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Reuters news: the long and the short of it

Reuters set out new guidelines for news coverage in the Americas aimed at excellence in breadth and depth. The result will be greater discipline on story length - under 500 words - to make time for more reporting and editing of distinctive content. A three-month pilot project will start on 15 May.

In a note to editorial staff, Reuters Americas editor Dayan Candappa admitted that at first glance it appears to be yet another push for brevity. However, greater discipline on story length will only be one outcome of the initiative, not its major objective, he said.

Persistent staff questions about Reuters mission stem from the fact that customers want two kinds of stories: commoditized items that look much like those competitors would publish and distinctive stories containing information or ideas that are exclusive to Reuters. Both types of stories are hugely valuable. “The greatest news organization in the world must excel at both to give readers the breadth and depth they expect,” Candappa said.

“While it is no silver bullet, we believe managing story length will help do both things at once. The key to producing lots of commoditized stories is to keep them short, publish quickly and move on. We often spend too much time reporting, refining and updating stories that will never set us apart from the crowd. That takes time and money away from the reporting and editing that should go into distinctive content.

“So here’s what we propose. Almost every story Reuters produces in the Americas should be shorter than 500 words, unless we have exclusive information or a unique idea that will make it distinctive. We want to apply this principle to all types of stories, both initiative and spot, although to avoid foolish consistency we will sometimes make exceptions for a few very big stories.

“We hope that all of us will take to this like ducks to water and will soon be so busy working on distinctive stories that everything else will get published with amazing efficiency. We also recognize that old habits die hard, so we will ask a group of editors and bureau chiefs to act as gate-keepers. If you want to breach the limit, you'll have to convince one of them that you have something unique to say about the story - a perspective or a piece of information that our competitors would like to have but don't.”

How long should the story be when it is agreed it warrants greater length? “As long as it needs to be. Ideally, the editor and reporter will agree on a sensible length, but we do want to give people who go the extra mile to dig up unique material as much room as they need to display it.

“While this is a small tweak to the way we work, it does require a big change of mindset. And we want to get this right."

Candappa said all three Reuters regions - the others are Europe, the Middle East and Africa and Asia-Pacific - are pushing towards the same goal of excelling simultaneously at breadth and depth. ■