Paul Rilling: Making long stories shorter (and better)
Apr 01, 2011 | 3039 views |  0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In March, The Star ran several in-depth stories about state and area concerns. These stories are an important part of the newspaper’s responsibility to the community. Americans depend on their newspapers to report complex subjects in understandable, clear language. Newspapers do these kinds of stories better than other media. They have more space than television newscasts have time to report them.

But the longer stories necessary for this kind of reporting pose problems as well as opportunities. Surveys have shown that newspaper readers are impatient. They tend to skip long stories. This means that the longer story is harder to write. It requires more careful organization and display to attract and hold readers.

• “Clouded judgments” was a review of state open meetings and open records laws (March 20, Page 1A). The story, by Laura Camper, took up eight inches on 1A and 62 inches on 8A. The story was well presented on the front page with a color screen and a photograph. When the story jumped to 8A, it became a solid mass of type.

There are techniques that can be used to lessen reader fatigue with a long story. Several were used with this story. It was strikingly presented. It was well organized. Boldface subheads were used on 8A to break up the print.

Other techniques could have been used. This kind of story will be long, but the length can be lessened by tight writing and organization. Not every detail learned about the subject has to be included. This story included five paragraphs about training in these laws that public officials may or may not have received.

There were four paragraphs about what American leaders in history have said about the need for open government. These matters were relevant, but were not the primary points of the article. Their removal would have shortened the story by six inches or so.

• “Critical condition” was another 70-inch story, this one about the problems of rural hospitals in Clay and Randolph counties (March  27, 1A). The story, by Jason Bacaj, was given excellent front-page display with color and good photos by Stephen Gross. When the story moved to 11A, there was another sea of type. Only two boldface subheads were used to break up 64 inches of type.

More subheads would have helped. Removal of repetition could have shortened the article. Another hospital action photo would have lightened the page.

Although the article was interesting, there were reporting problems. There was statewide information about rural hospitals, but readers weren’t told how many there are or how many may have closed. There was no comment from Medicare officials on the claim that auditors were looking primarily for over-billing for federal funds by hospitals, rather than equally seeking under-billing.

Checking the governor

A BamaFactCheck article examined Gov. Robert Bentley’s claim that he proposed the elimination of 217 line items in next year’s General Fund budget. The story, by Tim Lockette, found that the number was inaccurate, and gave the governor a truth grade of 1 out of 5 (March 10, 1A).

The story included confusing references to “last year’s budget,” “this year’s” and “next year’s budget” without clarifying the dates involved and the fiscal year the state uses. This year’s budget is fiscal 2011, which began Oct. 1, 2010. Next year is fiscal 2012 and will begin in October 2011.

Near the end of the story it was noted that Bentley’s proposed FY 2012 General Fund budget would actually be $143 million more than the FY 2011 budget. This was important news and should have been placed in the opening paragraphs.

A week later, The Star ran changes from its March 10 story based on new information from state Finance Director David Perry. The new data did show the 217 proposed cuts claimed by the governor.

That article, also by Lockette, raised the governor’s “truth rating” from 1 to 3, although the BamaFactCheck box with the story gave him 5 out of 5 (March 18, 4A).

Paying for play

Wednesday, The Star reported that an upcoming HBO “Real Sports” program would feature allegations by four former Auburn University football players about play-for-pay schemes. The story, by Bran Strickland, said the show “airs at 9 p.m.” It did not give a date for the show (1C).

It turned out that it meant 9 p.m. the night of the story. The show, with its shocking charges, was well reviewed in the next day’s Star in a story by Charles Bennett and in Joe Medley’s column (Thursday, 1C).

Paul Rilling is a retired former editor at The Star.
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