If you ever wanted evidence that the values of news distribution are shifting, you need look no further than The Boston Globe. The newspaper, recently featured in the movie ‘Spotlight’, is a long-standing and respected outlet for quality journalism; perhaps not as well known internationally as The Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, but still a venerable institution in its own right. However, longevity and quality have not been enough to save it from an astonishing slump in market value. Bought by the New York Times Group in 1993 for $1.1 billion, it sold again in 2013 for $70 million. Global financial crisis notwithstanding, that’s quite a drop in value.
Longform and digital aren’t necessarily incompatible
The decreasing financial worth of a paper like The Globe, and the closure of papers like The Independent, is worrisome for people who value print as a way to consume the kind of thoughtful articles you tend to associate with ‘serious newspapers’. Longform journalism in particular was, for many years, peculiarly assumed to be incompatible with digital platforms. Anyone who worked in digital editorial four or five years ago will recall being told that nobody wanted to read anything online that was longer than 250 words, but since then the fear has been that the research that goes into creating it is not financially sustainable. As a result, we’ve heard a lot of talk about its perilous future.
Rob Orchard at Delayed Gratification (one of a new breed of news periodicals, more on which later) was, in part, moved to start the magazine because, “one of the things that we always used to say was that you couldn’t read longform online: you needed print in order to concentrate. I don’t think that’s the case anymore, and I think it was just a very simple question of getting the design right.”
Our obsession with form has often overshadowed the real issue, that of content
And get it right they have, first improving on the devices that we use to consume this content, and then on the ways in which the content was displayed. In 2015, the BBC reported that 65% of traffic to its sites was via smartphones or tablets. It’s a huge shift, and probably the most significant since the invention of the printing press, as Emily Bell argued in a recent lecture on the subject.
However, while the most hardened print fanatic might have been won over by increasingly intuitive and convenient ways to read online articles – and long ones at that – the obsession with form has often overshadowed the real issue, that of content.
Amol Rajan, the last editor of the print version of the Independent, noted this also: “If what matters is the ideas and intelligence, the values and judgement – the content, to put it in modern parlance – then why should the platform concern us?”
Quite. When you think about it, newspapers are only a delivery mechanism. Longform doesn’t need them in their traditional, ‘print’ sense, which is probably a good thing, considering that the decline of the daily newspaper has been evident since the 1950s, a period well noted for its lack of iPads and other digital devices.
“The mythology of print is really powerful”, says Adam Tinworth. “It’s really deep-rooted in film and TV and books, but newspapers like Clark Kent’s don’t really exist anymore.” Tinworth, in his capacity as a lecturer on City University’s Interactive Journalism course, finds that amongst his students, the expectations and reality of journalism are often at loggerheads. “A couple of years ago, one of my colleagues asked a room of students, ‘how many of you want to spend the rest of your career writing in print?’, and most of the hands went up. ‘How many of you have bought a print newspaper in the last week?’ she asked. Most of the hands went down.” Clearly our ideas about journalism are still quite romantic: back in 2012, Clark Kent himself walked out of the Daily Planet in protest that there were too many ‘soft entertainment’ stories. Even our superheroes are disgruntled.
News needs to be monetized
Here’s the thing, then. In order for quality journalism – and particularly longform – to survive and flourish, it needs to generate revenue somehow. Whether you hand over your change for a printed copy of a newspaper, pay a subscription to allow you through the golden gates of a paywall or read free content whilst being pummelled with subliminal (and not so subliminal) advertisements, well-crafted news stories are never free. They must be monetized, otherwise those creating them have to find alternative ways of making a living.
We are so used to having news at our fingertips every second of the day that it is easy to look at it as a public service rather than something that needs funding. In the UK, where this writer is blogging from, we’re fortunate enough to have the BBC as a primary news channel, but let’s not forget that there is a charter in effect to thank for those journalists’ wages. Elsewhere, the monetizing of the news is a little more complicated, if not complex.
