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October 25, 2022

Filed under: journalism»writing


An uncomfortable truth of modern web journalism is that most people only read the headlines. That's what happens when most of your interactions are mediated through social media, where the headline and a brief teaser surface in the share card, and then all the "fun" interaction is arguing about it in the responses.

There are sensible reactions to this (high on the list: stop letting the copy desk pick the headlines for stories they didn't report) and then there's the new wave of web publications (Politico Pro, Axios, and now Semafor) that have instead decided that the ideal strategy is to just write the story like a social media blurb anyway. From CJR:

Author bylines are, as promised, as prominent as headlines, but the meat of the Semaform concept comes in the text of the story itself, which is broken into distinct sections, each preceded by a capitalized subheading: “THE NEWS” (or “THE SCOOP”), offering the “undisputed facts” of a given story; “THE REPORTER’S VIEW,” which is what it sounds like, with an emphasis on “analysis”; “ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT,” which is also what it sounds like; “THE VIEW FROM,” promising “different and more global perspectives” on the story in question; and “NOTABLE,” linking out to worthwhile related coverage from other outlets.

I don't consider myself a particularly old-fashioned news reader — I've spent most of my career trying to convince reporters and editors to get a little creative with their formats — but I admit to a visceral repulsion when I read these stories, maybe because they're so proscribed. They often feel, as Timothy Noah writes, so boiled down that they actually impede understanding. They can't be skimmed because there's nothing but skim there.

Even worse, the adherence to the fill-in-the-blanks writing formula (with its pithy, repetitive headers) does its best to drain any distinctiveness from the writers, even while it puts bylines front and center. Take, for example, this David Weigel piece on Oregon Democrats, which chafes deeply against the "Semaform." Weigel gives us 23 paragraphs that would not have been out of place in his Washington Post reporting, followed by a single paragraph of "David's View" (as if the previous reporting was not also his viewpoint), then a "Room for Disagreement" that... doesn't actually disagree with anything. And then "The View from the U.K.," which is a mildly amusing dunk on a British tabloid reporter but adds nothing to the story.

For a more "typical" example of the form, there's this story by Kadia Goba on Marjorie Taylor Greene's deranged anti-trans legislation. Goba is less of a "name," which may explain why her piece is less of a newspaper article with some additional sections jammed onto the end, but it still reads as if a normal inverted-pyramid piece had the subheads inserted at arbitrary locations. The final "View from the U.K." feels like twisting the knife: and now the news from TERF Island.

Here's the thing, to me: picking a story form like this is a great way to make sure nobody can ever remember a story an hour after reading it, because they all blend together. Why hire good journalists if you're not going to let them write? You're never going to get something like Lynda V. Mapes' adorable Rialto coverage in Semafor's article template. It doesn't make any sense for investigative writing. You're certainly not going to get the kinds of interactive or creative storytelling that I work on (although, given that Semafor's visual aesthetic is somewhere between "your dad made a Powerpoint meme" and "Financial Times circa 2008," I'm not sure they care).

Above all, these new outlets feel like a bet on a very specific future of news: one where it's very much a market commodity, as opposed to something that can be pleasurable or rewarding in itself. And maybe that's the right bet! I have my doubts, but my hit rate is no better than any other industry thinker, and I assume you wouldn't do something this joyless without a lot of market research indicating that you can sell it to somebody. But as someone who's been more and more convinced that the only sustainable path for journalism is non-profit, that person isn't me.

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