The Long-Form Renaissance

long-form journalism's 'resurgence' may be over-hyped, but technology is changing how people access it

september 26, 2011  08:00 am
The Long-Form Renaissance
Creative Commons Photo by: John Blyberg
Over the past year or so, a number of high-profile and prominent journalists and technologists have launched new apps, sites and other ventures dedicated to cultivating lengthy works of journalism. These projects — like The Atavist, Byliner, Longform.org, Longreads.com, Readability and others — are being credited with reviving a dead or near-dead art.

But the obituary for long-form journalism was actually never written, according to some alt-weekly editors.

"I welcome them to the club," Village Voice Media executive associate editor Andy Van De Voorde says of the newcomers. "It is a bit funny to read stories on the web which imply that this is some sort of recent phenomenon. I guess my only question to these guys would be 'what took you so long?'"

While Van De Voorde has a point, and many alts haven't wavered in their commitment to long-form storytelling, there's also a technological component to this story, which is indeed changing. As tablets and e-readers become more prevalent, publishers — and readers — are finding that the devices are incredibly well-suited to longer works. With that in mind, it's imperative to make your existing long-form work more available to the new aggregators and other platforms, says Will Mitchell, Washington City Paper's web programmer and online strategist.

"Working to improve the design and presentation of long-form stories on our website" is a priority for the paper, he says. "These kinds of stories have been crammed into standardized CMS templates in the past, so we've opened up the page a lot and are trying to take the layout of these stories more seriously."

By doing this, Mitchell says, the experience of reading long pieces on a monitor — long considered to be unenjoyable — can at least be made a little better. Just a few years ago, at an AAN conference devoted to web publishing, the prevailing advice was to break long stories up into multiple shorter pages. Not only was that better suited to reading on a monitor, the thinking went, but it was also better for revenue, since more pages equal (one would hope) more pageviews.

But Mitchell says that thinking may be misguided, particularly when it comes to long pieces. Many new ventures are allowing users to pull their favorite pieces into a queue they'll read on an e-reader later, and they often rely on a single-page view of a story as the mechanism to do so.

"The number one thing is to provide some kind of 'single page' view of the story," he says when asked how papers can make sure their work is available to the curator sites. "Almost everyone is paginating long stories now, to maximize pageviews, and this interferes with getting the story into reading apps. So, providing the option to view the story all on one page is huge."

While the long-form reading may improve, revenue remains a big question mark, since there is such a wide variety of platforms, curators, aggregators and publishers in this rapidly developing market.

"The view from longform.org (which I help out with) is that reading long-form stories at a desk on a monitor has been a sucky experience. So things can't help but get better as more people start using Kindles," Mitchell says. "I don't know what it's going to look like in terms of revenue, but I do think the experience of writing and publishing long-form content is going to get better again as the reading experience improves."

Mitchell says one key for publishers is "to work out some ways that advertising can travel with the content to the device," pointing to pre-roll advertising on embeddable video as a potential model.

"We're still largely dependent on advertising, so it will help us to have control (or even partial control) of some additional ad spaces," he says.

Van De Voorde says that while he continues to cast a skeptic's eye towards tablets and e-readers, he's glad they are a part of the new editorial mix.

"I think the jury is still out on whether tablets will indeed be the salvation of long-form journalism, but they are at least a welcome development," he says. "The varying degrees of effort made on the iPad by the nation's largest magazine publishers reflect this uncertainty; some have jumped in with both feet, others are taking a wait-and-see attitude."

Mitchell makes a similar point, saying publishers need to keep their eyes on "the supply and demand aspect" of long-form journalism.

"There are, as always, tons of people who want to be published writers. There's also tons of demand for entertainment, of which this kind of journalism is just one form," he says. "It's not a situation that adds up to big money for the producers (it never really has been). The people who tend to make money are the folks in the middle, who build up a reliable audience and then sell the attention of that audience to people who want attention."

Who that might be is still up in the air, Mitchell adds.

"Established publishers? New curators? A mix? Partnerships between both? Or huge audience networks like Facebook and Amazon? I think publishers should keep an eye on this and keep angling for a good long-term position."


OTHER TIPS FOR LEVERAGING YOUR LONG-FORM WORK

Whether you want more people to read your paper's existing long-form stories, or you want to improve the way you create and craft narrative nonfiction, here are a few quick tips:

Examine how your stories can be sent to e-readers. "The Readability 'Send to Kindle' button is the main way to do this right now, but others may come along," Mitchell says.

Test, test, test. Use all of the different products and platforms available to read your own content and content from others. You will likely find some problems and, hopefully, get some new ideas.

Improve your archiving system. Your archives are most likely a mess, and probably not categorized and tagged in the same way your current stories are. That means the killer mid-90s piece that now-revered writer who went on to a high-profile magazine gig did for your paper is too hard to find. "City Paper has covered a lot of topics and published a lot of now-notable authors over the years," Mitchell says. "I think access to archived long-form content is going to be a pretty big deal in the next few years. There's a ton of great content in the databases of similar papers."

Embrace multimedia. At this summer's AAN Convention, The Atavist's Evan Ratliff spoke of the challenge of designing quality journalism around a new platform. He said one key moving forward is for writers, editors and designers to stop treating multimedia elements as "footnotes" to the written story. Instead, he suggested, make them a "more foundational" part of the narrative. If you want examples, check out the original work Ratliff has commissioned on The Atavist's app, which uses video, audio and other multimedia elements as central parts of the stories, rather than auxiliary "extras."

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