Reinventing the Newsroom

Does Long-Form Journalism Work Online?

Posted in Long-Form Journalism, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on August 25, 2009

No, says Josh Tyrangiel, Time.com’s managing editor, telling Beet.tv in this short video interview that “long-form journalism online, much as I wish it were thriving, is not.”

Yes, says Gerald Marzorati, editor of the New York Times Magazine, telling Times readers that “contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s our longest pieces that attract the most online traffic.”

The two very different answers were noted by Jim Romenesko yesterday. So which is it?

I’m sure both men are correct. But then they’re serving very different audiences.

Tyrangiel says Time.com’s goal “is to make people smarter by saving them time,” and his portrait of a Web reader is someone at work between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., looking for the news with lunch on the desk, the boss at the door and the voice-mail light blinking on the phone.

Tyrangiel is obviously zeroed in on serving that reader, as he should be, which makes his statements sound a touch absolutist. For that kind of  reader, of course longer-form stories like the ones in the print version of Time aren’t going to do well. But this isn’t the only kind of reader, and the same reader may act differently in the middle of the workday than he or she does at other times. Marzorati’s readers are more likely to be reading on Friday night or the weekend, and unlike Time.com, the Times magazine isn’t radically different online than it is in print. Marzorati’s readers are more likely to know what they’re getting, and to want and even expect stories they can engage with over a longer period of time.

So — as is so often the case on the Web — the answer is that different parts of the audience want different things, and a publisher may well wind up having to serve everybody.

This is a pretty brief post so far; were I to heed Tyrangiel’s warning, I’d quit right here. But having a weakness for goat-chokers myself, I’ll add a couple of caveats.

First off, I suspect the real question about long-form journalism isn’t whether it works online or not, but to ask how often it works at all. This isn’t to dismiss the form, but to note simply (if a bit cynically) that many more people will read a lousy 4oo-word story than a lousy 4,000-word one.

The best long-form journalism kills in any medium — witness this Tommy Craggs takedown of Luddite baseball announcer Joe Morgan, this Michael Lewis look back at the financial meltdown, or this Nick Kristof and Sarah WuDunn cri de coeur about women’s rights, from last week’s Times magazine. (I read it online, by the way.) But the best long-form journalism is very hard to do, and correspondingly rare.

On the other hand, it’s also very valuable. Good long-form journalism offers online publications a crucial competitive advantage: It’s very hard or impossible to copy. In a world awash in commoditized news, this is a big selling point, which is one reason I have faith that long-form journalism will be more important to Web publishers a couple of years from now than it is today.

But long-form journalism isn’t easy, and it will always be risky. Tyrangiel is absolutely right to observe that “online, you can be anywhere, anytime” — let the reader’s attention wander and they’re off somewhere else, never to return. And the reader has to know what he or she is getting into.

Therein lies a cautionary tale. Years ago (as the story was told to me), a reporter was sitting in the airport and realized a man sitting nearby had started reading the reporter’s very ambitious, in-depth front-page story. The reporter leaned in unobserved, and watched in fascination as the man took in each paragraph on the front page. The reader was enthralled, he realized — he sat bolt upright and even began saying things like “wow” under his breath. Turn to the jump, the reporter thought. Don’t read the rest of the front page. Turn to the jump.

To the reporter’s delight, the man did just that — only to be confronted by the rest of the story, which took up a full double-truck. He looked paralyzed for a moment, exclaimed “Oh, shit!” — and closed the paper. Want to see the same effect online? Watch what happens when an unwary reader scrolls to the bottom of a first screen and sees 2 3 4 5 6 7 all hyperlinked.

14 Responses

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  1. Wade Roush said, on August 25, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    Jason, thanks for this post. I work for a news blog where “long-form” means anything over 800 words. For me, your post raises a practical, mechanical question about reader behavior on the Web.

    For a variety of technical reasons, we insert page breaks every 500 words or so. I tend to write lots of long articles, meaning they all have the hyperlinked ’2 3 4 5 6 7′ that you mentioned at the bottom.

    My fellow editors and I have a running philosophical and practical debate about the wisdom of breaking up stories into so many pages. My colleagues’ attitude is, basically, the more pages the better; i.e. that every added page represents a page view we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. I’m in the minority: My attitude is that most people aren’t going to click past page 1 or 2, meaning every word you write after page 2 or so is ignored. That would militate toward front-loading the entire story onto the first page, or at most two pages.

    If it were up to me, I would use one page per article, even if that meant scrolling through 3,000 words. This is partly a personal bias — I always choose the “single page view” or “print-ready” option when it’s available. And we are finally going to be adding this option to our site soon. But my colleagues cite evidence from Web design gurus that most people don’t like to scroll.

    So, scroll or jump? Seems like we lose readers either way. Wonder what your thoughts are.

    • reinventingthenewsroom said, on August 25, 2009 at 1:42 pm

      Hi Wade, thanks for stopping by. That’s a great question I’ve seen editorial folks and the business side get spitting mad about.

      I’m like you — I immediately lunge for the single-page view if it’s there. It’s true that people don’t like to scroll, but people also don’t like feeling like somebody else’s page-view farmers. So yeah, I think you’re right that you annoy some folks either way.

