The long and short of qual­ity jour­nal­ism

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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?

Wrong again!

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.

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