Citing a “sea of bloated mid-level copy,” Associated Press Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano last week instructed fellow editors at the wire service to limit most “daily, bylined digest stories” to a length of between 300 and 500 words. Top stories from each state, Carovillano directed, should hit the 500 to 700-word range, and the “top global stories” may exceed 700 words but must still be “tightly written and edited.”

Carovillano’s memo itself references the driving force behind the limits: “Our members do not have the resources to trim the excess to fit shrinking news holes,” notes the editor.

Paul Colford, a spokesman for AP, notes that a “common concern” among AP members and subscribers is that stories are too long. In recent months, says Colford, the wire service has been trimming stories in Europe and the outcome has been “successful.”

For context, consider that the AP produces 2,000 stories per day (2013 output). The stories affected by the Carovillano memo cover the majority of stories produced for both state and global audiences, says Colford. However, those constraints don’t apply to the royalty in AP’s investigative division, who aren’t bound by the directive.

There are 1,400 daily U.S. newspapers that make up the AP cooperative, not to mention a number of radio stations, TV stations and web-based news properties such as Yahoo and MSN.

Here are a few additional motivations for the story-length directive, per Carovillano’s memo:

We are failing to exercise important news judgment when our stories are overlong and not tightly edited;
We give our competitors an opening to make inroads with our members and subscribers when our stories are too long;
Our digital customers know readers do not have the attention span for most long stories and are in fact turned off when they are too long;
Our regional desk editors are spending a lot of time cutting stories; they can give better, more comprehensive, faster-to-the-wire edits to stories that are more tightly written.

Carovillano urges his people to take the following steps to implement brevity:

– The reporter and editor should have a discussion about the appropriate length of stories at the outset of reporting — and stick to it;
– Consider using alternative story forms either to break out details from longer stories, or in lieu of a traditional text story.

That all sounds grim. Sticking to a predetermined story length short-shrifts the whole idea of reporting — namely, that you discover various wrinkles that a full and comprehensive report demands.

Pleas for extra space, though, may not find a receptive audience: “We will be closely monitoring story lengths across state and national lines to make sure we are all living up to this commitment,” writes Carovillano in his memo.

Credit Carovillano for this: His memo is only 476 words long, as is this lean, analysis-starved blog post.

Full Memo:

Folks,

As promised at the end of our Monday talk on story lengths, here are some guidelines to establish target lengths for different types of stories.

In the U.S. regions, we will aim to stick to these guidelines. Other regions and departments may have slightly different ranges depending on the needs of their primary audiences. These are ours.
Most daily, bylined digest stories: 300-500 words
The top 1-2 stories in each state: 500-700 words
The very top global stories of the day, at or near the top of the the digest: 700+ (but still tightly written and edited)
While I’m sure everyone can think of exceptions, these guidelines should cover the vast majority of stories that we produce for both state and global audiences.

Here are two keys to successful execution:

– The reporter and editor should have a discussion about the appropriate length of stories at the outset of reporting — and stick to it;
– Consider using alternative story forms either to break out details from longer stories, or in lieu of a traditional text story.

And to summarize the key points of Monday’s discussion, our members and subscribers are clearly and near-unanimously sending the message that our text stories need to be tighter.

There are several good reasons to do something about this, and to do it now, including but not limited to:
1. Our best work does not stand out among a sea of bloated mid-level copy;
2. Our members do not have the resources to trim the excess to fit shrinking news holes;
3. We are failing to exercise important news judgment when our stories are overlong and not tightly edited;
4. We give our competitors an opening to make inroads with our members and subscribers when our stories are too long;
5. Our digital customers know readers do not have the attention span for most long stories and are in fact turned off when they are too long;
6. Our regional desk editors are spending a lot of time cutting stories; they can give better, more comprehensive, faster-to-the-wire edits to stories that are more tightly written.
Because we all have a stake in keeping the AP essential to its clients, we are counting on all of you to put this into effect. And it must – must – be a sustained effort and not something that comes and goes. We will be closely monitoring story lengths across state and national lines to make sure we are all living up to this commitment.

So please start having these conversations with your staffs and putting these guidelines into effect.

In the coming days, We’ll be sharing some great examples of tight writing and creative story formats, and also we’ll be arranging some training and guidance on best practices for tighter writing and editing.

Meanwhile, please come ahead with any comments, questions, concerns ….

Best,

BC

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.
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