The 500-word universe? Globe and Mail bucks trend with 5,000-word feature

credit: Pixelbliss

credit: Pixelbliss

“Citius – Altius – Fortius” — faster, higher, stronger — is the motto of the Olympics. But reporters are fearing that journalism’s new motto is “Citius – Brevius – Debilius” (faster, shorter, weaker) since the wire services Associated Press (AP) and Reuters each sent memos earlier this month to staff urging directing them to keep their stories short. Very short.

The edicts had mixed reviews among journalists, but many lamented the shortening, over-simplifying and loss of autonomy they represent.

Brian Carovillano, AP’s managing editor for U.S. news, said most stories should be 300 to 500 words. In a memo running just under 480 words (and reproduced on a Washington Post blog), he outlined the policy:

  • “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).”

Reuters America editor Dayan Candappa told his staff to keep most stories under 500 words — but he took nearly 1,200 words to explain it.

Carovillano’s explanation went like this: Neither AP’s regional desk editors nor its customers have the resources to cut “bloated mid-level copy,”  especially with shrinking news holes. Digital customers know readers don’t have the attention span for most long stories and “are in fact turned off when they are too long.” And writing overlong stories gives an advantage to  less wordy competitors.

Oddly, Candappa, in a Q&A included in the memo, said that no, “specialized stories” aren’t so complex that they require a lot of background for nonspecialist readers.

“Most specialized stories are for an expert readership and don’t require a lot of context and explanatory material,” he wrote. “A truly exceptional specialist story that has broader appeal will be allowed extra length.”

If there’s a need to include extra information, journalists should “think about other ways of connecting customers to the information,” he added. “If it’s available on the Internet, just add a link to the source material or website. If it’s not, consider a quick ‘factbox’ that can be used repeatedly. The economics team routinely produces extensive ‘highlights’ with direct quotes from policy makers, which provide the essentials more effectively than a narrative can.”

What happened to ‘write what it’s worth’?

In their memos, neither service offered much room for negotiation. The AP memo said reporters and editors should negotiate story length at the outset — and stick to it.

“That all sounds grim,” said Washington Post blogger Eric Wemple. “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.”

Washington Post writer Paul Farhi concluded his 301-word story on the AP/Reuters policies saying, “Yes, speed and brevity are more valuable than ever in the digital age. But this raises another question: As stories get shorter, do readers end up missing something impor” (Yes, that was the end of the story.)

It’s true that nothing is as pleasing to read as a piece of writing in which no word is wasted. And it’s true that it takes longer to write short, tight copy, while it takes less time to write longer, unedited, untightened articles. (And actually it was Blaise Pascal, and not Mark Twain, who first observed that. In a letter written in 1656, Pascal wrote, “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte,” or “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”)

But  journalists have always been told to “write what (a story) is worth,” and sometimes stories are worth more than 500 or even 750 words.

The story started on the first page of the Saturday Globe‘s Focus section, and turned inside to another full page. And turned again! But it didn’t ‘read’ long.

And on Saturday, the Globe and Mail let feature writer Craig Offman do just that with a 5,000-word piece about an experimental stroke drug. Actually, it was a profile of Toronto neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Tymianski, a catalogue of failures in developing neuroprotective drugs for stroke leading to a “nuclear winter of stroke research,” and then a thorough discussion of the development of NA-1, a drug that had encouraging results in trials with mice and non-human primates as well as a small human study. A larger clinical trial is scheduled to begin in January of the drug that Dr. Tymianski helped to develop and for which he raised $30-million in private funding.

The story started on the first page of the Saturday Globe‘s Focus section, and turned inside to another full page.

And turned again!

I decided to slog through it all because I’d previously written about development of the drug — but the feature didn’t “read” long.

It may have taken me a titch longer than the posted 17 minutes to read, but no matter. It was a good piece and a good read.

I checked the story online and found that it was about 5,000 words — 10 times as long as Reuters and AP said most stories (even “specialist” stories) should be. But the online story carried a … what was it? a caveat? an enticement? … a note that said, “Reading time: 17 minutes.”

I contacted Sylvia Stead, the Globe‘s public editor, and asked why the “reading time” was posted.

She emailed back (and explained in a post of her own), “The editors tell me it is a new feature to help readers because this piece is a single page as opposed to a series of paginated page numbers at the bottom.

“You will see this piece also includes a magazine style layout organized by chapters, information graphics such as the different types of strokes and embedded video and so it is useful to have an idea of the time you will need to invest.”

I’m not sure how long it took me to read the piece on Saturday — it may have been a titch longer than 17 minutes, but no matter. It was a good piece and a good read. I didn’t even notice that it ran on a single web page when I re-read it there later. But I did notice that it was packaged more like a magazine article.

“I understand the Reuters imperative to have shorter stories for many news pieces,” Stead added. “It takes real skill to write short intriguing pieces that don’t waste the readers’ time. However, there also needs to be room for such important indepth pieces as this one.”~TM


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