Saturday, February 27, 2010

Atlantic Makes the Same Mistakes Everyone Else Does

I realized last year that my Google Reading experience was sliding downhill at a fast rate because of the number of sites I subscribed to. I just didn’t have time for them all, so I started cleaning it out.

I made myself a rule similar to the rule I have for my closet. Each season, when I switch my wardrobe, I look at the “new” clothes being put into my closet and if I haven’t worn a piece of clothing for the last two seasons I give it away.

Now I look at my Google Reader folders on a regular basis and if I find I’m regularly skipping over a site without reading it when it comes up, I delete it. New sites don’t go into a category folder until at least a month has passed. They stay at the bottom of the list to see if I’m really going to read them and then they get moved or deleted once I know how they are working out for me.

I’m currently down to 106 sites

I also decided, last year, to delete almost all political sites from my Google Reader. The ones I like to read I go to separately anyway. By having them come up on my reader I was seeing them twice and I just don’t have the time for that.

I kept the blogs I didn’t go to separately. But as I realized I wasn’t really reading them, I began to delete them. Pretty soon the only site left in my Politics folder was James Fallows at the Atlantic. I don’t even consider him a true political blogger, I just stuck him in politics because I didn’t know where else to put him. He has stayed and stayed and stayed …

But I suspect that poor Mr. Fallows is soon for the delete bin for me. The Atlantic recently changed its format and now all I get are headlines on the RSS feed. Why would I bother to click through and read something without even an introductory paragraph – especially on my phone which makes clicking through a longer process than on my laptop. And if I don’t click through right when I see it I will never click through. I will mark it “as read” and move on. With 106 feeds I make snap decisions: read right now or delete. Only occasionally will I mark something so I can read it later. And then only after I’ve skimmed it.

I did, however, click through yesterday to find out what the glitch was at Atlantic and discovered it resulted from the redesign (which I knew nothing about because I seldom go to the main Atlantic website. I do sometimes buy the magazine.) I discovered Mr. Fallows likes the redesign for the entire magazine but dislikes it for the blogs. And part of his dislike is that clicking on his name takes you to … not his blog. It takes you to yet another one of those lists with summaries of his blog posts. bleh.

bleh. bleh. bleh.

Last year I ranted to the editors of online book reviews that they were killing the book review page by writing their own elementary school level summaries of book reviews. Don’t, I said, give us some boring summary of the book review on the main page. Give us the first paragraph of the actual book review. You are paying professional writers to write the book review, maximize your investment by luring readers into your pages by using the actual writing you are paying for.

They didn’t listen to me. I continue to read very few professional book reviews in online newspapers these days and I never buy hard copies of newspapers anymore. Newspapers continue to complain that they are dying. Well, duh. If they can’t even attract natural readers to pages about reading how can they attract anyone else? I mean, I’ll read the back of cereal boxes but they can’t get me to click through to read book reviews?

Now I find that the brain trust running Atlantic is made up of the same kind of people. I looked at their main page and guess what? Boring summaries of what may be interesting articles. I clicked through some of the boring summaries of articles that didn’t look like they’d interest me and, yes, the articles ARE better than the summary might lead you to believe.

I mean, compare this:

The recording industry lost billions in the last seven years. During the same period, Apple sold 10 billion downloads.

Gee, tell me something I don’t know.

With this:

The song: "Guess Things Happen That Way" by Johnny Cash. The buyer: Louie Sulcer, 71, of Woodstock, Georgia. The price: $0.99, of course,

Apple iTunes is celebrating its 10 billionth song download since it was introduced in 2003. Meanwhile in the music industry, this happened: [insert graph heading doooooown]

I use itunes and mostly I like itunes (except when I hate it) but when I went to look at the main page for something to read, I wasn’t tempted to read that article. Itunes sells a lot of music? ho hum. But I did read the whole article when I clicked through for this experiment. It wasn’t much of an article, truthfully. It seemed like off the cuff opinion with a graph. I wondered why the author didn’t, since he was comparing itunes content-based sales model to cable’s access-based sales model, expand his questions to wonder why I can’t buy access to, say, Dexter via my computer in live broadcast time? Instead of waiting to buy it later.

(Maybe it was a blog post? I have no idea. He’s not listed in their Voices so I don’t think it is a blog post. )

But the point is that I read it once I saw it. I would not have seen the whole thing, though, if I wasn’t doing an experiment for this blog post because I had no interest in the summary. None. Nadda. Zip.

And I looked at the summaries for Voices (where Atlantic’s blogs are listed) and had no interest in reading any of those blog posts. Who the hell wants to read a summary of a blog post or even an intro to a blog post? People who read blogs want to read the frackin blog post.

My solution to the problem of book reviews would not, I recognize, work for blog posts. Or even for that itunes … article? blog post? whatever? Placing the first paragraph in the summary only works if the first paragraph is designed to draw the person into what may be continued on another page (like newspaper articles are designed even if the article is in a tabloid form newspaper and no page flipping is needed.)

Blog posts are different than professionally written book reviews. Time is spent by a professional feature writer on a professional piece thinking about how to begin her work to keep people reading. A blog post? Not so much. The writers generally jump right in knowing that the work is short enough that people can skim the whole thing to see if it’s worth reading.

That’s how people read blogs. Skimming is essential. So introductions are worthless. People who read blogs want to read the blog post and nothing else. They want to skim it and then re-read it quickly if they are interested. They don’t want to click around a lot. On my Google Reader I’m regularly deleting blogs that only give me the first paragraph because I find that I’m not clicking through to read the whole post.

So publishing a couple of lines to draw folks in is not the answer. The first two lines may not be very interesting but the picture or youtube video or graphic they post under it may be eye catching. Or the ALL CAPS SCREAMING under the calm first paragraph may catch your eye. The joy of blog posts is their (seemingly) unplanned nature.

Some of the Atlantic bloggers are posting their first few lines. I wasn’t tempted to click through and read any of them. None of them. Then I caved caved and clicked Andrew Sullivan’s picture. I haven’t read Andrew Sullivan for months because he started to annoy me so much. But in the interest of experimentation I clicked and voila! I did not get the boring list I got … his blog. He must have a special deal with Atlantic. Good for him.

But bad on the Atlantic editors for not seeing that he is right and EVERY blog should be that way. And to the credit of Mr. Fallows, he thinks so too.

I’ve kept Mr. Fallows in my Google Reader for now but I know I have limited patience. I know I won’t click through to read something (especially when I just get headlines. Headlines? sheesh). So I suspect that by this time next month he will be gone. I will miss him.

And as for Atlantic. I’ll probably continue to buy the print edition from time to time. I’ll flip through and read all the articles on topics I’m naturally interested in first. Then I’ll find myself reading articles on topics I didn’t think I had any interest in because the first paragraph will grab me.

Maybe I’ll peruse the online page from time to time. I’ll skim, looking for targeted areas of interest (that’s how they think internet readers read and maybe they are right about that.) But if they don’t change their summary sections I, their target audience for those articles, will not bother clicking through to read the articles that I should be interested in. And I’m certainly not going to be lured into reading something I know I’m not interested in.

And they’ll wonder why they are failing.