AP, Reuters tell reporters to keep stories under 500 words

Is it a good thing or a bad thing that the Associated Press and Reuters have both told their reporters to keep (most) of their stories under 500 words?

I suppose it depends on what purpose you think AP and Reuters actually serve.

In the old days, I used to go to AP and Reuters to find breaking news. I simply wanted to know what happened, and then find a short description filling in some of the details. And papers around the country had to subscribe to one feed or the other, in order to have sufficient content.

But AP and Reuters have both become so much more since then, and they’ve had to.  It’s not enough, in the Internet age, to simply let people know that something happened.  You don’t need AP and Reuters for that, you can just go to Twitter.  And, newspapers are dying.  So if that were still AP’s and Reuter’s models, they’d be in for some hurt.

At least for me, I’ve found both publications to have gotten richer, more substantive, over the years.  Maybe it’s because I don’t hold a newspaper in my hands anymore when reading the news, but I tend to think of both wire services as writing more substance than they did in the old days.  And I like it that way.

Video: Kitten meets cursorSo what’s the media recipe for success in the Internet age?  Beats me.  Unless you put a kitten in every post, or are willing to find a way to weave Flight 370 and Beyoncé’s sister into every story, it’s not clear that any one media entity is viable in today’s economy.

Clearly, for whatever reason, both AP and Reuters have decided that shorter is better.  Ironically, when we relaunched AMERICAblog back in October of 2012, we cut back our number of posts, writing fewer longer stories instead.  And our unique visitors doubled and tripled, alongside a significant jump in pageviews.  But that’s not been enough to make this site financially sustainable over the long-term.

I wonder if the Internet is truly changing reading patterns, and whether, as AP fears, people using smartphones don’t want to read long stories they’d have otherwise read in the past had the story shown up in a printed newspaper.  It is harder, I find, to browse a long story online.  In the paper, the story was on two pages, or even one.  Online, even if the story is one (rather long) Web page, you have to scroll down while you read it.  And I wonder if psychologically that ends up feeling like too many individual pages, because you can’t just scan the story the way you could in print, by looking at it in its entirety.

I do think that if your goal is simply to inform someone of the headlines, then yes, you can easily tell a story in fewer words than even 500.  USA Today has been doing the short-story thing for years.  I’d be curious what their experience has been, in the past, but also now that readership has moved online and mobile.  Have they weathered the storm better by already being shorter?

524 words.


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Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown (1989); and worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, and as a stringer for the Economist. Frequent TV pundit: O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline & Reliable Sources. Bio, .

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  • Teleprompter

    I work at Reuters, and there’s an important second part to the 500-word
    limit, one that John’s article overlooks and that I think you’ll appreciate: enterprise. Our spot stories
    on “commodity” news – news everyone is covering – often ran to 800 or
    1,200 words and yet added little value that set them apart from the
    pack. A complex spot story will still get more than 500 words, as will big breaking news, where every bit of detail is new. But we are making rote coverage more concise so we can devote that time
    to enterprise and exclusive reporting. It literally means stepping away
    from the keyboard when a story is just a simple bit of news, and moving
    on to something original. Far from dumbing down, Reuters, at least, will be running even more of the
    rich, substantive news John lauds in his article. By
    the way, I read long articles on
    my smartphone, and Reuters’ free news app is one of the best, with
    minimal advertising and a font that’s legible without glasses! Check it out: http://www.reuters.com/tools/mobile

  • richardgrabman

    24 words over the limit! Seriously, how does one discuss any complex issue in 500 words or less? I never use twitter, because I like long sentences… and because anything I could say in 120 characters (or whatever the limit is) isn’t worth saying.

  • Mark_in_MN

    It might help that problematic approach, but 500 words is much, much too short to really get into the meat of a story.

  • Jade

    It also contributes to it.

  • ComradeRutherford

    And use the 1000 most common words.

    Here is a description of the Saturn V moon rocket, using only the 1000 most common words:

    http://xkcd.com/1133/

  • caphillprof

    The 500 word policy will put an end to all those news articles in which the news came in the third or fourth paragraph. Modern journalists tend to use talk rather than content.

    As for long online articles they tend to be more readable when there are subheadlines interspersed.

  • http://hunteratrandom.blogspot.com/ rmthunter

    I’m not sure what the mechanism is, but like John, I find it easier to read a long story in print rather than online, although I think the 500 word limit is too low. One thing we’ve done at the review site I edit, which is set up in a blog format, is to limit the front page posts to 300 words or less, with links to the full page reviews and articles, which can run 1,000 words or more. It seems to make it easier for readers to skim the highlights and then focus on what they want to read — which, it occurs to me, is an element as well — not that many people want to read an entire newspaper, I think. I know I don’t.

  • whollyfool

    Another good reason to support longreads.com.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    I think it’s a sad development in journalism, and continues the dumbing-down of public discourse.

  • Indigo

    It’s the KISS method (Keep it simple, stupid). It works really well with an ignorant audience. No nuance, please, we’re immature.

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    Considering that this is an era when hardly anyone seems to read beyond the headline, this move makes sense. However, the real information is almost always found in the latter half of a news story. It’s also where the balance and fairness on any subject is found. In other words, without some depth and context it’s not really journalism, but as that profession is little more than stenography in its present form, this move is not unexpected.

  • Elijah Shalis

    This is really sad. It shows they are not committed to details and serious reporting. My former Media & Politics Professor and former Detroit Free Press Editor Joe Stroud is rolling in his grave again.

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