No one equates story-length with quality. Let’s start with that concession.
But still. Story-length is hardly meaningless when you consider what it takes to explain complex problems, like say, the financial crisis, to the broader public. Or when you consider what it takes to lay out the evidence needed to properly support a story that makes explosive allegations against a powerful institution. It takes space.
Put another way, there’s a reason David Barstow’s landmark expose of bribery and high-level cover-ups at WalMart ran to more than 7,000 words.
So, all in all, it’s more than instructive to check in on longform newspaper writing, and the start of a new year isn’t a bad time to do it.
And it’s pretty to shocking to see what’s become of the time-honored form since the newspaper industry’s great unraveling started a decade ago.
The Los Angeles Times, for instance, published 256 stories longer than 2,000 words last year, compared to 1,776 in 2003—a drop of 86 percent, according to searches of the Factiva database. The Washington Post published 1,378 stories over 2,000 words last year, about half as many as 2003 when it published 2,755. The Wall Street Journal, which pioneered the longform narrative in American newspapers, published 35 percent fewer stories over 2,000 words last year from a decade ago, 468 from 721.
When it comes to stories longer than 3,000 words, the three papers showed even sharper declines. The WSJ’s total is down 70 percent to 25 stories, from 87 a decade ago, and the LA Times down fully 90 percent to 34 from 368.
The New York Times’s record was more mixed. It published 25 percent fewer stories over 2,000 words from a decade ago, but 32 percent more stories over 3,000 words.
A reporter at one of the papers surveyed suspected as much and compiled the data below, which I double-checked, using simple searches of the Factiva database that measured only word count within a given year. Of course, there are caveats. Many longer pieces are compilation-type articles, such as listings or capsule reviews. But since all papers run them, it seems fair to compare them apples to apples. The data source selected in each case was the main print newspaper alone, as opposed to subsidiary editions (e.g The Wall Street Journal Europe) or online-only material. So the data are not definitive. But the print search in Factiva is the fairest, cleanest comparison between papers.
Responses from the WSJ, LAT, and the Post are below the graphs. The Times’s Eileen Murphy simply notes, correctly, that the paper has been “fairly consistent” in the number of longer stories it publishes over the years.
So without further ado:
The number of stories longer than 2,000 words published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, from 2003 to 2012:
And the same for stories over 3,000 words:
The reduction in longform comes, of course, in the context of a general industry decline. It’s important to note that the number of stories published overall is down at all the papers, with the exception of The Wall Street Journal, which actually published more stories in 2012 (40,070) than it did in 2003 (33,133). So here is a graphic of stories longer than 2,000 as a percentage of total stories at the four papers.
Here are the responses: