Least Publishable Unit

March 17, 2009
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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

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?

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