Articles — November 20, 2014 at 12:59 pm

When Faster Takes Longer: Length, Authority, and the Fate of U.S. News / Kevin G. Barnhurst

by

Kevin G. Barnhurst, Ph.D.
Chair of Communication in the Digital Era
Institute of Communications Studies
University of Leeds
k.barnhurst@leeds.ac.uk

Abstract

As communications go faster, has daily news followed suit? Journalists say yes, technology made cutting texts easier, but news articles have been growing longer for more than a century in U.S. newspapers, newscasts, and websites. Why? Economics can explain the growing containers — pages, programs — but not the increasing words. As journalists gained status, the occupation rewarded longer stories on important topics. Long news freed reporters from menial labor but made them elites whose longer stories grew less accessible and popular. In the Internet era, faster-paced news creates an illusion of speed, hiding the long journalism trend that discourages citizen-audiences and brings legacy media into crisis.

*

Everything is going faster these days. First radio picked up the pace and then television followed, requiring shorter attention spans. Along came faxes, then electronic mail, and now text messaging on cell phones. MTV made images move faster, and television commercials got shorter. Critics call it sound-bite society or McDonaldization, reducing information to nuggets. Has daily news gone along with the trend?

Some journalists say yes. Science writer James Gleick summarized the view: “USA Today caters to your more modern reading habits by keeping copy short. Other newspapers have catered to them by going out of business.” [1] Journalists also point to the shrinking of sound bites on newscasts and the rise of images everywhere. The two trends interrelate: as pictures become more prominent, they squeeze out words. In magazines, “the 4,000-word article has become a relic, […] boiled down to a 400-word blurb that is little more than a long caption.” [2] Following the trend in magazines, journalists say, daily news has gotten shorter.

Others are less sure. Jon Franklin, a reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun in the 1960s, remembers, “If we ran longer than twenty inches, our endings were subject to arbitrary amputation.” [3] He says in the early 1970s managing editor Philip Heisler changed the rules, announcing “in a voice loud enough to carry halfway across the newsroom that all important stories would henceforth be at least fifty inches long.” [4] Franklin says that “similar scenes were being played out across America.” [5] He became a specialist in long journalism, winning the first Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and the first Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing. In the 1980s, the pendulum swung back, he says, and long stories fell out of fashion. Industry research showed that readers rarely stuck with a story once it jumped to an inside page, and so the era “ended by thousands of managing editors popping out of their offices and announcing that, henceforth, no story would jump off the front page.” [6] Trends in journalism recur, Franklin says, and in the mid-1990s the American Society of Newspaper Editors published a new study showing that readers value longer stories, but five years later the American Editor magazine began to question the “mistaken belief that the more important a story, the longer it must be.” [7]

Andy Glass, whose journalism career spanned more than half a century, says the New Haven, Connecticut, Journal Courier in the 1950s received news on a machine that set the type and justified it in columns. “It was virtually impossible to edit,” he said in our interview, and so “stories tended to be longer” back then. [8] He moved to the New York Herald-Tribune in 1959 and joined the Washington bureau in the 1960s but says, “I cannot remember any prolonged or any sustained discussions about story length. It literally never came up.” After stints at the Washington Post, on Capitol Hill, and at the National Journal magazine, in 1974 he joined the Cox newspaper chain, where he became Washington bureau chief and columnist. He recalls “editors generally pressuring the bureau to keep it short: ‘You’re writing too long.’” During the 1990s the Cox newspapers went through redesigns for more white space and changed formats so that “their physical size went down,” Glass says, creating “a direct demand” from top editors “to keep the story short.” He remembers technical limitations keeping stories long in the 1950s and 1960s, not much change in the next two decades, and “strong pressure for shorter stories, consistently since the nineties.”

What journalists see depends partly on their jobs. Editors and producers who manage newspaper space or on-air time always pressure reporters to be concise. If editors are succeeding, news is getting shorter. Reporters sense the demand for brevity waxing and waning, but the best articles that attract colleagues’ attention, influence political change, and win prizes may run long but are the exception. Usually their writing seems short because news by definition is brief and everyday experience pushes them to write shorter. If they had to bet, journalists would wager that daily news has been getting shorter.

The Long Odds

Michael Kinsley was onto something when he surmised by 2010 that “newspaper articles are too long” and so “seekers of news are abandoning print.” [9] News has been getting longer: print journalists have been writing longer, television journalists speaking more, and even journalists on U.S. National Public Radio, the home of extended reporting, have been talking more in longer stories. In three different papers with different circulations geographically dispersed in U.S. cities of different sizes, [10] news articles grew longer over a century (Figure 1).

Barnhurst_Fig1

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At the New York Times and the Portland Oregonian, the length of stories doubled during the century. The Chicago Tribune stories also ran longer, although not as much. Stories about three different topics — accidents, crime, and employment — all went up. The changes were substantial, not only overall but also for each newspaper and for each topic. The stories grew longer at different newspapers, for different topics, and in different places across the United States. [11]

Compared to a one-paragraph New York Times story on a factory adding jobs in 1894, a 1994 story on jobs on Staten Island ran 27 paragraphs describing the revival of the port. A typical crime story from the Chicago Tribune of 1894 ran one paragraph: “James McCune of 319 South Green street, a packer, is at the County hospital with a fractured skull. He was knocked down by William Warrington of 528 South Halstead street, a teamster. The men quarreled at West Congress and South Halstead streets. The police held Warrington without booking him.” The Tribune no longer runs local crime stories that short. [12]

After the 1960s, accident stories showed a steep increase in length. Two accident stories illustrate how news got longer. Shortly before the turn of the century, the Times contained a two-paragraph item that begins this way: “Four-year-old Dora Cohen was run over before her father’s eyes by a horse and wagon in front of her home, at 87 Hester Street, at 7:30 o’clock last evening. The child’s ribs were crushed in and she died an hour later in her father’s arms.” The second paragraph reports a chronology of the accident, describing the street, express wagon, and driver. [13]  Short items disappeared over the century, so that by 1994 the Times covered only much bigger accidents. A report on a flooding incident in Fort Fairfield, Maine, on April 19 that year runs much longer by adding information on previous floods, state emergency measures, the damage, and what triggered the flooding. [14]

Another way to look at the length of stories in newspapers is by counting the number of items on the front page (Figure 2), something a separate study did with a clear result. [15]

Barnhurst_Fig2

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Again we studied three newspapers: the major metropolitan daily San Francisco Chronicle, the smaller urban daily Springfield, Illinois, State Journal-Register, and the small-town weekly Peterborough (formerly Contoocook) Transcript of New Hampshire. For every story, including the headline, text, and any related pictures, one other item such as a stand-alone illustration or an advertisement also ran on average. The one-to-one pattern did not change in a century, but what did change was how many stories could fit.

