Longform: Why do we measure the value of content by its length?

I remember what an editor I know told a journalist who asked him how long his story should be: “As long as it needs to be,” my friend said. Among the many benefits of writing online — the ability to link, the speed with which content can be published, etc. — one of the best is that a story can be whatever size it needs to be, whether it’s 200 words or 20,000. So why are we still so obsessed with “longform” journalism, as though it is somehow more valuable simply because of its length?

Writer Chris Ip looked at this in a recent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, in which he surveyed the landscape of longform-related startups and online ventures, including a new one called Latterly and the much-anticipated effort from former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson and Steve Brill, which doesn’t have a name yet but is planning to pay writers $100,000 for each article. Says Ip:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”Over the last six years, longform writing has exploded to the point where the term longform has become a buzzword. As barriers to entry to participate in what was once the preserve of high profile career journalists have been obliterated, narratives several thousand words long hit the Web daily. The market is flooded with longform producers, even as the model for how to succeed is still yet to be cracked.”[/blockquote]

Journalists like to write

As the CJR piece notes, there are at least half a dozen ventures that focus on longform in some sense, including Deca — a collective of well-known writers that models itself on the seminal group of photographers known as the Magnum group — and The Atavist, as well as Longreads (which was acquired by WordPress earlier this year), Longform, Narratively and Matter, which is now a part of the Medium platform.

The landscape also includes some notable failures, such as Byliner, which had what seemed like a promising model of signing up well-known writers to create magazine-length pieces which would then be sold as Kindle Singles or in other ways. But the company eventually imploded, as my colleague Laura detailed in a piece that also looked at the somewhat dodgy nature of the “longform” journalism market.

Old typewriter

Ip says the rise of longform can be explained in part as a response to the fear that in-depth, quality journalism is suffering because of the web’s obsession with traffic — and that is likely true. But it should also be noted that a lot of longform writing occurs because journalists like to write, and almost all of them believe their prose is good enough to justify a magazine-length piece.

I think even some journalists would admit there’s also a desire to “show your work,” as a friend once put it: a need to prove to readers (and possibly to editors) that all the time and effort the writer put in to their piece was justified, by including every detail of every phone call or plane trip, and every interview with every source, no matter how inconsequential or inconclusive.

What do readers want?

The problem with this kind of approach, as Ip and others have pointed out, is that it doesn’t take into account what the reader wants, or what he or she is getting out of a longform piece — apart from a sense of awe at the author’s command of the English language, of course. In a sense, it’s like the fetishization of story formats like the New York Times‘ “Snowfall,” which was celebrated by journalists and designers (with good reason) but may not have actually served readers all that well. As Ip says:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”Deep, contextual reporting paired with emotionally resonant writing will continue to be vital, but publications built to satiate the journalist’s desire to write, as opposed to a reader’s desire to learn, risk creating a vanity project without a clear audience.”[/blockquote]

In some ways, the sheer elasticity of the web is the problem: when your story had to compete for scarce physical space in a newspaper or magazine, editors would whittle everything down as much as possible — but online, every story could theoretically be longform. Pushing out a few more pixels costs nothing. So why not add some more graphics and videos and the full text of interviews? Because it’s a mistake, as Latterly founder Ben Wolford said in a post:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”There’s some really dull stuff out there, packaged big to look important. In a perfect, well-staffed industry, there would be lots of editors to beat those stories into shape or kill them. But give readers credit; if it’s boring or bad, they’ll quit reading, and they certainly won’t pay for a subscription.”[/blockquote]

By now, most media companies and journalists have gotten used to the idea that the reader is in control of the marketplace, and pushing out thousand-word pieces simply because you spent a lot of money reporting them no longer makes a lot of sense. But then how do you know when to go long? In the end, that requires a knowledge of your audience’s needs and desires that too few media outlets have at their fingertips — but without it, their longform efforts will almost certainly come up short.