Mar 9, 2021 - Economy

The new era for long-form journalism

Illustration of a cellphone with a blinking cursor on the screen

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

From pop-up newsletters to podcasts and short courses to documentaries, newsrooms are getting creative about presenting long-form journalism in the Internet era.

Why it matters: Streaming and smartphones have made it easier to turn big stories into more digestible formats.

Driving the news: Newsrooms are pivoting away from large chunks of text online, because the format doesn't suit readers attention spans on mobile phones.

  • The average word count for news articles has fallen from about 449 in September 2019 to about 380 in February 2020, according to data from Chartbeat.
  • The averaged engaged time on individual news articles has gone up slightly in that time, from 30.29 seconds per article to 31.24 seconds per article.

By the numbers: Data from SimilarWeb shows a similar trend. The average page visit duration in the past year and pages per visit has dropped at -6.2% and -19.4%, respectively. Visits to news pages in the past year were up overall compared to the year prior.

  • "This suggests that while people are frequenting news sites at higher volumes, they are less engaged with the content, which could indicate interest shifting away from long-form journalism, towards shorter, more digestible formats," says SimilarWeb Marketing Insights Analyst Ilana Marks.

The big picture: Today, few major internet stories are rolled out without some sort of accompanying audio, video or newsletter format. A few notable examples:

  • Documentaries: The New York Times, Vox Media, Buzzfeed, and many other news publishers are beginning to license their top articles to streaming companies to be used to create documentaries.
  • Short Courses: TheSkimm, WWD and others are using virtual short courses to tackle meaty subjects with more interactivity.
  • Newsletters: Dozens of news companies have begun using pop-up newsletters to cover big stories in real-time, incrementally. The trend began with the 2018 midterm elections and gained steam during impeachment. Today, there are dozens of pop-up newsletters and podcasts that cover the pandemic.
  • Podcasts: Serial, the investigative podcast from This American Life, was one of the first long-form journalism podcasts to capture big audiences. Ever since, newsrooms have been trying to copy that format.
  • Closer to home: Axios' "Off the rails" series about the final days of the Trump presidency could have been published as one very long 16,000+-word article. Instead, it was rolled out over nine articles with a complimentary podcast series that allowed audiences to listen or read the story in smaller increments.

Yes, but: Traditional editorial standards for text can sometimes be difficult to navigate with new mediums.

  • The New York Times conceded last year that large parts of its popular "Caliphate" audio series didn't meet its editorial standards.
  • The Times' executive editor Dean Baquet said in an interview with the paper's "Caliphate" podcast: "When The New York Times does deep, big, ambitious journalism in any format, we put it to a tremendous amount of scrutiny at the upper levels of the newsroom ... We did not do that in this case."

The bottom line: Long-form journalism is stronger than ever. It's just packaged differently.

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