Indefinite space

Journalists have long struggled against the limitations of space and time in their respective media. A Columbia Journalism Review survey of prominent journalists seeking ideas for better campaign coverage turned up several responses that were best-suited to an ideal world of unlimited space and time. Three examples follow:

In theory, the Internet and the 24-hour day of cable news channels remove the limitations that would prevent journalists from meeting these goals. We saw earlier that a Web site manager believes his site can give information that the affiliated television station cannot fit into its newscast. A content programmer for a major Internet company agreed, noting that her site can add background through links to related stories. 2

In practice, however, news organizations are just as likely to devote their extra space and time to trivial material or minute developments in a single news story. Such practices may be defended as adding context, but some doubt whether this information is useful. Journalism professor Eric Meyer, commenting in Online Journalism Review, raised this objection about "Are we not trying to write a play-by-play of the news? I've never really been a believer that guys doing play-by-play of sports games are doing sports journalism." 3

The host of a prime-time news program at MSNBC, speaking at his alma mater's commencement, publicly castigated his own show's role in wasting time on trivial developments. Keith Olbermann, who has since left MSNBC to return to a full-time role in a network's sports department, offered this description:

"(Now) let me point the finger at myself ... Since January 21, the news program I do for the MSNBC cable network has been devoted to what we have euphemistically called 'the Clinton-Lewinsky investigations.' Virtually every night, for an hour, sometimes two, I have presided over discussions ... so intricate, so repetitive, that (they have) assumed the characteristics of the medieval religious scholars arguing ... over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin." 4

These discussions on cable channels often feature several "pundits" arguing opposing points of view, and they are a popular way of stretching a single news story to cover several hours of programming. Olbermann is not alone in his critique of this practice, which is sometimes derided as "Hollywood Squares" or "Brady Bunch" journalism in reference to the common practice of dividing a screen into boxes and presenting each pundit in his or her own square. Mark Jurkowitz, who covers media for the Boston Globe, told NewsHour with Jim Lehrer that punditry is "the argumentative version of professional wrestling without the actual head butts and the flying blood." 5

An Internet product developer shared Olbermann's concern:

"The real change that's taken place in the past five years is an increase in distribution opportunities through the Internet and the advent of multicasting (NBC, MSNBC, CNBC). This caused an increase in available space for content, which networks seem to be filling with existing personnel. I think that has driven journalists to over-cover certain stories — ones that they know a) will get viewers and b) will provide fodder for animated discussion. While the Monica Lewinsky scandal was a terrible time for Americans and warranted heavy coverage and scrutiny, night-by-night coverage on Larry King Live and CNBC's talk show line up saturated the American public, rehashing arguments and not shedding any new light on the subject." 6

With the unique qualities of the Internet, reporters and editors have several new possibilities to consider on each story. They can write brief updates during the day or give a glimpse of an upcoming story the day before publication. They can add information that could not fit in the newspaper or broadcast, such as interview transcripts. They can take advantage of the technology to add searchable databases and audio and video clips. Even some interaction with readers is possible through message boards or polls. 7

However, readers' patience is not as expansive as the space on the Internet. A content programmer for an Internet company described her efforts to give context: "People don't always see it. They don't click very deep, so if it's not on the front screen, it's invisible to many people. But the whole story is always there." 8

Journalists who write on the Internet say that they are anticipating readers' wishes by writing shorter stories. Author Jakob Nielsen suggests that journalists writing for the Internet should aim to write a story half the size of what they would write for a print publication. 9 A media reporter for a Web site agrees: "Internet may provide too much space but we've gotten better at intuiting reader's limits, patience, etc. Writing on the web has actually become more succinct over time, less verbose." 10

Several news providers aim instead to provide news in small pieces. While cable networks sought to expand the Monica Lewinsky story into hours of daily programming, other media would instead distill bits of information into smaller and smaller bits. ABC's Ann Compton described this process in Media Studies Journal:

"Correspondent Jackie Judd would write with painstaking care a two-minute story for the evening news, and then I would squeeze most of the information into a slightly shorter version for the next day's Good Morning America. Radio's writers would combine our information with wire copy and fresh newspaper headlines and condense the facts into even smaller 30-second stories. The effect was often like that of a fun-house mirror — recognizable but distorted." 11

As technology for delivering news gets more sophisticated, demand for shorter material rises. The 30-second stories that Compton barely recognized are truncated even further for distribution to cellular phones. One commentator, Ben Berkowitz of, summarized this style of news: "People shot. Economy good. News at 11." 12

The promise of extra resources, therefore, is not necessarily used to give reporters more room to tell a story. Cable networks tend to focus on pundits giving analysis of minute developments, and Web sites try to keep readers' attention with shorter stories. Also, as we'll see in the next section, much of the extra space is allotted to material other than original reporting.