During the recent Medill Storytelling Symposium at Northwestern University, somebody incidentally mentioned the tendency for readers to skim through news articles and stop only to read direct quotes. It's no surprise why: Quotes are often the most colorful parts of a story, and disillusioned readers might think direct quotes are the only pieces of a story not infused with a reporter's bias.
That got me thinking. If some readers read only the quotes in newspaper stories, why not make that easier on them?
Wouldn't it be cool if...
- ...Online news stories had an option to "highlight all quotes," which would, for example, subtly gray-out everything that wasn't a quotation? That'd guide the quote-skippers' eyes to the content they really wanted, while maintaining context.
- ...There were an "All recent quotes by Mayor Smith" page? Sounds valuable to readers and reporters alike. Heck, I'm sure Mayor Smith herself would find it useful.
- ...There were an "All quotes in today's newspaper" page? With links to full articles, of course, for context.
If news providers tagged and fielded their quotes somehow, all this would be possible. HTML already provides the
<q> tag for marking-up quotations, but the problem is that someone has to insert the tags in the first place. That's no big deal if a single person is in charge of editing content -- Mark Pilgrim's Posts by Quotation archive succeeds because he puts much effort into marking-up blog entries -- but changing the workflow of a multi-person online-news production staff is significantly more difficult. And the extra time it'd take for a Web producer to tag all the quotes in a story manually just wouldn't be worth it.
So is this a pie-in-the-sky idea? Of course not! I think technology is the answer. It seems to me 80 percent of quotes in news articles are in exactly the same quote-citation-quote format:
"They've got a building down in New York City," said Arlo Guthrie. "It's called Whitehall Street, where you walk in, you get injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and selected."
Begin quote mark; text; end quote mark; "said"; source name; begin quote mark; text; end quote mark. Looks very parsable.
Of course, the other 20 percent of quotes aren't as nicely formatted. But I'm not so sure that automating the tagging of quotes in a news article is impossible. I think I might try it.