News-writing: The long and short of it

I have, to quote that ear-worm hit from 1986 by Owen Paul, a new Favourite Waste of Time.

To be fair and accurate, Chartbeat isn’t a waste of time per se.

But you can easily spend your whole day on it, if you’re not careful.

It’s a fascinating, illuminating – and very sobering – tool for analysing what people are reading on our websites.

Big Brother-like, you can watch people in real time dancing from story to story, see which social media got them to our articles, and compare the different interests of our most loyal locals and our more fickle foreign followers.

And – this is the sobering bit – we can find out exactly how long people spend reading our stories.

Reporters have always been precious about their work, carefully and jealously guarding their cleverly-crafted wordsmithery, and badgering newsdesks and subs for more space.

What Chartbeat tells us is that the average reader’s attention span is gnat-like in its brevity.

I won’t give away too many trade secrets, but if a story gets more than a minute’s worth of the average reader’s attention, it is doing very well indeed.

The software presents editors, newsdesks and writers with heat maps for home pages and individual stories, underlining the low boredom threshold of most punters.

We’re now using Chartbeat to look tactically and intelligently at how to keep people on our sites for longer, adding more related content, pictures, video and links in the hope that we can convert casual browsers into regular returners.

But it’s those heat maps that have caused jaws to drop whenever I’ve shown Chartbeat to reporters.

It’s important to stress here that the lesson of the analytics isn’t that we should dumb down and slash all our stories to Ceefax length (ask your mum and dad about that, kids).

There are some interesting thoughts on story length in this academic piece on how to get greater web engagement – which, ironically I haven’t read every word of, because it’s 38 pages long.

It talks about ‘diversity of length’ – perhaps another way of explaining that old copytasting favourite, light and shade.

In other words, successful sites have a mixture of long and short reads, with that variety being the key.

The piece also points out that the most-read items on many sites can often be longer reads.

What is clear, though, is that our words need to fight for their place more than ever.

The temptation has always been to take advantage of the web’s limitless acres of space by pouring even more words into it than we pour onto a page.

But quantity rather than quality doesn’t cut it – quite literally.

A grey slab of text is a grey slab of text, wherever it appears.

We need to think more carefully about the way we package our news and other content – in print and online.

And we need to make sure that our words paint a compelling picture, bringing subjects to life rather than killing them under the weight of indulgent verbosity.

It strikes me that I’ve now written nearly 500 words of solid text.

So I’ll shut up now – and congratulate those of you who have stuck with me to the bitter end.


One thought on “News-writing: The long and short of it

  1. It just gets more depressing by the day doesn’t it?

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