This and that
by Jonathan Kaufman
Is there anything that alcohol can’t do?
In August, Washington Post Managing Editor Cameron Barr and his fellow senior editors decided to do something about a problem that had been niggling at them for some time:
Articles were becoming too long, often for no good reason.
“We were seeing too many pieces that were in the mid-range of their ambition and their success — coming in at 60, 70 inches of copy,” Barr said. “We were seeing the same thing in a number of blogs, where pieces were just too long, and we felt as though editors were not applying the necessary discipline and rigor in how these pieces were being handled on the desk.”
The solution? A newsroom-wide initiative to cut down on editorial flab, Barr said. Since the middle of August, he’s asked Post’s department heads to take responsibility for articles longer than 1,500 words online or 50 inches in print. Bylines, captions, headlines and subheadings don’t count.
The idea, Barr says, is to “promote a sense and awareness of responsibility” among reporters and editors that stories shouldn’t be long for length’s sake.
Barr hasn’t crunched the numbers on cumulative story length since the initiative went into place, but he’s noticed more pieces coming in at just under the 1,500-word benchmark.
The senior editor who runs the copy desk produces a list of stories that go over the line, which Barr keeps an eye on. But there are no consequences for going over — just the occasional revision for a piece that is deemed “unnecessarily long.”
“What we want to do is make the writing better,” Barr said. “We’re not interested in punishing people. It’s not a data-driven enterprise. It’s a quality-driven enterprise.”
There are, however, rewards for coming up short. Editor-reporter duos who turn in a front-page enterprise story under 1,000 words are awarded the “Brevity Cup,” a distinction that comes with drinks out with a managing editor. The first winners, reporter Ann Marimow and editor Mary Pat Flaherty, won for a front-page story about a court battle over a D.C. gun ban and will soon be treated at The Jefferson, an old Post haunt.