Reuters, AP Suggest That You Should, Like, Maybe Cut Your Word Count, OK?


If you had the chance to read our recent interview with Facebook media coach Bill McGowan or our talk with the journalists-turned-content strategists at Bateman Group, you may have noticed a recurring theme: brevity.

Everyone’s all about it.

Now both Reuters and The Associated Press have officially agreed that news stories should come in two varieties: short and shorter. Why? Consider this sentence:

“Our best work does not stand out among a sea of bloated mid-level copy.”


The issue here is that editors at the top two news services spend far too much time…well, editing. This may sound redundant, but consider the fact that the AP alone produces approximately 2,000 stories every day–and each must be as close to “all killer, no filler” as possible in order to ensure that people actually read it. Some highlights from the AP memo:

“We are failing to exercise important news judgment when our stories are overlong and not tightly edited.

Our digital customers know readers do not have the attention span for most long stories and are in fact turned off when they are too long.”

Sad but true. Here, then are the not-exactly-new guidelines:

  • Most daily, bylined digest stories: 300-500 words
  • The top 1-2 stories in each state: 500-700 words
  • The very top global stories of the day, at or near the top of the the digest: 700+ (but still tightly written and edited)

The Reuters version, released on the same day one week ago, is strikingly similar:

“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.

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 also recognize that old habits die hard, so we will ask a group of editors and bureau chiefs to act as gate-keepers.”

Sounds…frightening. Yet, lest you think Reuters reports will now be too bare-bones to bother reading:

“How long should the story be when we agree it warrants greater length? As long as it needs to be.”

Do these guys not sound like PR/marketing professionals? Here’s another piece of sage advice from Mr. McGowan:

“Even after writing for TV for 20 years, I go back to every email I write and figure out a way to remove 20 words.”

We would give you an example, but this post is already 424 words long. Whoops.

The question: is this move a positive development in terms of content quality, or is it yet another sign of a public less interested in spending the time required to absorb the news and its many subtleties? And what does it mean to your clients, who might receive less space in future reports?

Also: someone please pass this information along to The New York Times as a friendly suggestion.

[H/T Erik Wemple at The Washington Post]