Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Are newspaper stories too long?

It's hard to argue with a story titled "Cut this story!" so I won't. Michael Kingsley, one of the more original thinkers among print journalists, opines in the Atlantic that newspapers are in trouble because their stories are too long. I think he's right. And he's wrong.

Newspapers are filled with way too many stories that aren't the length I'd want. Let's use the Journal Sentinel for example. Today's paper offers us yet another story on the Asian carp that's way too long, a wire story on the intelligence failures of the Christmas would-be bomber that a bit shorter than I wanted, a story on the debate over the mayor's takeover of MPS proposal that I don't need to read because I've already got all the information I needed to know about the subject and a story on tickets for the Packers that's probably about the right size (I have no interest in the subject so I didn't read it). On the other hand, it carried only a wire story on a Milwaukee gardener who set off alarms in an airport with bottles of honey and a story on a mother accused of serving liquor to middle-schoolers that cried for more detail. Most stories seemed about right.

I think it comes down to how interested we are in a subject. My brother-in-law with an autistic child reads every story he can get on autism and wants more. I love archeology so I read every story on fossils or old bones. I also follow an out-of-state basketball team and read reams on it. But not too many people want to read anywhere near as much as I do on those subjects.

Here's a case where newspapers could use the Internet wisely. I'd cut those huge stories, but link to huge stories online. I'd offer more on fossils -- online. Just as the JS brings in lots of readers who pay to read its Packers' Plus section, it could attract a lot of us online if it offered more content.

Kingsley writes about the style of writing, and he's correct in that stories often are too long, but he's wrong in that they often aren't long enough. Journalism is exciting because today we can write to a variety of lengths -- and we should.