Michael Kinsley and the length of newspaper articles

January 5, 2010

KinsleyPeople are abandoning print newspapers because the articles are too long. That’s what journalist Michael Kinsley says in The Atlantic. Here is his opening paragraph: “One reason seekers of news are abandoning print newspapers for the Internet has nothing directly to do with technology. It’s that newspaper articles are too long. On the Internet, news articles get to the point.”

It might be more than that.

Editors often say that different kinds of stories must conform to length restrictions. At many print news outlets, editors cut stories to fit into allotted spaces. Other times they commission more words for the same reason. That’s artificial. The way to determine length is to figure out how much room the story needs. Most stories need few words; Twitter tweets are good enough for some. Some stories need tons of words and tons of space. Some stories can be one or the other, depending on how many layers of the story you want to display. The only thing to do is ruthlessly prune that wood. If you end up with bonsai, so be it. If you end up with a sequoia, that might be because it’s what the story demands.

Kinsley hits on the real problem elsewhere in his 1,800-word essay: Certain journalism writing conventions add unnecessary words to stories, which in turn makes them too long. (Reuters editors see stories that exceed 500 or 600 words as indistinguishable from “Gravity’s Rainbow.”)

Those conventions include useless comments from outside experts to lend an appearance of objectivity to the story as well as context that isn’t really context. One example he uses comes from a New York Times story that is shorter than his essay:

Handing President Obama a hard-fought victory, the House narrowly approved a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system on Saturday night, advancing legislation that Democrats said could stand as their defining social policy achievement.

It’s a fair point, especially when Kinsley’s desire is to find out WHAT HAPPENED, never mind the this-and-that of political chess and so much blah blah blah. But the kind of writing he attacks would irk him at 200 words — or 2,000.

The root of the problems he has are with the architectural approach to news that so many journalists and journalism professors have touted over the years: “inverted pyramids” of news presentation, “kickers,” and other modular design elements that newsies can use like building blocks to assemble a story like you would assemble a car. Too many journalists learn to treat quasi-scientific approaches to doing the news as gospel, which means that too many things that work well in some circumstances don’t work in others — but get used anyway.

No matter if you’re a two-paragraph breaking-news writer at Reuters or if you’re John McPhee in the throes of your fifth book in a series about the decline of stick-shift drivers in Pennsylvania, the facts and the narrative count more than anything else. Tell those stories well and give them the length that you deserve, and someone is bound to read you to the end.

Kinsley makes one other point that struck me: “On the Internet, news articles get to the point.” Yes, and in newspapers, many articles do the same thing. The best ones know that you learned what happened yesterday and give you more today. And on the Internet, many articles are atrocious reads too. It’s not the medium, it’s the writing quality. Writing can stink wherever you publish it, and at the risk of saying it again, at whatever length it appears.

Finally, newspaper story length appears to be decreasing. That’s what I’ve seen from my years covering the news about the news, though I admit that I have no proof. At The Wall Street Journal, it’s one of Rupert Murdoch’s diktats to the reporters and editors. I know of no evidence that says story length decreases are producing more subscribers. Certainly at many other papers, this is not happening. Circulation is falling because people can get stuff online for free whenever they want — at any length. No more focus groups dedicated to changing the composition of print stories will change that.

PS, Not counting this postscript, it took me 693 words to write this blog post. By any blog reader’s standards, that’s probably too long.

PPS, John McPhee didn’t write five books about stick shift. He did, however, write four books about geology that are lots of fun even if you don’t care about geology. That’s why many writers are jealous of John McPhee: You care despite your lack of interest and his lack of regard for brevity.


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[…] MacMillan, writing for Reuters, takes almost 700 words to argue that there is lots of lousy, and long, writing on the Internet, […]

Posted by Short, shorter, shortest! | Peter Kafka | MediaMemo | AllThingsD | Report as abusive

Well, you can post a short and sweet story at http://storyburn.com; Read about a crazy job hunting effort in New York or a foreclosure story for the ages

Posted by voomies | Report as abusive

Nowadays technology of electronic information gives us an opportunity to show only the brief abstract of the article. If the abstract will be interesting for the user – he will click for the entire long article.

Posted by annamazur | Report as abusive

There are some of us who are entering a post-twitter phase of newsreading, who have learnt to appreciate the more in depth and grounded reporting only a journalist and 1000 word plus article can offer.

Reliable and thorough newsreporting will never go out of fashion.

Posted by Aleksandros | Report as abusive

[…] Robert MacMillan at Reuters’ MediaFile blog chimed in with this observation: Kinsley makes one other point that struck me: “On the Internet, news arti­cles get to the point.” Yes, and in news­pa­pers, many arti­cles do the same thing. The best ones know that you learned what hap­pened yes­ter­day and give you more today. And on the Internet, many arti­cles are atro­cious reads too. It’s not the medium, it’s the writ­ing qual­ity. Writing can stink wher­ever you pub­lish it, and at the risk of say­ing it again, at what­ever length it appears. […]

Posted by On Michael Kinsley’s short news ideas and being continued | Hypercrit | Report as abusive

[…] think Reuters’ Robert MacMillan hits on it the best, though: What Kinsley really has a problem with is not length, but bad writing that’s […]

Posted by This week in media musings: Tablet madness, and ideas for Sunday talk shows | Mark Coddington | Report as abusive

Print is being abandoned in favour of the internet for many reasons
* Time – News is picked up on the net so much quicker now, stories hardly break in newspapers, people read the news on there phone now
* Evolution – Print has to combine their efforts off and online so the online mechanisms still push to print where people can gain some form of exclusivity http://www.ivoryresearch.com had to implement a social media strategy to engage people more, basically you have to work hard to reach all of the masses
* Quality of Writing – engaging, thought provoking can many editors say that the articles that they approve are any of these?
* Free press – in the UK we have free newspapers handed out at train stations which means a huge circ and brands wanting to get there advertising in there does this make the quality of the paper better knowing that more people will be reading or more brands will pay more money. Either way the quality is there regardless!!

Posted by ivoryresearch | Report as abusive