I reported any number of ridiculous stories over the course of my career — all brilliant conceptions of bone-headed editors. There was the one on how corporate executives fit physical fitness into their busy work schedules, summer stories about desert heat, a feature about elevators in the TransAmerica Pyramid, interviews with mall shoppers about the invasion of Panama, a puffy profile of the potato chip king of Oakland who later turned out to be a fraud and the behind-the-scenes stories at the Bob Hope Golf Classic. There were worse, but to recall them I’d have to go into hypnosis to recover deeply repressed memories.
Here’s my nightmare. An editor says: “Marcy, give me 4,300 words on karaoke, 4,000 words on the thimbleberry plant, 3,900 words on folk musicians in Humboldt County and 4,300 words on the life of Bill the Chimp.”
Luckily someone else did all those stories. Each one was featured on the cover of the North Coast Journal over the last six weeks.
I can hear all 25 of you harmonica-playing, berry-eating, karaoke-crooning Bill fans groaning, but hear me out. I worship at the temple of Bob Dylan, I have nothing against karaoke or chimps and I wish I had the scientific aptitude to be a botanist. It’s not that a local paper shouldn’t write about any of the subjects. But 4,000 words on each story? For those of you who don’t measure the world in words or newsprint inches I’ll put it in perspective. A typical front page story on any daily newspaper might be 15 inches — less for a Gannett paper, more for the New York Times. That’s roughly 500 words before the jump. Let’s say the jump triples the total length to 1,500 words.
That’s considered a very long newspaper story. A typical magazine story will run 2,500 words. When you get to 4,000, you better be writing for Vanity Fair or the New Yorker. Again I hear those groans, so let me state this: Until May, when my subscription ran out, I was an avid New Yorker reader for going on 20 years. Renewing it has been on my to-do list ever since. I particularly like those 30,000-word profiles about people I’d never heard of who do something I never thought I’d be interested in.
When you waste words you waste your reader’s time. It’s all about the reader, not the writer. Overly long stories say this about writers: They care more about writing the stories than they care about people reading them. They scream out that the writer thinks the reader has nothing better to do than read the story; that there is nothing more fascinating out there to read (let’s see, thimbleberry story or Harry Potter?), and there is nothing important or fun to do (let’s see, karaoke story or the Giants?).
Why is the New Yorkerdifferent? Because the reporting is so thorough and the writing is so good that every one of those 30,000 words matters. You get sucked into a New Yorker story. You start reading four paragraphs and before you know it you’ve been sitting on the toilet for half an hour. Now, the thimbleberry story was kind of interesting, but did the reader need to hear Heidi Walters call up restaurants to find out that no local bakers bake with the fruit or that Jerry Martien has never written poetry about it? Who cares? And the Bill the Chimp piece by Daniel Mintz. While the reporting is top-notch, it’s like Titanic, the movie. Engrossing until you’re two-thirds of the way through, then you just wait and wait for that damn ship to sink and Leo DiCaprio to die.
A story needs to deserve its length. A writer has to consider each word in it as if it were money — it has to be well-spent. An overly long story says that the paper has nothing else to write about. It screams filler. If the NCJ had shortened each of those stories to a reasonable 2,000 words, it could have given us an extra story per issue for the same cost of the newsprint. When I went to grad school in New York we used to say there were eight million stories in the naked city. Here there are 130,000. Surely that’s enough potential stories to keep the paper filled each week. I’d like to read more stories like the June 14 cover story by Heidi Walters on Tyrone Kelley, the director of the Six Rivers National Forest. At 3,500 words I would have trimmed that one too, but as a story about someone important to the region, a decision maker over an area many people care deeply about, at least it deserved the length.
Another story this paper did recently that was worth its length was Hank Sims’ piece on the North Coast Railroad Authority v. hike-bike trail battle. Not only did every paragraph give you new, interesting and relevant information, but at the heart of the story was a compelling conflict — the lost-cause fight to bring a rail line back versus the dream of biking and hiking along the bay from McKinleyville to Fortuna. Is there a similar conflict with thimbleberries or karaoke? Not quite. And forgive me, but when Bill died, so did the conflict.
There is a word for wasted words, and that’s “drivel.” Many of you will argue that’s just what I’ve written here. I teach my students that you can generally spot drivel in journalism if the article begins with the word “I.” But I just got you to read more than 900 words, and chances are you are still on the toilet.
Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. If you want to comment on this story or let her know of some media coverage or issue you’d like her to look into, email her.