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Least Publishable Unit

March 16th, 2009 · 9 Comments · General

In academic publishing, there is a concept known as the  least publishable unit (LPU). As per the Wikipedia entry, an LPU is “the smallest amount of information that can generate a publication in a peer-reviewed journal.”

Until recently, I thought the concept was unique to academia. But today I read a post by TIME White House correspondent Michael Scherer entitled “The Politico Is Transforming Our Approach To News” that explained the emergence of the LPU in mainstream online media:

Once upon a time, the incentive of a print reporter at a major news organization was to create a comprehensive, incisive account of an event like Cheney’s provocative interview on CNN….That account would then be packaged into a container (a newspaper, a magazine, a 30-minute network news broadcast) and sold to the consumer. In the Internet-age, by contrast, what matters is not the container, but the news nugget, the blurb, the linkable atom of information. That nugget is not packaged (since the newspapers, magazine, broadcast television structure do not really apply online), but rather sent out into the ether, seeking out links, search engine ranking and as many hits as possible. A click is a click, after all, whether it’s to a paragraph-length blog post or a 2,000 word magazine piece. News, in other words, is increasingly no longer consumed in the context of a full article, or even a full accounting of an event, but rather as Twitter-sized feeds, of the sort provided by the Huffington Post, The Page, and The Drudge Report. Each quote gets its own headline. Context and analysis are minimized for space.

I’ve certainly noticed the steady deterioration of news quality in all media over the last several years, but I’d ascribed it to news providers’ inability to sell quality news for the cost of producing it, coupled with the popular obsession with 24-hour breaking news that is superficially reported and then immediately forgotten.

It had never occurred to me that news providers were also trying to slice each story into as many slivers as possible. In fact, such an approach strikes me as involving more work than writing one article per story–since the immediacy-driven deadlines are the same whether it’s one article or a dozen. But I can certainly see the logic of maximizing the number of distinct vehicles for selling ads.

I’m not sure whether to take Scherer at face value (perhaps others here who are journalism experts can comment), but I find the prospect of LPUs or “salami publication” depressing. It’s not that I object to precision-targeted articles addressing specific issues. Nor do I object to brevity–it is the soul of wit, even if Polonius lacked it. What I don’t want to see is a reductionist approach to news that destroys the context of a story by slicing it up too thin for adult-sized single servings.

But is that where the ad-supported model is pushing us?

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 ken // Mar 17, 2009 at 9:28 am

    That’s an interesting observation. I suspect its true of only certain types of news that people follow closely and check on several times a day, with national politics being the leading example. The Politico is perhaps an outlier in this respect. Outside of those few breaking-news categories, there are plenty of long-winded articles that get heavily linked, as the Clay Sharky piece you mentioned a few days ago, and the one you just linked to in Time. If I have time, I’ll see if I can dig up some representative sources for political news and look at article length over the last few years, it might be interesting. With print though, it perhaps is tempting to think that most people read the entire article. I wonder what fraction ever got past the headline or just the first paragraph or two. Network news certainly was never deep. So I’m not convinced matters are worse. They may be better.

  • 2 Daniel Tunkelang // Mar 17, 2009 at 10:39 am

    Ken, I hope you’re right. To be clear, I’m not advocating long-windedness! In fact, one way to achieve LPUs is to write a long-winded template and only vary the sliver of substance. Where I agree with Scherer is that splicing a story into thin storylets may actually violate the irreducibility of its big picture.

    Nothing new here–this is just another way of complaining about soundbites. What struck me as new was that the motive for this strategy might not be just accommodating people’s short attention spans, but also maximizing ad coverage per unit of substance.

  • 3 What the Structure of Content Means for Context « Network(ed)News // Mar 19, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    […] Least Publishable Unit is funny thing. The concept refers to a thing that’s in fact publishable—but only […]

  • 4 Josh Young // Mar 19, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    I know the LPU can get us down from time to time. Ken’s argument that it’s really nothing new is a good one, but I offer another here:

    http://networkednews.wordpress.com/2009/03/19/news-structure-content-context-chart/

    The gist is that, while the internet may sometimes push us in the direction of information-lite snacks, it opens up other doors to smart but cheap, or lightweight, ways of generating content, including news.

  • 5 Daniel Tunkelang // Mar 21, 2009 at 1:16 am

    The short answer is that I think there’s a place for news articles of different length and scope. I just worry that the economics of news are driving LPUs to the exclusion of everything else.

  • 6 Chuck Peters // Mar 21, 2009 at 10:53 am

    Daniel –

    As I noted at http://cpetersia.wordpress.com/2008/12/06/information-in-the-first-instance/:

    “We have to start with the creation of the “elements” in the first instance. By starting with each source, quote, factual statement, picture, graphic, audio clip or video clip as an isolated element, or “tweet”, properly tagged with automatic tagging engines, those elements can be packaged or searched directly, allowing the most transparent view of local information. Sometimes that could be done by reporting on scheduled events by live blogging, using Twitter tweets for participant comments, with the resulting “record” time stamped. All audio and video clips could also be tagged to the time, place, event and people. From those elements, packaged stories could be written, but any reader could go “through” the story to the original elements.”

    This will require quite a bit of “elegant organization”, but is futile unless we begin with the smallest meaningful piece of information.

    We have lots of work to do!

    Thanks,

    Chuck

  • 7 Daniel Tunkelang // Mar 21, 2009 at 11:01 am

    It would be great to create documents with such rich annotation. It’s increasingly possible to do so, but authors don’t seem particularly incented to invest the effort, and purely automatic tools won’t cut it. That strikes me as more of an economic that technical problem, though there’s a bit of both.

  • 8 Daniel Lemire // Jan 28, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    I enjoy short articles even if, as a scientist, I find it hard to write them because I always have more to say…

    I’d be interested in hearing arguments as to why short contributions imply lower quality.

    The iPad/iPhone with its tiny applications as shown tat there can’t be much value in a small package.

  • 9 Daniel Tunkelang // Jan 29, 2012 at 6:48 am

    I have nothing against short but sweet. But I do have a problem which favors cardinality over aggregate value. News articles that are often short summaries without analysis., perhaps because analysis takes more efforts and doesn’t always fit into a tiny package. And the recent NYT article talks about the problems in science, e.g., “Small studies are inherently unreliable — larger studies or, better still, multiple studies on the same topic, are more likely to give definitive, accurate results.”

    I love snacks. But I understand they don’t always make for the healthiest diet.

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