Behind The Scenes

Story length — how long is too long?

Whenever a new reporter starts in the newsroom, one of the first questions they ask after being assigned a story is, "Well, how long should it be?"

I've working in several newsrooms in my career. Some editors have made specific requests to the inch ("Cover that crash. I can give you 10 inches!"); Some have guidelines depending on the type of story being reported ("X amount of space for breaking news, Y for analyses, Z for features."); and then there's those editors who let the story be the guide.

I fall into the last category. How long should the story be? Well, it depends on what you're writing. If the person being interviewed has some great quotes, and a really interesting story to tell, maybe it's longer than your typical news piece. Likewise, there are times when, despite how interesting a story sounds, the main people involved really don't have anything to say.

Once, while working in Greenfield, Mass., a reporter went out to talk to an elderly woman who had been mugged. I'd imagine that was going to be a brief for the police report page. However, once she reached the scene, not only was the extremely articulate and animated "victim" more than eager to tell her story, by a by-stander who saw what happened and caught the mugger was also there, being thanked by the victim and interviewed by police (and then our reporter).

What may have been a brief turned into a front-page feature which, if memory serves, even won a regional award for breaking news coverage the following year.

The point is, there are several tips that help good reporters be better reporters. One of those is to recognize what you're writing, who the potential audience is, and writing appropriately for length. Most of the time I'd like to think they get it right. When they don't ... well, that's why editors are there.

This post was prompted by two similar posts last month: Steve Buttry's Newspaper stories are too long, except when they’re too short, which was a response to Alan Mutter's piece Most newspaper stories are still too long. (I encourage readers to take a look at both pieces.)

In the meantime, here's two pieces I offer as food for thought (one from each writer):

From Mutter:

"Many stories can be told better in charts, pictures or infographics than in the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of words that tend to be the go-to medium for most newspaper journalists."

And from Buttry:

"The length of a story isn’t what matters; it’s how well the story connects with readers."


UPDATE: Here's another great piece to reference from The Atlantic (published back in 2010): Cut This Story.

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