OLD Media Moves

Reuters America editor: Most stories need to be no more than 500 words

May 6, 2014

Posted by Chris Roush

Reuters America editor Dayan Candappa sent out the following message to the staff on Tuesday:

We often get asked two questions about Reuters’ mission. What do you want us to focus on? And what do you want us to do less of so we can make time for it?

Here’s an initiative that we believe will help answer both questions. At first glance it appears to be yet another push for brevity. However, greater discipline on story length will only be one outcome of this initiative, not its major objective.

First some background. The persistent questions about our mission stem from the fact that customers want two kinds of stories; commoditized items that look much like those our competitors would publish and distinctive stories containing information or ideas that are exclusive to Reuters. Both types of stories are hugely valuable. The greatest news organization in the world must excel at both to give readers the breadth and depth they expect.

While it is no silver bullet, we believe managing story length will help do both things at once. The key to producing lots of commoditized stories is to keep them short, publish quickly and move on. We often spend too much time reporting, refining and updating stories that will never set us apart from the crowd. That takes time and money away from the reporting and editing that should go into distinctive content.

So here’s what we propose. Almost every story Reuters produces in the Americas should be shorter than 500 words, unless we have exclusive information or a unique idea that will make it distinctive. We want to apply this principle to all types of stories, both initiative and spot, although to avoid foolish consistency we will sometimes make exceptions for a few very big stories.

We hope that all of us will take to this like ducks to water and will soon be so busy working on distinctive stories that everything else will get published with amazing efficiency. We also recognize that old habits die hard, so we will ask a group of editors and bureau chiefs to act as gate-keepers. If you want to breach the limit, you’ll have to convince one of them that you have something unique to say about the story — a perspective or a piece of information that our competitors would like to have but don’t.

How long should the story be when we agree it warrants greater length? As long as it needs to be. Ideally, the editor and reporter will agree on a sensible length, but we do want to give people who go the extra mile to dig up unique material as much room as they need to display it.

While this is a small tweak to the way we work, it does require a big change of mindset. And we want to get this right. We’ll start implementing this approach as a three-month pilot from May 15. Here is a Q&A that explains how it works. Please let us know what you think.

Regards Jonathan , Kieran and Dayan

Why 500 words?

The Reuters Handbook says most of our stories will be no more than 500 words. This is an attempt to enforce a well established guideline, not create a new one. Most readers tend to give up well before the 500-word mark if you have nothing original and compelling to say. That is generally true across the many platforms we publish on – whether legal, financial, consumer or media. Do remember that 500 is not a target. Most stories should be even shorter.

Is this a global approach? How does it affect copy flow between regional editing desks?

All three regions are pushing toward the same goal of excelling simultaneously at breadth and depth. The handbook’s guidance on story length also applies across the file. This process is just our way of making sure the Americas region reaches our global goals. The Americas desk will edit copy from other regions as it always has. And in those rare cases where a truly original story needs to be edited and published by another regional desk, the regular channels of communication should help smooth the way.

Is this going to slow down updates of major breaking news stories?

No. The initial few updates of any story should not be longer than 500 words anyway, so this guideline will not hold them up. Beyond those updates, it should be easy to assess whether a breaking news story merits greater length. Which editors will be able to authorize stories longer than 500 words? We will send out a list of names before the pilot begins on May 15. The group be will large enough to make sure there are no bottlenecks. Do remember that we want very few stories breaching this limit. Many of them will be either pitched and approved or discussed on the morning call, minimizing the need for approvals on the run.

What about later updates? If UPDATE 1 was 500 words, surely UPDATE 6 needs to be longer?

No. Not unless it is a major breaking story or we have something unique to say. This will force both editors and reporters to ask whether the update is necessary, and if it is, what must come out of the story to make room for the new material.

How will a sub-editor know if a story longer than 500 words has been approved?

It should be written into the Comments line within Lynx Editor, citing the name of the approver and desired length.

What will sub-editors do if they receive an unauthorized story longer than 500 words?

The sub-editor will send it back for cuts unless that would delay breaking news. We want to free people up to do more distinctive work. Over-writing ties up reporters, deskers and EICs, whether the story is published at excessive length or eventually hacked back to the right size.So if you don’t have approval, keep it under 500.

What about stories that are routinely longer than 500 words such as economy wraps, White House briefings, earnings stories and market trunks?

This applies to those stories as well.

Won’t our media and online customers object to such truncated stories?

No. Newspapers rarely have enough space to accommodate a wire story that is longer than 500 words. The trick is ensuring that those words really count: tight nut graphs are key.

What about specialized stories that are so complex they require a lot of background/explanation for non-specialist readers?

Most specialized stories are for an expert readership and don’t require a lot of context and explanatory material. A truly exceptional specialist story that has broader appeal will be allowed extra length. How can we deliver all the detailed information clients may need if stories are short? Think about other ways of connecting customers to the information. If it’s available on the Internet, just add a link to the source material or website. If it’s not, consider a quick FACTBOX that can be used repeatedly. The economics team routinely produces extensive HIGHLIGHTS with direct quotes from policy makers, which provide the essentials more effectively than a narrative can.

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