A Few Words About...

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 2, 2007; 8:42 AM

Do stories in The Washington Post go on and on and on, some would say endlessly, some would say pointlessly, some would say no problem because they have nothing better to do, or is the sudden concern by the paper's two top editors, who have a lot of power to change things, even though the staff has been resistant to such edicts in the past, somehow misplaced?

The editors have written a long memo, which leaked before it came off the printer, urging Post writers to write with fewer words, sentences and paragraphs, and, for crying out loud, get to the point.

I will (briefly, concisely, I promise) weigh in on this, but here's part of what Executive Editor Len Downie and Managing Editor Phil Bennett had to say to the staff (truncated in accordance with the new guidelines):

"For too long we've confused length with importance. Often the result has been stories that readers don't want to finish and displays in the newspaper that don't do our journalism justice. We have decided to take a more disciplined approach to story lengths . . . "

The guidelines:

"A small event, or an incremental development worth noting can be a digest item. The digests are important for readers.

"A day story, significant enough to write for our readers but based on one event or development -- 6 to 15 inches. We frequently end up with 12-inch holes in the paper. Let's use them to the best advantage.

"A single event with multiple layers or levels of information, 18 to 24 inches.

"A more complex news feature of ambition and altitude -- 25-35 inches.

"Major enterprise, involving in-depth reporting or narrative story telling -- 40 to 50 inches.

"Extraordinary long-form narrative or investigation, magazine-type stories -- 60 to 80 inches or, rarely, more."

My two cents: Lots of stories in The Post (and other newspapers) are too long. Readers are busy, and sometimes we're too self-absorbed to remember that. I've argued for a long time that journalists write too many incremental stories for their sources and often think only secondarily about readers. Everyone on this staff agrees that routine stories, as opposed to in-depth narratives or big projects, need to be shorter. The problem is most of them think that stories in their area are vital and everyone else's are routine.


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