Longform stories: length is not scary when quality rules

23-04-2021

From niche formats to valuable, multimedia contents. Longform stories are now in the portfolio of many editorial groups

In 2000 we could keep our attention for about 12 seconds on average, now the threshold is about 8 seconds. This probably explains why we read far more online news, but we are more and more distracted and struggle to scroll beyond the opening screen. Digital content creators’ horizon is made of 500 words for a news item, 280 characters for a tweet, 60 seconds for TikTok video.

But longform stories haven’t totally disappeared; they are back in the portfolio of many editorial groups. In Italy we have L’Ultimo Uomo sport stories, but longform articles are now frequent on mainstream news sites such as Repubblica.it or Corriere.it, even as branded contents. There are international platforms – see Longreads and Longform – collecting best available longform stories and grouping them by topic.

Longform journalism has become a sort of editorial genre. It is about long articles moving beyond events and opinions to dive deep into resounding topics (the impact of pandemic on specific industries or territories, Joe Biden’s first 100 days, Giulio Regeni’s case, just to mention some recent examples). It is more about storytelling than news writing. Therefore, there is teamwork behind many successful longform stories, as different competences are needed to better investigate political, economic, social, and cultural nuances.

We might assume longform journalism address a niche audience, made of loyal and educated readers. This is not exactly true. Back in 2015, a survey by Pew Research Center in the US found that long (over 1,000 words) and short articles have more or less the same readership, both in quantitative and qualitative terms. The research also pointed out that longer stories engage users about twice the time of short ones – so they are probably read to the end.

What makes longform stories attractive for the general public? Two ingredients are worth to be considered. First, the quality of content – which is not related to text length (James Bennet, former editor in chief of The Atlantic, said it clearly in a post against the definition of longform journalism), but to the ability of providing the value that retains and engages readers, regardless of their education or preparation over the specific topic.

The trend of having less textual, more multimedia stories is also relevant. “New formats are more effective than text articles in accenting and making length attractive: podcasts, documentaries, newsletters”, states Il Post in its latest Charlie issue.

The growing interest in podcasts, with average listening sessions exceeding 20-25 minutes, proves long formats are appreciated. Examples of the effective multimedia integration include some celebrated longform stories such as Riding the New Silk Road by The New York Times, China’s Hidden Camps by BBC, Scaling Everest by The Washington Post.

As Sara Fischer, media reporter at Axios, noted “Longform journalism is stronger than ever. It’s just packaged differently”.