In 2012 when the New York Times published Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, the sprawling, suspense-laden, and virtual snow-filled essay, something changed on the Internet. People took notice. They stopped what they were doing to read longform writing again, online, for more than five minutes. With Snow Fall, The Times struck digital journalism gold.
Many outlets have emulated, experimented with, and tried to improve upon this type of graphically compelling, digitally native storytelling. The recent Brookings event, “The Future of Longform Publishing” brought together digital publishers from the Times, the Post, ESPN, and Brookings itself. Each outlet has dabbled in longform on the web in one form or another. The event coincided with the release of the newest longform Brookings Essay, The Big Snoop: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Terrorists, by Stuart Taylor, Jr. As David Nassar, vice president for Communications at Brookings and a panelist at the event, pointed out, the digital longform essay has provided Brookings with “an opportunity to tell stories in a way that without the platform we might not have been able to do.”
There was much handwringing over the term “longform” itself. Does it now connote multimedia experience, or simply lengthier journalism? And panelists brought up the fact that length does not necessarily equal quality. However, most striking was the technical and logistical nature of the conversation. Sarah Sampsel of the Washington Post said, “The Internet looks bad.” It’s true that our everyday encounters with the web are filled with seemingly unavoidable push notifications, blinking ads, pop-ups, the constant stream of our preferred social media du jour, and the list goes on.
There has been a revolt against the ugly web, and the answer just might be longform journalism. The moderator of the event, John Dickerson of Slate, described how longform articles tell the reader: “I’m here to tell you a long story, get a drink and sit by with me.” The conundrum in the digital era is balancing this pacing with recognized distractions. As Chad Millman of ESPN pointed out, this is something which people have not been used to doing over the past five years.
Reading Snowfall is like “controlled ADD.” Sprinkled throughout the essay are natural breaking points where the reader is able to browse through a photo gallery and skim some intriguing captions, or click to watch a quick video clip of the characters in the story. Graphic illustrations of maps and weather patterns add interest to the compelling tale of an avalanche that took the lives of several elite skiers. The usual web distractions are eliminated, yet are replaced by a set of more productive pauses from the text that help the story to unfold.
Devices also dominated the technical discussion at the event. Hannah Fairfield Wallander of the New York Times said that at least 50% of Times readers are consuming these longform articles on the tiniest of devices, and this trend is continuing upwards. The vast majority of people aren’t reading a paper. We’re all looking at phones and tablets. As mobile audiences grow, the challenge will be optimizing these new forms of reporting for smaller devices with slow or unstable connections.
Small screen sizes will continue to limit the quality of interactives and graphics on mobile phones. There are several apps, including Pocket, which aim to transition pieces from desktop to mobile or tablet more seamlessly. You can instantly save articles from a variety of applications, social media, or web browser to your account to read later, even when you are offline. Users who prefer an experience with fewer distractions can view just text.
Yet while the digital enhancements are lost, the content remains. Longform publishers need to understand the reality of where and how their stories are being read and adjust to this reality. Consumers are beginning to expect an excellent transition experience where each of their internet-enabled devices intelligently picks up where the other left off. Highlighting, bookmarks, and notes can all be stored in the cloud to smooth out a normally disjointed reading experience when device-hopping. Sites such as Longreads.org are going so far as to help readers prepare for their online reading experiences by listing article length (in both minutes and words).
The quality of content will dictate where and how we will read online. A solid story is still the most important element of longform’s future. As Fairfield Wallander noted, “books are never going to go out of style and that’s the ultimate longform, right?” Skilled editors will become even more critical, especially those with a keen sense for integrating multimedia and interactivity into a story.
The biggest accomplishment of longform is breathing new life into an old medium. Immersive digital experiences hold the promise of renewing interest in quality journalism coverage. They have not only set the bar higher for digital reporting, they have built a whole new framework. The future of longform will provide readers with in-depth, substantive information in appealing, inviting, and most importantly accessible, formats. Technology will find a way to keep up, because our hunger for good storytelling isn’t going anywhere.
Read the Brookings Now Summary of the event here.