By Deborah Howell
Sunday, March 11, 2007
How long should a newspaper story be? Long enough to tell readers what they want to know, short enough not to waste their time and thorough enough not to leave them wanting.
While readers seldom write to complain about story length, the subject is endlessly debated in The Post's newsroom. Top editors think too many stories go on for too long -- and that doesn't help the newspaper win or keep readers. "No time to read" is among the biggest reasons readers cancel their subscriptions.
Executive Editor Len Downie and Managing Editor Phil Bennett sent out a memo Feb. 28 setting guidelines for story length with this philosophy: "Every story must earn every inch."
Story length is an issue not only at The Post but also at other papers where belts are being tightened. A newspaper's two greatest expenses are salaries and newsprint. The space devoted to news -- "newshole," as it's called -- is a precious commodity.
The length of a story is not necessarily a measure of its importance, but it can be. The first story about the 1972 burglary at the Watergate complex was about 45 inches long -- long by the new standards. The coverage of conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center was much longer, and readers are still responding in droves.
Keeping stories short doesn't always sit well with reporters. And in the world of journalism, it is most often the lengthy projects that win big prizes. My awakening on this came 20 years ago while watching a woman in a newspaper focus group break into tears because she didn't have time to read her newspaper; she dropped her subscription to rid herself of the guilt.
There are basically three kinds of news stories: the daily breaking story; the analysis, profile or critique; and the longer project story, usually an investigation or a narrative feature. The sometimes-frantic rush to deadline every night and the space available for news are often the main drivers on daily story length. If it's a minute to deadline, the story goes as is.
Longer stories are often referred to as "long-form" journalism; they are planned and space is set aside for them. But those stories have to deserve their length. An important story, if it moves quickly, has to catch and hold readers' attention through a continuation off Page A1 or a section's front page.
Even though longer stories may be among the best in the paper, the number of them in a daily paper can be overwhelming. There may be a long story or two on the front page, others in the National and World News pages, and more on the Metro, Style and Sports covers. On Sundays, there also may be long pieces in Outlook and the Magazine. Even if the pieces are all compelling, readers will pick one, or maybe none, to read all the way through.
No newspaper has unlimited space. Some newspapers, such as USA Today, and tabloids, such as the New York Daily News or Newsday, publish fewer longer stories. But The Post and many other newspapers take pride in investigative and project stories that often run long and over several days. These stories are the ones that often have the biggest impact on readers -- and most cannot be told in short form.
But reading newspapers has to compete with life. If you're rushing off to work in the morning or getting children to school, there's little chance you're going to give The Post a full read until lunchtime or at night.
While readers may be busy, they still want the paper to contain what they want to read, and one reader's interest is unlike another's. The ombudsman always hears when sports scores are missing, when there's no story about the big fire down the street, and when a national or international story is in some other newspaper but not in The Post.
Some stories end up being too brief. Chevy Chase reader S.J. Deitchman had a point when he wrote recently: "One of my complaints [is] the compression of interesting stories into few-line squibs that are just teasers. . . . The first one, what with the arguments about expanding effort in Iraq at the same time that the situation in Afghanistan is coming apart, merited a front-page story. As to the second, it sure would have been nice to know why someone would have attacked Elie Wiesel." The two briefs, in full:
· OTTAWA -- NATO's military mission to Afghanistan is in trouble and has little chance of success unless the alliance commits significantly more resources, a report by the Canadian Senate said.
· MONTGOMERY TOWNSHIP, N.J. -- Police arrested a man accused of roughing up Nobel laureate and Holocaust scholar Elie Wiesel, 78, at a San Francisco hotel this month, authorities said.
Journalists need to think first of readers and how much information they need and of the totality of the newspaper as it lands on readers' doorsteps. Post reporters and editors will concentrate on the right length, the right amount of background and context. That's not as easy as it sounds. It's easier to write longer than shorter.
Editors are the ultimate arbiters of story length. There are two main criteria -- a story's importance to readers and a narrative strength that makes it impossible to put down.
Washingtonpost.com also is open to experiments in this vein. Links from columns and stories can give readers much more information on the Web than there is room for in the paper. Associate Editor Robert Kaiser started a 27-part (27-part!) series on superlobbyist Gerald S.J. Cassidy with a long piece on Page 1 last Sunday. The last installment will be in the paper on April 8. The other 25 pieces will appear only on the Web.
As always, I'd like to hear your opinions on this subject.
Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.