The long and short of quality journalism
This is an article I’ve been wanting to write since I published “True journalism is not dead” back in January 2017 — a commentary on the state of journalism in this era of alternative media, clickbait headlines, and the spread of misinformation by publishers looking to be first over being factual.
After finishing the article, the question I still asked myself is whether quality journalism is measured by its length. When one typically thinks of excellence in reporting, we often recall a long-form exposé with mountains of research behind it.
But can an impactful 800word story be considered a high-quality piece of journalism? Can a listicle full of insightful facts be worthy of an A+ rating? What about popular blog posts, memes, or other forms of new media?
I guess these new owners don’t share the opinion of John Seely Brown that “The job of leadership today is not just to make money, it’s to make meaning.”
But the Gatehouse Media of the world aren’t the only misguided moguls in the media landscape. Publishers of all sizes still look to capitalize on digital by creating bite-sized bits of content, chocked full of searchengine-friendly keywords to drive traffic.
The result has been a drastic degradation of what is considered newsworthy by editors. Thankfully Google caught on and started punishing keyword-saturated content in its search engine results.
Unfortunately, that didn’t stop too many media companies from, as Ken Doctor cleverly coined, “trying to sell one liter of coke for the price of two.”
Long versus short
As a passionate advocate for cultivating and disseminating quality journalism, I decided to dig deeper into the long versus short debate and see how new technologies and new readers have influenced the form and function of news content and its perceived value.
Back in 2009, managing editor of Time.com, Josh Tyrangiel, said that long-form journalism on the web was not working. That was a scary proposition. But thankfully, many publishers like Forbes, The New Yorker, Wired, The Guardian, Vanity Fair, and even BuzzFeed didn’t give up on the form online — continuing to try and enlighten, entertain, and engage readers for much longer than an internet minute.
Five years later, Google rewarded their efforts by ranking long-form content higher than short. And according to the founder of BuzzSumo, longer content ended up being shared more often.
Concise does not necessarily equate to rubbish.
So is content quality in the eyes of the beholder?
If no one reads an article, is it bad? If millions of people share an article, does that make it good?
While pondering this, I was reminded about wine. If ever there was a product whose quality was in the hands of the beholder, it is the fermented grape juice that has become the gift of choice we bring to most dinner parties. Many of us go out of our way to buy a more expensive wine than we’d normally drink to impress our hosts, because we believe that expensive means better (or at least we think our hosts believe that).
But most of us know that’s not true. There are some delicious, economical vinos and some dreadful, high-priced varietals. Even the experts in the industry are often fooled in taste tests. The same is true for news. A 2016 study reported that 59% of online content is shared without being read by the sharer. So, it should come as no surprise why 2016 was also a year when fake news proliferated like mushrooms across the web — and you know what they’re grown in.
We’re also seeing, through our own behavioral analytics on PressReader, that users tend to share content they don’t actually read, and read content they rarely share. Are they sharing unread content to impress others and not sharing what they read because they are ashamed? I don’t have the answer, but it’s curious, don’t you think?
The impacts of technology and user behavior on form
With the massive changes in technology and society over the past decade, we started to make a number of assumptions about readership and content preferences.
It may surprise you that there are more myths to our assumptions than truths.
Is more short-form read on smartphones?
It would be logical to assume that more short-form articles are consumed on smartphones than long. But that assumption would be wrong.
According to PEW, although there are far more short-form articles on smartphones, long-form stories get just as many reads by users, and they show higher levels of engagement.
Long is left for late night reading, right? While there is a slight increase in consumption late at night for long-form content, smartphone users actually spend more time with long-form content than short across the course of the day.
Long-form is just for the long in tooth, right?
RJI Research Scholars from the University of Missouri, the University of Hong Kong, and Northwestern University studied how Millennials (18- to 34-year-olds) and Baby Boomers (52- to 69-year-olds) consume news online.
What they discovered was that both demographics consume long-form content, but Millennials favor stories about challenging issues or social problems, especially those that offer possible solutions or include calls to action to address the issues.
So it now makes sense to me that the “read later” app, Instapaper, is one of the top seven mobile apps used by Millennial entrepreneurs.
And that’s not all…
A 2016 PEW study showed that younger audiences prefer reading the news, while older generations gravitate towards watching it. I was surprised by that.
And speaking of video, IAB Canada’s CMUST research found that 62% of the online video content viewed by Millennials is long-form (only 38% was short).
When it comes to quality…
Quality journalism is not about long-form or short. When it comes to quality, size doesn’t matter.
What does matter is what
I’ve been preaching for many years: quality is about delivering the right content to the right audience through the right channels at the right time at the right price.
Getting it right isn’t easy by any stretch, because it requires a lot of intelligence about one’s audience. Longform, short and everywhere in-between works in an audience-first content mix. The more you know about your readers, the better you can adapt your editorial and advertorial content to increase likelihood they’ll keep coming back for more. It’s a never-ending continuous improvement journey for every publisher. Because, as Aristotle said, “Quality is not an act, it is a habit.”
Quality is about delivering the right content to the right audience through the right channels at the right time at the right price.
I’m a big fan of long-form journalism, but I also enjoy short form articles as well. Hey, even a clever gif, infographic, or insightful tweet (that informs, moves or inspires) can trigger a desire in me to learn more about a subject — like this WEF infographic on Facebook.