Readers’ corner 6/15/07 |

Readers’ corner 6/15/07

For decades there has been a debate in newsrooms across the country about the length of stories in the newspaper.

To help you visualize, one straight column on the front page can be measured with a ruler going down the page- if the whole story is on page 1, it’s the length you measure. If the story “jumps” to a page where it is continued, you continue measuring.

At the Union we consider a 6-inch story short, and 12-15 inches is about average.

Some of the large papers such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times are famous for stories that can eat up hundreds of inches of newsprint. Employing top writers, they trust that readers will want to read every word. I say maybe, maybe not.

Most readers do not like to “jump” to another page when reading a story. In fact, many stop reading at that point. They’ve learned all they want to know.

Writers argue that some stories cannot be properly reported unless they are long, but readers often disagree. Life is busy these days and it seems everyone is pressed for time. “Too busy” is the reason often given for not reading the newspaper.

The irony is that it is easier to write long stories than short ones.

The master of the short story is the radio reporter. Their stories are measured in seconds, not inches, and 26 seconds is considered the limit in most radio news. Many segments are about 15 seconds.

A Web site often visited by journalists is http://www.poynter .org. It contains industry gossip and articles of interest to journalists. One of the most recent was on the brevity of radio reporting.

The writer, Al Tompkins, interviewed CBS radio’s Peter King. He asked, “How do you cover complex stories, like the ones you report from NASA?”

Here is how King distilled the 250-page “Columbia Accident Report,” into a 15 second news report: “Investigators say the root cause of the accident was a piece of foam that fell off of the fuel tank and punched a hole in the shuttle’s left wing after launch. That hole allowed hot plasma gas to seep into the wing during re-entry, and destroy the orbiter. The report says management problems were a contributing cause.”

So, this brings us back to the question of story length. Do you need to know more about the shuttle accident? Or is it enough to just know the cause?

When I was teaching journalism at USC in the early ’90s, I would tell my students that great writers begin by being contemplative readers. By that I mean be conscious of what you read in the newspaper. Did you read the whole story? Why? Or, if you didn’t, why not? Learning what hooks you into a story will help you learn to write a story that hooks others.

Try it yourself. Pay attention to what you read, and especially what you read to the end.


Dixie Redfearn can be reached at 477-4238 or by e-mail at, or by fax at 477-4292.

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