A typical front page in 1885 had room for almost twenty-five stories, but by 1985, the number dropped to just below five. Other things happened, of course: the pages themselves got smaller, the text type got larger, the advertisings disappeared from front pages, and more photos and illustrations took their place — but at the same time the stories themselves got longer. A century ago, most stories that began on the front page ended on the front page; only the biggest stories continued on another page. By the late 1900s, the five stories on a typical front page ran long enough to jump to another page inside the paper, and the segment inside could be longer than an entire story from a front page of the late 1800s.

U.S. newspaper reporting of the early 1900s gained fame for its brevity, especially compared to the European press. Despite the pressure they always feel to be brief, U.S. journalists were writing longer news stories than their colleagues did a century before, at least in the case of newspapers.

What about Television?

The picture on U.S. evening news is a bit more complex, but TV news reports have grown longer. Some studies have extrapolated from the declining number of news stories and the static length of newscasts to surmise that stories are longer. [16] Two studies took direct measures of story length, showing that the average news report grew from just over a minute and a half (96 seconds in the first period, 1982 to 1984) to more than two minutes a decade later (adding 28 seconds) on the big three broadcast networks: ABC, CBS, and NBC. [17]

Television moved faster in other ways. Election reports on the broadcast networks went from about three minutes in 1968 to two and a half in 1988. [18] The reports were always short, the equivalent of about twelve inches of text in a typical newspaper column. By the end of the 1980s journalists had cut down on pauses, but most of the lost half minute resulted from the shrinking sound bite. Audio and film or video clips of sources speaking fell to less than a quarter in length from 1968 to 1988 (from 43.1 to 8.9 seconds), a drop so dramatic that ‘sound bite’ became a household term, fueled debates among media critics and journalists, and spawned a cottage industry of books and articles.

Journalists themselves were talking more. Researchers can measure length several ways: how long journalists went on each time they talked, how often they talked in a report, and what share of the total time they were speaking in a report. By the three measures combined, journalists gained ground. [19] Although they ran slightly shorter each time they talked, they spoke more than twice as often, and their share of the average election report grew in a clear trend (Figure 3).

Barnhurst-Fig3

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The anchors and correspondents spoke much more often, and correspondents also spoke much longer as a share of each report. Sources had a much smaller share. In a typical election report from September 27, 1968, Walter Cronkite introduced the topic (11 seconds), presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey spoke at length (69 seconds), and political reporter Morton Dean summed up by saying, “It’s been just about that way at almost every campaign stop,” before signing off (30 seconds). [20] CBS then aired a second report on Nixon’s response, including the anchor’s introduction and wrap up (totaling 23 seconds), correspondent John Hart’s introduction, description, and sign-off (48 seconds), and four sound bites (82 seconds) of Nixon rejecting any debates (including the quip, “It’s one thing to ‘Give ’em hell,’ but it’s something else to give ’em Humphrey, believe me!”). [21] That meant ten seconds more for Nixon. The central element in the reports was the politician talk. Journalists did a lot of talking, too, but they used some of that time to quote directly or paraphrase what the candidates said.

Now, compare that pattern against coverage from 1988. [22] An ABC newscast on September 28 also includes two political reports. In the first, anchor Peter Jennings introduces (in 27 seconds) candidate Lloyd Bentsen’s “strong words” critical of his opponent Dan Quayle: “I would pray for the good health of George Bush every night.” Then to describe “the new post-debate rock ’em, sock ’em Michael Dukakis,” correspondent Sam Donaldson speaks six times (for a total of 78 seconds) and weaves in five sound bites, four by Dukakis and one by the Soviet foreign minister (47 seconds total). The journalists speak more than the politicians. Coverage continued with a second report, which Jennings introduces (6 seconds), followed by Brit Hume speculating on the intensions of then Vice President George W. Bush to present a down-home image (14 seconds), playing a snippet of three country music singers on Bush’s campaign bus (9 seconds), and disparaging the luxuries on the bus (21 seconds). Bush delivers two sound bites from video of a street rally (19 and 7 seconds), saying, “We do not need to put the IRS on your tail for the rest of your life as a reward for a college education.” Hume uses his last two comments to contrast Bush and opponent Michael Dukakis (10 seconds) and criticize Bush’s “among-the-people” tactics, saying, “Did that also mean he would answer reporters’ questions? Not today. After all, you can carry this accessibility stuff too far,” before signing off (17 seconds). Although the reports were slightly shorter, journalists talked more often and spoke longer overall, unlike the politicians, whose sound bites averaged about 10 seconds. [23] The reporters again used some of their time to paraphrase and quote each candidate, but they also did something new: they talked about themselves and how politicians were treating them.

