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Associated Press Wants Reporters To Keep It Short

newsman

The Associated Press is telling its reporters to keep their stories short:

This is a short news article about how news articles are becoming shorter.

The world’s largest independent news organization, the Associated Press, for one, has told its journalists to cut the fat — and keep their stories between 300 and 500 words, a length in which this story (301 words) would easily fit.

That’s 500 words, max, on just about every one of the 2,000 or so stories AP journalists report each day, from ballgames to bomb blasts to the latest political skulduggery.

Exceptions: AP has told its reporters that the top one or two stories in each state may run between 500 and 700 words, and the top global stories of the day may be a practically Faulknerian 700-plus words. Reporters in AP’s newly expanded investigative unit will be permitted to bust the limits.

Why? The news service says many of its members — 15,000 or so newspapers, Web sites, and radio and TV stations around the world — lack the staff to trim stories to fit their shrinking news holes. What’s more, AP says, readers can get turned off by longer stories, especially on mobile devices, an increasingly popular way for people to get the day’s news.

“We need to be more disciplined about what needs to be said,” Kathleen Carroll, AP’s executive editor, said in a (short) interview. “We don’t do enough distilling and honing, and we end up making our readers do more work.”

I’ve seen several media professionals and others lamenting about this announcement on Twitter and Facebook, which is ironic in itself considering that these are forms of communication that tend to favor short, quick posts as opposed to long pieces of analysis, but it strikes me that there may be a good basis for this policy shift. The vast majority of the stories that the Associated Press and other news agencies report on are, or at least, ought to be, basic and straightforward recitations of a specific set of facts. Whether its a report on the latest developments in Ukraine or something that happened on the campaign trail in North Carolina or Kentucky, the core of what’s being reported is often something that can be related with a minimum of exposition. Indeed, the core of journalism has always been about answering the “Who, What, When Where, Why, and How” questions about news events, and sometimes you don’t really need a whole lot of words to convey that point. Most certainly you don’t need to restate basic facts that should already be familiar to the ready every time you report on one of these events. Add in the fact that many of the media organizations that utilized AP reporting use it as a supplement to their own reporting, and you can see why it would make sense for the AP to advise its reporters to keep it short, sweet, and to the point.

At the same time, though, there is something to lament in all of this. Hidden somewhere in this new AP directive to its reporters, after all, is a recognition of the fact that the attention span of the average consumer of news and information has declined significantly as we’ve moved into the electronic era. One recent study, for example, found that large numbers of people don’t read very far past the headlines when reading news online. While that is something that has no doubt been true of at least some news consumers even in the heyday of the print media,  it has become much more prevalent today and, as we have learned many times in recent years, that makes it far easier for false or incomplete information to spread quickly during breaking news events. Additionally, while there is certainly a time and place for the short, quick, and to the point type of news stories that I mention above, there are also times where more in depth coverage is required. You can’t summarize a complex issue like climate change in 500 words or analyze a Supreme Court decision in 500 words, for example, and without that type of analysis a reporter isn’t really doing their job. Word limits like this also make investigative journalism difficult if not impossible although, admittedly, investigative journalism is not necessarily the Associated Press’s forte. More broadly, though, this is just another example of news being packaged as entertainment. I suppose this must happen to some extent in order to attract readers, but it seems like we’re losing something along the way.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. mantis says:

    The news service says many of its members…lack the staff to trim stories to fit their shrinking news holes.

    There’s a probing joke in here somewhere…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  2. Neil Hudelson says:

    TL/DR

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  3. JWH says:

    I’d call this a good thing, provided that AP writers can bust the limits for features and advance stories. “Today in the state legislature” really doesn’t need to be more than 500 words. An feature story about Miss Edna and the bed and breakfast she’s run deserves to be 2,000 words or more.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  4. John Peabody says:

    The headline problem is quite real. Very embarrasing when friends share ‘outrageous’ stories based on a headline, only to see that the source was The Onion.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  5. LightsOut says:

    Doug has a distaste for word limits? Never saw that coming.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  6. Matt Bernius says:

    Ultimately, this is the case of a very *big* tail — Google — wagging the dog. News is increasingly optimized for machine versus human reading.

