Longform (as it’s now called) has it’s place, but not all in one place

Call it longform, call it narrative form, call it great storytelling, call it whatever you want.

Bottom line: Great big, in-depth news and feature stories are what most journalists want to do, wish they could do and figure they don’t have the time to do. Or figure they can’t find an editor or publication or website to run it.

There are plenty of sites looking for this kind of material as the Columbia Journalism Review article referenced below points out. Another article in response to the CJR piece is worth reading as well for a different take on the issue.

I am a fan of this genre of story. I haven’t written many, but I dearly want to do more. And I have a couple good ideas right now if I can find the time. Realistically, I don’t know if I ever will.

Here is the key paragraph from the CJR article:

Deep, contextual reporting paired with emotionally resonant writing will continue to be vital, but publications built to satiate the journalist’s desire to write, as opposed to a reader’s desire to learn, risk creating a vanity project without a clear audience. “If it’s not for the readers then it doesn’t matter,” said Shapiro. “If you’re not satisfying readers then there’s no point.

I want to write these stories and I want my students to learn to write them. But is there an audience big enough for them?

Yes and no.

Yes, people like these stories. But, no, I don’t think they want them all in one place. There are links to several of these niche sites that publish and aggregate in the name of longform. One of them is even called Longform.

Newspaper readers and online readers have always been skimmers. This is nothing new with online if you think about it. Newspapers have headlines to attract readers to stories just like websites use Twitter, etc., to pull you in. News consumers don’t care as much these days where the story comes from. Not many have a list of bookmarks they go to every day. They increasingly use social media as a jumping off point.

I never go to the Chronicle for Higher Education website just to see what’s there. But I have recently read a couple of pieces there because I was pulled in through social media. And one was extremely longform.

Most readers are grazers and do not have the mindset of journalists. We pay attention to who wrote it, unconsciously calculate length, copy edit when we read and lots of other things ordinary readers don’t do.

We know we shouldn’t write and report for ourselves and our sources. The same is true for building a website. That’s why it is doubtful that sites dedicated to long stories will be financially successful. But long stories on sites that offer a variety of forms will always be a part of the landscape. Because sometimes a reader wants to graze and sometimes a reader wants a big meal.

My fear is that if these longform sites fail, execs and editors will say, “See, I told you. Nobody wants to read anything long.”

A healthy website is one that offers variety. Nobody wants to eat the same thing every night. And no one only wants to read short, medium or long. Newspapers thrived on a little big of everything. And websites will, too. It’s still journalism. Don’t confuse what people want to know and read with the delivery system.


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