Another way to look at the change on television news is by counting the number of times journalists appeared on screen. A study of election reports on the big three networks’ evening news (Figure 4) shows that the rate more than doubled. [24]

Barnhurst-Fig4

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In the late 1960s, the anchor delivered a typical report during the Nixon – Humphrey campaign, and so a correspondent appeared in only half the stories. By the mid-1980s the anchor would appear twice during an election story, usually at the beginning and end, and the reporter covering the campaign would appear twice as well. Correspondents were appearing four times as often as they did twenty years earlier. [25]

In 1988, the number of shots with journalists dropped, along with visual elements such as graphics, captions, and video clips. Networks at the time were making less money from advertisers, who pay less when programs attract smaller audiences. Audiences of U.S. network news were shrinking in the mid-1980s. The use of VCRs, remote control devices, and satellite dishes gave viewers more freedom; and the new networks of broadcast stations, cable systems, and super-stations gave viewers more options. The big three networks eventually lost almost a third of their audience. Facing severe budget cuts and staff layoffs, they simplified news reports, reducing the number of visual elements and the frequency of journalist shots. [26]

Politics also played a role. By the 1988 election, candidates had learned the lessons of the image-conscious Reagan era. Bush and Dukakis postured for cameras in media events designed to convey a message through images. Political handlers set up scenes for the media and distributed video press releases. The networks reacted to candidate visuals with skepticism, scoffing for example at the image of Dukakis on a tank with his helmet perched awkwardly on his head. [27]

For the 1992 campaign, the networks began to pool their resources, buying more stock video footage and funding a joint exit poll. The cost-saving measures made them look more alike, and so they again added more visual elements. They used graphics, sets, and a cast of commenting journalist personalities to differentiate themselves from the competition. Visual techniques also insulated the networks from the flow of ready-made images that the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Ross Perot campaigns distributed and from the growing influence of their spin-doctors. The numbers of journalist appearances climbed to a new high that year. [28]

What happened on the small screen relates to what happened in print. For U.S. journalism, newspapers were the place where the first newscasters got their training and where they looked for standards and inspiration. In newspapers the length of articles jumped between the 1950s and 1970s, during the time when television network newscasts moved from fifteen to thirty minutes and became more than headline reading services. Without making TV stories longer, newscasters did try, unsuccessfully, to expand the evening news to an hour. Following the lead of newspaper reporters, they did a bigger share of the talking on air and appeared on screen much more often.

The Long Got Longer

Newspapers and television were once the main sources Americans turned to for daily news, and journalists in both places were going longer, contrary to what audience members and journalists themselves expected. Was there an exception to the pattern?

National Public Radio (NPR) seemed a likely candidate. [29] All Things Considered started out in 1970 to provide alternative news during the early evening, when the television networks were broadcasting conventional news. It built its reputation on long, sound-based features unlike anything on commercial radio. By the time Morning Edition joined the program schedule late in the 1970s, NPR news was already becoming less of an alternative outlet, but did reports get shorter as NPR news evolved away from feature style? A study of election-year content from 1980 to 2000 found that instead they grew longer (Figure 5). [30]

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The typical report on NPR got almost a third longer. Longer reports meant less room, and there were fewer stories in each broadcast. In 1980, the programs would air about eight segments in thirty minutes, but the number fell to seven by 1984 and six by 1988. In 2000, only four segments aired during a typical half hour. T[Kevin Bar1] he number had fallen by half after two decades. [31]

Initially, the two programs followed different patterns. Morning Edition ran short features designed to fit the needs of commuters, and All Things Considered was less tight, with more variety and some lengthy reports. Slowly the two programs began to resemble each other. In 1992 Morning Edition went from ninety minutes to two hours, matching its afternoon counterpart in another expansion. [32]

One factor making the news longer was politics. Political reports generally run longer than other topics on NPR news. A typical day’s coverage of the U.S. presidential campaign includes two reports from the trail, but on average the coverage ran more than a minute shorter for candidates Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980 than for George W. Bush and Al Gore twenty years later. The largest jump of some forty seconds occurred in 1992, when Bill [Kevin Bar2] Clinton first ran for election. [33]

Other stories covered politics besides U.S. national elections, such as federal and state policies, court decision skirmishes, and foreign government actions. NPR reported on more politics of all sorts and the share of political reports doubled between 1992 and 1996 alone. In 1980 only one out of six stories covered politics and by 2000 the sh[Kevin Bar3] are had grown to one out of three. Over the period, all sorts of stories grew long, the broadcasts extended longer, and one of the longest topics took a bigger share of airtime. [34]

Were journalists talking longer? The study showed they were. Although sound bites (the recordings of sources) shrank on NPR, the average speech of journalists stayed about the same. In a 1980 All Things Considered story on a speech where Reagan faced hecklers, he has three sound bites (averaging 34 seconds) and takes up more than half of the time (in a report of almost 3 minutes, 30 seconds). The reporter provides transitions between the excerpts. [35]

Sound bites got longer on NPR over the next two election cycles, but then began to shrink. By a 1996 health care discussion during a presidential debate, Clinton and Bob Dole spoke five times (averaging 2 seconds) for less than a sixth of the report (that runs more than 6 minutes). The journalists in contrast spoke eleven times (averaging 24 seconds). The shrinking reached a low point in 2000. During a routine campaign update from Michigan on All Things Considered, October 5, two of Gore’s sound bites amounted to a greeting, “Hi guys,” followed by the sound of laughter in a day-care center, then his departing “Bye-bye.” The journalists spoke seven times, always at length (averaging 21 seconds). [36]

What happened? Longer reports and expanded programs made room for everyone to talk more often. Journalists spoke more often too, but their speech did not shorten when the NPR sound bite began shrinking, and they also began interviewing each other as sources. One way to see the overall result is by adding up all the talk of journalists and comparing it to the total for other speakers during the programs. The change is clear (Figure 6).

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Click on the image to expand.

Although it bounces around from year to year, the trend was up almost 10 percent on average every four years. Journalists always did the lion’s share of the talking during NPR news, and they talked even more, increasing their total time by more than half. The increase for others was smaller, about one third. Did their speech expand because the reports grew longer? No, after controlling for the length of reports, the difference between journalists and others is still strong. The journalists’ portion changed the most, enlarging as an element of the longer reports and the longer broadcasts.

