Longform journalism stands out from the crowds of clickbait and shallow reporting. It takes an effort to do it well, but editors and publishers should note: the evidence is that longform wins loyal, valuable readers.
When it launched in March 2014, Mosaic Science, a publication focused on running longform stories about the world of science and health, was an unusual proposition for the Wellcome Trust, the charity that was funding it.
“There was an appreciation that lots of topics, including science and health, would really benefit from a long, in-depth, thoughtful take as opposed to – or alongside – news and Twitter,” explains Chrissie Giles, who was editor of the site upon its closure in December 2019. “The idea was there was a space for explanatory and exploratory high-quality journalism that could help people access information about health and science, but also educate and entertain them at the same time.”
The model held for nearly six years. “For every reader we had on our own site, we had probably 10 or 20 readers elsewhere,” says Giles – the benefit of licensing the stories Mosaic published under a Creative Commons licence, that saw them picked up and published by the likes of The Guardian and The Atlantic. Mosaic, and by extension the Wellcome Trust, got its mission out to two million people a year through its own website, and through 200-plus partner publications worldwide.
But then things changed. “Wellcome came to the decision that funding Mosaic wasn’t the best way they felt they should spend their money,” says Giles. “But it’s very hard to argue that Mosaic in itself wasn’t very successful. We got coverage in all sorts of places all over the world.” Yet as budgets are being squeezed and jobs lost throughout the UK journalism industry, plenty of other places are having to grapple with a key question: why publish longform journalism, which is often more expensive and time-consuming than other reporting? What are the reputational benefits of deeply-told stories? And can narrative non-fiction survive in a world where all the snackable news you can consume is available at a tap of the finger?
“So much of [reporting out longform features] is the iceberg beneath the surface,” says Stuart McGurk, associate editor of British GQ, and 2017 PPA magazine writer of the year. McGurk and his colleague Jonathan Heaf both wanted to work at GQ in part because of the ability to work on really-well crafted stories. As the competition for longform journalism has thinned out, and GQ becomes one of the few places to publish reliably excellent stories in the UK, that becomes even more prized. “It’s a point of difference: there’s a lot of things we could do that would make us similar to everyone else, but what would be the point in that?” says McGurk. “It’s quite refreshing to say we’re one of the few places in the UK that do this kind of journalism, whereas in the States, that wouldn’t be the case. You’ve got a lot more rivals for similar stories over there.”
The gulf between the US and the UK is significant when it comes to features journalism, and long has been. While the UK’s stock-in-trade is the quick and dirty 2,000-word supplement story, American counterparts can luxuriate in longer word counts and better pay. The difference is the size of the audience, reckons McGurk. “It’s like why is the US ahead in great, well-made, cinematic television? Because you can attract the same share of the audience and have a much higher budget because the audience is still huge.”
But the investment is worthwhile, says McGurk. The deeply reported longreads GQ publishes are some of the best-trafficked stories on the site. “Even if you were just going on hits alone, we always feel it’s worth doing,” he says.
That’s not a finding exclusively found at GQ, either. Analytics company Chartbeat publishes the top 100 stories from its 700 media partners across 68 countries every year. “If you look at the list, it’s not frivolous, viral content,” says Jill Nicholson, who worked in local newsrooms in New York state before moving to Chartbeat five years ago. In 2019, Chartbeat’s top story was William Langewiesche’s investigation for The Atlantic into what happened to MH317, the missing Malaysia Airlines plane that disappeared without a trace in March 2014. Two years before, The Atlantic topped the charts again for My Family’s Slave, a story about a housekeeper who wasn’t an employee but was a captured servant.
“My takeaway from the list every year is that storytelling is part of what makes us human, it’s part of what connects us to the world around us,” says Nicholson. “No matter how the world has changed, no matter how the technology changes, the power of strong storytelling and deeper journalism still has a significant place in the world of today, and I don’t see that changing any time soon.” It also drives loyalty – a key metric in newsrooms. A blind case study carried out by Chartbeat in the US found that loyal readers to news websites – the people who logged on every other day or more often – only represented 11% of a publication’s audience, but generated more than half their ad revenue. “Yes, it’s an investment, and yes, in some cases those stories may have fewer page views or volume metrics, but at the end of the day, its ability to build loyalty pays longer-term dividends,” says Nicholson.
That’s something Chrissie Giles still sees as a virtue of Mosaic. “We know from our stats that the long tail is strong,” she says. Some of Mosaic’s oldest stories – about rare blood or decomposition after death – remain some of the site’s perennial favourites with readers. “The long tail – the amount of time spent reading with it, the depth, and the amount they share it – I think it would be hard to argue against the economic case for it.”
It’s for that reason that while many others are cutting back, some UK newsrooms are plunging headfirst into deeply-reported longform journalism. When Jess Brammar was brought in to oversee HuffPost in London two years ago, first as head of news and latterly becoming editor-in-chief, she thought it was a “no brainer” to adopt longform. “I’ve never understood why digital outlets which are, by their very nature, fast and speak to their readers in a language they understand, wouldn’t also have the space to do in-depth journalism,” she says. “For me it was less a ‘Why would we do this?’ and more of a ‘Why wouldn’t we?’”
While she admits that reporting out longform takes more resources, Brammar says it’s the smart decision for a modern-day, smaller newsroom. After all, when every outlet is racing to be first with reactive news to ride the wave of social media reaction and search engine traffic, it’s important to be distinctive. “Loyalty is less of a factor in terms of the audience that’s reading,” says Brammar. “Every outlet is fighting more than ever to hold people’s attention. And the key to that has to be in the quality of the storytelling.”
Well Told champions longform journalism in the UK. We’re holding an evening of live longform, Scrollfest, on 13 March in central London. To find out more and get tickets go here.