Christiansen’s briefing on keeping it brief

There was a time, long before Twitter, when all journalism was supposed to be succinct and to the point, and NORMAN GILLER well remembers his lessons from a Fleet Street legend, including advice of which even Derby County’s Robbie Savage would approve

Any story can be told in 60 words. That was the lesson I learned from Daily Express Editor, Arthur Christiansen. He was years ahead of Twitter.

He instructed that a story should be written with the thought it could be chopped on the stone after two paragraphs. “Ensure you get in the who, what, where and when,” he ordered.

If you count back, you will find that I have hit the Christiansen 60-word target with those first two paragraphs, but because we have the luxury of limitless virtual space, there is no need for the chop (Note from Ed: Get on with it, Giller).

These thoughts were put in my head by a succinctly written article by Guardian director of digital content, Emily Bell. She was commenting this week on a debate started in the United States that newspaper articles are, in general, too long and off-putting for readers with increasingly short concentration spans.

It is a provocative piece that I recommend for all journalists, particularly my sporting brethren in an era when sports page space is becoming more precious and limited.

The cardinal sin for any writer is to bore his/her reader (“Forgive me, for I have often sinned …”).

The thrust of the argument started in the States is that long-winded newspaper articles have become so tedious and boring that they are driving readers to take to short-cut reading on websites. Because of the rise of Twitter and shorthand txting, plus the availability of 24/7 television news, readers ” particularly the under-40s ” want just bite-sized articles, not full banquets.

Speaking as a verbose member of the word-shovel club, I find this depressing. But I do detect a lot more waffle in newspapers than there was “in my day”, and perhaps it’s not too late for a New Year resolution: “I will make every word count.”

When I was a young, aspiring journalist, I had the privilege to attend an NUJ-organised lecture given by the great Christiansen. Be ashamed, be very ashamed, if you have not heard of him.

For those rightly feeling shame at the moment, let me tell you that he was arguably the greatest Editor in the history of old Fleet Street. He became Editor of the Express in 1933 when the circulation was just nudging 2 million, and by the time he stepped down 24 years later the paper was selling 4 million.

Famously, he appeared as “The Editor” in the film The Day the Earth Caught Fire, as pictured above.

Much of it was shot in the Black Lubianka (again, for the uninitiated, the not-so-fond nickname for the Express‘s old offices on Fleet Street. There’s a picture of it, below right). Chris had some wonderful mottos that he passed on at the lecture, from bulletins he placed on the office noticeboard every single day. Among those that have stuck in the memory like old friends:

“Good stories flow like honey. Bad stories stick in the craw. What is a bad story? It is a story that cannot be absorbed on the first time of reading. It is a story that leaves questions unanswered. It is a story that has to be read two or three times before it can be comprehended. And a good story can be turned into a bad story by just one obscure sentence.”

“I have banned the use of the word ‘exclusive’ on stories in the Express. Our aim is to make everything exclusive.”

“A rule for all sports journalists: Football clubs are the one exception to our rule that collective nouns take the singular.”

“Avoid clichés like the plague.”

“Remember your reader may be serious minded, or perhaps a frivolous person. Bear this in mind when writing and look to strike a balance in your reporting.”

“Don’t read only your own newspaper. Read the rivals’ thoroughly, and then set yourself standards that will make you better than them.”

“News, news, news ” that is what we want. You can describe something with the pen of Shakespeare himself, but you cannot beat news in a newspaper.”

“The Express is interested only in facts. Rumours are for the washerwomen …”

That last motto should be stuck, Christiansen-bulletin style, on the noticeboard at BBC Radio Derby.

Derby County’s captain, Robbie Savage, this week savaged his radio interviewer for saying on air that “there are rumours that the players think the club’s backroom staff are not up to the job”. Let me tell the radio reporter that Christiansen would have taken a similar line. He never wanted his journalists to report anything but facts. “Make the story factual,” he continually said.

Mind you, Gentleman Chris would not have gone in as hard as Savage, who is notorious for his tackling on the football field and clearly has a tongue to match off the pitch.

Listen to the interview, and decide how you would have handled his verbal attack. It might make you think twice about reporting rumours.

Incidentally. Merseyside-born Arthur Christiansen used to tell his reporters to “think about what the people in the back streets of Derby want to read.” And that’s a fact.

If you have an interest in the way newspapers were in the golden age of Fleet Street, try to get your hands on Christiansen’s compelling autobiography, Headlines All My Life. You can also get an insight into his winning philosophy on newspapers by reading excerpts from his bulletins here.

And if the reference to “stone” in my intro meant nothing to you, then I envy you your youth. This was the generic term for the area where the compositors laid out the hot-metal type before the Wapping revolution. In my local paper days on the Stratford Express I remember a girl reporter having us in fits when she accused us male reporters of being a weak-bladdered lot. “You’re always going to the stone,” she said. She thought it was man talk for the loo.

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