Why the New York Times Is Looking to Shorten Stories

From a Washington Post story by media critic Erik Wemple headlined “Why the New York Times is looking to shorten stories”:

Not long into his tenure as executive editor of the New York Times, Max Frankel took note of how much reading the paper was assigning its subscribers. “Yes, we need and want enterprise stories,” wrote Frankel in a two-page internal memo in July 1987. “But egads, we are drowning the reader in ink.”

In the judgment of current executive editor Joseph Kahn, the inundation continues. Along with other masthead editors, Kahn has launched a fresh initiative to discipline runaway word counts in routine Times coverage. In his discussions of the imperative, Kahn has acknowledged that others before him have attempted to run the news report through the shrink-a-lator. “I intend to succeed,” he has said.

“We’re not looking to just do less,” says a Times spokesperson. “We’re looking to provide a diverse report to meet our readers where they are, and best reflect our reporters’ expertise in multiple ways.”

Like Frankel, Kahn and his top editors are making clear that they’re not bailing on the long-form stories and investigations that often break news and win prizes for the Times. A spokesperson pointed to the paper’s “Great Read” initiative, a showcase for journalistic storytelling featuring stories that average more than 2,000 words. A December 2022 Times investigation of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine tallied more than 13,000 words.

If there’s any content category that should hire a lobbyist, it’s those long swaths of context and history that occupy precious real estate in news stories. Sometimes they get served on top of news updates tracking incremental developments on long-running stories. According to Times sources, Kahn & Co. have cited internal analytics showing that readers check out pieces overloaded with context. The data also show that readers are more likely to click on another Times story if they have finished the first one.

Adam Nagourney, author of the recently published book “The Times: How the Newspaper of Record Survived Scandal, Scorn, and the Transformation of Journalism,” notes that the difference between Kahn’s initiative and similar efforts in the past is metrics. Former New York Times executive editors like Frankel and Bill Keller, Nagourney writes via email, were proceeding on the basis of a “gut call, reflecting their own sensibility and taste.” Frankel tried to implement a three-tier hierarchy under which a 1,500-word piece “ought to be exceptional.” (Nagourney provided the Erik Wemple Blog with the archival memos.)

By that standard, there’s plenty of exceptional work these days in the Times. The five stories on the front page of Monday’s Times, for instance, averaged about 1,700 words.

To get the word out, top Times editors have issued shout-outs to reporters who have taken it easy on their keyboards and attracted strong readership at the same time. Several weeks ago, for instance, a top editor credited this piece on Eminem vs. Vivek Ramaswamy (367 words), a guide to charging electric vehicles (881 words) and a dispatch on the London Zoo’s animal weigh-in (365 words), among others.

The backdrop for this Times effort is a discussion in media circles about the role of context and the work-saving value of linking in modern journalism — a discussion that we won’t abridge here, the better to nail a sub-550 word count.

Erik Wemple, The Washington Post’s media critic, focuses on the cable-news industry. Before joining The Post, he ran a short-lived and much publicized local online news operation, and for eight years served as editor of Washington City Paper.

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