The long and short of it

2010-01-07 00:00

PEOPLE 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 Thomas Pynchon’s 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 [Barack] 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 still get used.

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 manual-car drivers in Pennsylvania, the facts and the narrative count more than anything else. Tell those stories well and give them the length that they 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 learnt 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, although 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. More focus groups dedicated to changing the composition of print stories will not change that. — Reuters.

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