Evaluating print and broadcast news in the San Francisco Bay Area from A to F.

Posted August 15, 2003

The Value of Brevity
commentary by John McManus

Chris Lopez, the new managing editor at the Contra Costa Times, has promised a $50 bonus to reporters for front page stories shorter than 8 column inches—about 300 words.

Concise reporting has always been prized in newsrooms; neither readers nor viewers have time for extra words. But paying a bonus for short stories is rarer than a dry nose in a day care. Journalists at other Bay Area news media I contacted hadn’t heard of the practice. Neither had Bill Woo, a professor at Stanford who began his career as a journalist 41 years ago.

An editor at the notoriously tight-fisted Oakland Tribune quipped: “Why pay $50 when you can just cut the story?”

It’s no laughing matter at the Times. One staffer, who asked anonymity to avoid retaliation, saw the memo as evidence of declining news standards at the paper. If a local story is important enough to shoulder aside news from outside the region about the recall election, the occupation of Iraq, and other momentous issues, shouldn’t it be fully reported, rather than briefed? Or does this signal priority for simple stories that can be told in a few paragraphs?

The memo, distributed to the newsroom on August 11 and provided to Grade the News by a Times journalist, dangles a carrot, but also waves a stick at the newsroom. Under threat of poor evaluations and beat re-assignments, Mr. Lopez demands front page stories from every reporter not writing a column appearing elsewhere in the paper. Short stories and those emphasizing story-telling and human interest will enjoy priority.

As a Chronicle reporter noted, this was the strategy that earned USA Today such scorn before it was abandoned.

In an interview, Times Managing Editor Lopez said the paper was not changing direction under his command. “We’re a local newspaper and our franchise has always been and will always be development of local news.”

[If you’re counting, you’ve just reached 300 words.]

“I’ve been on a kick since I’ve been here on length of stories,” he explained. “I’m always on the length issue, but I’ll never turn away a hard-hitting in-depth story. We want to do it all.

“The front page is about a lot of things. I like to see a container story — a story that doesn’t jump off the front page — that you don’t need to wade into for 20 to 25 inches. I don’t think every story on the front page has to be deep in reporting.”

Grade the News evaluated the front page of the Central and East County edition of the Contra Costa Times from July 10 to August 9 and found only one “container” story — a 6 incher containing the surprising revelation that Contra Costa County will have to rent a voting system at a cost of $750,000 to accommodate the number of names of would-be governors on the recall ballot in October.

The story about “the cost of democracy” was sketchy — as six inch stories about important developments often are — but neither soft nor unimportant. We didn’t learn, for example, what the system is — punch card, computer-based, other, or why the previous system, which could accommodate scores of local, state and federal races plus ballot initiatives would be overwhelmed by a single race (albeit with over 100 candidates), or where the extra money would come from, or whether the county was uniquely unprepared for the ballot. But it was a quick read and didn’t jump inside the paper. (Disclosure: the story was written by reporter Matt Krupnick, a member of the Grade the News Journalist Advisory Board.)

Mr. Lopez has been managing editor since May. While the memo may forecast a trend toward making the Times a snappier read but less relevant as a news provider, there’s no evidence so far that brevity has subordinated other news values as the primary selection criterion for the front page.

What do you think?

Grade the News received this response, August 22, from 20 members of the Times staff

Mr. McManus:

Because your recent story on a memo by Contra Costa Times’ Managing
Editor Chris Lopez received more attention than it deserved, we feel
obliged to set the record straight.

To characterize Lopez’ memo regarding contained front page stories as
anything akin to Gannett’s reputation for McNugget journalism is
ludicrous. USA Today ran into early criticism because of its goal of
containing almost all front-page stories. That is nothing like what Mr.
Lopez proposed. We agree with him that an occasional contained A1 story
brightens the newspaper.

If your intent was to imply that we have gone downhill, there are no
facts in your story to support it. No one at this newspaper, especially
Mr. Lopez, has advocated cutting substantive stories to avoid jumps from
the front page. Your own analysis showed that we published only one
contained story in the past six weeks. What, then, Mr. McManus, was your
point?

As to your comment that we work at this paper under threat of poor
evaluations or job loss, surely you do not mean to suggest that under
performing journalists remain on the beat at other newspapers? Mr. Lopez
simply reiterated the long-held standard to which he has held reporters
during his more than three years here as regional editor, assistant
managing editor and managing editor.

We’ll let the facts speak for the quality of our work. Under Mr. Lopez’
direction, the Contra Costa Times this year received the highest number
of awards in the California Newspaper Publishers Association contest in
Division Two and won its fourth General Excellence Award in five years.

If your commentary is to be considered news about this newspaper, or Mr.
Lopez, it deserves a grade of F. (We have now reached 317 words, further
evidence that reporters at the Contra Costa Times have little
inclination toward brevity.)

Sincerely,

Thomas Peele
investigative reporter

Daniel Borenstein
political editor

Michael Taugher
environmental reporter

Lisa Vorderbrueggen
transportation and growth reporter


The following staff members added their names to the letter:
Denis Cuff; Matt Krupnick; Steve Trosky; Corey Lyons; Alice Crane; Sandy
Kleffman; Andrew McGall; Joan Morris; Andrew Lamar; Claire Booth; T.
Scott Marshall; Rebecca Rosen-Lum; Jackie Burrell; Michael J. Adamick;
Peggy Spear; Jacquie Oliverius.

 

 

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A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

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