The snickering already has begun about The Washington Post's new internal edict about story lengths. And I'm sure there's even more snarkiness about the new policy among my old friends and colleagues in The Post's newsroom.
But you know what? Post Executive Editor Len Downie and Managing Editor Phil Bennett are right: Too many stories in the paper go on much too long. They need to go on a diet. The problem is most acute, interestingly, not in the paper's long investigative or features takeouts, but in day-to-day beat stories. I frequently find myself several inches into a mundane Post story about government goings-on, or a local crime, or a local business development, only to realize that I simply don't care about the rest of the story. I've read enough to know what I need to know, and the remaining inches are just superfluous. Happens all the time—and not just at The Post, of course.
It's probably easy to blame short reader attention spans (including mine) for this. But story lengths seem to have steadily become more bloated over the years. Reporters often seem to get too close to stories and start repeating themselves, or get mired in arcane details that go well beyond the meat of the story. Or they're trying to impress a source with their knowledge. And indeed, certain readers want all that verbiage. But for the vast majority of readers, a lot of stories can be told in much fewer column inches.
This is not to denigrate great reporting and writing—many superb stories actually are too short, even at thousands of words. But it takes a good subject and a terrific storyteller to pull off that sort of thing. For the daily beat writer, it's better to write tight.
And here's a suggestion: Why does there have to be only one version of a story? Perhaps The Post can run shorter versions in the paper, where space is at a premium, and run longer, "director's cut" (er, "writer's cut"?) versions on its Web site, which has no space constraints.
In any event, story length is a non-trivial issue, and The Post's Downie and Bennett are right to attack it head on. Every other paper in the country should be doing the same thing.