Alan Mutter makes a point that I’ve been hearing editors make most of my career: Most newspaper stories are too long.
I’m sure he’s right. But some newspaper stories are too short. And story length is way down the list of problems facing the newspaper business.
I remember when I was at the Des Moines Register, Jim Gannon, who I believe was executive editor at the time, decreed that no story could be longer than he was tall. He was 5’10”, as I recall, so a story couldn’t be longer than 70 inches. 70 inches! Register reporters were writing so long that Gannon’s idea of introducing some discipline was to limit stories to 70 inches (and newspaper columns were wider then than they are today).
When I was at the Kansas City Times, Editor Joe McGuff tried to hold stories to no more than 35 inches. But, he assured us (when President Ronald Reagan was in the news for defying Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi‘s “Line of Death” in the Gulf of Sidra) the limit was not a line of death; reporters could exceed it if they made the case to McGuff and got permission for a particular story.
At various times, editors have restricted jumps from page one, either forbidding them entirely or limiting them to one or two stories a day.
I support Mutter, Gannon, McGuff and lots of editors past and present in their quest to introduce more discipline in journalists’ writing. I freely acknowledge that many of my blog posts run too long, without the limited space of print and without editors to help me trim an extraneous word here and a redundant paragraph there.
But frankly, the problem and the challenge (whether in my blog or in a newspaper or on a news website) is not how long the story is, but whether it’s worth the length. I can’t recall ever getting more reader response than I did from two stories that were 70 inches (about the rescue of twins who nearly froze) and 200 inches long (about four people in a famous photograph of a World War II homecoming). Those stories didn’t work because readers want long stories. They connected with readers because they were two of the best stories of my career and people enjoy reading good stories however long they are.
Good stories don’t have to be long. I’m not sure either the twins story or the homecoming story were as good as Roy Wenzl‘s mystery child story or Brady Dennis‘ “After the sky fell” story, neither of which would top 20 inches in most newspapers. The length of a story isn’t what matters; it’s how well the story connects with readers.
Longreads and Grantland are carving out their digital niches based on their faith in people’s interest in long, well-written stories. The Atlantic doesn’t shy from presenting long stories that are worth the time to read. I’m confident that journalists and news organizations will continue writing good, long stories at the same time as newspapers fill their precious dwindling space with too many long stories that don’t merit the space.
I absolutely support Mutter’s call to tell stories with tables, charts, infographics and other tools when those are more appropriate storytelling tools than strings of paragraphs. The New York Times Snowfall project engaged readers successfully by using words and multimedia tools effectively. So did Gene Weingarten’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Pearls Before Breakfast, which deftly inserted video clips into the text of a long narrative.
We have lots of data about how well stories connect. We know which stories readers are most likely to share with their friends and which they read for long times and which they skim quickly. We should learn from that data and try to write the types of stories that people are going to want to read and share. That’s way more important than worrying about how long or short a story is.