An Idea Whose Time Has Come

My dear friend and long-time colleague Mario Garcia has done it again. He has not only re-designed another newspaper — his beloved Miami Herald — but has inspired fresh discussion of how and why readers use the newspaper. The buzz out of this project surrounds a feature called “The Five-Minute Herald,” two pages written and designed to offer highlights of the larger paper.



Mario described for Poynter Online how this section went from “The Ten-Minute Herald” to the five-minute version, with some thought that it might be boiled down to the two-minute model. Ten minutes, five minutes, two minutes, 30 seconds, whatever. Champions of long-form, in-depth, enterprise journalism (I confess, I’m one) might be alarmed by this countdown toward zero. That would be a mistake.


Attention to the readers’ time should be part of the calculation that triangulates the journalist’s intention, the content of the story, and the imagined audience. Journalist, content, audience. This Golden Triangle captures that elusive quality we call news judgment.


News judgment leads to decisions of story length and placement. But it should also lead to hard calculations about the reader’s time. “How much of the reader’s time is this story worth?”


In my essay “How to Write a Good Story in 800 Words or Less,” I offered a crude slide-rule that would help journalists figure out Approximate Reading Time (ART). Rough precision will serve our purposes. I’m offering, and invite you to test, the standard that it takes one minute to read 200 words. By that calculation, “The Five-Minute Herald” should run about 1,000 words.


There is nothing new under the sun.


Not long ago, I stumbled upon a disintegrating copy of an old popular interest magazine, Liberty. Date of publication was Feb. 10, 1940. What caught my eye was an article about anti-Semitism, written at a time when the Nazis were gaining power. When I skimmed through the pages, I found a delightful surprise. Atop each article, editors informed readers of how long it would take to read. They called it, simply, Reading Time.


“The Jews and the Freemasons: Exploding the Myth of a World Conspiracy,” Reading Time: 20 minutes, 40 seconds.


“No More Glitter: A Searching Tale of Hollywood and a Woman’s Heart,” Reading Time: 18 minutes, 45 seconds.


“Typhoon Over Nanking,” (Part Four of a Serial Novel), Reading Time: 17 minutes, 20 seconds.


And so on.


I tested Liberty’s calculation by timing my reading of two short pieces, a fictional story and an analysis of national politics.


The first one promised me I could read it in 5 minutes, 25 seconds. (It took me 4 minutes and 40 seconds.) Reading Time for the next was 5 minutes and 35 seconds. (For me, 4 minutes, 50 seconds.) I’m not the fastest reader in the world, but I do have practice and education on my side, which leads me to the conclusion that the magazine got the average reading time about right.


Now there is a difference between Clock Time and Experience Time. We say that “Time dragged,” or that it “Flew by.” Some stories read so well that they trap us in Story Time (“I couldn’t put it down”). Others forces us to slog through dense verbiage, an experience where seconds can seem like minutes.


I am led to these conclusions: That all stories should be read with the readers’ time in mind. That long stories must justify their length by both content and by the quality of writing that transports readers from Clock Time into Story Time. That all stories should be measured not just by words or column inches, but by Approximate Reading Time. And that all news media should consider sharing the ART with readers.


In the 58 pages of Liberty magazine, there were 15 features marked by Approximate Reading Time. Rounded off to minutes, here they are in order: 21, 19, 14, 5, 17, 7, 4, 12, 5, 28, 7, 15, 8, 9, 7. I’ll do the math: 178 minutes. That’s two minutes shy of three hours. That doesn’t count the time it would take to read the ads, the movie reviews, and do the crossword puzzle.


Liberty magazine existed in a world without television and the Internet. Time pressures on readers and potential readers change with the times. But one thing should be constant: Editor and reporter must work hard to make sure each story justifies its length — and the length of time required for reading.


This column contains 759 words. Reading Time: Less than 4 minutes.

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