Pile of paper
Credit: Digitzedchaos on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The past couple of years have seen a number of projects and publications launch offering long-form reads; in-depth articles that are perhaps 5,000 words or more in length.

The New York-based Atavist started last year; BBC Future, the new technology, science, environment and health-focused site from BBC.com, was unveiled six months ago; Aeon, a UK-based digital magazine of essays went live in September; and investigative science journalism publication Matter, which sells individual articles for $0.99, launched yesterday.

As new and experimental projects evolve, the pioneers in the long-form online space are writing a new set of rules.

Where a culture of short paragraphs and pull quotes has become the practice of online journalists, long-form is appearing to require a book-like layout offering a distraction-free read, editors are recycling and resurfacing old content – and at least one publisher of long-form online is refusing to write SEO-friendly headlines.

And where the rules are different, the results are too, with just 4 per cent of views coming from search engines in one case.

This week a three-person panel of people involved in long-form online debated the evolving format in a talk called 'rewriting the rules', which was chaired and hosted by creative agency The Church of London.

The panellists: Bobbie Johnson, publisher of Matter; Brigid Hains, editor and co-founder of Aeon; and Simon Frantz, deputy editor of BBC Future, a project from the commercial arm of the BBC and therefore only available outside the UK, shared their experiences.

How long is long-form? Longer than short, shorter than long

Long-form is a "massively confusing" term, Johnson said, and one without a definitive answer. For Matter, articles are between 5,000 and 10,000 words in length (in part dictated by the length required by Amazon for Kindle Singles), The Atavist has a minimum word count of 8,000, whereas a strong essay of 2,000 words is considered long enough to be long-form by Aeon.

As there are no rules as to what constitutes long-form, the best definition is perhaps "longer than short", chair of the debate Alexander Capes, who is digital director at The Church of London, said.

But as Hains is originally from an academic background, she finds long-form to be shorter than the book-length pieces familiar in academic publishing.

New technologies

With the advent of new devices for reading lean-back content and other technological developments, "reading is easier than ever before on a screen", Johnson said.

That barrier between online and offline reading doesn’t really exist any moreBobbie Johnson
"That barrier between online and offline reading doesn’t really exist any more," he added.

Frantz said there had been various "game changers", including developments such as Tumblr and WordPress, which have lowered the cost of publishing.

And appetites have been whetted as "people have got sick of churnalism," Frantz added, explaining that BBC Future aims offers something different. “We are looking to do more ambitious pieces, we are going to go deeper, go longer.”

New funding rules

In some cases long-form is evolving to follow a different funding model than online news sites.

"Most publishing on the web has been based on the advertising model,” Johnson, who is also editor of GigaOM Europe, said.

Most sites are "playing a numbers game,” he added. "And the value of digital advertising has decreased."

Johnson's Matter has pioneered a different model. Along with co-founder Jim Giles, Johnson took to Kickstarter for seed funding, raising $140,000. Matter articles are now on sale for $0.99 each and available online and for e-readers including the iPad and Kindle.

"I don’t think there are millions and millions of people who will pay $0.99 for a single edition," Johnson said. "But we believe there are enough people to make it viable."
While Aeon is currently offering its articles for free, BBC Future is following a more recognised route as it is ad-supported. "If you hit that sweet spot, it’s lucrative," Frantz revealed.

New experiences

Matter and Aeon are both aiming for distraction-free reading experiences, with advertising stripped out.

Hains said the challenge is to get people to stay with an article, reducing the "snacking" of content.

Capes, who designed Aeon's site, advised Hains to "let people get on in peace”, he said, pushing for Aeon's very clean design (which you can see here).

Matter has opted for a responsive site to deliver the "clean reading experience" on any device. The new publication uses photographs commissioned for the articles and although long-form publisher The Atavist does include video, Matter is "unlikely to use video any time soon as it takes you out of the story", Johnson explained.

Every paragraph break took me out of the storyBobbie Johnson
And when planning the first issue of Matter there were "interesting conversations" about pull quotes. Initially Johnson included them deciding to strip them out before launch.

And through trial and error, he found that short paragraphs, as favoured online, are hard to read in book format. “Every paragraph break took me out of the story,” he said.

BBC Future plans to do some testing around how people consume its content and would like to develop narrow paragraph spacing to suit long-form, with Frantz adding it is perhaps easier for sites starting from scratch to design such sites rather than those constrained by a house style.

New style

The writing style is also different for long-form, the panellists agreed, with journalists needing to possess the skill to hold the audience's attention.

We think about narrative journalism, it’s almost like a movie scriptBobbie Johnson
Matter's style is filmic, Johnson said. “We think about narrative journalism, it’s almost like a movie script," he said.

And it relies on getting the reporter out for the “deep reporting”. In the case of the launch Matter article published yesterday, the investigation explores why some people desire to be amputees, leading to them having limbs cut off in illegal practices. It was an investigation that required the reporter to travel to Asia, spending several months working on the piece.

Johnson and Giles act as commissioning editors for Matter. They work out what the writer is good at and their weaker points, and try to match the reporter with an editor with complementary skills.

For Matter it was an “extreme effort” to get the first article to the level where they were happy to publish it. "It’s a new discipline and we needed to get to the level where it can hold people’s attention," Johnson said.

He is also aware that "all editors have long-form content which they have no vehicle to publish." But as there are few long-form articles being commissioned, how are people learning the craft? he asked.

New ways of reaching an audience

Hains said that Aeon "leapfrogged the PR and marketing" they would have had to do for a print publication. "Instead the audience has come to it in a purely digital, organic way," she said.

And Hains ignored Capes's advice of writing SEO-friendly headlines. Whether as a result of that or because it is a different product, Aeon gets just 4 per cent of its readers via search.

Instead it relies on its growing community and social, with Reddit being an important driver.

New appetites

Frantz explained BBC Future launched as the audience "was asking for something that wasn’t the daily news cycle".

The half life of long stories is much, much longerBobbie Johnson
And with the new format comes a new pace, Johnson said. News outlets are producing hundreds of articles a day, with many getting scant attention. "You are throwing spaghetti at the wall," he said.

Instead Matter is currently publishing one article a month, and may increase to about once a week.

For BBC Future, Frantz and colleagues are experimenting in resurfacing older content.

Johnson said it is about taking the long view when creating something of value in the digital space. "It’s not tomorrow’s chip wrapper", he said, explaining that he expects Matter articles to have long-tail.

"The half life of long stories is much, much longer," he said.

And Hains explained how she had a shift in attitude. She originally considered digital as ephemeral and print not so. "But I realised it’s the reverse," she said, noting that digital is around for the long haul.

Related reading and listening

Long-form digital journalism is one of the topics of news:rewired on 6 December. Bobbie Johnson will be speaking alongside Alex Miller, executive editor of VICE UK; and Mike Goldsmith, editor-in-chief, digital editions, Future Publishing. Agenda and tickets.

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).