      I’d argue for what I hope is a reasonably reader-friendly compromise: Figure out how many words a typical meat-and-potatoes news story on your site is, and make that the standard for how long a single page should be. So readers can take in those stories in a single screen, but longer-form articles may involve more clicks. Your longer-form stories are hopefully your more ambitious and more compelling content anyway, so you’re less likely to lose readers when you ask them to load a new page.

      What think?

      • Wade Roush said, on January 30, 2010 at 8:11 am

        Jason: Well, it’s been about four months since your post and my comment looking at the jump-or-scroll controversy. As I hinted we would, my colleagues and I implemented a single-page-view option at my site. But it’s had two surprising results that have left me a bit puzzled and a bit dismayed. 1) It turns out that a lot fewer people use the single page view than I would have thought — in the neighborhood of 5 percent. Far more people just click blithely through to page 2, 3, etc. (though with the usual loss of readers, increasing with each new page). 2) I’m finding that my campaign for the single page view button is causing some unexpected blowback. Now that we have this option to appease the readers who can’t stand jumps, there’s pressure from my colleagues to put less text on each page, which means stories are getting spread across *more* pages on average. This is just the opposite of what I wanted, and it’s especially worrisome in light of trend #1. Argh! There’s probably no solution here — maybe I just need to to wait for the iPad and other touch-driven computing interfaces to change the way we think about scrolling/jumping for long articles.

        • reinventingthenewsroom said, on February 9, 2010 at 3:37 pm

          Hi Wade,

          Thanks for the update. Interesting (and a little surprising) how few readers use the single-page view option — and obviously it’s not a product of the design, as you’ve made it pretty hard to miss.

          It doesn’t seem like your colleagues are thinking through what they’re asking for, though. If only 5% of readers are opting for SPV, they’re not losing much traffic, as they’d feared originally. It seems like they’re seeing SPV as license to decrease the amount of text per page. But if they do that, one of two things will happen. Either they’ll have fewer readers who read their entire stories, as readership erodes with each additional click readers are asked to make, or they’ll push readers into the SPV option, which they’ve indicated they don’t like. Neither seems like something you’d want to have happen.

          Interesting — if you have time, please let me know what happens next and what you’re thinking. Appreciate getting a peek!

  2. Michael said, on August 25, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    I think you’re right. the problem with longform journalism online isn’t that it doesn’t work – it’s that the world hasn’t figured out how to make it work yet. I’m sure there was a time when the notion of a 4,000-word article running in a newspaper was unthinkable, too.

    thanks for the pointer to the Morgan piece, too. he drives me crazy.

  3. Donald Schwartz said, on August 25, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    I wonder when readers will become satiated with knowing very little about a lot.

    In the case of the 400 word article, I often feel that my appetite has been whetted, but I’m still thirsty.

    It is virtually impossible in 400 words or less to provide more than one point of view or give context.

  4. kaps said, on August 25, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Since we are pushing the long-form envelope at Sidecut Reports (www.sidecutreports.com) let me offer some thoughts: For our longer reports we offer a PDF download — let people read long-form stuff later at their leisure. On the plane, etc. We are now also offering longer reports in Kindle format, iPhone format, whatever it takes. Bring it along and read it later when you have time.

    For the time-compressed, we then break up the longer reports into shorter blog posts. The trick is to make both models interesting and worth the time the reader has at that moment.

    As for monetization, clearly it’s still a guess whether folks will pay small amounts for content — like they do for magazines — or whether sponsors will support long-form writing for a select audience. The good thing is, online publishing tools are cheap enough to try lots of experiments.

  5. Terry Steichen said, on August 25, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    I think you’re quite correct that there are at least two major reader audiences out there – those that want their information in a condensed form, and those that like to wallow in the details. Maybe there’s another audience segment that, like myself, likes to scan the condensed version and occasionally go to the full one (which I will typically print and read offline).

    In any case, would it make sense that, when a piece is in the “long form”, it might routinely be accompanied by an abstract of some sort (in an effort to satisfy all of these market segments)?

  6. [...] while web analytics paint a convincing picture of web readers, some wonder if long form journalism has EVER worked. Of course there seem to be other factors at play, like methods of presentation and quality of [...]

  7. [...] Does Long-Form Journalism Work Online? « Reinventing the Newsroom reinventingthenewsroom.wordpress.com/2009/08/25/does-long-form-journalism-work-online – view page – cached #Reinventing the Newsroom RSS Feed Reinventing the Newsroom » Does Long-Form Journalism Work Online? Comments Feed Reinventing the Newsroom The Journalist as Micro-Brand Searching for Context — From the page [...]

  8. David Liscio said, on August 26, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    Although it may seem like needless work in the newsroom, offering online readers two versions of the same story might make a difference. Label them S and L for short and long.
    I guess that’s what Reader’s Digest did and some of the publishing companies that offered abridged versions of the classics.
    Certainly it’s a butcher job on a great piece of journalism, but then again, if only a few are going to read a piece because of its intimidating length, what’s the loss? On the other hand, people intrigued by the short piece might go on to the longer version if they knew it was an option.

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  11. [...] This verbosity doesn’t translate well to digital, and arguments rage over the viability of “long form” journalism online. Most web writing guides suggest that online writing needs to be shorter, sharper, and snappier than print, while others argue that good long form work still kills in any medium. [...]


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