In the age of instant news and bite-sized live updates, longform journalism continues to thrive. From The New York Times to The Guardian or BuzzFeed, most mainstream media outlets regularly publish longer and often immersive stories, bringing in different sources, interactive elements, audio, video and data.
These are often more costly and time-consuming projects, but they strike a chord with readers, offering more in-depth and nuanced perspectives and reporting. An American Press Institute analysis from 2016 showed that longform stories receive more views and shares than others, and last year’s Chartbeat’s top 10 list of Most Engaging Stories — selected by the content intelligence platform from over 60 million published pieces — included at least seven in-depth investigations and features. This year’s ranking, released on December 18, confirms that readers have a real appetite for longform journalism, with The Atlantic’s What Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane by William Langewiesche coming on top, mostly followed by human interest stories and features.
“There's been a lot written about how our collective attention spans are decreasing, and that's all true. But we also see signs that things are headed in the other direction,” said Brendan Spiegel, co-founder and editorial director at Narratively, a digital media platform specializing in human interest stories. “A lot of people are tired of getting all of their news from headlines on social media. The constant barrage of information hurts our brains and our minds.”
Spiegel said that people are hungry for work that can take them out of the 24/7 news cycle for a second. “[At Narratively,] we've experimented with different lengths for articles and found that our most carefully crafted, longest stories are the ones that stick. Pieces like The Man With the Golden Airline Ticket, which is one of the longest pieces we've ever run, and also one of the most read.”
Longform journalism has made a comeback in the digital age, with new tools, virtual spaces and technologies driving a new wave of highly engaging pieces, like The New York Times’ 2012 Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.
But how do you get readers to stick to the end of a long article? How do you keep them interested when there are so many different things competing for their attention, especially online?
We asked Narratively’s Brendan Spiegel and Berkeleyside reporter Natalie Orenstein, winner of the longform storytelling award from the Society of Professional Journalists Northern California chapter for her “Beyond the Buses” series, to share some tips.
Don’t waste the reader’s attention
The opening of the article needs to reel readers in, especially written, online pieces, Spiegel said. “In a movie, the storyteller maybe has 30 minutes or so to get the viewer interested before they turn it off and watch something else. With a podcast, maybe you have five minutes. With a print article in The New Yorker they might read a full page or so before deciding whether or not to go on,” he continued. “With an online article, you have one paragraph, max.”
Every sentence needs to move the story forward and engage the reader. As he put it, journalists don’t have the luxury of including a 1,000-word section that's helpful for background, but not interesting to the reader. The risk is to lose their attention altogether.
Long isn't a virtue in and of itself, Spiegel noted. The key is finding that right balance between crafting scenes that grab the reader’s attention, without getting bogged down in too many details that they get lost. "Editing down succinctly is probably even more important in a longform piece than in a shorter one,” Spiegel added.
To make stories more engaging, you may have to experiment with different narrative tools and media. "I don't think the future of journalism is people reading 10,000-word articles on their desktop computers," he said.
Due to the success of audio stories, for example, Narratively recently launched full-length audio versions of every new published story. Spiegel thinks e-readers present a lot of opportunities, too.
Plan beyond publication
“As both a consumer and a writer of longform journalism, I enjoy when outlets present opportunities for readers to engage with the work beyond the page and after publication,” said reporter Natalie Orenstein. This could take many different shapes: a live event, an in-story poll, a social media thread.
For her award-winning series on school integration in Berkeley, Orenstein’s team used old Associated Press photos of the first elementary school classes integrated in the 1960s. “We offhandedly included a little aside box asking readers to let us know if they recognized themselves in the pictures." Months later she was contacted by a man in Australia who saw his then-kindergarten-age brother in one of the pictures. He emailed Orenstein about his experience with integration and offered to talk for any follow-up work.
Treating journalism as a conversation and involving the audience with the reporting process can help media build a relationship with readers, bringing them together and creating an engaged community that is more likely to support and revisit the work. "As a local journalist, it’s gratifying and important for me to know that the community I cover sees itself in our work, and for folks to get opportunities to have a voice beyond the handful of interviews I might get around to doing while reporting a story," she said.
Cristiana Bedei is a freelancer writing about gender, sexuality, women's rights, body image, mental health and more.
This story was updated on Dec. 18, 2019, to include Chartbeat's 2019 list of most engaging stories.