Last month, in one of his regular Q&A free-for-alls with staff, New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said the paper's stories are often too long.
"The 1,200 word stories could be 800 or 900," Gawker quoted Keller as saying.
Before Keller invests in copy-shrinking technology or hires USA Today editors to reach his goal, he should instruct his reporters and editors to study a daily New York Times Co. product that squeezes both fat and lean out of Times stories—the eight-page-long TimesDigest. (Test drive the June 8, 2007, edition of TimesDigest
Started in the fall of 1990, TimesDigest now goes to about 400 paying subscribers, mostly hotels, cruise ships, and health club chains, which receive it as a PDF attachment to an e-mail or as a fax. These customers pay between $150 and $475 a month for the publication and are free to distribute copies of it to guests and clientele as an amenity, says Catherine J. Mathis, company spokesperson. The International Space Station subscribes, as do a smattering of individuals.
I originally encountered the 8-and-1/2 by 11 publication last year in the whirlpool room of a Michigan health club. At first sight, I mistook the photocopied, stapled, and soggy thing drooping on the towel rack for a New York Times novelty wash cloth, and my instinct was to either trashcan it or use it to lather up a bar of soap. But as a devoted reader of everything from cereal boxes to the Yellow Pages, I gave TimesDigest a chance, and I'm glad I did. The shorter New York Times, set in the same fonts as the newspaper, is the perfect brief news read, provided you're 1) not near a computer and can't download the TimesReader; 2) unable to get the regular Times; 3) extraordinarily pressed for time; or 4) in a mood to make only one hand available for reading (such as when you're in the whirlpool).
The edits of the original Times news stories can be brutal, well beyond the 25-percent reduction recommended by Keller. But many of them are excellent. TimesDigest editors excised about two-thirds from the 1,300 words published in the broadsheet about climate change on June 8, 2007. This and other extreme edits routinely produce readable and informative miniversions. When reading the TimesDigest against the billowing broadsheet originals, I rarely feel as though I'm reading copy that's been hollowed out. Paul Krugman's June 8 column actually benefits from its minor tightening, sounding even more indignant than usual. What you lose in back story, quotations from senators and policy advocates, and nuance in TimesDigest versions, you gain in lucid brevity. I'm a fan.
That said, I would never permanently surrender the complete Times for this scaled-down sheet, because I read to kill time, not save it. I also require greater story selection than the mini-Times offers. When time allows only a quick lap of the news, I navigate my broadsheets thusly: I read the hed, the lede, and the first couple of paragraphs of every story that appeals to me with the same care the reporters and editors assembled them, which is to say with high concentration. I then read the piece through to the first quoted source and scan the rest until I encounter a paragraph whose topic sentence promises additional novel information. The longer the article, the more likely I am to shorten the scanning process by jumping to the three-quarters mark, where I often find something close to the beginning of a brand-new—but related—story. Then I speed-read to the finish.
The editing techniques used by TimesDigest editors seem to resemble my methods, but sometimes they cut directly from the bottom in the old-fashioned manner, as if working against deadline to fit a wire story into the available space next to a department-store ad. For a dramatic example of this amputation-style editing, see the story titled "U.S. Compromise on Global Warming Plan Averts Impasse at Group of 8 Meeting." It ran 1,110 words in the June 8 broadsheet edition, but collapses to 420 words in TimesDigest after the editors deep-sixed the last 700 words.
TimesDigest indicates that making New York Times stories shorter while retaining their essential news value ain't really that hard. If the original story is any good, all you need is a sharp knife, the will to cut, and an executive editor to give the order.