Size doesn’t matter, but quality does

Journalists should all take note of the purchase, by Yahoo, of a 17-year-old Brit’s app for $30 million. The app, Summly surfs the Web for news content by keywords, then uses an algorithm to summarize those articles down to chunks that would be readable on small screens such as smartphones and tablets.

Nick D’Aloisio, who was born in 1996, two years after Yahoo was formed, launched the app in 2011 (he’s been creating iPhone apps since 2008) because he was frustrated having to read big articles on his small screen. Summly uses artificial intelligence and language processing programming to boil down text.

Once journalists get over their jealousy of a teenager getting the big bucks, they should think about what D’Aloisio has accomplished, and why.

For many news consumers, short, to-the-point communications is more useful on a day-to-day basis. They can sit back and enjoy the long enterprise stories on Sundays.
The foundational architecture of news writing – the “inverted pyramid” that puts the who, what, when, where and why at the top of an article is a model that’s still paramount. Busy readers can just scan the top of an article and “grok” what it’s about without diving deeper for details.

But in a world where people are increasingly connecting to the Web and getting their info on-the-go via smartphones and other mobile devices, we should all be more sensitive than ever to the elements of good writing and storytelling: the pacing of a narrative, the choice of words, the use of tools such as metaphors, similes and alliteration, and the rhythm of sentences that can be like music, ebbing and flowing melodically through the reader’s head, and the depth of a reporter’s knowledge and expertise in the subject all contribute to the quality of news. It’s how great writers separate themselves from mediocre ones.

And how journalism, which increasingly incorporates and relies on social media as another avenue for news content, separates itself from the clamor of social chatter.

In the end, not all news content needs to be in byte-sized chunks. There’s certainly a place for long narratives and 1,000, or 2,000 or even 6,000-word stories and more (last December’s fabulous New York Times “Snow Fall” multimedia package about a 2012 avalanche was 16,000 words, plus a lot of videos and interactive graphics).

Sure, the article’s going to be boiled down to “just the facts, ma’am” by Yahoo/Summly and probably a horde of other “summarizing engines” to come. But the original article, whether short or long, should be a pleasure to read in full.
That’s the value that journalism brings to society, which code and algorithms can’t.

Gil Asakawa is a journalist and blogger, and the Chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Digital Media Committee.

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