Charts of the day, WSJ story-length edition

By Felix Salmon
October 11, 2011
Ryan Chittum has taken a look at the length of the stories on the front page of the WSJ.

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Ryan Chittum has taken a look at the length of the stories on the front page of the WSJ.

Here’s what’s happened to the number of stories under 1,500 words:


Here’s the stories over 1,500 words:


And here’s the stories over 2,500 words:


Ryan is dismayed at these trends. “Without going long,” he writes, “it’s hard to achieve greatness”:

Certainly, the Journal still does lots of top-flight work, and most stories don’t need 2,500 words. But many do, and how does going short as a policy help readers understand the really important stuff like systemic problems, corporate misbehavior, business innovation, or sweeping economic change?

I, on the other hand, am much more sympathetic to what Murdoch is doing here. WSJ readers are busy: they don’t have time to wade through lots of overstuffed stories in the morning. They want to know what’s going on, and why, and they want their news-delivery mechanism to be as efficient as possible.

If you look at the chart of stories over 1,500 words, it peaked at 800 per year in 2006. That’s more than 2.5 such stories per day, every day including Saturdays. And that’s just on the front page! If you look at the paper as a whole, the 1,500-word stories were appearing at a pace of six per day before Murdoch came along and brought some sense to proceedings.

I read long business and finance stories for a living — that’s my job — and I don’t read six per day, let alone six per day from a single publication. The job of the WSJ is not to overload its readers with many hours’ worth of reading every day. And the current pace, of roughly one long-form front-page story per day, seems much more reasonable to me. (Most readers, of course, won’t even read that — but at least they won’t be completely overwhelmed.)

At the same time, it’s great that the WSJ is putting lots of important information on its front page in sub-1,500-word form — on top of the “What’s News” briefs. As a news consumer, I don’t even want anything nearly that long — I’m looking to get what I need within a few hundred words at most. US newspaper stories have a lot of water weight, and nearly all of them could stand to lose a few pounds.

And what of the dramatic fall-off in the really long-form stuff, over 2,500 words? Up until 2007, those managed to make the front page roughly every other day. Then they all but disappeared, and you’ll find maybe one a month at this point.

I can easily see why that should be the case. Very long stories are often highly self-indulgent, and they take a huge amount of time, effort, and money to put together. Sometimes, they’re incredibly important, and well worth both writing and reading. Often, however, they seem to be aimed at other journalists more than at the WSJ’s core business audience — most of which simply doesn’t have the time to read such things. In a good news organization, I think, the bar should be high before any such story is inflicted on millions of blameless readers. And keeping the output of long-form stories low is one great way of doing that.

The Columbia Journalism Review is naturally going to want to encourage “greatness” in American newspapers, and for decades now “greatness” in journalism has been synonymous with Very Long Stories. But I don’t think, frankly, that the WSJ’s readers have any particular interest in getting a serving of greatness alongside their breakfast cereal in the morning. They’re much more interested in news. And that, to its credit, is what the WSJ is giving them.


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Posted by JesseEisinger | Report as abusive

The WSJ is just feeding the public’s demand for simple solutions, for long stories usually provide more information, and the typical Murdoch reader doesn’t like a lot of information, as they believe every issue has a simple solution.

So the number of short stories doubled, the number of long stories was reduced by more than 50%, and the number of real long stories was cut by more than 90%. That is a major change to the paper’s character (not that anyone would be surprised). Nobody expects any one person to be reading all those long stories; but if they are worth writing about in the first place, then most likely their depth would be appreciated by those who actually read the articles.

The economy is in a really big mess, and people want to believe there are simple solutions to clean up that mess (cut taxes, raise taxes, cut spending, raise spending). None of those simple strokes are going to solve any problem, but it’s kind of like fast food – people want quick and easy, even if it isn’t the best thing for them.

I’m not saying all long stories are good, but a wholesale reduction in the delivery of information is not a good trend.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

I actually agree with Felix, the paper gives you a great depth in variety, which is more important to their audience than long form journalism. I believe it is more important for the Journal’s readers to know 20 stories of 400-800 words about recent developments in different parts of business and finance. Also it assumes the reader kinda knows whats going on in the world already, there is little reason for a 2500 word article on the financial crisis, or robo signing, because frankly the journal has been covering it already with the short stories.

Posted by sunnohh | Report as abusive

Eisinger’s “*facepalm*” is hilarious, Lisa Simpson-esque.

Posted by dedalus | Report as abusive

The WSJ does not need more than 1500 words to say:
*Cut taxes;
*Cut spending;
*Trickle down works;
*Keynes does not;
*Republicans are great;
*Democrats are not;
*Reagan was a genius;
*Clinton was not;

The decline of long form is a bad trend; it encourages shallowness amongst Republicans!

Posted by RS108 | Report as abusive

Basically, they’re turning it into USAToday. I always liked the old New York Times ads, “You don’t have to read it all, but it’s nice to know it’s all there.”

Another metric to consider is the use of numbers. They seem to have dropped out of all but the most narrowly focused business articles, and even then the reporters rarely seem to give one a consistent set that you can use, with a little arithmetic, to figure out what is actually going on. I suppose you can look up the 10Q on the internet, but then, why buy the WSJ?

Posted by Kaleberg | Report as abusive

I think it borders on navel-gazing to rationalize the disappearance of 2500+-word stories with “I can easily see why that should be the case. Very long stories are often highly self-indulgent…”

The question isn’t whether long-form journalism, in the abstract, can be self-indulgent; it’s about The Wall Street Journal and the actual “leders” it wrote to much acclaim for 50 years. The strategy pursued by Barney Kilgore and the stolid midwesterners who ran the WSJ of putting high-quality long-form journalism on the front page seems in reality to have been a successful one. Far from putting off business readers, that WSJ became the paper of record for corporate America and the largest-circulation daily in the country.

