Earlier this week, the Associate Press published a 5,200-word investigative story about how many of the household food items — everything from eggs to chicken to flour to beef — are tied directly to prison labor.
The story, which came out on Monday, is the culmination of two years of work by two reporters and likely several other contributors. It’s a powerful and important story, but 5,200 words is pretty long, especially for the average news consumer who only spends about 30 seconds reading an article.
But the thing that stood out to me, as a reporter and editor, was actually the brevity of the piece compared to the time, effort and hours it likely took to type up and publish that one piece.
Two years? Two years!
These reporters likely had hundreds of pages of notes tied to this investigation. Dozens of hours of audio recordings capturing sources’ quotes, hundreds of photos and hundreds — maybe thousands — of miles on the road. And all of it is laid out in just 5,200 words.
As a reporter, it’s striking and a bit discouraging to see.
For example, for the illicit massage parlor story that I published last week, which clocked in close to 7,000 words, I had 29 pages of Google Docs notes — or 12,200 words. And that doesn’t include all of the other documents I gathered for the story too.
We know that long-form journalism is declining. According to data from Chartbeat, the average word count for news articles has fallen from about 449 in September 2019 to about 380 in February 2020.
And we know it’s because consumers are tired.
They’re tired of being bombarded with content. I mean, we have to listen to ads at the gas pump now. And they’re tired of trying to wade through the waters of good and bad news. So of course, it’s rare that readers actually take time to read when 5,000- or 10,000-word pieces come across their phones or desktops. But still, many outlets are pushing forward and making the case that deep dives like this are the bedrock of investigative journalism, and one of the most effective ways to fight systems of power.
So I’m here to ask — to plead, really — for you to take time and read these stories. Because even if it takes you maybe 5-10 minutes to read one story, it’s taken an exponentially higher amount of time for the reporters to get the story right. And that’s why they, we, do what we do.
Because what you see on the page, is really just the tippy top of the iceberg of reporting.
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