Thursday, April 21, 2011

Asbury Park | On tight stories, and charticles

The following memo was sent to Asbury Park Press newsroom staffers yesterday:

Sent: Wednesday, April 20, 2011 11:40 AM
Subject: story lengths
Importance: High

Stories need to be more tightly written -- no more than 10-14" for most local news and features, 15-18" for A1 CPs (per Hollis and Gary). There are, of course, exceptions -- today's fire story, for example, and the more in-depth Sunday stories.

Let reporters know they need to write tighter, but can use breakouts, charticles, sidebars -- even info graphics if possible -- to help tell the story when needed.

Basically, we want fewer long, gray columns in the paper and more layers to break it up and give readers easily digested chunks of info in breakouts. I don't want reporters writing 25+" only to have an editor have to cut it to 12" later or on deadline.

Got a memo? Please post your replies in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, write jimhopkins[at]gmail[dot-com]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the rail, upper right.


  1. Sounds reasonable to me. Of course, I work at USA Today.

    Writing short is harder than writing long.

  2. Good thinking. Give readers less in-depth reporting and more surface-level blabber, making your newspaper more and more like the broadcast outlets you're competing with.

    Gannett has been pushing this philosophy for years and look at what it's done to subscription levels. Can't these guys see that making your product more like the competition (only without the competition's main selling point -- audio and video ) you are making yourself irrelevant.

    Sorry, but one or two in-depth stories a day won't convince me to pay good money to subscribe to a paper.

  3. Oh, please. Nowhere does this say there will be less depth reporting. A good idea, because as we all know, that precious sewer board story often can be done in 4" rather than 26".

  4. I remember seeing that same memo circulate through Gannett newsrooms in the mid-1980s. Not sure what is new or newsworthy about this particular note?

  5. I see this a different way. I DON'T ever read newspapers in print -- I youngish and don't like gray on newsprint. I love to read my newspaper stories online. I can see why a newspaper reader might get disturbed with "gray" but I have found that I usually want more story when I am reading online with the exceptions of magazines, where I find myself with an opposite approach. Why don't they have the reporters write their stories longer (for the web) then have the reporter/writer edit it down to 12 inches for print? Certainly, that would make the editors happy and it would give people with a greater interest in a particular story more of a reason to scout it out on the Internet and drive more web traffic?

  6. If newspapers don't give readers more than what they can get on TV, what's the point?

  7. 12:34 -- If a 24" story can maintain all the pertinent information when whittled down to to 4" it was a terrible story to begin with. I'm not saying that every story needs to be 30" or 40" long. Obviously, you only want to write that long if a story deserves it. I am saying that lengthy in-depth stories should be our bread and butter, not the exception.

    As 1:40 pointed out, there is absolutely no reason for me to buy a paper if all I'm going to get is watered down news soundbites. I can already get that free of charge on TV, and I can get it while I'm cooking dinner, with much better visuals than a newspaper can provide.

    If this is what we're intent on doing, we will fail because the competition does it better than we do. Period.

    It was a bad idea in the 80s and it helped lead to the terrible circulation numbers we have now.

  8. When EVERY story is written to be 25 to 30, you know something is wrong. Reporters, esp young ones with little experience, need to be trained, on the job. Writing coaches can teach writers the ability to write succinctly, getting to the point without rehashing and without wordiness.
    Every story doesn't need to be 25-30. Most shud be 15-18, and that's a good reading length for a normal, regular story.

  9. And, before you naysayers and druids start the slash and burn, I've been with Gannett a short time, most of my exp was with family-owned papers. And most had an expected length and a reasonable length and a needed length. all were different.

  10. I had my charticles removed sometime ago; I had to sit on a cushion for a week or so.

  11. We hear murmurs of this at my Gannett paper, but it's enforced only sporadically, like traffic laws.
    The quoted memo is not bright. It's a prescription that guarantees lazy reporting. If the editor insists that all stories are equal, they soon will be.
    The best way for reporters to respond is to ignore the edict and write in the length the story requires.
    The alternative is to write a tiny story in the morning and another in the afternoon. Press releases are a big help for that...

  12. Finally an editor with balls enough to relay to Metro what readers truly want. Biggest reason to not renewing a subsc. is "no time to read". Bravo.
    Ciao Haters!

  13. I proudly worked for the APP when it was family-owned, and journalism and community service mattered. But like too many newspaper families, the younger folks wanted out. And the barbarians (Gannett) were at the gate. It's gutted and awful. People serious about news read the NYT or WSJ and hope to get crumbs about the community here and there. What a shame.

  14. 4:02 p.m. do you work for Gannett? Editors at my site have trotted out that schtick throughout the years with the same get-tough attitude. Never lasts very long, so the copy editors end up pulling out boxes and whacking stories themselves, usually on deadline.

    And I'm no hater. Just a realist.

  15. I've never seen a story that didn't get better by being forced to be shorter. I used to write the long monster stories too; they all got better when I learned to edit myself. That was about 1988. I think I wrote this memo by 1990, and at a non-Gannett paper. Although I've never used the word charticles in my life.

    If this is the stuff people are bristling at, no wonder the place is on life support.

  16. A CN editor (Flax?) once decreed stories had to be eight to 10 inches, no jumps, based on his notion of the readers' attention span.