Let’s grapple with the real stories we’re talking about and you would be killing. “The Perfect Payday” (3/18/2006) by Charles Forelle and James Bandler was 4,450 words and the first in a big series that used novel — initially controversial — statistical techniques to identify companies that backdated stock option grants, in some cases faking meetings of the board of directors out of whole cloth. “Frequent Fliers: Amid Crackdown, the Jet Perk Suddenly Looks a Lot Pricier” (5/25/2005) by Mark Maremont, and the later “JetGreen: The CEO’s Private Golf Shuttle” (10/1/2005) were each about 3,000 words. Jonathan Weil’s “Energy Traders Cite Gains, But Some Math Is Missing” (9/20/2000) was 2,130 words. “Sickness and Health” (9/8/2004) by Amy Dockser Marcus was 4,190 words and the first in a series of portraits of cancer survivors that also won a Pulitzer Prize and received a huge amount of reader correspondence. Dan Golden’s “Extra Credit: At Many Colleges, The Rich Kids Get Affirmative Action” (2/20/2003) and “College Ties: For Groton Grads, Academics Aren’t Only Keys to Ivies” (4/25/2003) were 2,670 and 2,950 words, exposed questionable admissions practices that favored rich, white legacies and were cited by the U.S. Supreme Court.

These stories weren’t self-indulgent; they were great. They were not replicated elsewhere.

I can’t speak to the business merits of paying reporters to do Monte Carlo analysis for three months so you can nail a hundred crooked companies. But the journalistic merit of the stories seems inarguable. Without somebody investing in that kind of deep muckracking, we are probably worse off.

Posted by KeithWinstein | Report as abusive

So the question is, Keith, whether you need 175 stories over 2,500 words every year in order to generate the handful of greats that you cite. I can see the argument that you might. But then the resources going into any one great story rapidly reach millions, if not tens of millions, of dollars, once you count all the resources going into the 170 other long-form stories which aren’t great.

Posted by FelixSalmon | Report as abusive

Thanks for your reply. But I don’t know where you get the notion that only 5 leders per year were good; I wasn’t attempting to overwhelm your blog comments by listing every single WSJ story I liked.

How many of the leders were good or lousy is an empirical question. If you have gone through the archives of 2006 and concluded that 97% of the leders were overinflated and lousy, then okay, I understand where you are coming from. But I would disagree with you.

How well the paper is spending its newsgathering budget is also an empirical question that I am less qualified to address. I do think the money was probably better spent doing unique investigative work, instead of duplicating the work of wire services and the NYT by covering cops and courts and “what happened yesterday” in New York City.

The fact is that the paper enjoyed enormous success for 50 years while instructing its reporters that the highest achievement was to spend two months shining light into dark corners and then writing a definitive account that could be found nowhere else, edifying the reader with the whole picture and not pulling any punches. You think it’s self-evident that, “The job of the WSJ is not to overload its readers with many hours’ worth of reading every day,” but why? A newspaper is a random-access medium. Giving readers the ability to go deep if they want to (and not if they don’t) is a wonderful thing. There is no need to cater to the least common denominator and no reader is forced to read every word. For readers in a hurry, the WSJ is proud of “What’s News” too!

My point is that this formula worked pretty well for a long time, and to be effective your criticisms will have to grapple with that actual history. Not an abstract notion of a self-indulgent leder or a hypothetical ratio of 170 lousy leaders to every 5 good ones.

Rather than any cost-effectiveness or journalistic justification, I think there is a much simpler explanation for why the WSJ has dropped long leders: Murdoch bought Dow Jones for at least double what it was worth, Murdoch and his cadre have very definite ideas about how to run a newspaper, and they do not care much for long-form journalism.

Posted by KeithWinstein | Report as abusive

What do you mean that very long stories are often ‘aimed at other journalists’?

Posted by MickWeinstein | Report as abusive

Do people really decide what to read by the length of the article? Maybe after they have already started reading.

I have wondered why I stopped reading WSJ a few years ago. I cancelled my subscription because I found I just was not reading it anymore. It was not because of the political bias, as that had been there for years and I just ignored the Opinion pages. I just found more interesting things to read in other places.

Posted by wpw | Report as abusive

“What do you mean that very long stories are often ‘aimed at other journalists’?”
That the J-school/CJR mentality preaches that Very Long Serious Stories are the hallmark of Real Journalism. Those stories win awards; they get written up in the CJR; they get put in your clipping file when you are looking for work. Those are the stories people dream of writing when they become journalists. (Woodward! Bernstein!)

Except that almost all of their normal readers ignore those stories.

So by deciding to write a Very Long Serious Story, a journalist limits his audience to people who value Very Long Serious Stories. And generally those people are either 1) already experts in the subject of the story or 2) journalists.

And audience #2 will always be bigger than audience #1.

So in a way journalists write Very Long Serious Stories to attract praise and attention from other journalists. Because they sure aren’t doing it for their regular readers.

I say this as someone who often enjoys Very Long Serious Stories, and who thinks that they are necessary and important. But there definitely is a certain amount of navel-gazing and self-satisfaction about them.

Posted by hubcapjr | Report as abusive

Great post Felix! I like long stories as much as anyone, but I think you’re right on. There’s a lot of navel-gazing and self-satisfaction in Mr. Chittum’s post.

Posted by jadavis | Report as abusive

The WSJ has readers? Are you certain?? tic/2011/10/going-down-hard.html

Posted by klhoughton | Report as abusive