Too short to be usefu…

1197398028In their continuing and paranoid efforts to anticipate reader attention spans, newspapers have been almost universally chopping story lengths. Publishers (especially of the free, Metro and BostonNow variety) say that’s what readers want: quick, fast information. Just the facts, ma’am. But yesterday’s Metro can be held up as Exhibit A for the pitfalls of that thinking.

A 124-word Associated Press piece on Metro’s entertainment page, headlined “Woody Guthrie live recording surfaces,” describes a great musical find: the one and only, previously undiscovered recording of a live Guthrie performance. “It apparently had sat for decades in the closet of the late Paul Braverman, who was a Rutgers University student when he lugged his recorder to Fuld Hall in Newark, N.J., for a concert by Guthrie,” the story concludes.

Cool, huh? In 124 words, Metro readers learn a little bit of musical history. But here’s what they didn’t learn: That Guthrie recording? Old news. It was found in 2001. It’s since been remastered, released on CD, and just nominated for a Grammy for Best Historical Recording. That’s what you’d have learned if you read the full, 800-word Associated Press article, which the Metro just didn’t have room for.

Listen, we’re not trying to be hypocrites here: We run plenty of short stories. Our holiday survival guide has a bundle of 75-worders, and we know that’s more useful than a bundle of meandering 800-worders. But the Guthrie story is a lesson: A short story may deliver information fast, but it doesn’t always deliver the information readers need, and newspapers need to differentiate between the two.