Is Short Still Sweet?

Jul 31, 2014

In an age where text messages, tweets and other social media posts demand short writing, there is new focus on the benefits of getting to the point.   The Washington Post recently reported that The Associated Press (AP) has instructed its correspondents to keep stories between 300 and 500 words, citing the lack of staff at its member outlets available “to trim stories to fit their shrinking news holes” as the primary reason for this policy shift.  And, the website Talking Biz News reported that Reuters recently adopted a policy limiting most stories to no more than 500 words, pointing out that Reuters took nearly 1,200 words to explain the new policy in a memo to its journalists. 

The hallmark of public radio news is its ability to combine concise news updates, with in-depth, long-form features.

Is this new push for brevity a continuation of the dumbing down of America?  Or, is it a long overdue response to the fact that people consume news differently than they did when they spent an hour each night reading the evening newspaper?  After all, it’s hard to read thousands of words on your phone.  The benefits of concise writing have long been praised by both journalists and academics.  In his book How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times, writing teacher and scholar, Roy Peter Clark, points to NPR’s Scott Simon as a champion for tight writing.  Clark  shares messages he exchanged with Simon in which Simon conveyed an idea he says he learned from his stepfather:

“Consider these historical and cultural documents: The Hippocratic oath; The Twenty-third Psalm; The Lord’s Prayer;  Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18; The preamble to the Constitution; The Gettysburg Address; The last paragraph of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.   If you add up the words in these documents, the sum will be fewer than a thousand, 996 by my count.  Show me any number of pictures as powerful as those seven documents.”  

And, who can forget the famous quote attributed to Mark Twain, and first expressed by French mathematician, Blaise Pascal, in the 1600s: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Is this new push for brevity a continuation of the dumbing down of America?

While I can’t speak for AP or Reuters, I can tell you how JPR and public radio in general, approaches this issue.  During a typical public radio news program, you’ll hear a newscast that informs you what has happened — in a U.S. city, a foreign country or a neighboring community. Following these newscasts are longer segments dedicated to contextual reporting — providing historic background and analysis designed to help you understand why something has happened and what it might mean for your life.  This balance of short “what’s happened” reporting with distinctive long-form, in-depth reporting has become the hallmark of public radio news – both on the radio and via digital platforms.  It’s what both JPR and NPR strive to create each day.  Simply put, a story should take however long it takes to tell clearly and completely.  It’s this commitment to journalistic clarity and compelling storytelling that we hope public radio listeners continue to find valuable and worthy of both their time and their financial support.

Paul Westhelle, Executive Director
Jefferson Public Radio