In today’s news, one size fits all

By Jack Shafer
May 14, 2014

newsroom

Whenever editors want to impose their will on a newsroom — be they editors at newspapers, magazines, news wires, websites, or TV programs — they dictate a memo for distribution to their journalists noting that stories have gotten too long and instructing everybody to write shorter. It’s a frequent request, as editors come to believe that their reporters aren’t listening to them or are openly defying their requests to file more succinct copy. In recent days, top editors at my outlet, Reuters, sent such a memo, asking writers in the Americas to diet their copy down to between 300 and 500 words. So did a top editor at the Associated Press, who set similar goals for his reporters and editors. Inspired by these bold moves, I’m sure that editors all over America have typed up their own shorter-is-better memos and are pressing send right now. (The Reuters memo says the call for short copy is nothing new — it’s in the Reuters Handbook. The AP says it’s responding to requests of its members, who don’t have time to edit copy down.)

The strong preference for short over long probably dates back to the invention of moveable type: The costs of printing make page-space scarce and hence very valuable. The shorter you make each story, the more stories you can pack into the available space, and theoretically this leads to an informed and satisfied reader. Some editors preach for shorter stories because they think that’s the way to get the boring stuff out of the way. In the contemporary era, the leading proponent of the short stuff was Al Neuharth, the auteur of Gannett Co.’s USA Today. “A maximum of facts in a minimum of words,” was Neuharth’s founding formula in 1982, and “making reporters out of essayists” was his method.

Although derided by the competition as a McPaper peddling McNuggets, USA Today‘s relentless brevity found many imitators in the industry. By 1992, USA Today was noting with satisfaction an industry-wide trend toward shorter stories. By 1995, the Los Angeles Times was documenting the contraction of the “news hole” at the Chicago Tribune, which required reporters to write their pieces into tighter spots. Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser noted in their 2002 book, The News About the News, that by 2000 TV network stories were also getting shorter. Perhaps the most dramatic victim of shrinky-dinkage was the Wall Street Journal in 2007 after Rupert Murdoch took over, with the long, detailed, dripping-with-context Journal story becoming the exception rather than the rule.

The shorter-stories dictate appeals to editors for the obvious space reasons. As has been observed by all, newspapers and magazines are thinner, so there is less tolerance for wind-up and more accent on the pitch. (The AP is owned by a consortium of newspapers, which use AP content. Reuters sells content to newspapers.) Online, the space issue is irrelevant.

But the demand for shorter copy also appeals to some editors because it’s easy to determine which reporters are obeying their orders and easy to enforce. All the editor needs to do to declare “mission accomplished” is drop the copy into a text editor and run a word-count on it.

lat55But nobody wants to read a story just because it’s short — we read in order to be entertained or enlightened, and there is no software smart enough (yet!) to determine whether copy is entertaining or enlightening. In other words, editors call for shorter copy because it’s easy for them, and few ever get fired for imposing terseness on their writers. Even USA Today abandoned its one-size-fits-all journalism by the mid-1990s after Neuharth left and began to produce longer, substantive pieces.

When I worked as an editor I frequently told my writers that their pieces would be twice as good half as long, so you might expect me to favor the shorts over the longs. But I generally preferred my writers to give me too much rather than not enough. Unless they gave me too much, how could I glean the proper context of their reporting? Unless they delivered facts and narrative in surplus, how could I decide what was important and was dross?

When editors ask reporters to file shorter, they’re also asking reporters to relieve them of the hard work of assessing each story on its merits. Should it be expanded? Or reduced to a photo caption? Sometimes when editors tell me to write shorter, I later learn they’ve made that call because they don’t know the first thing about the topic and are too lazy or pressed for time to know what they really want. When that happens, and you file at the requested word-length, it’s not uncommon for them to come back and ask why this subject and that subject weren’t covered in the piece. If editors were serious about shorter copy, which often takes more effort than longer stuff, they’d give their reporters more time. But I expect few editors to embrace that suggestion.

Entertainment and enlightenment come in S, M, L, XL, and XXL. Only a fool or a rotten tailor would insist on dressing his clientele in something too tight.

******

And not speaking for all the people who are wrong on this topic, I bring on Michael Kinsley, who campaigned for shorter newspaper articles in 2010. Start a letter writing campaign with email to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. I am ashamed to say that my Twitter messages never exceed 140 characters. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTOS: Employees work in the Reuters newsroom in the Canary Wharf district of London May 4 2007. REUTERS/Simon Newman/Files

A Los Angeles Times newspaper vending box is shown in front of the Times building in Los Angeles, California December 8, 2008.  REUTERS/Fred Prouser

 

 

3 comments

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I would think there is also some high tech research in this decision too. Page view times are a common metric in web site analysis. Many of todays people want quick short pieces that are little more than expanded headlines. They are trying to read them on the go on a small device. So demand is there for these short pieces.

I think if Reuters is shortening the real articles for the convenience of it’s customers, its actually doing them all a disfavor. A longer story edited down produces many variations of the story, not just a simple reprint that is on every site and paper. A form of diversity I guess. Shows how cheap their customers are by not wanting to hire people to edit too.

I also believe that the “news” reporters and journalists are being pointed in the entertainment direction as it appears more profitable. And I’m sure it is. But how many “National Enquirers” do we really need. Eventually enough of you will leave behind real reporting that someone will try a start up that really does deliver “news” as no one will be left in the market space. Not a big enough margin for MSM, but plenty for a start-up or small business. I just wish they’d hurry up as I’m really tired of looking at twenty news sources and getting the exact same stories on all of them. What’s the point?

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

that would be News McNuggets…..what kind of sauce would you like with that…details at eleven….

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

Having read the directive, I tend to agree with it. I prefer longer articles that have interesting insights or commentary, or that have information that isn’t generally known or available. When those aren’t present, however, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of reason for a long article. Missing context seems best provided by links or pointers to other sources, allowing the reader to choose how much depth she wants to go into to appreciate the article.

That said, I’m not sure 500 words (or any hard cutoff like it) is the best approach, but it’s certainly easier to understand (and judge) for the writer, as well as the editor, and thus less prone to arguments after the fact (as opposed to before the fact, like this article ;).

Posted by ron_post | Report as abusive