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Fewer Words; Less Filling

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Graphic: Texas Tech University

 

 

                                                              by Walter Brasch

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It was a delightful show. All 37 Shakespearean plays, cleverly and humorously abridged to 97 minutes by the Reduced Shakespeare Co. Short of having a set of Cliff's Notes or a collection of Classic Comics, sources of innumerable student essays for more than a half-century, it was the least painful way to "learn" Shakespeare. The critically-acclaimed show, in addition to being a delightful way to spend part of an evening, is a satiric slap upside the head of the mass media.

The condensation of the media may have begun in 1922 with the founding of Reader's Digest, the pocket-sized magazine which keeps its 17 million world-wide subscribers happy by a combination of original reporting and mulching articles from other magazines. Books also aren't safe.

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For more than six decades, Digest editors have grounded four books into the space of one and call them "condensed" or "selected," and sell them by subscription to people with limited attention spans. These are the people who actively participate in society's more meaningful activities, such as watching Snooki and JWoww on "Jersey Shore" or swapping lies with the gentrified folk at the country club. However, most media condense life to save money and improve corporate profits.

Book publishers routinely order authors to reduce the number of manuscript pages, saving production and distribution costs. The printed book will always have a place, but publishers are now deleting print production and putting their books onto Kindle and Nook, reducing page size to a couple of sizes smaller than the first TV screens. Because reading takes time, and time needs to be abbreviated for the MTV Go-Go Generation, chapters are shorter, and book length has been further reduced to adapt to e-book format.

Movie industry executives, eyes focused upon their wallets, have dictated shorter films, with more "action-paced" scene changes, an acknowledgement that Americans need constant stimulation. It isn't uncommon for writers, faced by corporate demands to reduce the length of a screenplay, to indiscriminately rip out three or four pages in protest, only to find that the corporate suits instead of being appalled are, in fact, pleased.

Scripted half-hour TV shows were once 26 minutes, with four minutes for promotions and commercials. Now, the average half-hour show is 22 minutes; the average hour show is about 45 minutes, with at least two sub-plots, because producers believe viewers don't have the attention spans to follow only one plot line.

In radio and television news, the seven-second sound bite is now standard, forcing news sources to become terse and witty, though superficial. News stories themselves usually top out at 90 seconds, about 100--150 words. An entire newscast usually has fewer words than the average newspaper front page.

An exception is the music industry. At one time, popular songs were two to three minutes, some of it because of the technological limits of recordings. During the past two decades, with the development of digital media, pop music has crept past four minutes average. The downside, however, is that writers are taking the same cutesy phrases and subjecting listeners to nauseous repetition.

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The print media have downsized the quality, weight, and size of paper. Page sizes of 8-1/2 by 11 inches are still the most common magazine size, but several hundred magazines are now 8- by 10-1/2 inches. Long-form journalism, which includes major features and in-depth investigations that can often run 3,000 or more words, have largely been replaced by short-form news snippets, best represented by Maxim.

Newspaper page width has dropped to 11--12 inches, from almost 15-1/2 inches during the 1950s. Because newspaper advertising and circulation have been in a freefall for the past decade, publishers have cut back the number of pages--and reporters--to keep their traditional 60--40 ratio of advertising to news content.

USA Today condenses the world into four sections. Publishers of community newspapers, citing both USA Today's format and nebulous research about reader attention span, impose artificial limits on stories. Thirty column inches maximum per news story, with 12 to 15 inches preferred, is a common measure.

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Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist and professor of journalism emeritus. His current books are Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution , America's Unpatriotic Acts: The Federal Government's Violation of (more...)
 

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