News That Fits

Is shorter ever better? Yes, when it's on the front page of the Contra Costa Times.

Size matters to Chris Lopez, managing editor of the Contra Costa Timesnewspaper and a champion of news in brief. Earlier this month, Lopez instituted a policy of paying his reporters a $50 bonus for front-page stories, hard news or feature fluff, that come in under 8 column inches of type -- a newsroom measurement that equals about 300 words. Apparently Contra Costa County's attention-challenged readers need more news they can digest in shorter chunks, or so thinks their newspaper.

In a memo to staffers, Lopez called these "container stories," meaning that they are fully contained on the front page, so that readers don't have to bother with the unseemly business of turning pages to finish a story.

Of course, in the fine tradition of cynical, grumpy reporters, someone leaked Lopez's memo, which wound up on "Grade the News," a media-monitoring Web site affiliated with Stanford's graduate journalism program and public television station KTEH.

"It's an odd thing," says "Grade the News" director John McManus of the Lopez diktat. McManus notes that bonuses have traditionally been given for things like, say, a job done well rather than a job done in miniature.

"It's another step toward marketing as a value in the news, and that's a bad direction," he adds.

We can imagine the possible marketing slogans:

"Serving readers with attention-deficit disorder"

"All the information you need for small talk"

"We read the news so you don't have to"

"Protecting readers from paper cuts"

Lopez didn't return our calls by deadline (perhaps because we fancy longer stories), but he told McManus he's been on a kick about length since arriving at the CoCo Times in 2000. McManus doesn't think Lopez wants to slash all stories to 8 inches (something that some other papers, notably USA Today, tried a couple of decades ago with limited success), so much as encourage more of the pithy quick-reads that fit nicely on one page. And brevity, after all, has been a hallmark of the news racket since Paul Revere concisely warned citizens of a British invasion.

(Historical note: In olden times, there were people known as editors whose job it was to edit stories that were too long or difficult to read and make them better. Sometimes, the editors even decided which news was most important and interesting, and put it on the front page.)

A review of the Times' top stories in recent days shows that its reporters probably haven't received many $50 checks lately. Most of the stories -- related to Iraq, the California recall, and other hot topics -- measure longer than 8 inches, in the pesky way that important news has of requiring explanation and context.

In his memo, Lopez stressed that his reporters are required to write for the front page (do Times reporters normally compete to get their stories on Page 16?), which makes his incentive plan all the more dumbfounding. For instance, a reporter covering an important event could likely produce two 8-inchers in the time it takes to complete a 16-inch article (a common length at daily papers), earning an extra $100 by the simple expedient of leaving out story-elongating facts and explanation. Conversely, the author of a single, more complete story is left with the satisfaction of a job well done, but no extra cash. But we're sure that bonuses would never tempt ethical journalists to alter the length of their stories.

Veteran newsies recognize Lopez's policy as one of those media trends that change like the seasons.

"This is a periodic spasm that editors have when they decide that everybody is writing too long," says Susan Rasky, senior lecturer in the University of California's Graduate School of Journalism. "Fortunately, they go away when it becomes clear that it's impossible when news happens."

In any event, it's a long way from the venerable New York Times motto, "All the news that's fit to print," and closer to its classic parody, "All the news that fits, we print."

 
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