Why publications are investing more in longform storytelling

longreads

There was a time in the mid-to-late aughts when the conventional wisdom among news outlets was that shorter, aggregated content was essential to survive in this post-print age. They looked at their analytics dashboard and saw that every fifth aggregated blog post caught a Google wave, and then the editor could appear in front of his publisher at the end of the month and show at least one chart that had an arrow going up instead of down. With advertising slots sold at cost per thousand impressions, more pageviews meant more revenue, or so the thinking went.

But it has slowly dawned on the industry that the pageviews that come as a result of these aggregated posts are what is commonly referred to as “crap traffic.” As I documented previously, advertisers, with more websites to choose from with more traffic than they would ever need, began to focus more on publications that had strong, hip brands, meaning that the flyby traffic of aggregated posts was, in many cases ,depressing ad rates.

At the same time, editors and journalists began to notice that not all content was the same when it came to how readers interacted with it. In other words, longform readers were vastly different from aggregation readers. These readers stayed on the page much longer (an increasingly important metric as the advertising industry begins to focus more on time engagement). Journalists saw that after they wrote and published a longer feature story that they would have a sudden uptick in Twitter followers, an indication that once readers were reaching the end of their articles they were then taking the time to Google the author’s name in order to seek out more of their work.

These readers are more active in other ways as well. In a recent interview, Nicholas Thompson, the New Yorker’s online editor, explained that with the magazine’s recent website redesign, he didn’t want to weigh down the site with too many social media share buttons. “We had good data that showed that if people get through a story from beginning to end, they’re more likely to talk about it, and therefore more likely to share it,” he said.

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Of course you can’t talk about longform without mentioning the rise of organizations and companies that exclusively aggregate this type of content, including both Longform.org and Longreads, the latter of which was recently purchased by the parent company of WordPress. In a recent profile of Longform.org, we learn that the site has attracted some investment, and its most recent app was downloaded 70,000 times in its first week. Its founders recognize how valuable a reader who reaches the end of a long article truly is.

[Co-founder Max Linsky] likes to compare single page views to “subprime mortgages,” artificial traffic boosts that hurt quality and will ultimately leave advertisers unimpressed. Their “most popular” algorithm rewards stories that readers actually finish — the longer the better. “We’re trying to be anti-clickbait, basically.”

Of course we must recognize that this may all be wishful thinking, a premature celebration of the notion that our culture isn’t dumbing down at an alarming rate and that there’s a future for in-depth, feature reporting. After all, no aspiring journalist dreams of becoming an aggregator. So for now all we can do is sit back and wait, hopeful that there is truly a ravenous audience awaiting our next 5,000-word deep dive into esoterica, as well as a bevy of advertisers eager to place their brands in front of this new kind of engaged reader.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.