the tyranny of the new.” Lansky insited that “new stories and old stories get clicked on the same amount” and claimed that his site experienced no decrease in traffic when they scaled back the number of daily posts (although this wasn’t mentioned in the panel, that squares with Salon’s recent revelation that the online magazine’s traffic actually increased after they committed to posting less, but better, content).
SX-Men: Gawker vs. Slate
The old and new paradigms of web publishing came head-to-head in the form of two simultaneous sessions Sunday morning (I managed to catch about half of each, running from the Austin Convention Centre to the Hilton next door).
The first session was a live Q&A with Nick Denton, the founder of mega-popular blog network Gawker Media. Denton, who doesn’t so much court controversy as seduce it, defended Gawker’s gossipy, nouveau yellow style of journalism, summing up Gawker’s philosophy as “don’t consider too much before you put it down on the page.”
Prompted by interviewer Anil Dash to reveal the contents of a voice message by Brian Williams (Denton recently alienated the veteran news anchor by publishing a snarky email Williams had sent him), Denton joked, “I’m not getting page views out of this so what’s the point?” Which sums up Gawker’s editorial mandate pretty neatly.
The second session featured David Plotz, the editor of online magazine Slate, in conversation with Evan Ratliff, a contributor to Wired magazine and the editor of mobile publishing platform The Atavist.
As Plotz explained in a Sparksheet Q&A last year, Slate sees itself as a bastion of long-form journalism on the web and encourages staffers to spend months reporting on pet projects that manifest themselves as multi-part, print magazine-length pieces.
The session was dubbed “140 Characters vs. 14,000” words, but Plotz said that “it would be a mistake to think of social media as the enemy of long-form.” On the contrary, Plotz argued that by satiating our thirst for quick news and pithy headlines, Twitter was “driving out” what he called “commodity news” and “aggregation journalism” (Plotz didn’t say where Slate’s own news aggregation site, The Slatest, fits in to all of this).
Although Plotz didn’t call out Gawker by name, my guess is that he would put Denton’s content in the latter category. As I tweeted during the session (in a geeky nod to X-Men), Denton and Plotz are sort of like the Magneto and Professor X of web journalism, two very different sides of the same coin. Only time will tell whose vision for the future of web content will win. But I guess it’s pretty clear which one we’re rooting for.