News Moves Online

What happens to news may depend on the Internet, which arose during years of high expectations and criticism of mainstream news organizations in the 1990s. Tom Koch, a reporter and editor who worked for United Press International, predicted in 1991 that new technologies would “eventually redefine” news, perhaps making stories longer and more involved. [37] A decade later, a majority of U.S. newspapers had an online presence and journalists said that technology was changing what they do, [38] but it remained unclear how news stories might change online. Instant electronic distribution could focus journalism on brief scoops, but the web has almost unlimited space for reporters to write longer accounts. By 2009 journalists responding to an insider survey for The Atlantic magazine could not “see anything on the Internet that produces news, that is, detailed responsible empirical journalism” and concluded: “The Internet trains readers to consume news in ever-smaller bites.” [39]

Did reports get shorter as journalism focused on web editions? Studies tracked the content changes as newspapers moved online, [40] comparing the changes at sites by newspapers from the hundred-year study: the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Portland Oregonian. By 1994, news stories had grown in length (to 3.0 on the 10-point scale). [41] Online the stories were even longer by 2001 (surpassing 3.5 on the scale) but fell in 2005 and then rebounded in 2010 (Figure 7), following a saw-tooth pattern common in content over the short term. [42]

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Click on the image to expand.

The biggest change occurred in the Oregonian, often the briefest of the three newspapers. By 2010 it approached the average. The New York Times continued running the longest stories, but the three websites became more alike in story length. All the topics reflected the return to longer stories. Accidents stories were the shortest, followed by crime, employment, and politics, consistently the longest topic since 2001. At first, the newspapers posted mostly identical stories online, and by 2010 most staff-written stories were still similar online and in print, but a growing share of stories (especially those from wire services) never saw print.

Even when websites pushed toward short reports, the string of reader comments could lengthen them. In 2008 the Fort Myers, Florida, News-Press published a five-sentence, seventy-five word accident report online, but generated three web pages of reader comments. [43] Most of them stated opinions ranging from compassionate to cruel; only a few contained new information. The result was longer bodies of text, contrary to the image of U.S. news as short.

The Economic Explanation

What made news grow longer? Journalists say the biggest changes in news happened because of competition. In their 1992 history of television news, a former Washington bureau chief for newspapers and a former NBC White House correspondent said that newspapers had to change because of television. Journalists from prestige newspapers witnessed the change. Before the 1960s, newspapers thrived on telling the story first. Eugene J. Roberts, who reported for the New York Times, says, “Papers were event oriented” in the 1950s. [44] Then television began to scoop print reporters every day, outstripping even the fastest presses.

Newspapers responded by publishing longer stories. The shift began in major papers and spread through the wire services. The Associated Press distributed a 40,000-word report, a previously unheard-of length, after North Koreans seized the USS Pueblo in January 1968. Long stories seemed like an antidote to TV news. Afternoon papers faced the most direct competition, losing readers to the evening newscast, but the p.m. press fought back. In Minneapolis, the Star went though a redesign in 1978: “Small insignificant stories were replaced by long” ones, and the increased white space and larger photos meant the paper “contained a smaller volume of news.” [45] The effort failed and in 1982 the Star merged with the morning Tribune. Even so, Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post concluded in 1988, “We no longer write as if our stories were breaking the news for the first time.” [46] Once they could no longer beat the competition with a first-day story, newspapers instead published something called a second-day story, reporting the event at greater length.

News articles got longer well before television arrived on the scene (see Figure 1): they began growing decades earlier. Newspapers dominated the media landscape through the first half of the century, with many millions in combined circulation, but before television they confronted a different challenger that delivered news through the air: radio. “Since the early 1920s, newspaper executives had been disgruntled,” journalists say, because of “radio delivering headline news and selling advertising.” [47] Beaming a bulletin by radio required less equipment than by television and took the first bite out of newspaper advertising revenues. Newspapers responded by publishing longer stories during the radio era.

The same thing occurred as news magazines emerged. In the 1930s, they began publishing much longer accounts of each week’s events. A magazine could do extended pieces looking back over several days, besting what newspapers could manage in a second-day story. The daily press responded by making stories even longer. In the 1950s when television emerged, newspapers used weekly news magazines as a model. A former editor of Newsweek took over the reigns of the New York Herald-Tribune in 1957, promising to do every day what news magazines took a week to do. His period as editor of the Tribune “had a lasting influence on other papers,” say journalists. As newspapers again made their stories longer, magazines in the 1960s “turned from summarizing news of the week” to writing longer, “thoroughgoing articles.” [48]

In the 1990s, a mix of existing and start-up providers began to carry news on the web, which lacks either the time limits of television or the space limits of print. The Internet can be the king of length, but how did newspapers respond? They were publishing longer stories by 2001 and after some experimenting mid-decade resumed publishing longer stories by 2010. The retrenchment in the length of articles included different newspapers and story topics and applied to print and Internet editions. [49] Journalists experience competition as a never-ending game of short-term thrusts and parries. No matter what kind of competitor emerged — shorter radio and television news, longer magazines and Internet news — newspapers responded the same way, with longer articles. On the air, newscasters talked relatively longer, not only in the highly competitive evening news on television, but also on NPR. Competition presents a paradox. Journalists remember making their own product different, but the opposite occurred.

Newspaper, television, and NPR journalists all saw each other as competition, but they all produced news. Each outlet might get its scoops and pride itself in telling the whole story, but everyone had to cover all the important stories. When products compete in the market, they tend to become more fundamentally alike. The differences that distinguish one from another become more superficial, although the claims made about them become more exaggerated. Entertainment programming on television began with a variety of forms in the 1950s, but within a decade settled into a limited menu, with all sitcoms, to take a common genre, very much alike in structure. The same thing happens in consumer products, such as those designed to clean teeth: the nineteenth century powders are gone and toothbrush makers today claim big advantages for what are cosmetic differences.

The clearest example is the length of newspaper and television coverage. For years, TV stood accused of being a lightweight. When Cronkite started out as anchor for CBS News in the 1950s, he wanted to end each program by advising viewers: “For more information, read your local newspaper.” [50] After network executives nixed the idea, he instead chose the phrase, “And that’s the way it is.” He thought that reports on television or radio could not “deliver all that a citizenry needed to be well informed.” [51] Almost forty years later, at his urging, the Media Studies Center at Columbia University compared newspapers with television. Cronkite reported the results during a 1995 special on the cable Discovery Channel. The ABC, CBS, and NBC evening news had room for about 4000 words a day and were similar in other ways. They covered mainly the same stories and spent about the same amount of time on each one. Only a fifth of their time went to unique stories. A viewer who tired of the O. J. Simpson story on one network could change channels, but the three newscasts, then as now, had almost identical content.

