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DOWNLOADWashington Post story length memo (PDF format, 30 KB)

The directive has just come down from on high at the Washington Post: “Every story must earn every inch.”

That, at least, is the philosophy being imposed on editors and writers at the Post by top dogs Leonard Downie Jr. and Phil Bennett. In a memo distributed today, the newsroom leadership has categorized the various sorts of stories that the paper runs, and slots them into prefab frames. Here’s the plan in the bosses’ own words:

  • “A small event, or an incremental development worth noting can be a digest item. The digests are important for readers.
  • A day story, significant enough to write for our readers but based on one event or development – 6 to 15 inches. We frequently end up with 12-inch holes in the paper. Let’s use them to the best advantage.
  • A single event with multiple layers or levels of information, 18 to 24 inches.
  • A more complex news feature of ambition and altitude – 25-35 inches.
  • Major enterprise, involving in-depth reporting or narrative story telling – 40 to 50 inches.
  • Extraordinary long-form narrative or investigation, magazine-type stories – 60 to 80 inches or, rarely, more.”

OK, so who’s in charge of making the call on what constitutes “major enterprise” vs. “extraordinary long-form narrative or investigation”? That’s an issue that could divide the Post newsroom for decades to come. Just imagine the conversation:

Writer: Hey, this is extraordinary long-form narrative or investigation right here. I get 60 to 80 inches, and possibly more.
Editor: Actually, I see this as more of a major enterprise story, so I’m gonna go with 40 to 50 inches.
Writer: If you can’t see that this is an extraordinary long-form narrative or investigation, I’m going up the org chart on this one.
Editor: OK, but watch out: Downie may rule that this is a more complex news feature of ambition and altitude, and you know what that’d mean.
Writer: Yeah, 35 inches, tops.

Disciplining story lengths has been a notion kicking around at the Post for some time. Although the memo doesn’t pointedly mention them, this is all about all those young readers out there who’ll somehow rededicate themselves to newsprint if the average story size shrinks from, like, 800 to 758 words.

But story length is not such a huge crisis at the Post. Preachiness is a more pressing problem, and, on this front, the memo promises a lot more of the same.

Take this excerpt, about the importance of the almighty nut graf in any good story that earns its inches: “Is there a high, clear and powerful nut graf? Even the most extraordinary narrative needs to get to the point. For stories on the front page and section fronts, we must get to the nut graf before the jump.”

So, the Post needs to tell the reader what the story is, right? Well, maybe not. Just a couple of graphs later in the memo, we get this: “Show, don’t tell. Can you animate your characters and recount events in a way that will let the scenes and voices speak for themselves, rather than using the reporters’ voice to tell it all?”

Didn’t someone edit these editors?