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Déjà vu all over again

Plus ça change some seasoned hands quipped when they heard that the news from Reuters will be, well, shorter.

New limits on wordage came into force this week. They are 400 words for spot stories, 800 words for exclusives, insights and main trunk stories on major news, and 2,000 words for special reports. Reuters advises its journalists to stay well below those limits.

Exceptions will be permitted, and correspondents will have a say in making the case for them, but editors will grant them only rarely.

There have already been grumblings, and warnings of further demoralisation, from bureaux. Correspondents who are supposed to be freed up to work on more important stories will have to spend even more time negotiating their copy through editing desks, they say. This has been a major complaint over the past two years.

The 400-word spot story rule represents a cut of one-fifth on the 500-word limit stipulated throughout the Americas earlier this year.

Why the change? And what’s different from the last time a hold-down on wordage was decreed, and the time before that? Word count edicts have been issued many times before, but story lengths always gradually increased.

The difference now is recognition that more and more people are reading news on hand-held, connected mobile devices - smartphones and tablets. They are ideal for brief bites, but not for the feast of long form journalism favoured by many newspapers, particularly in the United States. The decline of printed newspapers and their transfer to digital output is well documented. While some put their news behind paywalls, many provide comprehensive coverage free to online consumers. As does Reuters and its rivals.

It's easier to write long than to write short, editor-in-chief Stephen Adler reminded Reuters staff on Tuesday.

“Yet the reader is almost always better served when we're succinct. In the age of mobile delivery and multi-tasking, tight, clean writing is more important than ever.”

The new story length limits “don't alter our commitment to deliver more and smarter exclusives, insights, and agenda-setting Special Reports,” Adler said. “The limits do reflect our commitment to use the fewest words necessary to tell our stories fully and well.”

He added: “There are, of course, plenty of good ways to shorten stories without losing necessary facts, perspective or color. These include eliminating repetition, tightening transitions, keeping direct quotes short, and limiting comments from analysts. Let's work with each other to hone these techniques.

“Although I generally resist hard and fast rules, I believe the new length limits will make the Reuters file more useful to our customers, and I thank you in advance for your support in this effort.”

Two years ago, Adler’s deputy Paul Ingrassia issued a note to editorial staff on story length, which he admitted “has some history here at Reuters”.

He wrote: “Last year [2011] we abolished the arbitrary ‘length limits’ that had, all too often, substituted for the sound judgment of reporters and editors in deciding how long a story should be. Rules that allowed a story to be spiked because it was, say, 632 words, not 600, were counterproductive and plain silly.

“But while the length rules were abolished, the need for disciplined editorial judgment and good common sense was not. Telling readers everything they need to know in as few words as possible is the essence of good writing. Our regional copy editing and top news desks are grappling with far too many stories that disregard a common sense approach to length. Overwriting holds up stories, creates bottlenecks, frustrates editors and reporters and serves our customers poorly.

“To be clear: we are not returning to the days of spiking stories because they popped over an arbitrary length limit. But editors will push back on overwritten copy and routinely ask: ‘Does this length make sense?’ We don't want rigid rules, but it's imperative that all of us exercise good judgment.”

Has the world changed that much in two years, asks a Reuters veteran who is still on the payroll and so requests anonymity. “Or is it just another example of the flip-flop management style… Two years ago timings did not matter, now they are back. Two years ago small cap reporting was frowned upon, now we are hiring dedicated staff for it. Two years ago we hired big names by the dozen and made a big song and dance about it. Now most of them are gone without a trace.”

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

As the great Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, renowned for his verbal infelicities as much as for his skill on the baseball field, is reputed to have said, it’s just like déjà vu all over again. ■