Last Tuesday The Post published eight pieces involving the situation in the Gulf. They took up roughly two of the 72 pages of the newspaper and ran to about 5,000 words or so.
Happenings in the Gulf are of great significance; we may soon be at war. But the Tuesday stories conveyed no hair-raising or memorable news: the stalemate continued, Congress agreed to a debate on future U.S. policy, a new poll tested public opinion and so on. I read the congressional piece, skimmed the poll data and glanced at the other stuff. It didn't seem vital to eat, in a manner of speaking, the whole thing.
I was assisted by the editors of the paper. They had prepared and published ina prominent place on the front page a pertinent and well-crafted 100-word summary of the day's developments. The following day, when the Gulf report (11 stories) ran to 9,400 words, we got another helpful summary.
Of greater significance, one hopes, was the average length of those stories. It was 625 words on Jan. 8 -- a third fewer than the verbiage in this column. On Jan. 9, the 11-story average was 850 words, a number inflated by the longest and in some ways mushiest of the lot -- 1,700 words on the arrival in Geneva of the American secretary of state and the Iraqi foreign minister. Even with that epic, the brevity of these stories by Post standards was remarkable.
It may be the start of something good: a conscious effort to help the readers of this excellent newspaper deal more easily with the torrent of words, pictures, charts and statistical data that inundates them each day of the year.
You might regard such efforts as too banal to record. But within the narrow little world of journalism, they are symbolic of a continuing controversy that last week drew the attention of both The Post and The New York Times.
Americans by the millions have abandoned or never acquired the habit of reading a daily newspaper. Our "market share" has dropped by 50 percent since 1950. That is a far more drastic loss of customers than American car manufacturers have suffered in the same period. We have bloviated ad nauseam about the incompetence of Ford, Chevy and American manufacturing in general. But, unlike newspaperdom, they at least have the excuse of Asian and European competition. We, on the other hand, enjoy local newspaper monopolies in 98 percent of the cities in this country; nationally, we are an ologopolistic industry, pampered by the trust-busters. Our remaining customers and readers give us at best no more than 30 minutes a day of their time. So a question naturally arises: Why are we in this fix?
Our response, as usual, has been chaotic and often incoherent. There is a faction, radicalized by fear, that would alter the nature of the beast by placing a major emphasis on its entertainment rather than its informational function. Conservative Establishmentarians, on the other hand, would do nothing but pity and pray for the vulgar masses who lack the intelligence and wit to appreciate the 30-foot Cadillacs with monstrous fins we offer them in the marketplace. They seem not to realize what a formidable task it is to consume and dispose of these large newspapers. It would take 18 years for the average 30-minute-a-day customer to read one year's output of The Post.
It is not possible to create a perfect match between our daily offerings and the time and interests of our readers. It may be impossible to convert the fallen-away masses into born-again fans and buyers. But it is certainly possible to make a better and more appealing newspaper.
A way to begin is to not reinvent the wheel but to improve the editing and writing of the newspapers we have. There is an idiotic notion in the minds of many otherwise intelligent journalists that "in-depth" length and quality are synonymous, that to be succinct is to be shallow, that brevity is a venal sin.
The reverse is often true, as a newsroom ancient once put it: "I wrote long; there wasn't time to write short." Any mediocrity can string together three yards of words with the Milquetoast acquiescence of incompetent editors lacking the ability or will to cut, slash and reorganize. That has been a problem at The Post for years.
In these leaner economic times, less space is available to those who would daily replicate "War and Peace." This is an opportunity for our newsroom managers. If they seize it they will make better papers, and we will call them by a better name: