A short defense of TL;DR, or Desperately seeking e-newsstands

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Theres no need to fear the summarzied Web
  • Rene Jansa / Shutterstock
  • An article and its TL;DR (artist's rendition)
Last week I wrote about a rising new trend I saw among news media online, to make summaries of their articles more accessible to their readers. It comes from the Web's TL;DR (or Too Long; Didn't Read) ethos with which angry forum users complain about a post's length and writers quickly summarize what they're saying. On Wednesday, my colleague Steve Bogira spoke out against the urge to summarize, noting that the real value in the writing so often gets lost in summaries.

It's an excellent point, and one I should have made in the original article—not least of all because I think that, done right, summaries will actually increase the value and visibility of great writing.

Bogira notes in his post where the harm in scanning summaries can be:

The temptation—one we're all succumbing to far too often, and one which sites such as TL;DR encourage—is to scan instead of read. That's the road to superficiality—to being a mile wide and an inch deep. Instead of scanning summaries, we should be finding something well-written, diving in, and sticking with it, even if it's sometimes "hard to understand the main point."

That sentiment brought many Reader staffers to tweet his story, because it's a feeling well worth repeating over and over, especially to the new generation that never finds time to sit down and read a book (mine). But as long as he's fighting the urge to scan, he might get in touch with the news editors over at the New York Times. For as long as I can remember, the Times has included brief summaries of the stories in its International, National, and, where applicable, Local sections on the second or third page of the newspaper. They tease to the articles themselves, offering not just a brief summary of the news for the layman on the go, but an index for anyone with more than a passing interest in, say, unrest in Bhutan or the rising price of gold so they can quickly locate the article they're looking for.

That's the real value of news summaries. It might quote, it might cull the best anecdotes, it might just provide the lede and nut graf, but whatever it does, a good summary will move readers to the content they want like the departure board at a train station. As Bogira says, "the in-your-face infinity of the Net is exhausting," and at the moment, there's no good place to dig through lots of news sources quickly, in one place. There's no newsstand, with lots of headlines and articles competing in one place. Instead, this stuff is being summarized left (on Facebook) and right (on Twitter) already. Social media is the scanning the headlines of 2012, but a news organization has no control of what the summary will be. To win audiences, we'll need to win them quickly to draw them in. Don't make them click an article and quit it—so many readers already do if you look at the average article's engagement statistics. Give them a reason to come to the page and read first, and they'll stay longer.

It helps readers too. For whatever reason, I have an affinity for water issues. This article on a water pump manufacturer moving its headquarters to Chicago really got me going, despite being a simple news brief. Besides highly specialized blogs and news sources, there isn't really a good place for me go looking for water articles outside of a Google search, so I tend not to get that news often. What summaries add to my news-reading experience is the chance to see how a story will play out beyond the headline. Have I read this news before? Is it deeper than anything else I've seen? What if I have lots of interests beyond water issues, like exploring Mars and the drug war in Mexico? How will that affect what I'm scanning and where?

As long as there isn't one newspaper for the Web, we'll be skimming just to find the things we can commit to reading, whether that be few or a great many. We always have, ever since the first book reviews started getting collected in one place. Too Long; Didn't Read isn't a recipe for "Too Much Foreplay; Fell Asleep," because the problem isn't skimming, it's people missing the news entirely. TL;DR is a bar guide that helps you find the place where you're most likely to find the article of your dreams, and spot it through a crowd. Then you take it home, read the hell out of it, then go out and find another.

What this really gets at is the Web's continued lack of efficiency, despite years of progress. There are a million articles out there, so many of them really interesting and of high quality. What we need is a coherent meeting places for news articles, a newsstand where browsing is ever more effective because lots of news is competing. It's a recipe for more readers, not fewer, and they'll be happier, too.

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