Why you should pay closer attention to story lengths

By Amalie Nash


Denver, Colorado, United States


As I prepare for INMA’s World Congress of News Media in London a matter of days, I look forward to talking about newsroom transformation and its intersection with the other parts of the business. I’m eager to hear about the biggest challenges facing media companies, how priorities are changing as a result of AI, and how brands are reimagining their futures.

I plan to bring you takeaways from World Congress afterward — from how speakers on the main stage are talking about newsroom evolution to insights from those participating in the Newsroom Transformation Initiative workshop.

If you’ll be in London for World Congress, I’d love to meet. Send me an e-mail, and we’ll find time to connect: amalie.nash@inma.org.


Is there a disconnect between word count and engaged time? 

Multimodal storytelling and story formats are important considerations at the outset of the planning process. But what still doesn’t get enough attention: story lengths. 

When I was with Gannett/The USA TODAY Network, we analysed story lengths in an effort to better understand whether word counts influenced engaged time, subscription conversions, or other data points. Here’s what we found:

  • Overall, word count had increased by 8%-9% across all story types during both of the two years we looked at data. 

  • We saw relatively little difference in pageviews or subscriptions per story between a 500-1,000 word story compared to one fewer than 500 words. 

  • Our takeaway: Plenty of stories support longer lengths, but we needed more discipline and tighter writing. We should only write to the length a story demands.

  • Why? Audiences want more digestible content. And yes, formats count, but if a story can be short, it often doesn’t need to be overly formatted. 

Story lengths came up during a recent conversation with Chartbeat, which analysed millions of articles of 10,000 words or fewer that were published between January 2019 and April 2022 to find out how average engaged time changes as word count increases.

Among their findings:

  • The average percentage of loyal readers, or readers who have visited a site at least eight of the last 16 days, is highest on articles of 2,500 words or fewer. 

  • Loyal readers tend to read more pages per visit but spend less time on individual pages.

  • Articles of all lengths have their place in your content strategy and can be used together to increase recirculation and engagement. 

That study also underlines the takeaway above: Longer articles can be more engaging, but at some point, the return on additional length is less certain.

Do you measure story lengths? What have you seen? E-mail me amalie.nash@inma.org.

Let’s ask an expert: How should we approach word counts? 

I turned to a former colleague and data expert to get his take on how to think about story lengths and what advice he has for news leaders. Josh Awtry was Gannett’s vice president of content strategy and is now the senior vice president of audience development at Newsweek.

We’ll start with this from him:

“A quote often attributed to Mark Twain (it was actually most likely Blaise Pascal, a 17th century French mathematician) which revolves around the notion of I didnt have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one. Writing short is a skill that takes time — if you can do it well, it almost always results in stronger, more focused work. But it always carries the risk of chopping out unique quotes or context that readers deserve.”

Here’s an edited version of our conversation:

How important do you think story lengths are? The Internet is unlimited, so does it make a difference if stories are longer or shorter?

Theres really only one rule when dealing with story lengths: You cant fool the audience. A baiting headline may be able to entice a “click,” but only legitimately engaging content can keep someone reading — whether that’s in the writing or reporting.

Writing a long story is often easier from the reporter’s perspective, but it often takes more time to edit and stands a great chance of losing people before they get to the important parts. 

For me, it’s about leaning into making incremental news as short as possible so it really stands out when we swing for the fences with great writing and exclusive reporting. That’s when you cash in that saved time to cut loose with long or multi-part stories.

Do you think story lengths should be discussed or mandated at the story ideation process? Does that stifle creativity?

Mandated? No. Discussed? Sure. Giving a reporter a rough word range can help set expectations as to the story’s worth and cause less friction in the editing process. Nobody likes to see a story get chopped unexpectedly, so it’s better to solve that on the front end.

Do you think there’s an ideal length for a routine story?

Even “routine” stories can vary in importance and subject matter. A routine recap of a pie-eating contest or a routine rundown of the county’s most dangerous intersections, for example. But, to make a messy dotted line between them all, there’s a sweet spot of 500-600 words rattling around my brain. Maybe that’s the ink in my veins showing, since that’s roughly the length of a print column on a moderately narrow Web width, but something about it feels right.

How would you recommend newsrooms approach looking at story lengths?

It’s a holistic conversation that touches on everything from newsroom strengths — the skill of reporters, the number of editors, whether theres a copy desk — all the way to the business model of the publication.

Is it an ad-driven news outlet? What’s the ad map like? Impressions per page are an important part of making payroll; if stories are too short, it could impact that metric.

Or is it an outlet primarily driven by subscriptions? In this case, it becomes more about the quality of the visit and engaged time. Story lengths could be more fluid here, but it’s still imperative that we don’t waste a reader’s time.

Early in my career, a colleague carried a sketchbook with “pity the reader” on the cover. That was nearly 30 years ago, and that advice hasnt aged a day. At a time when there are countless things vying for reader attention, from competing news outlets to mobile games or streaming services, the most important thing we can do for our readers is ensuring that we’re not wasting their time.

What’s the right story length? The shortest it can be without cutting into any of the great stuff that makes the journalism in that story unique. That may be 300 words, it may be 3,000.

What resonates with you in this advice? E-mail me: amalie.nash@inma.org

Recommended reading list: a few links and insights 

I’m again offering up a few articles that caught my attention recently, with links and takeaways. If you want more examples and aren’t already in our Newsroom Transformation Initiative Slack channel, please join the conversation there, too.

  • The holy grail for subscriptions is engagement, but how is engagement defined?

    • I got a chance to meet with Stefan ten Teije of smartocto recently, and he is the author of this article.

    • He talks about the difference between loyalty and engagement and the fact that, on average, only 3.8% of readers can be classified as habitually highly engaged readers.

    • Quote from the piece: “Never forget that, while engagement metrics may well record activity about specific articles or topics exceptionally well, understanding human behaviour (i.e. loyalty) gets into the bones of what drives, thrills, and, yes, engages the readers who are most likely to subscribe — and stay subscribed.”

  • How The New York Times is using visuals to boost podcast discovery and grow listenership

    • The Times is testing podcast episode-specific art on audio platforms and the Times’ own audio app, so that instead of using the same logo for every new episode of “The Daily,” it can use graphics and photography relevant to that episode’s topic to see if that brings in new listeners, for example. 

    • The Times is also working on adding more video into its audio app.

    • “Consistent” listenership growth has been achieved due to three initiatives: journalists and columnists market their own shows to readers, a focus on weekly shows, and regular new programming.

Mark your calendars

Upcoming INMA events that shouldn’t be missed:

  • April 22-26: Join me at the INMA World Congress of News Media. This year’s conference includes a Newsroom Transformation Workshop on April 26. Would love to see you there! Register here for the conference, workshops, study tours, and more. 

  • May 15: This is the next Webinar for the Newsroom Transformation Initiative, where we’ll talk about how to reduce the amount of time spent on producing a newspaper to focus more on digital. Hear case studies from Aftenposten and Politiken. Register here.

About this newsletter

Today’s newsletter is written by Amalie Nash, based in Denver, Colorado, United States, and lead for the INMA Newsroom Transformation Initiative. Amalie will share research, case studies, and thought leadership on the topic of bringing newsrooms into the business of news.

This newsletter is a public face of the Newsroom Transformation Initiative by INMA, outlined here. E-mail Amalie at amalie.nash@inma.org or connect with her on INMA’s Slack channel with thoughts, suggestions, and questions.

About Amalie Nash

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