In the last 24 hours, there have been two major updates to the list of media companies investing in longform journalism. Last night, the New York Times’ David Carr broke the news that writers Joshuah Bearman and Joshua Davis have launched a new site for longform reporting that might appeal to movie studios looking to turn articles into motion pictures. The site, called Epic, is backed by Medium, although the Times was vague on the exact nature of the relationship. (We’ve requested an interview with Epic’s founders to find out more, but that won’t be happening until next week).
Meanwhile, earlier today, Politico announced that it is beefing up its recently relaunched magazine in an effort to expand its in-depth journalism efforts by hiring GQ and New York magazine contributor Jason Zengerle and Washington magazine’s Denise Kersten Wells. The organization also added one of its star reporters, Glenn Thrush, to the magazine team, which is headed by former Foreign Policy editors Susan Glasser and Blake Hounshell. Vanity Fair contribuing editor Todd Purdum also recently joined the Politico magazine.
The burst of activity comes as other digitally-oriented publications such as BuzzFeed, The Verge and Polygon (both owned by Vox Media), and Paul Carr’s NSFWCorp (Disclosure: Carr is a frequent contributor to PandoDaily and a friend of the company) are placing bets on in-depth reporting and analysis, and as new players such as The Big Roundtable and Beacon emerge.
Even as some evidence suggests that people don’t read long articles online and mobile metrics indicate that people prefer to “snack” on news content on their mobile phones, editors and startups increasingly seem to believe that it is important to place more emphasis on longform reporting. As our own Sarah Lacy has pointed out before, Suddenly everyone wants New Yorker-style content (even as some fail attempting to get it).
Why? Well, this isn’t a scientific analysis, but here are five things I suspect might be driving the “slow media” trend.
On Friday, we reported that people are spending considerably more time in mobile news apps than in other apps in general – 4.2 minutes per day compared to 3.2 minutes, according to Localytics. Less publicized but perhaps ultimately more important, however, Localytics found that the time people spend in news apps on tablets is 50 percent higher
people spend 50 times more time accessing news app content on tablets than they do on mobile phones (Update: Localytics have since corrected an error in its original reporting). Those numbers back up Pew’s 2012 findings that tablet owners read more news and longer articles, as well as a study by Bowker Market Research and Book Industry Study Group that shows tablets are becoming the preferred e-reading devices. Tablet ownership in the US is also growing fast – 44 percent of American households now have a tablet, up from 30 percent in 2012, according to Magid Media Futures. The more connected reading devices there are in the world, the more opportunities there are for publishers to find readers that previously would have been difficult to access.
News is increasingly a commodity
Whether it be tech news, political news, world news, or even local news, it is easier than ever before to get informed about daily events instantly and cheaply – in most cases, for free – thanks not only to the proliferation of news websites, apps, and new media companies, but also because of social media, and especially Twitter. The problem these days is not how to find what to read, but how to find signal in the noise – a process that actually involves finding reasons not to read certain things. Considered, in-depth reporting and storytelling that stresses longterm nourishment rather than quick-hit fix is one way to stand out from the frenzy of instant information being flung at readers from other quarters. Unless you’re the Wall Street Journal or Financial Times, the high-volume, high-velocity news is also proving difficult to monetize as the value of display ad units diminishes over time.
Last week, Google announced that it has started featuring links to in-depth articles in some of its search results, an effort to promote quality content that stands the test of time. The move holds much promise for driving traffic to publishers in a similar way to which Google News usually results in a traffic boon to the sites whose content is featured prominently in the search results.
Fast Company has also demonstrated how its investment in longer-form stories has paid off not only in terms of lower bounce rates, but also increased time that readers spend on the site. PandoDaily has seen similar positive effects. Some of our longform stories – including pieces on Facebook Platform, the death of the music industry, and Sarah Lacy’s in-depth look at PayPal from today – have significantly outperformed most of the day-to-day reporting that dominates the site.
Curation sites such as Longform, Longreads, Digg, Reddit, as well as newsletters like NextDraft and MediaREDEF, help drive extra traffic to quality longform reporting. Longform co-founder Aaron Lammer says its own site has seen a 30 percent increase in traffic this year, and that’s not counting users of the Longform iPad app.
This – longform via digital – is an emerging space, so it pays not to get too excited about this, but some publishers are likely hoping that there might be new revenue opportunities associated with longform content. Among the potential opportunities: sponsorship of specific stories; subscription revenue (as it the case with digital magazines put out by 29th Street Publishing), and, in the case of Epic, sales of options to movie studios. If one-click-style micropayments become more prevalent – and who knows, perhaps Jeff Bezos has some ideas along those lines for the Washington Post – the longform landscape becomes more interesting. And other revenue experiments lie ahead. Whatever the case, there’s more than a little to be said for having more readers engaged with your content for longer.
Aside from world-beating scoops, nothing builds a media brand’s reputation like quality longform reporting, especially if it happens to win awards. Not only does longform add to a publication’s credibility, but it also helps those organizations establish a voice and develop a deeper relationship with readers. BuzzFeed’s longform project, for instance, is one way the company is attempting to show that it is more than just a site for quirky listicles; similarly, Politico is recognizing the need to expand beyond 400-word blog posts to establish itself as the journal of record inside the beltway, and to better compete with the Washington Post, a longtime purveyor of quality longform. By having a strong longform department, media companies are also better-equipped to attract top journalists, many of whom hold longform reporting in the highest regard.
It would be over-hasty to draw too many conclusions too soon about the longform renaissance. Most of the endeavors described in this article – from Epic to Beacon to Politico’s new magazine – can be described as experimental. Longterm success, or even sustainability, is far from assured. But what is clear is that, despite the last decade’s decline in the the fortunes of the media business, longform journalism seems just as desirable as ever.
Even as Twitter satiates our need to snack, there are plenty of new arrivals lining up to serve the feast.
[Image courtesy Wikimedia]