Monday, January 28, 2013

Most newspaper stories are still too long

The news cognoscenti gasped when the Columbia Journalism Review recently reported that the nation’s leading newspapers aren’t writing as many long stories as they used to. But I think most stories are still way too windy.
In a moment, I’ll tell you why, as briefly as I can. First the background: 
Tallying yarns topping 2,000 words on Factiva, CJR found the number of long-form stories at the Los Angeles Times dropped by 86% between 2003 and 2012.  In the same period, stories of similar heft fell by 50% at the Washington Post, 35% at the Wall Street Journal and 25% at the New York Times.
“When it comes to stories longer than 3,000 words, three papers showed even sharper declines,” said CJR. The number of super-sized stories dropped everywhere but the NYT, which actually had a 32% increase in articles of 3,000 words or more.  Remember the epic Snowfall?
The reasons for what CJR called a “meltdown in long-form journalism are well known:  Skinnier news holes, shrinking staffs and more digital chores for slimmed-down staffs to perform – 24/7, if you please. 
But the constraints of the modern publishing business actually may be a bad thing that’s a good thing for newspapers laboring to sustain their relevance and utility for the time-constrained multi-taskers also known as their remaining readers.
With all due respect to my colleagues and friends in the business, newspapers are written by journalists for journalists, who not only love their words but also tend to equate the length of a story with the importance of the subject, if not the writers themselves.

Back in the day, words often were the only way to tell a story.  In the digital production era, however, there are superior ways to tell stories in print, too – and to sustain reader engagement by making the most of the 20 minutes per day that the average reader spends with a newspaper. Here’s what I mean:
Many stories can be told better in charts, pictures or infographics than in the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of words that tend to be the go-to medium for most newspaper journalists. When the story is about a new public opinion poll about gun control, I jump straight to the tables  that tell me who’s for it and who's not. When trying to wade through a complex investigation of corruption among the political elite in China, I find it easier to follow the money in the infographic than reading columns of gray prose. And what could have been more eloquent than the blank spot on the sports front in the New York Times (illustrated above) on the day no one was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame? 
Newspapers tend to blow valuable column inches on the details of events that everyone already has seen on television.  Watching the inauguration, I was struck by the legions of producers, reporters and cameramen covering the same story in the same way with the  same live video feed. On the morning after the event, most newspapers acted as though their readers, who are exactly the sort of people who would have watched the ceremony on TV or the web, had been in a coma for the prior 24 hours.  While journalists by all means should have been seeking to identify fresh angles, generate new insights or get ahead of the story, that’s generally not what we got. 
Newspapers squander ink and tax our patience by providing extensive background on running stories where not much has happened from day to day.  Casualty tolls from Syria, political feuding in the Statehouse, economic aftershocks in Greece, procedural wrangling in a long-running trial and insignificant developments in the search for Middle East peace often top full-dress stories filled with nothing but the yadda-yadda of weeks-old background. When I hit the A-matter, I stop reading. I doubt I am the only one. On the other hand, I read every one of the 722 words in this piece.  
We know reporters write long to justify the time they put into a story and to elevate its importance, as well as their own.  (I did it myself.) And editors run the pieces for the same reasons.  (I did, too.) But no one has time for this self-indulgence any more.
The way for editors to make the most of the scarce resources available to them is to be as economical with the time of their readers as they can be.  If it takes 2,000 words to tell a story, let it rip.  If a daylong assignment turns out to be worth only a brief, then so be it. 
Now, in the interests of brevity, I will stop. 


Blogger Phone & Email said...

Interesting theory. But let me tell you about my experience. I run an online news site in Philadelphia and in the beginning (2009) I decided that long was so yesterday. I limited pieces to 2400 words and declared that I would run no more than 800 each day. The result, as measured by Google analytics, was that while readership for Part One was robust, it dropped off significantly for Part Two and dropped to nothing for Part Three.
It didn't help that I edited in Hardy Boy endings for each piece to get the reader to advance (as in chapters that ended: "And then a shot rang out...")
I then decided to run two parts of no more than 1,200 words each. Again, Part One got lots of readership. Part Two fell off dramatically.
Then I decided the hell with it. I started to run one-part Cover Stories of about 2,400 with breakers (i.e. subheads and art).
I thought no one would read that much, but Google analytics told me I was wrong: avg time on each of the longer stories rose -- to 5 to 6 minutes per story (an eternity on web time). Now, I tried to make the stories move quickly. I rarely if ever went past 2,400 (though my writers routinely turned in 3,000-3,500-word pieces. In short, much to my surprise, the gambit worked: longer was better if it ran in one part.
I am not disputing your assertion about long, long stories. In my day in print, I was guilty of writing multi-part investigative series of 3,000+ words each.
I am just saying that my readers, at least, seem up to consuming 2,400 words pieces at one sitting.
Without gagging.
-- Tom Ferrick/Philadelphia Metropolis

6:44 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Alan, you are going to get a lot of heat on this blog entry!

My concern with your position is that is paints long form journalism with a pretty broad brush. A 2000+ word story is only too long if:
1. The subject is INHERENTLY "light" (like the story you cited about the NYC policeman who donated a pair of shoes to a homeless man)
2. The writing is bad, in which case even a short article would be painful
3. The story is simply not interesting to the reader.

The first two cases can be fixed with good writing and effective editorial control. The third case should not be a blanket indictment against long form journalism as the long story in question may be of passionate interest to some, if not all readers.

I think it would be a grave mistake to pass a blanket edict that newspapers should avoid long form journalism.

While other media have made an art form of sound bite information, where are readers supposed to go get thoroughly reported news, with insight, nuance and balance? Taking a quick glance at a chart may be adequate for some topics, but in others, its important to know how the information was gathered, who did the analysis, etc.

So in the end, it comes down to effective editorial control to determine which stories warrant detailed reporting and coverage.

I agree that self-serving lengthy manifestos on light subjects or heavily covered old news is tedious. But tightly controlling article length, even for complex, nascent but important topics would render newspapers undifferentiated from other sound bite news outlets. This would be a death knell for newspapers.

Frankly, if all I were interested in were sound bite news, I rather get it from Buzzfeed, CNN or Twitter than a day old newspaper.

Fortunately, I still can access insightful long form journalism on important topics in some of our best newspapers.

6:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alan, you make good points, but length of stories is not nearly as important as quality. A story that holds and engages readers can run quite long. We need to write more stories that engage readers, however long those stories need to be. I've blogged a response here:

6:39 AM  
Blogger John said...

I agree with much of what you say. Nevertheless, it's also true that in an effort to write short (or out of simple laziness), journalists also often leave their readers with the false impression that a complex subject is straightforward and shallow. I think your blog post is also guilty of that. Note also that some of the posts above reflect a misreading of your piece. Perhaps if you had not tried to write short, but had been more careful in unfolding your argument, these misreadings might not have happened.

6:56 AM  
Blogger John said...

I agree with much of what you say. Nevertheless, I think it is also true that in an effort to write short (or out of sheer laziness) journalists often create the impression that complex subjects are actually simple and straightforward. I think your blog post is guilty of that. Note also that some of the comments reflect a misreading of your piece. Perhaps if you had taken more space to explain your argument this wouldn't have happened. Of course, in doing so, you would have risked disproving your point.

7:00 AM  

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