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Slate’s ‘minutes to read’ feature dumbs down journalism

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- Commentary

Slate thinks readers aren’t interested in unfamiliar stories that will burden them, but journalism’s about discovery

This article will take you 3 minutes 45 seconds to read. (2 minutes 30 seconds celsius.) You will expend 60 calories and learn two new vocabulary words, including a synonym for “rebellious”. Approximately 30m of your cells will die. Enjoy!

Those helpful journometrics are brought to you by – or at least suggested by – the folks at slate.com, which has taken to including time estimates for consumption of its pieces. On Slate’s right rail recently were these items:

•What Would Happen if Ocean Water Was replaced With Deuterium Oxide? 6M TO READ

•How Do Female Republican Strategists Plan to Reach Women Voters? We Asked Them. 8M TO READ •It’s Time to Bring Back the Guillotine. 4M TO READ

•How Being in Grad School is Like Being in a Frat. 4M TO READ

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The idea is to give a reader, before undertaking the effort and risk of clicking on a story, some notion of the burden he or she will have to endure. It’s like those disclaimers on the pharma commercials. If you want relief from depression’s pain, ask your doctor about Cymbalta, but be advised that your liver will probably explode. You wish to learn about the GOP’s “women strategy”? Fine, but prepare for the chrono-consequences.

Now, obviously, not every story clocks in at a ponderous eight minutes. Every now and then, when the executive-summary gods are with you, the right rail is a “reduced for quick sale” bin. Last Wednesday night was one such cornucopia of conciseness. Look at all these fantastic stories costing you only one minute each:

Norway’s Army Goes Vegetarian to Combat Climate Change. 1M TO READ

Lance Armstrong Settles $3M Lawsuit, Avoids Testifying Under Oath About Doping. 1M TO READ

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Newt Gingrich Knows How to Fix Obamacare. 1M TO READ

The Death of Winamp Says a Lot About the Tech World’s Vicious Utilitarianism. 1M TO READ

God, I feel like such a sucker. I’d already read the Associated Press version of the Lance Armstrong story, where I spent, like, 3 minutes. I wonder if the AP offers something like Best Buy … a time-matching guaranty. If I take the Slate item to the AP customer service desk, shouldn’t I get a 2 minute refund? Just sayin’, is all.

Slate’s understanding and support of reader needs is not limited to the husbanding of the world’s strategic minute stockpile. Exploiting Big Data in exactly the way you’d expect from a high-toned news-and-culture publication, it is also employing algorithms to offer some content based on the individual’s own demonstrated consumption patterns. Why, thank you!

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The reason I stopped reading the New York Times is that it persists in printing stories whose subjects I have not previously familiarized myself with. I’d be turning to page A8 and suddenly see an article about Myanmar or coulrophobia or North Carolina voter suppression, and I’m all “Whoa there! Since when have I ever shown any interest in Myanmar? Why would I want to be confronted with that?” The tech geniuses at Slate, by contrast, can fill me to bursting with what I’m already interested in.

I mean, come on, you presumptuous MSM editors, I don’t consume media for “discovery” or “scope”. The last thing I need is your intellectual breadth or judgment. I consume media to stay in my comfort zone and validate my worldview on everything I already know, duh.

Now there are those who stubbornly cling to the idea that mankind is not best served by merely getting what we want. Leo Tolstoy, for instance, wrote:

He soon felt that the fulfillment of his desires gave him only one grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected. This fulfillment showed him the eternal error men make in imagining that their happiness depends on the realization of their desires.

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That’s from Anna Karenina (21.5 MONTHS TO READ).

No disrespect to Tolstoy, but I think if he had to wade through truth and reconciliation in Burma, he’d be singing a different tune.

As a matter of full disclosure, I should admit that I am on Slate’s payroll as co-host of the sprightly language podcast Lexicon Valley. In a way, Slate’s sensitivity to consumers was foreshadowed with our own show! A year ago – prompted by people who didn’t want to squander valuable time listening to a radio program – Slate began providing text transcriptions of the audio.

My first instinct was to be a bit contumacious, but now I see that this was an excellent adaptation to market demand. Personally, I think Pandora should offer the same service.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013

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