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Newsrooms get creative about presenting long-form journalism in the Internet era

From pop-up newsletters to podcasts and short courses to documentaries, newsrooms are getting creative about presenting long-form journalism in the Internet era.

Why it matters: Streaming and smartphones have made it easier to turn big stories into more digestible formats.

Driving the news: Newsrooms are pivoting away from large chunks of text online, because the format doesn't suit readers attention spans on mobile phones.

  • The average word count for news articles has gone down gradually over the past 18 months from about 449 on average in September 2019 to about 380 in February 2020, according to data from Chartbeat.
  • The averaged engaged time on individual news articles has gone up slightly in that time, from 30.29 seconds per article to 31.24 seconds per article.

By the numbers: Data from SimilarWeb shows a similar trend. The average page visit duration in the past year and pages per visit has dropped at -6.2% and -19.4%, respectively. Visits to news pages in the past year were up overall compared to the year prior.

  • "This suggests that while people are frequenting news sites at higher volumes, they are less engaged with the content, which could indicate interest shifting away from long-form journalism, towards shorter, more digestible formats," says SimilarWeb Marketing Insights Analyst Ilana Marks.

The big picture: Today, few major internet stories are rolled out without some sort of accompanying audio, video or newsletter format. A few notable examples:

  • Documentaries: The New York Times, Vox Media, Buzzfeed, and many other news publishers are beginning to license their top articles to streaming companies to be used to create documentaries.
  • Short Courses: TheSkimm, WWD and others are using virtual short courses to tackle meaty subjects with more interactivity.
  • Newsletters: Dozens of news companies have begun using pop-up newsletters to cover big stories in real-time, incrementally. The trend began with the 2018 midterm elections and gained steam during impeachment. Today, there are dozens of pop-up newsletters and podcasts that cover the pandemic.
  • Podcasts: Serial, the investigative podcast from This American Life, was one of the first long-form journalism podcasts to capture big audiences. Ever since, newsrooms have been trying to copy that format.
  • Closer to home: Axios' "Off the rails" series about the final days of the Trump presidency could have been published as one very long 16,000+-word article. Instead, it was rolled out over nine articles with a complimentary podcast series that allowed audiences to listen or read the story in smaller increments.

Yes, but: Traditional editorial standards for text can sometimes be difficult to navigate with new mediums.

  • The New York Times conceded last year that large parts of its popular "Caliphate" audio series didn't meet its editorial standards.
  • The Times' executive editor Dean Baquet said in an interview with the paper's "Caliphate" podcast: "When The New York Times does deep, big, ambitious journalism in any format, we put it to a tremendous amount of scrutiny at the upper levels of the newsroom ... We did not do that in this case."

The bottom line: Long-form journalism is stronger than ever. It's just packaged differently.

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