The surprise was that network news compared favorably with the sorts of newspapers that most American newspaper readers once read at the time. Mid-sized dailies like the Atlanta Constitution and the Des Moines Register had room for more words, what editors call a larger news hole. The papers dedicated about 7750 words a day to all national and international news stories, but almost three-quarters of the coverage overlapped with the evening network news. The stories newspapers covered exclusively were short, averaging only 175 words apiece or the equivalent of less than a minute of network airtime. The important stories — the long journalism —overlapped with television news. The study also found that “network news coverage of several top stories was either comparable to or in some cases superior to coverage in the midsize daily papers.” [52] The newscasts dedicated more words to some major national stories, including flooding in California and the reform of the welfare system. The assumption that newspapers always provide coverage more extensive than what network newscasts offer, the study concluded, “is not true.” [53]

The trends have continued, so that the main news outlets in the market become more alike. The news is the news, at least in the major U.S. media. The main stories get similar coverage in newspapers, on television, on NPR, and online. Unique or original coverage is minimal in any mainstream medium. For years, I played a little game with myself on Sunday mornings. Reading the New York Times while listening to the NPR news program, Weekend Edition, I would keep score. My sons used to marvel at my ability to do both at once, but I never really did. On major stories and even on features, the two became interchangeable. After reading the story in the Times, I had no need to listen closely. After hearing it on Weekend Edition, I could skim the Times report. Although economics do matter in the long run, the market did not force news organizations to differentiate. Journalists remember the push and pull of everyday competition in the short term, and on television they feel acute constraint. The market did what it has done with everything from shampoo to hamburgers: it made competing products more alike. In daily news, journalists have been going longer for a century, through all sorts of economic conditions.

News Containers in History

Words are one of those things that come in an almost unlimited supply. Talk is cheap. Economics has a hard time explaining anything that defies the iron law of scarcity. Oversupply has resulted in disaster ever since the fairy tale pot made boundless porridge on demand: porridge soon fills the town, driving everybody out, and no one can return without eating a pathway back.

Where to put the endless supply of words? In any news medium, the answer is a problem of containers. In newspapers, each page imposes a constraint, but publishers can make the pages bigger, or they can add more pages. Within those limits, they can also make each story longer. Story length is flexible, perhaps the easiest thing to change. That means length has two external dimensions: the number of containers (page count) and the size of container (page format). Page count and format are somewhat rigid; story length is not. Looking at the former over a long period of time may help make sense of the latter.

How have the physical containers for news changed through history? A study of U.S. newspapers tracked all three dimensions from the eighteenth through twentieth centuries (Figure 8). [54]

Barnhurst-Fig8

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Newspaper operators decide how many pages to print. The decision in essence sets the number of containers — how big should a newspaper be? Early on custom controlled the decision almost entirely; the number of pages started out as a rigid given. Newspapers were four pages during the colonial era and stayed that way for a century, continuing through the federal period of the early republic. Even when they came under the control of political parties during the partisan era, most newspapers printed the two sides of a single sheet and folded it in half to make four pages. A news periodical was called a “newssheet” because it was just that, a single sheet, and the singular term “newspaper” also derives from the extended period when custom developed a vocabulary about news.

Publishers had no need to increase the number of pages as long as they could increase the size of the sheet they already published. The format — the size of the container — responded initially to the political climate. Newspaper pages in the colonial era were the size of book pages, but the American Revolution changed that. Under pressure to present more news during the conflict, printer-editors increased the page size. During the early years of the republic, newspaper pages were about the size of magazine pages today. During the partisan era, more readers and a growing market that traded (and advertised) more goods continued to push on the limited page size. Technical changes allowed the format to grow consistently larger. U.S. newspapers reached the size of standard broadsheets and then surpassed them in the nineteenth century. At their largest, Victorian newspapers used sheets of paper — big as a baby blanket today — called, appropriately enough, blanket broadsheets.

Newspaper publishers considered the huge pages and huge capacity for news a technical achievement of imperial proportions. They wedded the politics of empire with technology. To fill such large pages, they industrialized newsgathering, hiring more news gatherers and correspondents to generate a reliable supply of news. First the telegraph and then the telephone helped increase the quantity of news available and speed its transmission.

The blanket broadsheet pushed things to their limit. Presses had gotten larger and might grow larger still, but paper was expensive. The format then bumped into a human boundary: how big a page any user could physically handle. If newspapers were to continue growing, they had to expand in another direction. Slowly the custom of printing and folding a single sheet gave way. The change began in the larger cities, where some papers went to eight pages in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Not coincidentally, “politics lost its old prominence as papers grew longer.” [55] Articles on other topics filled the extra room.

At first custom controlled the number of pages, but politics began changing the format. Later, economics began influencing the page count and format. Technology and practical limitations had an effect on politics and economics, but publishing profitability eventually became the biggest factor for both. In the 1870s James E. Scripps founded the Detroit Evening News, expanding newspaper circulation into the under-served working-class market by slashing the price by more than half, to two cents a copy. To cut costs Scripps reduced the size of the printed page, reducing paper costs. His News “was approximately one sixth the size of other papers.” [56] The same economic logic spawned another competitor by the turn of the century: the tabloid press. The smaller format required less folding and assembly and was cheaper to produce. Working-class readers found it easier to handle on crowded subways and streetcars. Led by Scripps and the tabloids, the formats of all newspapers began to shrink after more than a century of growth.

By the 1920s, newspapers had begun to modernize. Modern newspapers strove for efficiency. Each time the cost of newsprint increased over the course of the century, broadsheets again reduced their page format. As other competitors emerged and newspapers began to lose circulation, installing more efficient presses that produced smaller formats became a favorite cost-saving measure. Little by little, the grand broadsheet of the late nineteenth century contracted, so that more than a century later it had become not much larger than a tabloid once was.