    The reason for all the changes in headlines comes from the issue of optimizing content for Google Search and Display. The generally rule of thumb is currently to keep a headline between 55 & 65 characters to fit the 512 pixels Google currently allocates for headline space.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  7. al-Ameda says:

    Come on AP, just ask your clients to print AP stories with lots of color, just like USA Today.

    People today may have short attention spans, and may not like to read much more than 25 words, but they love color!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  8. Anonne says:

    This has nothing to do with Google per se, but the dumbification of the people.

    We live in the tl;dr generation as stated above. People don’t bother to read anything in detail. Important bits of news will get left out, leading to more misinformation, making the media an even greater tool of disinformation.

    And it is all driven by money.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  9. Matt Bernius says:

    @Anonne:

    This has nothing to do with Google per se, but the dumbification of the people.

    No offense, but my research is with reporters and journalists and have heard this topic discussed multiple times in planning sessions and industry gatherings.

    Google plays a huge factor in this. Both for the papers and the newswires. Yes, TL:DR is part of it, but Google’s algorithms are optimized for TL:DR articles. In a business where eyeballs are everything under the current advertising model, this is critical.

    Shorter stories general more clicks, more ads as well.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  10. Anonne says:

    @Matt Bernius: That is probably because longer items tend to produce more spam / noise for search purposes. This – the shortening of articles – is not a solution and there are ways to optimize search based on a short summary instead of the entire length of an article.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  11. DrDaveT says:

    The ideal solution is 300-500 word leads with links to additional content (further analysis, data, sources, related past stories) available. That’s both optimized for portable device reading AND the way most people prefer to get their depth these days. Probably won’t happen though.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  12. michael reynolds says:

    People are not dumber, nor are they less able to read lengthy pieces. I sell 500 page books to 14 year-olds. Yes, they are all on Twitter and yet they’ll read a 3000 page book series, pause, and read it again.

    I think Matt’s got it right: I smell Google.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  13. bill says:

    consider how many people get the “whole story” just from the headline and it makes cents!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  14. Anonne says:

    Respectfully, Michael, what fraction of the population do you think that represents? Of typical 14-year-olds?

    One third to one half of this country is stupid enough to be faithful to the Republican Party. Many people do not read, only watch tv for their news, and therefore are susceptible to things like Fox News. They don’t have the patience for inconvenient things like facts and data. The miseducation of this country has a large part to play in this.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  15. michael reynolds says:

    @Anonne:

    My stablemate Veronica Roth is selling one hell of a lot of her Divergent books. Long books. Many millions of them. And crucially, these aren’t books being forced on kids, they’re books the kids go out and buy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  16. Matt Bernius says:

    @Anonne:

    One third to one half of this country is stupid enough to be faithful to the Republican Party. Many people do not read, only watch tv for their news, and therefore are susceptible to things like Fox News. They don’t have the patience for inconvenient things like facts and data. The miseducation of this country has a large part to play in this.

    Steps to become an pundit:
    1. Come up with a “good” just-so theory that makes you look smart/virtuous and folks you disagree with look like cretins.

    2. Ignore all counterfactuals (especially those presented by people who have first hand experience with the topic).

    3. PROFIT! (or just keep posting your pet theory to discussion forums, being careful not to address any critique or further develop the theory, cause it’s perfect just the way it is)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  17. Anonne says:

    I have no desire to be a pundit, I’m not calling anyone cretins or any names, and I asked an honest question about what fraction of the population is being served. God forbid anyone do that.

    People keep talking about how the education system in this country is failing our kids and yet this one outlier is supposed to refute all of that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0