The survival of words in our online jungle

GRAPHIC: AMY ONG

By Alicia Teng

“Can you cut down on the text by half? People won’t read it.”

That was the first comment I received from my editor on a travel piece I wrote for a lifestyle publication.

Having just returned from my first sponsored overseas assignment to Taipei, I was enthusiastically packing the listicle with detailed descriptions of Taiwanese cuisine.

My editor’s comment stumped me. Were these not travel writing essentials?

What ensued was a flurry of revisions — a week’s worth of writing, slashed within hours.

I learnt the hard way that exhaustive paragraphs no longer apply — at least not for online lifestyle writing.

Audiences’ expectations have shifted. In the Internet age, attention spans have gotten shorter. Traffic analysis of several online editorials, conducted by data scientist Josh Schwartz in 2014, found that most readers barely make it past an article’s halfway mark. Few have the time and patience to read through a full-length feature article.

An abundance of listicles

In the jungle of online media, traditional long-form writing has been overtaken by the listicle. This style of short-form writing — think 10 Must Try Taipei Food Spots for example — allows readers to digest content quickly and systematically. These listicles come in especially handy when we search for food recommendations or holiday ideas online.

This inclination could be due to the brain digesting categorised chunks of bite-sized information more easily — as revealed by data in a 2014 research study titled The Top-Ten Effect.

The issue of changing audience demands is particularly pronounced in online lifestyle journalism — travel features, food reviews and event coverage alike. Readers are generally not looking for in-depth observations of a place, nor do they need several paragraphs of background on how a dish is prepared.

They just want to know what is available, and where to find it.

Online media today is saturated with listicles. Companies such as INSIDER and Buzzfeed churn them out regularly, with Asia-based publications like Lifestyle Asia and The Smart Local following suit.

A problem with listicles is that it is easy to slide into poor quality writing, while producing insubstantial pieces. University of Central Florida humanities professor Nathan Holic bluntly labels them as “content for the sake of content”, among criticisms that they serve simply to generate site traffic, without actual journalistic value.

Understandably, it can be frustrating for a writer, who has dedicated hours to crafting a quality piece, to realise that readers would rather breeze through a listicle than read a feature-length article.

I have learned to cull my words while writing short-form lifestyle pieces. I have stopped myself from crowding a listicle or food review with text. My editors provided guidance and gave me freedom in terms of writing style, so eventually, I got used to the idea of “less is more”.

But sometimes, I still feel stifled — especially when one has so much to say about the complex flavours in a dish, or the quirky details in a foreign destination. Unfortunately, there is never enough space in the structure of short-form pieces.

By the time I switched from full-time to freelance work, the rule of thumb was to only have one to two paragraphs per image. Now, even my article on Taipei’s food scene would have been considered too long.

The rise of multimedia

Also, audiences now prefer videos. The mix of movement and sound in videos is a perfect recipe for attracting viewers’ attention, according to psychologist Dr Susan Weinschenk in her 2013 behavioural science webinar.

During my lifestyle editorial internship, I witnessed the transition from words to visuals at my company. Articles have become photo-heavy, with shorter paragraphs and snappier writing. When I left, the company had just started a dedicated department for creating one-minute Facebook video features.

Online video quality has improved. Editing and cinematography have become slicker and more creative, culminating in energetic lifestyle videos that resound well with viewers.

Take SHOUT’s Talad Neon Night Market video for instance. With drone shots, upbeat tracks and dynamic food close-ups, this production by the local media company has since garnered over two million views on Facebook.

The soft nature of lifestyle content makes it suitable for this video format. Stunning visuals and well-crafted transitions make the content exciting, with words kept mainly to short text overlays.

According to market researcher Forrester Research in 2014, a one-minute video is the equivalent of 1.8 million words. People tend to absorb information from videos much quicker, as more senses are activated. Media publisher Digiday discovered in 2016 that videos are shared seven times more often than links, across the top 14 publishers on Facebook.

Survival of long-form journalism

Accepting the differing preferences of the online audience is essential. It is also important to acknowledge that no single medium will remain top dog for long.

Online short videos are all the rage now. But in the near future, perhaps virtual and augmented reality might take over. As media and technology evolve, so will society. Our current methods of consuming information will likely change with the times.

To survive the threats posed by other mediums, digital lifestyle journalism must form a mutualistic relationship with them.

VICE’s food-focused digital site MUNCHIES is one example — combining editorial and video content to create mixed-media series centred around a place or trend.

Indeed, in the world of online media, words still have their value. As online editorial Content Insights writer Em Kuntze puts it: “There’s always going to be a demand for in-depth news and journalism, because we’re human and we’re curious.”

Long-form journalism provides a rich narrative format for breaking down complicated news stories, or for turning an unknown town into a compelling travel destination.

That said, listicles are excellent for distilling content, and for providing a clear, organised format for readers to absorb details. Listicle writers can inject creativity into their writing, supported with curated research. Quality writing should not be neglected, regardless of length.

For online editorials to survive the age of videos and listicles, writers need be aware of the evolving demands of their audience, while ensuring that quality is maintained. Only then, can long-form writing thrive online.