Do long stories work online?

APA Logo Customer publishing magazines, just like consumer magazines, come in all shapes and sizes. Some are mainly packed with short pithy stories, while others feature long thoughtful articles. The content invariably depends on how the client, with the advice of the publisher, wants to communicate with the magazine‘s readers.

However, there is an accepted wisdom that the online world is different and that readers, with their short attention spans, will only read short articles.

This can be quite challenging for some publishers who may have commissioned longer more expressive pieces for their print versions and want to put those articles online. Is there any point if they are not going to be read?

Interestingly there is now some evidence which shows that if a person is presented with the right content they might read longer pieces online. The debate, which has been bubbling under for a few months now, has come to a head because of two events. One, the publishing of an article in the Nieman Journalism Lab, and secondly because the way that The Times has started publishing longer articles on its website.

The catalyst was the Nieman article which cites an experiment by Slate magazine in the US. Slate is a popular online website which doesn't really have an equivalent in the UK. It is noted for its quality journalism and insightful content.

A few months ago its editor David Plotz unveiled what he calls the Fresca initiative. Here's how it is explained on the Nieman blog.

‘Essentially, the fellowship program requires that every editorial staff member at Slate take four to six weeks off from their normal jobs, paid - and use that time to produce one in-depth piece (or, often, a series of in-depth pieces) on a subject that compels them. So far, the project has netted such praiseworthy specimens of long-form as, among others, Tim Noah's analysis of why the U.S. hasn't endured another successfully executed terror attack since 9/11 and Julia Turner's look at the fascinating complexities of signage and June Thomas' examination of American dentistry and Dahlia Lithwick's crowd-sourced foray into chick-lit authorship and John Dickerson's reclamation of risk-taking after the financial crash gave that quintessential American practice a bad name.'

The interesting part is that the Fresca initiative has been a huge success, generating millions of page views - which translate into significant advertising revenue for Slate. Companies also love the way that the features attract intelligent, sophisticated and invariably affluent readers. The very type of people that are key to a lot of advertisers' strategy.

It is noticeable too that since the introduction of its paywall a few months ago The Times has been experimenting with longer features online. The theory runs that if people have paid to read the content they are more likely to sit back and read a long piece.

There are also some interesting UK blogs that focus on long form content. Another Nickel delivers long-ish posts about its key topic - 20th century English culture - which are lapped up by a small but intelligent audience.

Longer features enable content creators to add all kinds of other elements to their words. The Nickel articles, for example, are heavy on images and video. Longer stories could in theory also contain footnotes, polls and other interactive features.

So what does this mean for customer publishers? On one level I think it suggests that if they have long form content on printed magazines they shouldn't be afraid to add them online. If the content is good it will find a readership. Secondly it might be worth producing longer features for websites which feature a meaty chunk of text, but also include images and video content. For publishers who need to worry about page impressions (and potentially advertising) they can always split the content up into many pages. The Slate articles, for example, typically require around 20 clicks from the user. It might sound like a lot but it appears that readers are happy to keep clicking.

What might make it a lot easier for readers to look at long piece online is the growth of tablet PCs and ereaders like Amazon's Kindle. Sales of ebooks on the Kindle format have already overtaken sales of hardback books from the Amazon US store. Meanwhile the iPad has delivered not just an alternative ereader, but also magazines with page turning facilities that are well suited for longer reads.

So customer publishing companies should look once again at longer features for their online titles.

Posted in Digital
2ndAug 2010

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