Earning every inch of story length at the Washington Post.

Media criticism.
Feb. 28 2007 2:04 PM

Earning Every Inch at the Washington Post

A new memo from the top editors explains how.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

In New Orleans, the powers that be will resort to anything that works to hold the waters back—dams, voodoo chants, and bribes. At the Washington Post, editors have traditionally filibustered the staff with memos and, when need be, tough edits to reduce story length. But like rivers, Post reporters—and the editors who abet them—flow where they want to flow, which means all victories are temporary.

Today, Feb. 28, Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. and Managing Editor Philip Bennett memoed the staff about a topic that has been on the duo's forward agenda since late last year: A reduced news hole requires editors to keep stories tight and to the point.

The memo and e-mail introduction, reproduced in this sidebar, expresses Downie and Bennett's philosophy that "every story must earn every inch" that it occupies in the newspaper. While that equation has always been the rule at the Post, given the subjective nature of distributing a newspaper's news hole, it isn't always followed.

The memo, like all memos, is easy to ridicule. But unlike yesterday's memos, it was written with full knowledge that it would be leaked and analyzed by others in the press. So, it isn't as easy to ridicule as would be convenient for me.

It sets up a taxonomy of news stories that should give protesting reporters the "case law" they need to demand additional column inches for their long pieces.

Small events or incremental developments can run as digest items. Day stories "significant enough to write for our readers but based on one event or development" are worthy of 6 to 15 inches of copy (at the Post, a page with headlines and photos takes 65 column inches of text). Single events with "multiple layers or levels of information" deserve 18 to 24 inches. More complex, ambitious newsfeatures equal 25 to 35 inches. Major enterprise "involving in-depth reporting or narrative story telling" will get 40 to 50 inches. All extraordinary long-form narrative or investigation will first appear as best-selling books by Bob Woodward.

Just kidding. Such magazinelike work will get 60 to 80 inches and, on rare occasions, more.

One bit of the memo's advice—"Watch out for artificial transitions. They burn up space needlessly. In many newspaper stories you don't need a transition from one idea to the next."—begs for lampooning. I don't know how to get from one idea to the next without transitions of some sort.

An underlying assumption of the memo is that readers desire more concise and succinct copy. "We are often saddling readers with too much recapitulation and background. In writing both news and features, reporters should strive to eliminate stale material," the memo states. This is true, except when it isn't. What one reader rejects as needless recapitulation, another reader celebrates as the drinks and appetizers that whet his appetite for the main serving to come.

If followed to the letter, much of the memo's advice would produce a newspaper I wouldn't want to buy. I don't read newspapers to save time. If I did, USA Today would be my primary newspaper. I read newspapers to take up time. Unless trapped on an Amtrak car or an airplane, I rarely read from every story. Like other hunter-gatherers, I graze on the fattest fruits and nibble on the tart and tannic pieces. What I enjoy about a newspaper is the breadth of variety—and length.

The Post memo endorses variety in length, too, so I suspect my view isn't that far removed from Messrs. Downie and Bennett's. The proof will be in what sort of newspaper this memo directs into being. I don't envy the editors the task of holding back the word torrents. Reporters overflow the banks more reliably than do rivers.

******

Oh, I like USA Today. I just have a relationship with it that allows me to see other newspapers. Short? Long? More? Less? Send you views to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Disclosure: Slateis owned by the Washington Post Co., which also publishes the Washington Post.)

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