Is the long-form wine article dead?
And if it is, what are the consequences for readers’ comprehension of wine?
That journalistic story length is getting briefer and punchier is obvious. Some credit (or blame) MTV for shortening the attention span of an entire generation. Others point to the success of USA Today “for synthesizing news down to easy-to-read-and-comprehend stories” that almost never “bounce” to a second page; this has forced other newspapers to shorten their own articles.
The same thing is happening at Wine Enthusiast. Nearly ten years ago, I wrote an article on Sonoma County that was 5,280 words long (!!!). Nowadays, I’d be hard pressed to get permission to write something half that length, and if I did, I’d consider myself lucky.
We see short-form writing everywhere we turn. Magazines, such as Wired, US or Details, love dense-page formats that cram loads of information into short, text-rich haikus, often accompanied by photographs. Social media compels short, creative bursts of writing: Facebook limits posters to 420 characters, while Twitter’s 140 has becoming a standing joke.
Wine writers of prior times didn’t overly worry about word length. Provided they had an understanding publisher, they were encouraged to write leisurely, to make sure they got their points across. George Saintsbury credited his publisher at The MacMillan Company for “his request for a big book,” which resulted in his classic “Notes on a Cellar-Book” (1933).
As Wine Enthusiast shortens our story lengths, it is actively seeking more material for the magazine’s website, whose content, of course, also is punchy and easy to read. Indeed, there’s something almost old-fashioned and fusty about a long wine article, the kind you still find in some print publications. I remember a 5,000 word-long article Steve Pitcher once wrote, in Wine News magazine (does it still exist?), on Sauvignon Blanc. Can you imagine 5,000 words on Sauvignon Blanc? In Wine Enthusiast, when I do have the opportunity to write a longish (2,000 words) article, I’m encouraged to chop it up into easy-on-the-eye blocks, with breakout boxes in different colors. And the text must be peppered with “sub-heds” in order to avoid the appearance of monotony.
I point these things out, not to complain, but to illustrate reality. It is what it is; readers have less patience nowadays for long-form articles on wine (or anything else, for that matter). They no longer, we are told, care much for books. And the Internet, as I have pointed out, is not amenable to the long form. All this is a given, but what does it mean for the comprehension of wine, especially by a younger generation, not to mention generations to come?
Can wine be understood in sound bites?
My concern is that this short attention span phenomenon in American culture is undermining people’s ability to think critically about issues, including wine. We see things in a nativism (one might even call it know-nothingism) that’s rampant in America. I suppose, ultimately, a trivialized knowledge of wine is not as important to the nation’s future as a trivialized knowledge of history and science; but it is no less troubling.
Media experts understand that this abbreviating of the news takes its toll. “Long-form journalism is as crucial as ever to informing the public…and encouraging creativity and even artistry among news producers.” This is from a recent post on the New America Foundation’s blog on media.
The challenge, the post adds, is that “Finding effective ways of packaging and sharing these stories is just the next opportunity for innovation.” It’s up to publishers–including self-publishers on the Internet, such as bloggers–to figure out how to preserve long-form journalism in a way that gets information across adequately. But it’s also up to readers, perhaps especially young ones, to realize that to retreat to a world of 3-second sound bites and 140-character tweets represents a dangerous step backward, into tribal isolation and ignorance.
What do you think?