May 20, 2014 at 1:00 am

COLUMN

The future: More news, fewer words

Are words going out of style? At a time when the public’s hunger for news reaches new heights, it is startling to hear the new word-count limits that Reuters and the Associated Press have imposed on their reporters.

Top editors at Reuters sent out a memo in early May that asks its writers in the Americas to trim their copy down to between 300 and 500 words for all but the most “distinctive” stories — meaning, stories that offer something that nobody else does. A top editor at AP set similar limits for his reporters and editors.

How should an old-school news scrivener and former assistant city editor like me view this development?

First possibility: There’s nothing new here. Editors always have called for shorter stories, even if only to save them the time and effort of reading longer ones. Quite often they were right. As an old saying widely attributed to many authors goes, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

Second possibility: Our world is coming to an end. People don’t read enough as it is — either for news or for pleasure. AP and Reuters, two premier news agencies since the early Industrial Age, are waving a white flag of surrender to the shortened attention spans of the Twitter Age.

Third possibility: Both the above are correct. Our world in print media is coming to an end, but only in the sense that the world of, say, Herman Melville came to an end when new forms of entertainment reduced demand for mammoth adventure novels like “Moby Dick.”

The old paper-based model of news delivery, which has served us well since the printing press was invented, is on its way out as the digital age comes rushing in. Our challenge is to figure out how to make the new digitally based business model anywhere near as profitable as the glory days of newsprint.

In the meantime, we old-school media types adjust and innovate. Reuters Handbook, for example, already advised 500 word limits for most stories, the memo reminded. What’s new are Digital Age justifications for enforcing those limits.

“Our digital customers know readers do not have the attention span for most long stories,” says the memo issued by Brian Carovillano, AP’s editor for U.S. News, “and are in fact turned off when they are too long.”

“Most readers tend to give up well before the 500-word mark,” Reuters’ America editor Dayan Candappa’s memo mentions, “if you have nothing original and compelling to say.”

The late Al Neuharth, creator of Gannett’s USA Today, would smile. The “McPaper,” as many called it, was greeted by traditionalists with a mixture of ridicule and wonder with its flashy reader-friendly formula of big pictures, colorful graphics, happy-talk headlines and only one story per section that was lengthy enough to be continued inside.

The ridicule faded when USA Today became one of the most widely-read newspapers in America.

“If editors were serious about shorter copy, which often takes more effort than longer stuff, they’d give their reporters more time,” complains Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer, another former newsroom editor. “But I expect few editors to embrace that suggestion.”

Clarence Page writes for the Chicago Tribune.