The large investment in presses makes the page format inflexible from day to day, but the number of pages in any edition is more expandable. As the format for news pages got smaller, the page count became more variable. Initially all Scripps newspapers were four pages, but by the 1890s newspaper publishing had changed. Retail moguls founded department stores that placed large advertisements, newsprint prices fell, and newspapers began to publish more pages. Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World reached sixteen pages and added new sports, comics, and women’s pages. Other newspapers followed suit. [57] As their management became more adept, newspapers might publish only a dozen pages on a day when advertising sales were slow but then put out a mammoth Sunday edition running into dozens of pages during a busy advertising season. Big stories — during wartime, say — could have the same effect.

How did the length of stories track with the changes in format and page count? Most of the time, it moved in the opposite direction. The colonial newspaper could carry long articles, written as letters from distant correspondents or transcribed from the actions of governments nearby, and the typical paper borrowed much of its content from other newspapers. The unit of writing was the essay. During the nineteenth century, all the factors that pushed up the format also pushed down the length of articles. The discussion among elite gentlemen during the colonial era gave way to a partisan debate by the mid-nineteenth century. The partisan press still published plenty of sermons and essays, but with the emergence of industrial newspapers in the 1870s, writing grew shorter. “Even editorials […] partook of this more condensed but lively style.” [58] The unit of writing became the paragraph, a form better suited to working-class readers without leisure time and to the give and take in a courtroom of public opinion. By the end of the century, the number of lists and tables swelled; debate had yielded to something more like a shopper’s catalog. Entire columns filled with tiny items, called ‘sparks,’ made the newspaper a compendium for assorted facts.

The direction then changed. While economic logic came to rule the other dimensions, story length somehow escaped. Throughout the twentieth century news stories grew longer. The economic constraints on newspapers increased, curbing page counts and shrinking formats, but news stories defied those pressures. The same occurred in other organs of the daily press, under their own technical and financial conditions.

For television news, the container capacity is the number of news programs. Custom at first required only a few programs for any broadcaster, enough to satisfy the Federal Communications Commission when it came time to renew a local license. The number of news programs remained stable early in television history, when networks (but not news divisions) were most profitable. News program format grew from fifteen minutes to half an hour in the 1960s. When networks attempted to expand the evening news to a full hour, local affiliates resisted losing control over another half hour of prime time. Other types of news programs in other time slots did adopt the one-hour format as standard.

Once the format (length of program) reached a peak, the space available to report stories during news shows began to decline. In the 1980s, networks became less profitable, and the number of news programs (containers) grew in response to the market, generating softer content with less original reporting. Talk is cheaper to produce than packaged news reports on television. On the network evening news, formats became a marketing tool. Advertising minutes increased along with the time spent in audiovisual introductions, teasers, closing sequences, and the like, but the format had less room left for the news reports themselves (and, not coincidentally, less time for politics). Even so, journalists expanded their relative share of talking. They went longer, just as newspaper writers had been doing.

A brief account of the development of newspapers and television cannot approach the nuances of the time, but the broad strokes seem clear. Market competition can explain changes in the containers and formats of news, especially in the twentieth century. The length of news stories is another matter. Perhaps economic forces and the pressure of big events and more information made news stories shorter in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, the new long journalism was not an economic phenomenon. It came from some other quarter.

The Status of Length

Longer news of course has more words per story, and all those additional words must be doing something more, but what? One possibility is that adding words made news more coherent or more rational, something words can do well. Each period in news history has presented a different view of the world. [59] The colonial era and early republic in America organized news according to a scheme of global history, moving from the important events at world capitals such as London through regional to local events in, say, Boston. Modern news is organized the other way around. Journalists begin from what they see as the concerns of the audience and cover only more-distant affairs they consider important enough to have an impact at home. The practice is especially strong in the local and regional press that most U.S. newspaper readers see each day.

Each succeeding period of the nineteenth century added another view of news. In the era of partisan politics, editors organized news as a national stage for political partisanship. Later, as economic life became more focused on manufacturing, publishers of the Victorian era organized news as an abundant marketplace overflowing with facts, including plenty of information about industrial goods. Since then, news organizations have retained some elements from previous periods. The partisan newspaper holes up on the editorial page, for example, but on other pages, news follows a different order, becoming a map of the social world. One reason that sections such as Entertainment, Business, and Society developed was to bring the right readers together with the right advertisers. Critics say that treating information as a commodity and treating readers as consumers (and then selling those readers in turn to advertisers), will be the end of journalism. [60]

The end of one kind of journalism and its view of the world has always given birth to another journalism. Each worldview was coherent and sensible in its time. The length of news stories did nothing to change that. The crowded Victorian newspaper, its front page filled to the brim with scores of unrelated advertisements, would make little sense to readers a century later, but it made sense to Victorians. The longer news of the twentieth century might have bewildered the Victorians but became sensible to its audiences. The point is that, over history, longer news has not automatically made better or worse sense of the world.

Going long does seem to track with the status of the writer. The authors of the epistles that ran in colonial newspapers were the elite, from the class of landed gentry who sat in government councils and eventually formed the United States. Writing and then seeing one’s words published in journals of the era went hand-in-hand with political status. Gentlemen like John Adams and James Madison wrote not so much for newspapers as for a public at first made entirely of their peers among the ruling elite. Each succeeding generation of news-authors through the nineteenth century was less autonomous.

