How long should a newspaper article be? Editors across the world have grappled with this question and imposed word limits.
Some newspapers have copied the brevity of social media at the expense of comprehensively dealing with the subject matter.
Studies on how long articles should be reveal contrary findings to current practice among some newspapers. In a December 2013 article, “I thought long form was dead – then I saw these awesome stats,” Liam Corcoran for NewsWhip reported the outcome of an investigation into the length of articles that get the most shares for major publishers and they established that long-form content was preferable to readers.
Quartz editor Kevin Delaney is quoted in the same article as having said that their publication does not publish articles between 500 and 800 words – the length that much newspaper reportage traditionally falls into. Instead they prefer more in-depth and analytical features of around 1,200 words.
A 2017 follow-up study by NewsWhip revealed that on average, people still prefer long-form articles, with the New York Times coming out on top, with an average of over 1,000 words for its ten most socially engaged stories in December of 2016.
My own experience in writing has taught me that preference on any article has nothing to do with word count.
Although I have written more 700-word pieces than longer pieces, it is the lengthy ones that have become memorable articles if we go by how widely they were shared on social media.
Content rather than arbitrary word counts matters most in the likability of any article irrespective of where it is published.
The New York Times’ 2017 Journalism of 2020 report, Journalism that Stands Apart, perhaps summed up the debate on word count by quoting one of their journalists as having said, “The 800-word news story is the bread and butter of the print product, but time and again we have seen studies (and can see in our own traffic statistics) that those stories struggle mightily to perform well online. Everyone in the room seems to know this, but we continue to produce them out of some rote allegiance to a product that fewer and fewer people read.”
One other aspect that arises from the research findings is that readers do not prefer long strings of text that are uninterrupted by illustrative visuals.
There is therefore no justification in limiting word count to 800 if indeed it does not perform well online in an increasingly digital world.
Jerry Seinfeld, an American stand-up comedian, actor, writer, producer and director once said, “It's amazing that the amount of news that happens in the world every day always just exactly fits the newspaper.”
The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito