I want to introduce you to a new feature we’re going to be regularly publishing. It’s one that I’m very focused on and stems from thinking I’ve done about how heavy news consumers, particularly consumers of news about politics and public policy, read news. The feature is called a Sum-Up and it’s purpose is to give you a brief yet comprehensive update on news on a particular topic on a fixed schedule once a week.
We will only produce these on a very limited number of topics, because the point is to produce these only on topics and stories we follow very closely and which we have at least one reporter dedicating a significant amount of his or her time to. Only then is a reporter so immersed in a topic that they can provide a summary of all relevant developments on that front which meet a certain threshold of significance. There is a heavy emphasis on brevity. That partly stems from my experience and continued interest in the exercise of precis writing.
The best way to explain what we are trying to achieve with Sum-Ups is to share with you the memo I’ve shared with staff outlining the goals and format.
What is a Sum-Up?
The goal and purpose of a Sum-Up is to bring a reader up to date on all significant developments on an unfolding news story or news topic. It is not intended to be exhaustive. Quite the opposite. They should be no more than 500 words. The value the reporter provides is making intelligent, grounded judgments about what is critical and significant and what is not. They then put as much of that information as possible into a small number of words. Only a reporter and editor immersed in a story or topic can do this effectively.
Guide to Writing
Prose should be brisk and concise. Words and sentences that are not strictly necessary to convey meaning and information should be stricken. Illustrations, descriptions, quotes that have a place in most posts and narrative descriptions should mainly be avoided. Focus on packing as much information as possible into a small number of words.
TPM Readers are highly news literate. We can assume a basic knowledge of the topic in question. If the topic is voting rights, we can assume a basic knowledge of the mechanics and impact of voter ID laws. This basic knowledge means we should spend little or no time explaining basic concepts and use that space to pack as much information into the Sum-Up as we can.
News junkies are obsessed with news. They want to be up to date on issues and stories they care about. But people don’t have enough time and there’s an over-abundance of news. People fear they’ve missed something or are not up to date. The point of a Sum-Up is to relieve them of that fear. It’s our promise.
When writing a Sum-Up, remember that we are making a bargain, an agreement with the reader. In exchange for giving us 2 to 4 minutes of their time, we will make sure they are up to date on all important developments in the story. We promise they won’t be caught off guard by some important part of the story they had not heard about or didn’t realize was important. If we don’t include it, it doesn’t matter that much.
This is something new. We don’t know how they’ll work in practice. We have a goal we are trying to achieve. But we should be ready to experiment in how we achieve the goal.
Our first installment is on Obamacare and national health care policy. As you know, this topic has been a consistent focus of ours for almost decade. Over that time we’ve always had at least one reporter dedicating a substantial amount, sometimes almost all of their time, to that topic. Given our size, there are only a very, very few issues we can cover with that depth and consistency. Alice Ollstein currently has that assignment at TPM. She writes the first weekly Sum-Up on this topic here (Prime access). This is a format we will be experimenting with and refining with the goals above in mind. We welcome and would appreciate your feedback.