The death of the 500-word article?

On Tuesday I spoke at an event on the future of Journalism at a London creative agency called Protein. With me on the panel were Julian March of ITV (shortly to head to New York as seniorVP of NBC), Luke Lewis, editor of Buzzfeed and Martin Belam of Trinity Mirror.

In the wide-ranging discussion Martin mentioned some research by Quartz News, an American business site, which suggests that online journalists are wasting their time publishing articles between 500 and 800 words in length. These are too long to be shareable and too short to be in depth, so they don’t get read on line, runs the argument.

This chimed with some of my own thinking on where value  increasing lies in journalism. How can you stand out from the crowd and provide something that the public values. One answer is to be first with stories: this means being accurate at speed and publishing widely. Key here are sources, contacts, news sense, verification, the ability to reach large audiences on social networks. Being reliably ahead of the competition seems like a good place for a journalist to be.

Being first probably means being succinct: summing up the story in a couple of sentences and getting it out there.

Alternatively a journalist can go deep into a story and provide background and context: this probably means spending time over a story and writing at length. Key skills here are knowledge, research, the ability to explain. People will pay money for this – look at the Economist.

If you’re aiming to be first, you’re probably going to be short and succinct. If you’re aiming to provide context, you’re likely to be writing at length, so that you can set out your facts, background and argument.

But the typical news piece falls somewhere in the middle. These are the 500-800-worders that Quartz is taking aim at: neither super fast nor especially in depth, it’s often hard to see what they offer. They exist at that length largely because of the conventions of newspaper design. However, a properly written news story contains all of its key information in the first couple of pars: the further down the story you go, the less valuable is the information.

This story from the Telegraph is pretty typical. The new information – the revised death toll – is contained in the first sentence. Everything else that follows is either a restatement of that or repetition of old news from earlier in the week. A writer presumably spent an hour or two pulling all this together. And, because it was cobbled together from copy provided by news agencies, pretty much the identical story can be read in dozens of other sites. Where’s the value in that?

It’s an oversimplification to say that there is no point in producing 500-800 word stories (this piece comes in at just over 500, for example….). Of course, some are hugely valuable and interesting. But it’s worth noting that the fundamental form of the news story has remained unchanged for decades and asking whether it is really the best way of delivering information in the digital age.



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