My first experience of journalism was aged 15, as a work experience assistant at my local newspaper. I spent a week in the newsroom, and for the best part of it I was bashing out ‘News In Brief’ articles – the ‘NIBs’ that nobody else wanted to write.
A NIB, for the uninitiated, generally runs between 50 and 100 words and normally sits alongside a bunch of its peers in a boxed-out column. Headlines are emboldened but there generally aren’t pictures, so the emphasis is on creating a column that the reader can scan and choose what’s interesting.
Two decades later, I’ve come to the conclusion that all journalists should start their career writing NIBs – the skill of being able to distill a 700 word press release, a one page fax or a hastily-scribbled set of notes into an informative snippet is more important now than it ever has been.
This seems counter-intuitive, given that the shift from print to digital has made the column inch limitation a thing of the past. But digital has also slashed the attention spans of readers, creating new ‘modes’ of reading which aren’t well served by longform style – I love a ten-page investigation as much as the next guy, but I’m never going to get through it on the bus.
Writing NIBs also forces journalists to cut their writing, removing the unnecessary metaphor or wordplay which tend to characterize bad writing. News journalism, after all, is about relaying a story in a manner in which it can be understood.
That’s why AP targets 300-500 words per story. It’s why this blog post is under 300 words. And it’s why every journalism career should begin with NIBs.