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The Economy of Words

I see that Reuters, the news agency, my old outfit, has decided to ‘lighten up the file’ by restricting breaking news stories to 400 words.  Coincidentally, one of my six readers has suggested that my own  ‘Random Rants’ be similarly confined, with the suggestion, by way of compensation, that they be filed more frequently.

Less is often more, especially when it comes to words – a picture paints a thousand words, and all that – but does the urge for brevity reflect the increasingly busy lives of readers faced with multiplying distractions, or is it simply an attempt to reign in pontificating journalists who are merely exercising their egos, or courting attention?   

I’m not sure which, but I think I’ll go along with the brevity lark.  Perhaps I’ll write a thought for the day, instead of attempting to probe the complexities of life through what my vanity assures me is prescient analysis. 

When I was writing for Reuters, more years ago than I care to remember now, short was implicitly preferred to long.  There was much talk in the newsroom of the ‘inverted pyramid’, which meant getting the guts of a story into the first few lines, so that the newspaper editors to whom our copy was directed could cut from the bottom up.  Perfectly sensible, I say.  

Pausing to review the above, I realise that I’ve now reached the half-way point of my new allowance – and, you might think,  without having said anything much.   

So here, without further ado, is my thought for the day.  It comes in the form of a question rather than a pronouncement: why do newspapers continue to thrive, at least in Britain?  Or to put it another way, why does the printed word still appeal in an age of television, interactive telephones and social media?

I’m consciously ignoring the fact that most newspapers lose money, many said to be on the brink of closing.  I do so because most of those same newspapers have been losing money, and teetering on the brink of closing, for as long as I can remember.  Back in the sixties, pundits writing in the dailies were given to lugubriously predicting their own imminent demise.  A couple of papers did indeed disappear, but only to be replaced by newcomers.  The rest continue to expend ink regardless.

Tastes in news consumption may have changed, largely I presume because of the influences of Twitter and other social media, but the British still insist on trooping down to the newsagents every morning and picking up a copy of their favourite paper.  Or, like me, still have it delivered in time for reading over the breakfast table.

The question is why.  In the United States, where for reasons of geography there are no national newspapers as there are in Britain, most cities have only one daily newspaper.  Some these days have no daily newspaper.  London still has nine, if the Financial Times is included, as it should be.

Who are these readers?  Do they come from an older, stick-in-the-mud generation uncomfortable with new technologies?  If that were true, there would I suspect have been the rush of newspaper closures long anticipated. 

And there may yet be.  Meanwhile, though, most of us adhere to old reading habits.  Kindle briefly threatened to replace books, and it is true that many local bookstores have closed.  But then many have survived, even managing to stage a comeback.  Browsing in my local bookshop recently I was astonished by how many books there were on the Best-Seller and Recently-Published tables – hundreds of them, and many from unfamiliar and presumably new publishers.  Technology makes publishing easier than in days of old.

So, the printed word seems safe …. for now.    

Oops, I’ve run out of words, at least under the new rules of engagement with readers.  

Sorry.  I’ll try to get it right tomorrow. 

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