The recent launch of POLITICO’s longform magazine marks another step forward in the world of multifaceted storytelling. POLITICO magazine has joined the longform trend as the outlet reorients its fast-paced, daily-focused enterprise toward deeper, investigative pieces. Its launch represents a wide-spread revivalism of a more creative approach to journalism that is found in outlets across the country. Stories, not just facts, are in demand. There’s a plethora of reasons for this rise in longform: a search for a new business model; fragmentation of media outlets; an increase in journalists’ subjectivity; a desire to tell stories in interesting and dynamic ways, among others. But in this post, I will focus on the new digital sphere in longform. Clearly, a primary reason for the renaissance of longform is advances in digital and online platforms.
In the past few years, longform has acquired a cult-like following. The no-jump era characterized by short news clips on the front pages of newspapers is ending, and longform narrative journalism is coming back into style. Mark Armstrong, founder of longreads.com, a longform aggregation site, identified four reasons for this resurgence:
1) The embrace of mobile devices and tablets.
2) The rise of social recommendation — sharing stories via social media sites like Twitter
3) A community that has embraced a new way to organize this content. (Such as sites like longreads.com and longform.com and the Twitter hashtag #longreads)
4) The rise of time-shifting apps like ReadItLater that enable readers to file stories away
Digital journalism can have many different meanings and definitions, so I choose to use journalism scholar Kevin Kawamoto’s clear definition that digital journalism is “the use of digital technologies to research, produce and deliver (or make accessible) news and information to an increasingly computer-literate audience” (Kawamoto 4).
What exactly is longform? While the meaning may differ, it’s usually longer, more in-depth pieces ranging from 1,000-4,000 words. These are stories that are told with more of a narrative voice, and experiment with structure and visuals.
POLITICO magazine serves as a microcosm for this experiment in digital longform. While the magazine is distributed in a print version, it has a strong online presence as well. Gone are the days when stories that ran in print appear in the same format online. Powerful visuals, aided by digital technologies, drive content online. The cover story from POLITICO magazine’s launch issue — “Locked in the Cabinet” — shows a photo illustration at the top of the page, and as readers scroll down, photos and pull out quotes are embedded in the story. Longform allows for journalists to experiment with multimedia and structure to tell compelling stories. For example, the Wall Street Journal’s use of video portraits in this series is haunting and the advanced coding in this Rolling Stone piece is highly impressive.
“Unlike traditional media, whose mastheads and fonts and layout design are fixed to establish a visual identity over the long run, the culture of digital media is much more flexible in this regard” (Kawamoto 9). Digital presentation enables flexibility and creativity that traditional formats cannot provide (Kawamoto 2), which is conducive to the abstract style of longform. Ultimately, these engaging visuals tell stories in uncharted methods.
Susan Glassberg, editor of POLITICO magazine, said that the commodification of news has actually been advantageous for longform. Echoing Armstrong’s claim that social media helps spread the word about longform and increase its popularity, Glassberg told Nieman Journalism Lab, “I think it has left an opening for the kind of original, high-value reporting and investigations…” (Nieman). It’s obvious that social media increases readership, as news stories can be easily spread via tweet, Facebook share and blog post. Further, Glassberg argues that due to Twitter’s ability to break news quickly, news outlets can focus less on the daily news cycle and more on producing longer pieces that take weeks to report and write.
Newspapers usually can’t publish longforms because they don’t have the space. That opens up the Internet as the main avenue for longform work, and it’s a space that allows for many publishers and not just the major news outlets. The democracy of the Internet allows for longform sites to establish themselves, such as longreads.com and longform.org.
“It presents itself with a diversity of cultural practices and values inscribed into it. The strongest of those practices and values resist the kind of paternalistic, top-down communication that has defined the professional culture of journalism” (Trench). With the Internet, suddenly everyone is a journalist. This opens up the possibility for more content to be published — whether by a journalist at a major media corporation, or a college journalist, or anyone who has an interest in writing. This is particularly advantageous to longform as the Internet is now “a vast new forest of news, data, opinion, satire–and perhaps most importantly, direct experience” (Johnson). Unprecedented opportunities exist for participation in the creation, curation and discussion of news.
Currently, the web is the dominant delivery system for digital journalism, but that might change (Kawamoto 10). The iPad and other tablets have emerged as a new medium for journalism, especially longform, but so far there’s very little research behind the impact of these devices. The Tow Center for Digital Journalism launched a research project last month, led by Anna Hiatt, that explores this new sphere of digital journalism. Part of her research will focus on “the pivot” in digital longform caused by the iPad, and, most interestingly, the findings will be presented as a longform piece. She will examine how publications across the United States are experimenting with digital design and storytelling (Hiatt).
But until her research is published, the relevance and sustainability of tablet-only publications remains undetermined. As stated earlier, Armstrong believes that mobile devices, especially tablets, will add to this newfound love for longform. This is a popular position held by journalists and others in the media.
Advertising revenue is the foremost indicator of a news outlet’s success. While print advertising continues to drop, advertising in magazine tablet editions has risen 22 percent so far this year than last (AdWeek). Yet tablets still account for a tiny share of magazine readership — just 3.3 percent of total circulation. However, this low circulation is likely due to the fact that only a small portion of the population owns a tablet. A good sign is that tablet sales are growing. By 2017, about half the population is projected to own a tablet, according to eMarketer. If tablets are the way of the future in journalism, it’s too early to tell.
Yet it’s clear the rise of longform has become a strong trend in journalism, regardless of tablet ownership, and it will continue to grow as digital technologies continue to advance.