In print or on dead trees, there's money in long-form journalism

By Ted Rall , written on June 13, 2014

From The News Desk

Like others who got into journalism while print media was fading, I have been offering my theories about what has been going wrong. (Hint: newspaper circulation has been declining since the 1960s, so industry executives might want to stop blaming the Internet.)

Among the multiplicity of problems afflicting print is its failure to understand its role in a wired world. I keep saying thing that the Internet is for breaking the news. Who won the game? What happened to stocks?

Print, on the other hand, is made for long-form analysis. Why should you care about what happened? What will happen next? What does it mean?

As things stand, long-form journalism — essays over 2,000 words — is pretty much dead. Websites, obsessed with quick clickbait, don't run it. For the last 10 or 15 years, newspapers and many magazines have bought into the conventional wisdom that bytes go best in bits. At The Los Angeles Times, for example, the number of pieces over 2,000 words has declined 86% during the last decade.

Now Fast Company is out with something close to scientific proof that I've been right.

Publications that are thriving relative to their competitors, such as The Economist and The New Yorker, are consistently committed to long-form feature writing. We love our tablets, but they can't compete with print's portability and lower eyestrain when it's time to delve into 8,000 words about whatever.

"Newspapers should stop trying to break news," I wrote a few years ago. "They can't compete with websites. They should publish a daily version of what Time or Newsweek could be: lengthy analyses with charts and graphs, and opinions across the political spectrum." For the most part, however, editors still don't get it.

Time and Newsweek are case studies in how not to run a weekly magazine in the online era. Post-Time-Life Time and the Newsweek even more ruined by Tina Brown have reduced their cultural imprints and circulations by trying to Web-ify themselves with those crummy short bits at the front of the book, Buzzfeed-inspired charticles and listicles, and lots of oversized photos. Why pay $5 for that shit when you can get it better online — in abundance, and free? Conversely, when I want a detailed 10,000-word analysis of the factors that contributed to the current state of disintegration in Iraq, I'll turn to The Economist, not Time next week. So will everyone else.

What makes Fast Company's analysis interesting is its conclusion that long-form works online too.

"We decided to experiment with a new, super-long article format akin to 'slow live blogging,' Chris Dannen writes in Fast Company. "When we looked at the traffic charts… our jaws dropped. Here's what we learned about long form stories — and why quality, not velocity, is the future of online news." (Go check out the charts. They're amazing.)

Dannen continues:

In mid-April, we went live with a half dozen articles which we call 'stubs.' The idea here is to plant a flag in a story right away with a short post--a 'stub'--and then build the article as the story develops over time, rather than just cranking out short, discrete posts every time something new breaks. One of our writers refers to this aptly as a 'slow live blog.'

Stub stories work like this: You write the first installment like any other story. But when more news breaks, you go back to the article, insert an update at the top, and change the headline and subheadline (known in our business as the "hed" and "dek") to reflect the update. Our system updates the story "slug" when the headline changes--check the URL of this story, and you'll see words from the headline in the URL: /this-is-what-happens-when-publishers-invest-in-long-stories. But the number preceding the slug--on this article, it's 3009577--is a unique node ID which never changes. So essentially, every time we update an article, we get a fresh URL with a fresh headline, but pointing back to the same (newly updated) article. So, it's like having many URLs and many headlines which lead back to the same big, multi-faceted article. We called these 'Tracking' stories. FastCo's "bounce rate" plunged when it ran long-form pieces with updated information. Rather than come in, find themselves unintrigued and thus immediately leave, readers were attracted. They stuck around. Average visit duration jumped. Advertisers love this.

Dannen does offer a caveat, however:

Big-time disclaimer here--it's too early to tell how permanent these effects will be, and we can't know for sure that the changes are attributable to these stub articles. But we've racked our brains to think of other factors at work here--some big boost in inbound links? Some external event? A technical change? But after about a month, we've seen these changes stabilize, and we haven't been able to isolate any other contributing factors. We're not saying this is causation, because there's no way to be sure. But it sure as hell looks like it's working.
Long-form features are an important part of the journalistic mix. Yet many print editors continue to snub the format despite strong evidence, such as the success of Kindle Singles, that they've been mistaken.

Now that online media is beginning to see the profit potential in going long, the Internet may be about to kick print's ass in a form that ought to have been print's natural advantage.

[illustration by Hallie Bateman]