In letters and columns alike, less is more.
One letter was three pages long; the other, half a page. Which did you read first?
Admit it: Our attention spans are under siege. Most of the time we take the path of least resistance. It's the same for our readers, except their attention spans are shorter.
Newspapers are fighting for readers' attention against some sexy opponents, including television, radio, the Internet, and other digital sources that provide information in tight, quick, easily digested packages. Newspapers' counteroffensive has employed graphics, lists, tables, timelines, and digests. Magazines have made editorial content even briefer, hipper, and hotter.
The mission is to attract readers. Why should opinion pages be any different?
True, opinion pages have traditionally been the gray eminence of the newspaper, with the emphasis on gray. They are the places where thoughtful readers gather, editorialists pontificate, and the writers append academic lettering to their names.
And readers have been going right on past. Do we really want to write only for the academics and policy makers?
Opinion pages must still include thoughtful commentary and in-depth analysis of issues, but it benefits no one to do that work in a vacuum, lob One is to get the reader to the page. We must use graphics, photos, lists, digests, and ... yes, shorter reads.
Over the past year, we at the Visalia Times-Delta have installed many of these features on our opinion page. We have also insisted on shorter letters and used shorter columns as much as possible.
We're now directing local columnists to write to four hundred fifty words. We prize syndicated columnists who can get their points across in fewer than five hundred words. We edit columnists as tightly as we can without crimping the writer's message.
We still run longer columns. One day a week, we devote the page to longer treatment of a single subject with pieces of up to twelve hundred words. Many of our readers still appreciate a sit-down read.
We also want to attract those who read only on the run, because their numbers are growing, except among our readers.
Is that dumbing down the newspaper? Not necessarily. Lots of eight-hundred-word columns would benefit from a rewrite to five hundred words. Many columnists ought to take a break from their comfortable routines and practice writing tighter and brighter. It's not easy.
Remember Mark Twain's observation: "I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn't have the time."
Next time you are reading another newspaper, be sure to make note of the stories you stop to read first--in their entirety. You just might have to admit: Less is more (readers).
Paul Hurley is opinion page editor of the Visalia Times-Delta. When he submitted this piece to The Masthead it was 449 words. E-mail PHURLEY@ visalia.gannett.com
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|Title Annotation:||Briefer, hipper letters|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2005|
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