Here’s how news organizations can write shorter and tighter stories

By: David Arkin
May 2, 2024
Featured image for “Here’s how news organizations can write shorter and tighter stories”

A publisher the other day opened their newspaper in front of me, pointed to a 30-inch story and said even he wouldn’t be able to get through it.

“And I own this place,” he laughed.

Funny, but actually not that funny. It’s this fascinating question on why we write so long when we probably shouldn’t in many cases.

But what is it that makes us write longer than we know we should?

It all comes from a good place. Writers are driven to tell a detailed and thorough story and want to include all of the important details and often that means stories get long. It’s simply hard to not include information you find vital.

But we all know that attention spans are short and holding your audience’s attention is harder than ever. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t write long — from time to time we should — but we have to think in all cases what is best for the reader.

I will try to not to make this very long (in the spirit of this post), but here are three things to think about when it comes to writing shorter:

1. It’s not really about length. It’s about holding attention.

I love a great enterprise story, the ones that hold your attention throughout, tell you something you didn’t know and break ground. Those take time and length and are completely worth it.

But not all stories accomplish those wonderful things. They simply are just too long. This is why thinking about how to hold a reader’s attention is critical.

Some stories need to be 1,500 words or longer but even those stories need components (breakout material) to hold attention. And it’s even more critical when it’s not that killer story you’ve been working on for weeks and months. Those stories really need a conversation on what approach to take to keep a reader’s attention. Is that doing it as a Q&A, building a nice interactive map or telling the story in a series of videos. Too often story development stops at what the reporter is going to cover, not how they are going to write it (format) and present it to the reader.

Reporters and editors have to ask themselves if they weren’t writing and editing that story, would they actually read it?

2. Give readers the answers they’re seeking

This week, on two separate occasions, I visited with editorial teams about writing stories about things that readers are curious about.

I’m sure you’ve seen the idea in practice, like KQED’s Bay Curious brand where the media company provides an avenue for readers to ask questions they’d like answers to and then they do reporting to provide it.

It’s simple but effective public service journalism and the content is so effective because the questions are very likely popular search queries.  So not only are you writing about things your audience cares about, but you’re writing about topics they’re searching for.

And the content doesn’t have to be super long.

They are stories that require a simple answer: when will this road be fixed or what will go in on the corner of 3rd street and main?

Look for more avenues like this that include original reporting that allows writers to answer single questions or issues.

3. Break up complicated stories

When you have stories with lots of moving pieces — think about a big  ongoing crime story — not having one long story, but something that helps someone navigate through different pieces (stories) can often be a better user experience.

And it keeps the content in lengths that are manageable for the reader.

Let’s provide an example: A big crime story develops where people are arrested and there are unanswered questions. Opposed to doing a single second-day story that touches on the events and updates of the crime, details on the backgrounds of those involved and a timeline, break it all out into separate stories:

• A main story with updates for the day (arrests, who will be in court, reaction)
• A what we know story (what’s the latest, timeline, what’s next)
• A profile on the suspects or victims (a who are they)
• Photos from the scene of the crime

This doesn’t make sense in all cases (the story has to be big enough) but it’s a good example of giving readers choices (updates, the latest, a profile).

We can help

We can help media organizations develop content strategies that center on giving readers what they want with story formats and strategies that help tell the right kind of stories at the right time. Reach out to me at or text me at 832 407 0188.

Recent Posts

Case Studies

We'd love to help your organization! Fill out the form below to get started.

I'm interested in: