One of the quirks of the digital age is that we can now produce documents with few, if any, breaks in the text. Thanks to programs like Google Slides, where you can simply type your content and see it formatted for you, there’s no longer a need to use a typewriter or hand-paste an email to save it as a Word document.
With few exceptions, a century of print journalism has now been overturned by digital publishing. While it’s great to have the capability to create flawless publications at the push of a button, it comes with some pretty serious drawbacks. Chief among them is that when editing articles you have to keep retyping the whole thing to insert or remove a break.
Even if you decide that the ease of editing a digital document is worth the extra effort, you’ll still have to contend with limited space. Like most traditional magazines, The New York Times Magazine limits its content to around 10 pages of font size 12. Since the advent of the web, the space that was once devoted to ads has been used to host far more content, meaning that there’s nowhere near enough room to fit the essential information about an event or story into an article. Think about it: with a single image online, you can often pack in more information about the event than a traditional feature article ever could.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, digital natives might argue that long-form content is a dying breed. After all, with infinite scroll it’s easy to consume content until you find something that suits your needs. While the practice of micro-blogging might still feel novel to an older generation, the trend towards publishing shorter and more frequent pieces is here to stay.
In the absence of hard copy, the readability of online documents has become an essential factor in their effectiveness. Fewer distractions from skimming, such as complicated layouts and confusing paragraphs, make for a more streamlined read.
The Growing Importance of Font Size
If you’ve ever tried to compare the font size of a Google search result to that of a web page, you’ll know what I’m talking about. While the former is typically set at a comfortable viewing size, the latter can be minutely adjusting to fit the window.
Since the advent of the web, the font size we’ve grown accustomed to has shrunk. For centuries, writers crafted manuscripts and published books in a variety of sizes to accommodate readers of all shapes and sizes. In an effort to make text more accessible to everyone, the fonts have gotten progressively smaller until the point where we’re now looking at tiny typefaces on touch screens. While a certain degree of zoom ensures that you can still read the text, the point is that we’re forced to squint if we want to.
Glaring Contrast And Distracting Interruptions
One of the major drawbacks to minimalism when it comes to text is the way that stark contrasts in color or style between sections can derail the train of thought. This is why it’s best to avoid using sub-headings and other form of breaks in paragraphs, as they’ll likely cause the reader to jump around and lose their place in the text.
When an article is published with few, if any, breaks in the text, the contrast between the blocks of content is often so great that we have to stop and re-adjust our line of sight. If a writer decides to pull an all-caps headline or an oversized font for the entire piece, it won’t just be the words that shout out ‘hello’ to you, but rather the entire page will demand your full attention.
If you’ve ever glanced at a Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine article and then tried to focus on something else while riding the train, you’ll know what I mean when I say that. At least with the print magazine, there were occasional tables of contents to guide the reader into the various sections. Even now, in the age of the web, a hyperlinked list of topics or sections at the bottom of the article can serve as a rough guide to content.
Limited To One Viewing Session
When you go from a desktop web browser to a mobile device, the first thing that will catch your attention isn’t the page layout, but the font size. While most sites adjust their layout to fit the smaller screen sizes, it’s still difficult to read text that demands your full attention when you’re on the go. A smartphone’s text size is usually set at a comfortable viewing size with the intention of making everything easy to read on the go. This is why even the biggest sites with the glossiest headlines tend to work with smaller fonts.
The New York Times Magazine is one of the few publications that still opts for bigger type. It’s a design choice that makes the text easier to understand when displayed on a mobile device.
With fewer interruptions and distractions, the reader is forced to interact with the content more frequently. If you’ve ever tried to read a long magazine article, you’ll know that there’s no substitute for a bit of back and forth between the page and the reader. Clicks are the bread and butter of any online content creator, but even in a world of websites and blogs with advertising, they’re still the most effective tool for drawing in the readers.
When you compare the effectiveness of content that has several breaks to that of a version with no breaks, you’ll see a noticeable difference. The lack of breaks in an otherwise ordinary Huffington Post blog post got me to the point where I wanted to punch the screen. With no place to rest my eyes, I had to keep clicking just to progress through the article. When the writer decided to insert a paragraph break, I was able to keep my eyes open and eventually absorbed the information about housing discrimination – which, let’s be honest, is much more interesting than anything else the writer could have crammed in there.
The Growing Importance Of Audio Content
Thanks to digital recorders, podcasts and streaming services, it’s never been easier to gather and distribute audio content. While traditional magazines have moved to embrace the capabilities of the web, sound still remains a significant factor in journalism.
With the click of a button, you can now publish an audiobook or a podcast with your articles. If you’re fortunate enough to have an audience that wants to hear what you have to say, you no longer have to settle for traditional magazines or websites. Instead, you can publish your work wherever and whenever you want with little to no cost using today’s technology.
Even in a world of easy-to-use software, the process of setting up a podcast can still frustrate a blogger or a journalist who wants to get their words out there. Creating high-quality content for broadcast requires a considerable amount of effort, from researching the right guests to ensuring that everything goes according to plan. Just because you’ve got a good story to tell, it doesn’t mean that everyone will want to listen.
Decreased Cognitive Load
If you’ve ever tried to read through a long article or a book and got distracted by the blinking cursor or the page layout, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Since the end of the last century, the font size and the number of lines on a page have steadily decreased, making it easier to focus on content without being distracted by other things. While it might be difficult to write a compelling piece of text without using sub-headings or other breaks, the inverse is becoming increasingly more difficult. When you have an information-dense article, there’s no replacement for a nice, long break. Instead of having the text march towards the horizon, it gradually descends, drawing the eye to the vital information and preventing it from getting lost in the details.
The Growing Importance Of Interactivity
While we’ve always had the option to read written content, up until recently, the main form of ‘interactivity’ has been to simply click on a link to follow a series of instructions or go to a website where you can purchase a product or service. However, in this era of the web, even passive consumption has become a form of interaction.
If you’ve ever tried to follow a set of directions to make a purchase on Amazon, you’ll know that there are often multiple steps involved. Instead of passively consuming content, the user is now actively involved in the process of getting the information they need. While this might feel like a positive change, it also means that even the most minimalistic content can become extremely time consuming to navigate. If you’ve ever tried to use an on-screen keyboard when browsing on a mobile device or laptop, you’ll know that even this simple activity can eat up a lot of time.