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The Graduate

Inside the Emmitsburg News-Journal
A reflection on the benefits of long articles

Kelly Conroy
MSM Class of 2012

(8/2012) 1600 words. The blank page stares back at me. Every month. A daunting task? Or an exciting opportunity? Writing for the ENJ is not a typical writing assignment. The Emmitsburg News-Journal is not a typical newspaper.

Have you ever skimmed through the various sections of the Emmitsburg News-Journal? If youíre reading this article, then you probably have. Youíll find everything from interviews with the "old-timers" of Emmitsburg to gardening tips. You can read about life at Mount St. Maryís University and updates from local government leaders. But have you ever wondered WHY there are the sections that there are?

Or what about the layout of the paper? How is the order of the articles chosen? Is it random? Or is there a purpose for each article being on a certain page?

Still more questions seem to remain. How are the authors chosen to write for the paper? How are the topics for the articles decided upon? What is the paperís connection to Emmitsburg.net? What is the purpose of the website?

As a reader, have you ever wondered why the News-Journal is only published monthly? Does the paper help you to feel more connected with the community?

In a series of articles, I hope to share some behind the scenes information about the ENJ and explore WHY we do what we do. Is our paper a model for other communities to follow? Or is it an outlier that will not last? In this first article, I will explore the topic of the length of our articles.

Look up something on Google. Check my email. Put in a load of laundry. Cut up an apple and eat it with peanut butter. There can be many temptations for distractions when a writer is at work on a 1600 word article. The length can feel overwhelming. About 550 words fit on a single sheet of paper that is single spaced with an extra space between paragraphs. If youíre a fan of double spacing, then only about 300 words fill a page. That means that a writer of a 1600 word article needs to type three single spaced pages or over five double spaced pages.

A typical college essay is 500 words. Itís not quite two double spaced pages and consists of an introductory paragraph, one to three body paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph. After a year in college, this type of paper becomes a standard that every student needs to master. Itís important to be able to state your points clearly and write the paper quickly because there are always so many to write! The ENJ takes a different kind of approach. Writing a long article isnít supposed to be comfortable; it should be challenging for both the writer and the reader. The writer needs to take time and effort to write a quality piece and the reader should delve into the depth in the articles.

Perhaps the length of articles in the ENJ teaches us something about life. Itís so easy to be caught in the whirlwind of life. We jump from one activity to the next with no breaks. Even Sunday, which traditionally has been a day of rest, has become just another day of chaos. My grandma has told me about how stores used to be closed on Sundays and families would spend time together. The ENJ makes us slow down and read more than a couple sentences. It takes time to soak in the information.

Not all of the articles in the ENJ are 1600 wordsósome are longer and some are shorter. The "News" articles in the first four pages are shorter articles. However, there is nothing restricting them from being longer. If more details are needed to tell the whole story, then a longer length is permitted. The Chronicles of Emmitsburg in the History section often spans two pages to give a deeper look at Emmitsburg in the past. The Cold War Warriors is another section that often needs two pages to adequately share a story. The Four Years at the Mount section consists of four, half page articles. Itís easy to get a glimpse of life at the Mount from the two page spread.

At this point, I hope you donít feel like my article is dragging on! I happen to be writing a 1600 word article and one of the most important aspects about writing long articles is keeping the readerís attention. How is this done? Some writers add humor to their articles. Others make references to literary characters or historical figures. Some writers quote authorities on the topic of their article. No matter the tactic, every writer needs a lot of substance to write a 1600 word article.

The substance necessary to write a long article often makes reading the article worthwhile. It might be possible to write a very short article about the importance of Earth Day. However, just because it is possible to write a short article does not mean that it is always the best idea. Bill Meredith, in the May 2012 issue of the ENJ, was given the opportunity to write a full page article on Earth Day. He was able to give details about the history of Earth Day and offer the reader reasons why Earth Day should be more eagerly embraced. The length of the article definitely allowed, in part, for the quality of the article.

Sometimes the essentials of a story are left out because of the short length of an article. Consider for example, the article, "In for a Penny, In for a Pound," in this monthís edition of the ENJ. Mike Hillman relates the fascinating story about an African tortoise named Chester. The basic details of the story are that the tortoise was taken from his home, allegedly mistreated and eventually returned to his original owner. But, simply hearing the basics of the story is not entertaining!

Do we really just want 30-second sound-bites of news? Do we only want to read about local events and not any more thoughtful articles?

I know that my imagination was captured in reading "In for a Penny, In for a Pound." I kept thinking to myself, How is this tortoise going to be saved? and I canít believe that someone would treat a tortoise so poorly! I was actively engaged in the article because it was full of details. The details of every step along the wayóhow Mike first heard about the tortoise, what he saw when he went to rescue the tortoise, what he felt when retrieving the tortoise seemed hopeless, and how others in the community helped himócontributed to the vibrancy of the article.

ENJís coverage of the rescue of Chester the tortoise is very different than the attention it received in the Frederick News Post. On July 7, 2012, an article was written about the tortoise. It was under 500 words and left the readers with more questions than answers. Readers commented on the article and complained about the title being confusing, the lack of a picture of the tortoise next to the article, and general confusion about the actions of the man who had supposedly Ďfoundí him.

Three days after the first article about Chester the tortoise was published, another article on the same topic was available. This time, the article included very different details. The article attempted to explain the roles of Mike Hillman and Blaine Young in aiding the tortoise. However, readers commented about the story being "hard to follow" and the facts didnít seem to match up with the first article. Readers wondered if the story was only being published because Blaine Young, a Frederick county commissioner, played a role in the rescue.

Then, on July 14th, a final article about Chester the tortoise was available from the Frederick News Post. This article focused on the original ownerís recovery of Chester. A reader would need to do some work of his own to try to piece the story together, and might want to know more details. The Associated Pressís story on the tortoise plight was so short that one was left scratching oneís head as to what the big deal was! The need to be brief killed the story.

Reading the article about Chester in the ENJ was a much more enjoyable experience for me than reading about Chester from the Frederick News Post. Perhaps this story is a prime example of why allowing writers free-range on the length of their articles is extremely important. The story about Chester the tortoise was somewhat complex. There were a lot of people involved and it was important to portray their actions appropriately. Perhaps the writer of the articles for the Frederick News Post wanted to write more but was limited by space constraints. Or maybe the writer is only accustomed to writing short news releases and so also wrote this story in the same way. Whatever the reason, the short length of the article didnít allow for the full story to be told.

The article in the ENJ leaves the reader satisfied. The article takes up two full pagesóbecause thatís how much space was needed to tell the WHOLE story! If one page would have been sufficient, then it would have just been one page. If the story would have needed four pages to tell, then it would have also been given that space.

One of the most frequent compliments we receive at the ENJ is, "I have no sooner finished reading the last edition when the next edition shows up." That compliment speaks volumes. It means that, unlike other papers that find themselves in trash cans the day they arrive, the ENJ remains on desks and nightstands all month long, providing weeks of enjoyable reading. The thought of that pleases us.

So while most newspapers are in a race to the bottom when it comes to challenging or thoughtful journalism, weíre happy to chart a different course. The issues facing our communities and our country are challenging. The solutions to those issues will not be found in trivialized sound bites, but in thoughtful, and yes, often-lengthy articles. Our founding fathers knew that and never shied away from using as many words as necessary to make a point or get the full story across. Neither are we.

Read other articles by Kelly Conroy