Worshiping at the shrine of page views or likes does nothing for quality news or the motivation of those best equipped to write it
The problem for longform journalism is that the kind of metrics that have been typically used to ascertain how well articles perform – and how well journalists get paid – don’t do much to support those wanting to spend time researching and writing anything longer than the average 700 words. Samuel Johnson’s observation that “the greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book” is, for anyone who’s ever written anything longer than your average article, a regrettable truism.
‘Analytics are the beginning of wisdom, not the end of it’
If analytical data is going to affect journalists’ pay, then the frameworks used to measure that data must damned well be fit for purpose. Worshiping at the shrine of page views or likes does nothing for quality news or, let’s face it, the motivation of those best equipped to write it. Furthermore, as long as analytics stay in the boardroom and out of the sight of editors and journalists, they are used – as Adam Tinworth dryly notes – as little more than a stick to beat journalists with.
Universities seem to be wising up to this, and those embarking on degrees in the field are starting to receive proper training in how to use analytics, both to assess their own performance, but also as a means to inform editorial decisions. It will be a while before those earnest students reach the point where they can effect change at the boardroom level (hopefully removing the aforementioned sticks), but at least if incoming staff are equipped with the knowledge to use data properly they can better themselves now, even if they have to switch distribution mediums later.
We should embrace the multiple mediums open to us as journalists
The scarce resource for both writers and readers has shifted from paper (do we have enough content to fill our pages?) to time. For journalists, this means having sufficient time to produce enough content to fill the cavernous, seemingly insatiable void that is the internet, while for readers the time constraints become apparent when deciding which items to read during the finite window of time their days afford them.
This could well have a positive rather than a detrimental effect for anyone engaged in longform writing. Tinworth again: “One of the interesting things that’s emerging – and The Economist has played with this, and The Times is playing with it now – is that people will pay for packaging. They might not consider paying for the journalism itself, but they will if it is packaged in such a way that it is useful for them. Because everyone is suffering from the same problem, which is information overwhelm”. It isn’t a coincidence that when The Times unveiled its new digital format, the faces rolled out to promote it were high-profile features writers, like Caitlin Moran and Giles Coren, neither of whom are well known for their brevity – and thankfully so. Longform articles are clearly enough of draw at The Times for their authors to be chosen as the poster girls (and boys) of their new digital product.
Delayed Gratification, the magazine we mentioned at the beginning of this article, celebrates the longform article in a different way. Founded in 2010 as a response to the then perceived decline of in-depth journalism, the magazine deliberately writes with hindsight, usually two or three months after the press junkets have left the scene and publishes quarterly in glorious print. It was, as editor Rob Orchard puts it, a response the the central tenet of modern digital journalism, which is that all too often it’s more important to be first than to be right. Their slogan ‘last to the breaking news’ may be a witty comment on the general state of the media, but sales figures show the model to be working.
Orchard is modest about the success. “We are the tiniest, tiniest speck on the media landscape. We never considered ourselves to be the answer to everything. We’re just an interesting antidote to that kind of ‘always on’, 24-7 digital news production, which can be very exciting but can also be very un-nourishing.”
There’s no single answer
It’s that kind of intellectual nourishment and the publication’s specificity that will probably keep longform alive and thriving. There isn’t, as both Tinworth and Orchard point out, a single model that’s going to save news. There are likely to be many, each suited to the reader, the subject, and the organizations that fund the writing.
There’s always going to be a demand for in-depth news and journalism, because we’re human and we’re curious. We want to feel like we have a grasp of what is happening around us. We want to feel that we can speak with a degree of authority on a subject. However, the salient point is that exactly what we want to speak with authority about is as individual as we are. Luckily for us, the digital age provides us with countless ways to do it and lots of way to measure it, just as long as we embrace the changes and aren’t tied to outdated notions of trilbies and typewriters.