A large part of teaching writing is encouraging students to read more, opening their eyes to engaging stories so they can eventually craft their own. Non-fiction features are an invitation to go deep, giving the reader front row seats to a charged courtroom scene, or access to a free diver’s thoughts as he plunges improbable depths in the sea. While hard news darts in and out, slamming the door behind it, features indulge readers to pull up a seat and linger.
While they read, I ask students to consider things like structure, word choice, description, and pacing. I repeatedly hear—and it’s totally normal for 18-year-olds to say— “I liked it, but it was soooo long.” They often find features interesting until they reach sections heavy with research or background context, the dry but necessary stuff of journalism. Then they get bored.
That worries me slightly. Journalism is about telling stories and stories are important because they help us make sense of world, making content memorable. An article about a day in the life of a homeless guy in San Francisco’s Tenderloin will grab readers more than simply listing homelessness statistics. But we need both: stories and abstract information. News without facts, data, statistics, and analysis doesn’t say much in the end. For example, to understand climate change, we can track the challenges of a family living on a coastal village experiencing flooding, but a comprehensive story should also include hard scientific data indicating the global impact of rising sea levels.
I’m not digging at the young here, as every generation differs from the previous one, gifting the world its unique perspective. But I’ve been wondering all week why students find the factual side of news boring (as I obviously don’t.)
I reached two conclusions. First, online content is constantly battling for our attention, which now wanes at 15 seconds or less. It’s about hooking readers fast, relying on SEO and keywords to drive traffic. This is science, not art (which feature writing is). Reading online is about taking in quick bursts of information, rather than lingering, pausing and reflecting. This is like gulping down sugary snacks, rather than slowly chewing a larger meal.
Second, the younger generation reads a lot, but it’s mostly short texts, headlines, and Instagram captions, not long, complex articles. Gen Z turns to social media sites for the news. As freelance writer Bill Fryman wrote in an article for the International News Media Association outlining “Five ways to appeal to Gen Z,” we need to package the news in “small news snacks.”
While short news can be compelling, can we understand multifaceted situations in 200 words or less? I don’t think so.
Studies have proven that reading increases our cognitive abilities. Making the mental effort leads to greater brain power, just as doing repetitions in the gym leads to bigger muscles. But we live in a digital age of quick hits, swipes, and instant gratification, making it harder to focus, let alone weed through information that might seem tedious. Yet that information might hold the key to a more nuanced understanding of a difficult situation.
Still, in my own little way, I am trying to teach students that the good things in life, especially good writing, take time. You wouldn’t want to rush a good meal or conversation—and the same should go for long-form writing. Hurrying to the most interesting parts and skimming through the rest defeats its enjoyment.
I like how Dolly Parton once put it, “The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you got to put up with the rain.”