Posted on December 6, 2013 in Archive

Longform stories start on paper but don’t stay there


Digital longform journalism originated from print longform journalism. That’s obvious, we all know that. What many people seem to be forgetting though (or maybe they don’t know?), is that most of the longform journalism available on the World Wide Web started it’s life on a print newspaper. I knew we were keeping print newspapers around for some reason!

Mark Armstrong published this article on Medium a while back, declaring that 65% of longform stories found on websites like Longreads started off in the paper format. He also stated that the ‘resurgence of long-form storytelling on the web is still being subsidised and supported by print businesses and print revenue.’ From this, it can be assumed what the process is: a journalist writes a standard length article for a print newspaper, only for the publication and journalist to later realise that it has the potential to be a longform piece once it receives positive feedback.

Because of the higher costs of narrative and longform journalism (research and travel costs are the main expenditures), many smaller newspapers are initially hesitant to invest such a hefty sum in a piece that might not work out or sit right with their particular publication. Presumably multimedia longform would be even more expensive because of the extra equipment, time, etc. needed to produce such a variety of content. Longform is also easier to monetise on print – consumers purchasing the newspapers or magazines and advertising space solves the problem in print, but not many people are so willing to go through paywalls and pop-up advertisements online. Matter is a website learning from this, having recently removed their paywall in favour of providing all their content for free, though they are eventually going to implement a “membership scheme” so their writers still get something out of it.

Despite the difficulties faced by longform journalists and their supporters, there are a number of online publishers making themselves known as narrative storytellers, such as BuzzFeed, Vox Media, Gawker Media, The Classical and Narratively.

Liquid State - Longform stories

Longform sometimes starts here; it rarely starts on Twitter.

So why is it so popular on the digital platform? That’s easy enough to diagnose. Smartphones now enable us to access web content while we are out and about, meaning that reading more than snippets of news articles is possible outside of the office or home environments. Social media and recommendation applications like Flipboard also allows people to find more on the Internet than flipping through a magazine (even if that does just mean a higher amount of print articles that have been adapted for digital). Furthermore, mobile applications such as Pocket allows readers to bring content with them, rather than having to find content on the go. The multimedia options available such as images, videos, sounds and infographics are what pushes digital across the line.

While I recognise that print will always have it’s own advantages, it isn’t always the end-solution for longform pieces. Making longform journalism profitable is a tricky business that not everyone will be able to accomplish. Snowfall was successful, but relied heavily on it’s beautiful but heavy design. Do we really want longform journalism to become a platform for graphic designers to take over? Some kind of creative digital collaboration needs to present itself as a solution for the current troubles of the ‘print vs. digital’ debate surrounding longform pieces.

Armstrong believes the fact that most longform journalism originates on print this means that print is not dead, nor has it ever been. I’m inclined to agree with this – print and digital may share the same ancestor, but they are both headed in different evolutionary directions, so to speak, and so should be treated differently.