  17. 11:16 -- I've seen plenty of stories get worse thanks to cuts. In fact, the only time stories get better when they are shorter is when they are overwritten in the first place. Granted, that happens a lot, but developing an edict demanding that most stories in your paper are short is just a bad journalistic decision. Bottom line. All stories should be tight, in that they should be well written, not flowery and wordy. But you can have a tight, well-written story that takes up 100 inches or more. Good magazines deliver them all the time.

    I think many people here are defending this policy because they read a lot of poorly written pieces. Ten inches is damn short for a news story of any value. A better policy might be to take a close look at every story that's 10 inches or shorter and ask whether it's really a story worthy of space. Some will be, but many of the shorts that I read in my daily paper are short because they're uninteresting, oversimplified or will appeal only to a handful of readers. As we get smaller and smaller staffs, it might be smart to abandon these pieces and focus on the in-depth stories that only newspapers can provide.

  18. @2:11 PM: Yes, but those 15 to 18" stories are now going to be 10 to 14", which means cutting a quarter to a third of your story. What do you kill? Background? Depth and context?

    Yet, somehow, there's still space for a 22" story on the best way to eat a chocolate Easter bunny.

  19. Furloughed Fury4/22/2011 9:19 AM

    Dear 4:02. The issue here is that journalism shouldn't be done by formula or recipe. There is no one-size-fits-all news story, simply because the news varies every day. You may not have noticed that.
    As for reader demand for long stories, it's not the size, but what's inside. Readers want a certain level of detail in the paper beyond what they get on TV or radio. If you don't believe me, read forum comments where readers bring up a fact or background they would have liked to have read in an article.
    Simply said, some stories don't warrant more than 10 inches. I've turned down extra space at times for that very reason. As a wise editor once said, there no reason to dump a mega-turd on the reader.
    But there are those issues where the devil is in the details and those detail bear explanation. And that is where a writer will need more to go beyond a pre-determined, arbitrary space limit, to our meet our responsibility to the reader and give the story behind the story. Even if it is the deadly boring sewer board (which can be patronage and money pits because no one pays attention.

  20. who doesn't care about APP paper and that is pieces of crap!!! i hope no one buy the APP paper soon how that!

  21. The idiot who runs our newsroom has tried this so many times I've lost count. "Stories can't be over X inches long." Eighteen months later X is now Y and so on. Then every story has to have a piece of art. Well, maybe that's not doable, so let's decree every page has to have some art element. Nothing makes sense, except his need to pee on the tree at regular intervals so everyone knows he's in charge.

  22. I think we'd agree that it's much harder to write a short story that's complete than it is to simply dump our notebooks into the newspaper.

    For all the criticism it gets, USA Today taught me that lesson well.

    And as a frequent producer of projects, I often argued with page designers to devote more space to visuals, often by cutting my own text.

    That said, this all requires extra time to do well. And that is expensive.

  23. It also requires reporters who can write and copy editors who can edit, which is sorely lacking at too many sites.

  24. It's not hard to write a short story. But it is hard to write a short story which answers all the questions a reader will have. It's one thing to edit from 40 inches to 30 or even 25. But when you have what you think is a tight 18 to 20 and are asked to cut it down to 10 to 15, that's when explanatory comments get cut.

    And when you have a regional school budget story, and all the space is given to the towns in that story and the requisite "For a home valued at $650,000, the city average, a resident will pay XX in school taxes based on a rate of XX cents per $100 of assessed value, an increase from last year of XX" without giving the reason why taxes are going up because there's no space, there's a problem.

  25. But with graphic artists and page designers laid off or doing their work in remote hubs, who's going to produce all those the charticles and infographics?

    Oh, I forgot ... Asbury is a hub. Different strokes, I guess.

  26. My policy throughout my career as a sub-editor has always been to tell reporters to write what it's worth, and let me worry about how to show it to its best effect. Too often I saw stories that weren't worth it padded out to meet a pointless word-count, while other stories that could benefit from more detail were clumsily chopped off, leaving readers to ask more. Strict length limits on stories are for the benefit of easier design, not more effective storytelling.

  27. Lots of good points made in this string. I'll add that in my experience, it depends greatly on the complexity of the issue, the amount of explaining to answer the questions you've just raised in the readers' minds and the number of sides and voices that need to be in there. One size simply does not fit all. Good writers will work to tighten; good editors will work to find a little more space.

  28. Indeed, lots of good points made here. It makes as much sense to issue an edict that every story in the daily paper come in at 10-14" as it does to tell reporters to just "write as much as you think you need." Which is to say none.

    I work for a (non-Gannett) paper now whose average story length in the daily is somewhere in the neighborhood of 30" (there are only a few; use your imagination), with plenty of 40" stories that could easily be 25", and plenty of 15" stories that ought to be briefs. That said, when we trot out 100" on a Sunday, it's damn good and it's often been whittled from twice that.

    Which is a long way of saying that neither extreme works all the time, and to make a sweeping proclamation like this memo does to an entire newsroom seems pretty ridiculous.

  29. With the EE's "my way or the highway" style of management, people have little choice but to obey.

  30. I can tell you that many readers have abandoned the APP because of the shallow reporting.


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