Long content on the Web will work – if it looks good

In my last post, I talked about how newspapers should be designing their content with social media in mind – as a distribution mechanism and a totally new way that people process information, not just a share button.

This approach begs the logical question, however, “so does that mean news outlets should only be writing short stories? Is the long read dead? Will the news of the future be a bunch of three-graph briefs?”

I hope not, and I don’t think that’s what’s happening. (Also, I realize that’s three questions). And there are places where long-form, magazine-style reporting is thriving, but there’s a key element that many newspaper websites are missing.

One of my favorite sites is Grantland, the project of ESPN columnist and former Boston Sports Guy Bill Simmons. Simmons has always had a tendency to write long, and he’s gathered a bunch of like-minded writers who share his love of sports and pop culture. I also think he’s doing some really cool things with alternative story formats like oral histories. (Speaking of cool long reads, give this history of The National a read if you’ve got a few moments, a wonderful history of a newspaper’s roaring birth and untimely death.)

So where’s the Grantland for news? I’m sure there are good examples out there. There are some good sites that curate long reads from multiple sources, like the obviously titled Longreads. I follow a #longreads hashtag on Tumblr. The New Yorker’s site translates that magazine’s lengthy profiles and analysis pieces onto the Web well, I remember spending almost a full day digging through this exhaustively fact-checked piece on Scientology when it came out last year. If you have any favorites or suggestions let me know in the comments.

(EDIT: Found another cool one through Twitter, Narrative.ly, which only updates once a week but really focuses on narrative, storytelling type journalism.)

The part that’s interesting to me is what a lot of the good long read sites have in common: good design. Look at Grantland, for example. It’s relatively large text, on a clean white background. Very simple, no interstitial ads (which are TERRIBLE for design. I don’t want to read around things) and it’s easy to navigate with that “main story in the center, other features on the right” feel.

This isn’t a long read site per se, but the Nieman Lab site does some a couple of really neat things that enhance its readability. I don’t know what the technical term is for it, but their sidebar content “ghosts” out unless you hover your mouse over it. They also have “zen mode,” where you can click and get just the article, centered, in large text without any distractions. More sites should do both of these things, they’re fantastic.

A lot of newspaper sites, and even more so local TV station sites, have three-graph stories with ads and auto-play videos and polls, and 15,000 other things crammed into tiny spaces. It’s hard to find what you’re looking for, and you don’t know where to go if you’re browsing. It’s an insult to readers’ attention spans and intelligence. Then management wonders why their time-on-site numbers are so low. I think this is a highly overlooked aspect of news: Nothing turns off readers like bad design.

I think news outlets could also expand their views on what a “longread” is. Maybe it’s not a 5,000 word story, but a shorter story with an interactive chart, or a video series, or a discussion featuring the article’s author. Those would serve the same purpose, getting readers to spend a longer period of time on the site. I think that’s killing a lot of daily newspaper sites, people think of them as a place to click around for a few minutes to check the headlines, then they leave.

This is kind of a tangent, but part of it’s about audience targeting as well. When the Boston Metro came out a couple of years ago, I had conversations with family members who thought it was silly. But I thought it was brilliant: A newspaper designed to be read, cover-to-cover, on the train ride into or home from work. Newspapers should be thinking about when and how their readers are interacting with the site and design the content accordingly.

I couldn’t find anything to link to, but I was at a conference a few years ago where the presenter was talking about a study by a paper in Japan. That paper had a strategy of targeting their readers in a different medium at each time of the day. Mobile on the train or car ride into work, so shorter content. Desktop computers at work, so more substantial content. Laptops or home computers at night, so longer, more personalized stories and information. Long content on the Web can work, but it has to be targeted at people at a time where they’re not checking in on their phones.

I think newspapers are right to take a different approach to content on the Web versus what goes into print the next day. But I hope this doesn’t turn into the idea that consumers won’t read a longer story online. They will – especially if it’s backed up by good design.

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About justingraeber

PR pro and media geek. Sucker for new technology, gadgets, social media, etc. Dad. Red Sox fan. Remembers way too many MST3K quotes.
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