Journalism advice for the web

Charles Armstrong-Wilson talks about journalism

Since I’ve started writing for the web, I thought it would be useful to talk to an experienced print journalist. Journalism on the internet currently has a reputation for being short and immediate. It made me wonder if we’re missing out now in the new short form of journalism.

Here’s a conversation I had with Charles Armstrong-Wilson who’s had a long career writing for Autosport and other engineering and motoring titles.  I met Charles at his home in Tunbridge Wells to record this interview (cat included).

Here’s the audio version:

Here’s the transcription of the interview:

Do you think anything has been lost from traditional journalism in the age of the internet?

Yes it has, and it’s not just me saying that print journalism was better. It’s different, and I think that’s what a lot of the industry has failed to realise. There was this pressure as the internet became a bigger and bigger force. There’s this idea that in order to compete, magazines had to become more like websites. That wasn’t really a logical and reasonable direction to pursue. Magazines are different to websites, they have different qualities.

There was this drive to make information in magazines shorter, more bullet pointed, more soundbitey in an effort to try and be like websites. In that sense, they lost a lot of the qualities that print journalism has. With a website, you have multiple opportunities to click from page to page and you have access to huge amounts of information you don’t necessarily know the origin of.  So you have to start trying to evaluate it yourself; you have to be your own editor; you have to decide what you can trust and what you can’t. A magazine is already edited for you and everything is contained in the magazine.

Closure of content

If you trust the producer of the magazine, everything in there you’ll trust and you don’t have to evaluate it yourself.  I always liken it to being in America with the ‘bottomless beverage’. You never get to the bottom of the cup because they’ll top you up before you get a chance to finish it. You’ll drink way more coffee than you need to and never have the satisfaction of finishing it.  Websites are a bit like that, there’s always more information you can go to, there’s always more things you can get involved in. You don’t get the closure! I never looked at it that way before.

When you get to the end of a book, that’s it, you’ve read it and you get that sense of closure. That’s something the internet doesn’t have but print journalism does. Even before the internet there was a tendency for print journalism to drive down the length of features. These days features that would have been thousands of words long thirty years ago, are now hundreds of words long.  I think that was a natural thing at the time but whether it’s valid, I don’t know.

People still read books

Books still sell that are tens of thousands of words long. If people still read books, why can’t they read features that are thousands of words long? I think the reason is where people are coming to them from. A lot of people will now get drawn to features from links on social media. It could be via a Tweet or a Facebook post, maybe from Whatsapp or whatever else. Because you’re getting your information often ‘on the hoof’ you’re not really in the situation to sit down and read fifteen hundred words, maybe you’ll only read 500 words.

When you pick up a book, it’ll probably be at a time when you’re ready to sit down and read it.  It’s not a print vs digital thing because people quite happily download books to read on digital devices that are exactly the same length as printed books.  So it’s not really about the format.  It’s about when people are having this stuff bought to their attention or when they’re approaching it. I think if you provide longer features to people at the right moment, then there would be an appetite for it. That’s not really viable for social media which dominates people’s experience of the internet these days.

Social media and Journalism

On Facebook, I follow publications like the Economist and the Guardian. What’s the length of article you’d read from a link like that or how long does an article have to be before you’ll think you don’t have time to read it?

I think it depends on the expectation given by the heading of the article.  If it’s something you need to know for work, you’ll be tolerant of a longer article. If you’re on the train and you’re coming into the station, will you save it for later?

Lifestyle has a big impact on what we read and when. There’s this vision now that we’re much busier, on the move much more, therefore we can’t take in as much information. But we do, frequently. For instance we’ll binge a TV series so you might spend several hours watching it. So it’s not lack of time. It’s more to do with lifestyle and expectation.

Are there any tips you have as an experienced journalist for a blogger of today?

I think there’s more need for bloggers to put the reader first.  I think many bloggers are inclined to write to satisfy themselves, rather than satisfy the reader.  They can tend to be over-long and rather self indulgent.  Even more so with podcasts, there’s so much ‘stream of consciousness’, people rambling, people thinking that more minutes are more value.

I’ve definitely listened to some long podcasts latelyYou have to be tight & succinct. I know I was talking about the ‘long form’ but length for it’s own sake is not the answer. You really have to be giving people what they want and keeping them engaged.

The best advice I’ve ever had as a journalist is “at the end of each sentence, ask yourself why would the reader read the next sentence?”

That’s a tip I’ve never heard before! It’s something that I’ve used for technical journalism. You get bogged-down with a list of facts and you can’t just list facts, you’ve got to turn them into a continuous narrative.  One fact leading to another creating a story and keeping people engaged. With a blog too, there either very loosely edited interviews or they are people’s own perspective. You really have to learn to edit yourself. Be your toughest critic! Think about it from the perspective of the reader, why would the reader want to keep going till the end of the sentence?

Any advice for recovering some of the lost skills of print journalism?

Go back to the skills that were there, that ability to keep people hooked with a continuous narrative. Present them with a long-form that is engaging.  Once you’ve got someone’s attention, if you can then hold it for longer, you can engage with them much more. If you’re just chucking out soundbites against an awful lot of competing noise you have to get the reader’s attention every single time .