Newsweek audience executive weighs in on word count strategies

By Amalie Nash


Denver, Colorado, United States


In my quest to unerstand the importance of word count in news content, 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 didn’t 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?

There’s really only one rule when dealing with story lengths: You can’t 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 there’s 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 hasn’t 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.

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About Amalie Nash

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