Opinion: Long-form stories still garner attention in digital age


When I was in middle school, I convinced my mother to buy a trunk full of National Geographics at a garage sale. They were at least 10 years old and so dusty, she wouldn’t permit them anywhere in the house except the basement. I spent hours downstairs with a blanket absorbing as much as I could from every single one, like how whales communicate and how ancient civilizations irrigated their fields.

I even got a subscription for a few years and when it ran out, I never renewed. I moved with everyone else into the digital age and began checking online for my news. Is our generation missing a deeper realm of reporting due to their dependence on the Internet?

It isn’t as if the content itself has gone away. Long-form journalism still exists in print form, and people of college age still read it. A McPheters and Company marketing survey says 18.3 percent of adults age 19-24 have read a magazine in the last six months, indicating at least some of us are attached to the old format.

Although the median age of magazine readers may be increasing, data suggests the younger set reads more specialized media. Gaming, trades and bridal magazines capture younger attention better than more general ones like People or Time. This doesn’t count the online impressions generated by these magazine titans. National Geographic’s print readership between the ages of 18-24 sits at 14.6 percent. The same age group dominates the digital edition, which makes up 40 percent of views.

Similar long-form stories can be found online on their own niche websites. Longreads was inspired by the Twitter hashtag #longreads, used by authors to denote a more in-depth story, which later became a website that rounds up a Top 5 each week from newspapers around the country. The Big Round Table gives readers the option to support a certain writer and byline readers can purchase stories individually. The Atavist publishes new content monthly, allowing their readers to buy a subscription or pick their content a la carte. Its sister site Creativist allows writers to “produce a story, e-book, magazine, video narrative, stunning report – and publish it to the web.”

With the advance of digital publishing, people of our age with few resources or connections can get our work out into a space where it could be read. Most of these websites have apps for Apple and Android devices, making them as portable as a paper magazine.

Podcasts also make a valuable contribution to long-form. “This American Life” is one of the most popular podcast in the country and lasts an hour. It was successful enough for its own offshoot: “SERIAL,” which is even longer. Each “SERIAL” story takes multiple episodes to tell, like a seasonal story arc of a true story. NPR, Slate, TED Talks, Stuff You Should Know are all fixtures on this list, all clocking in at over more than a half-hour to an hour long.

It’s sometimes overlooked that these podcasts are free to listen to and share. This makes long-form journalism accessible to even more people. Anyone who can hear can listen to a podcast; it transcends the requirement to even read. We as authors and readers could only hope to have this sort of open sharing of knowledge just 10 years ago.

Speaking of sharing what we learn with others, the in-depth reporting that makes magazines great is not lost on social media. In fact, long-form content gets more shares than short-form content. In an analysis of 100 million articles by BuzzSumo, articles less than 1,000 words got less than 5,000 shares, while those between 3,000 and 10,000 words averaged 8,859 each. There were 16 times more articles written under 1,000 words than articles with 2,000 or more words.

The short stories definitely get read, but the longer ones are the ones that are analyzed, read deeply and shared. Long-form stories are the ones that define who we are as people when we post them to our Facebook pages and help us speak out in an intelligent way about complex issues.

Our generation still appreciates depth and breadth in reporting. We don’t usually read it in the same ways or the same publications as our parents, but we are reading it. Some of us deconstruct the traditional magazine format, turning instead to magazine-length articles on different sites or the radio-like investigative discussions downloaded onto iPods. The things we read aren’t all celebrity news and political infographics. I can get the long hours of reading I used to love now on the Internet. But I might resubscribe to NatGeo too – I just have to decide if I want paper and digital.

Logan Falletti is a senior in mass communications.