Partisan editors had considerable power, but unlike colonial gentlemen, they worked within the constraints of the party. Partisan newspapers contained a record of political life and documented its speeches, political manifestos, and the like. The editors of the partisan press had a good chance of advancing into politics. More than fifty printers, editors, and publishers of political journals were elected to national office between 1789 and 1861. [61] Perhaps the most famous was Horace Greeley, a printer who worked almost forty years in journals of the Whig Party. He founded the New York Tribune in 1841 and won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1848, where he served one term. The prominent publisher ran unsuccessfully as the Liberal Republican candidate for president in 1872, shortly before his death. [62] At the opposite extreme was Missouri Democrat Thomas Hart Benton, a lawyer who served thirty years in the Senate, followed in 1853 by one term in the House. Before returning to Congress as a member of the House of Representatives, he spent three years working at the St. Louis Enquirer, which supported the Republican party of the time. In the partisan era, a revolving door developed between politics and the press. More than twenty-five former members of the first thirty U.S. Congresses took up newspaper work after leaving office. [63]

By the end of the nineteenth century, a new journalism emerged. It relied less on transcribing the documents of public life and instead manufactured items of its own. The concise, compact, and easily digestible items contained products called facts, something shocking at first. At the time they appeared, “the bald assertion of fact outside the conventions of public speech was a violation of good behavior.” [64] Reporters who transcribed public discourse lost their place to something new: journalists. A journalist took up the labor of the pieceworker, once paid by the line for the work of factual news production. Although their bosses, publishers like Joseph Pulitzer, continued to have political aspirations, journalists did not. [65] The editor Lincoln Steffens likened New York news workers of 1880s to machines stamping out facts, although journalists aspired to more than that. The sociologist Max Weber, in a lecture in 1918, remarked, “The journalist belongs to a sort of pariah caste,” with very little chance “to attain a position of political leadership,” and noted that in “the salons of the powerful on this earth,” journalists are called the “scavengers from the press.” [66]

Only within the corporate newspapers of the twentieth century did the status of journalists change enough to seem professional. The piece-workers still abound — part-time stringers and unpaid interns who crank out facts — but full-time journalists can lead a middle-class life. Some do much better than that: elite journalists at major news organizations, especially television, wield political influence. Cronkite, at his height as an anchor, was mentioned as a viable Vice Presidential candidate. [67] Although professional status usually prevents journalists from aspiring to elective office, they may accept appointed positions in government.

Among other examples, long-time Washington editor Andy Glass did a turn on Capitol Hill then became an editor and columnist. From television, Bernard Kalb entered government typically, interrupting a thirty-year career as a correspondent for CBS News and NBC News to become Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and spokesman for the State Department. His departure drew attention only because, after less than two years, he resigned in October 1986 to protest a disinformation program by the Reagan Administration. After placing professional journalism above political office, his return to journalism was again typical: as a commentator. He became host on Reliable Sources, the CNN program then airing on Sunday morning, and his critiques on the media appeared as the Back Page.

Going long is a sign of status. Elite writers write the longest and elite readers read the longest daily news. Elite news outlets put out the longest news reports on a given topic. There is something to be said for keeping the elite well informed. They are the most likely to vote and the most likely to have leisure time to spend on politics. It takes a good education to write persuasively to representatives and bureaucrats. Although elites may be too comfortable to join in civil protest, they are the most likely to contribute to political parties and to run for political office. The new, long journalism may serve them well.

A press primarily benefiting elites does not broaden democracy. Short news articles match the limited time and resources of the non-elite: the wage laborer, the working parent, the immigrant learning the language, the less educated, the young, the poor. Throughout history, longer news accompanied the rising status of journalists, but shorter news accompanied the rising popularity of news media. In newspapers, long news of the colonial era gave way to popular politics and wider newspaper circulation. The paragraph is a much more accessible unit than the essay for most citizens. The number and variety of people who appeared in the newspaper grew large in the Victorian press, and the number of readers was burgeoning as well, especially among the working classes. News was at its shortest then.

Modernists of the early twentieth century objected to shorter news. They considered the old journalism nasty and brutish, as well as short. It was noxious to readers because it gave them only facts. Longer journalism could tie those facts together. It was brutal to reporters because it doomed them to menial work. Longer journalism could free them from the assembly line. As modern newspapers adopted longer news, they became more exclusive on the whole, and simultaneously their popularity declined.

The quandary of the new long journalism brings into stark relief the interlocking fates of journalists and their audiences. Long essays made the colonial newspaper a nation talking to itself, in the phrase of playwright Arthur Miller, [68] but left out most Americans of the era. It would be too simple to conclude that length, by itself, is either good or bad. In the seventeenth century, the mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal apologized, “The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter.” [69] On television, shorter voice-overs and other speech by journalists were most common when newscasts were most widely viewed, during the decade beginning in the late 1960s. The erosion of the network news audience coincided with the period of lengthier talk by journalists after the 1970s.

Even when the capacity for words shrinks in any news format, the status associated with length encourages journalists to say a little more. In hundreds of small moments, all sorts of journalists in all sorts of markets covering all sorts of topics are making a choice. They are defying the editorial pressures to “Keep it short!” and the economic pressures that limit the available space and time. They are defying the electronic tweet and status post. They are going long.

The long-term trends are not the simple product of each journalist’s free agency; bigger things are at work. Political institutions and social structure leave their tracks in the day-to-day decisions of individual journalists. So the question remains: what have they done with those extra words? Perhaps as it grew longer during the twentieth century, journalism really did serve well the core cadre of dedicated, active citizens. Perhaps news abandoned its audience of common citizens because they abandoned news. Perhaps something else entirely was going on. In the past, each new kind of journalism may not have made more (or less) sense of the world, but it made different sense. Only close analysis of who, what, when, where, and why in the content in newspapers, on television and radio, and online can show how their sense of the world changed as journalism grew long. The return of long news online issues a rejoinder to the jeering technologists and shrinking audiences, but hints of a journalism out of touch with the society it serves.

References and Notes

[1] James Gleick, Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (New York: Pantheon, 1999), 140.
[2] David Carr, “Magazines: Rise of the Visual Puts Words on the Defensive,” New York Times, April 1, 2002, C-8.
[3] This and the following four quotations are from Jon Franklin, “When to Go Long,” American Journalism Review, December 1996, http://ajrarchive.org/Article.asp?id=1335 (accessed August 1, 2013).
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Larry Burrough, “The Long & Short of It,” American Editor, August 2001, 5.
[8] Andrew J. Glass, interview with the author, Cambridge, MA, December 3, 2001.
[9] Michael Kinsley, “Cut This Story!” The Atlantic, January − February 2010, 35.
[10] Kevin G. Barnhurst and Diana C. Mutz, “American Journalism and the Decline of Event-Centered Reporting,” Journal of Communication 47, no. 4 (1997): 27-53.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid., 34-35.
[13] Ibid., 34.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Kevin G. Barnhurst and John C. Nerone, “Design Changes in U.S. Front Pages, 1885–1985,” Journalism Quarterly 68 (1991): 796–804.
[16] Daniel Riffe and Arianne Budianto, “The Shrinking World of Network News,” in International Communication Bulletin 36, no. 1-2 (2001): 18-35; Daniel Riffe and Lori Spiczka Holm, “A Quarter Century of Television Network News: Fewer, Longer and Softer News Items” (paper presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, New Orleans, August 1999); Daniel Riffe, “A Deeper Look at the ‘Superficiality’ of Television News” (paper presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Anaheim, California, August 1996).
[17] D. Charles Whitney et al., “Geographic and Source Biases in Network Television News, 1982–1984,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 33, no. 2 (1989): 159-174; Steve Jones, “Television News: Geographic and Source Biases, 1992–2004,” International Journal of Communication 2 (2008): 223-252.
[18] Daniel Hallin, “Sound Bite News: Television Coverage of Elections, 1968–1988,” in Journal of Communication 42, no. 2 (1992): 5-24.
[19] Catherine A. Steele and Kevin G. Barnhurst, “The Journalism of Opinion: Network Coverage in U.S. Presidential Campaigns, 1968–1988,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 13, no. 3 (1996): 187–209.
[20] Ibid., 188.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid., 188-189.
[23] Ibid., 189.
[24] Kevin G. Barnhurst and Catherine A. Steele, “Image Bite News: The Coverage of Elections on U.S. Television, 1968–1992,” Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics 2, no. 1 (1997): 40-58.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid., 50-51.
[27] Ibid., 53.
[28] Ibid., 53-54.
[29] Kevin G. Barnhurst, “The Makers of Meaning: National Public Radio and the New Long Journalism, 1980–2000,” Political Communication 20, no. 1 (2003): 1–22, included only regular stories, not the news roundups and teasers that open each half hour segment.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Ibid., 9-10.
[36] Ibid., 15.
[37] Tom Koch, Journalism for the 21st Century: Online Information, Electronic Databases, and the News (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991), xxiii.
[38] Nieman Reports, “Technology Is Changing Journalism Just as It Always Has,” in Nieman Reports 54, no. 4 (2000): 4–30.
[39] Cyra Master, “Media Insiders Say Internet Hurts Journalism,” The Atlantic Online, April 2009, http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/print/200904u/media-insiders (accessed August 1, 2013).
[40] Kevin G. Barnhurst, “Technology and the Changing Idea of News: 2001 U.S. Newspaper Content at the Maturity of Internet 1.0,” International Journal of Communication 4 (2010): 1082-1099; Kevin G. Barnhurst, “Newspapers Experiment Online: Story Content after a Decade on the Web,” Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism 14, no. 1 (2013): 1-19; Kevin G. Barnhurst, “The Content of Online News in the Mainstream U.S. Press, 2001–2010,” Communication @ the Center, ed. Steve Jones (New York: Hampton Press, 2012), 231-251.
[41] Barnhurst and Mutz, “American Journalism and the Decline of Event-Centered Reporting.”
[42] Catherine A. Steele and Kevin G. Barnhurst, “The Journalism of Opinion: Network Coverage in U.S. Presidential Campaigns, 1968–1988.”
[43] Kevin G. Barnhurst, “The Fate of Two Stories: How U.S. Journalism Is Forgetting the People,” in Journalism: Theory, Practice & Criticism 10, no. 3 (2009): 282-285.
[44] This and the following five citations are from Robert J. Donovan, and Ray Scherer, Unsilent Revolution: Television News and American Public Life, Woodrow Wilson Center Series (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
[45] Ibid., 302-303.
[46] Ibid., 273.
[47] 258.
[48]272, 306.
[49] Kevin G. Barnhurst, “Technology and the Changing Idea of News: 2001 U.S. Newspaper Content at the Maturity of Internet 1.0.”
[50] The Cronkite Reports: Headlines & Sound Bites: Is that the Way It Is?, TV Show, moderated by Walter Cronkite, first broadcast 22 March 1995 by Discovery Channel.
[51] Ibid.
[52] Ibid.
[53] Ibid.
[54] Kevin G. Barnhurst and John C. Nerone, The Form of News, A History (New York: Guilford, 2001).
[55] Michael E. McGerr, The Decline of Popular Politics: The American North, 1865–1928 (New York: Oxford, 1986), 134.
[56] Richard L. Kaplan, Politics and the American Press: The Rise of Objectivity, 1865–1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 107.
[57] Op cit.
[58] Ibid. 131, fn. 20.
[59] Kevin G. Barnhurst and John C. Nerone, The Form of News, A History.
[60] Hanno Hardt, Interactions: Critical Studies in Communication, Media & Journalism (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998).
[61] Jeffrey L. Pasley, “The Tyranny of Printers”: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2001).
[62] Michael E. McGerr, The Decline of Popular Politics: The American North, 1865–1928.
[63] Jeffrey L. Pasley, “The Tyranny of Printers”: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic.
[64] Donald Matheson, “The Birth of News Discourse: Changes in News Language in British Newspapers, 1880–1930,” Media, Culture & Society 22, no. 5 (2000): 569.
[65] Michael E. McGerr, The Decline of Popular Politics: The American North, 1865–1928.
[66] Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” in Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), 96–98.
[67] Robert J. Donovan and Ray Scherer, Unsilent Revolution: Television News and American Public Life.
[68] Miller, Arthur, quoted in The Observer, November 26, 1961.
[69] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, The Provincial Letters (New York: Modern Library, 1941), 571.

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