Longform’s long-term benefit

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.


Session reports

Below are reports from some of the CIJ Well Told 2019 speakers, panels and debates.


Sting in the tale?

We wrote about the work of Patrick Radden Keefe a few weeks ago, mentioning the bingeworthy qualities of his podcast Wind of Change. The series has now reached its conclusion – and it feels like it’s time for a reckoning.

The premise, if you’ve missed it, is that a CIA source told Keefe that the agency had been responsible for writing the Scorpions hit Wind of Change, which was credited with galvanising anti-Soviet youth opinion in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Keefe’s self-appointed task was to find out if it was true.


He certainly tried, over the course of several years and eight deeply reported episodes, with many fact-finding trips and lines of inquiry. In the course of the reporting, he did reveal some of the extents the CIA went to in pursuit of its goals, including using Nina Simone without her knowledge.

But he did not prove that the CIA wrote the song. He put the notion to the band’s songwriter Klaus Meine in the concluding episode, having marched his audience up the hill. The response was a soft “No…. No…”, a bit like Family Guy‘s Consuela. Meine was pretty believable.

Keefe concluded that although he hadn’t proved the rumour to be true, he hadn’t proved it wasn’t true either – and the evidence he collected certainly indicated the story could possibly have been true.

So does the lack of a conclusion matter?

Tom Rowley, a supporter of Well Told and the Britain correspondent for The Economist, tweeted that he was “slightly tired of podcasts that set out to investigate something tantalising and don’t really come to a conclusion”. Others voiced their support.

Interestingly it’s the opposite position to that taken by Jon Ronson’s for The Last Days of August where he was clear from the beginning that the apparent prime suspect was not actually a suspect (see here).

We love it when non-fiction feels like fiction, to have the same arcs, tidy endings and neat conclusions; clear goodies and intriguing baddies. But even when real life does turn out like fiction, proving it is another matter.

To Keefe’s credit, he had not promised any answers.

But he did rise above the fray after the series was released with this one word tweet:

Conference info

Scrollfest will happen…

…but just not yet. We’ve concluded that even if we could make our evening of live journalism happen to our revised July schedule, we’re not convinced it would be the responsible thing to do.

So Scrollfest is being rescheduled to next March, to be the opening night of the next CIJ Well Told which we are planning to take place at Goldsmiths.

Ticketholders have been advised what they should do to get refunds, to take a raincheck, or to donate. Any queries get in touch with us at

By the way, in case you missed that key point buried in the second paragraph, there is going to be another CIJ Well Told, next March at Goldsmiths.


The true stories of Patrick Radden Keefe

Many events have been scuppered by the lockdown, but one in particular was a real miss.

Get a 15% discount on Say Nothing at the Well Told Bookshop – use coupon lovelongform

Patrick Radden Keefe, author of Say Nothing, was due to speak to former Guardian Long Reads editor Jonathan Shainin at the Daunt Books festival in March, but the event was – of course – cancelled.

The reputation of Say Nothing is growing with every person who reads it – a pure narrative, researched over many years, telling the story of the murder of Jean McConville in Northern Ireland in 1972.

In piecing together the mystery surrounding McConville’s disappearance, Patrick Radden Keefe tells the story of the rise of the IRA, the Troubles, and the peace movement in a work which was described by the great David Grann as being “meticulously reported, exquisitely written and grippingly told”. It’s certainly that, and more. To a British audience for whom the Troubles were an impenetrable subject, it is truly revelatory.

Lovers of longform will want to read in particular a section at the end of the book entitled ‘A note on sources’ which describes how a massive project like this book comes to pass. In it Radden Keefe writes:

Memory is a slippery thing, so I have sought wherever possible to establish corroboration for individual recollection. In instances where there are discrepancies among different accounts, I have used the most plausible version of events in the main text of the book and elaborated on alternative accounts, or other nuances, in the notes.

This is not a history book but a work of narrative non-fiction. No dialogue or details have been invented or imagined: in instances where I describe the inner thoughts of characters, it is because they have related those thoughts to me, or others, as detailed in the notes.

Radden Keefe, 44, has been a contributor to the New Yorker since 2006 (his articles are here) And now he has burnished his reputation even further with what further defines what a narrative podcast series should deliver.

Wind of Change is an eight-part series which seeks to get to the bottom of a rumour which reached Radden Keefe from a intelligence source: that the Scorpions hit Wind of Change had in fact been written by the CIA to help foment the uprising of young people which fuelled the collapse of Communism.

Miranda Sawyer in the Observer wrote: “Wind of Change is a beautifully constructed listen, never less than entertaining. I burned through it in a day and loved every minute.”

While she thought the series was too long, my reaction was quite the opposite – at the time of writing I’m on episode seven and have that familiar moth-to-a-flame feeling of not wanting to listen in case I get to the end.

The series has been made by Pineapple Studios, Crooked Media and Spotify, which is publishing one episode each week. However, by listening through Spotify, you can binge on all the episodes now. It really is a treat. You can find the podcast here:

And if you haven’t read Say Nothing yet, you can get a copy with a 15% discount using the code lovelongform at the new Well Told Bookshop which is now in beta. (Please let us have any feedback on the bookshop itself to A full launch is to come.)


Jon Ronson’s scruples

Jon Ronson in 2016 (Photo: Gage Skidmore [CC])

Conventional wisdom for writers of non-fiction is that building suspense is one of the key tools to keep readers engaged.

Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost, advises writers that, since they will have few opportunities to include suspense, they should make good use of any they do get. Even Dickens advised: “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.”

But in his podcast series The Last Days of August, Jon Ronson chooses to be upfront about deciding not to build suspense.

The series, an Audible Original which is now freely available, concerns the death of porn actress August Ames. In episode two, Ronson says this:

“Before I take you to my interview with Mercedes Carrera, I want to stop for a moment, and tell you something. These first interviews were recorded in early 2018 but this is the Jon of a year later talking who, with my producer Lena, spent ten months investigating August’s death. I don’t want this to be one of those shows which creates narrative tension by fuelling suspicion that a person might be a murderer. So I want to tell you that while we uncover some extraordinary and unexpected things and devastating mysteries will reveal themselves and be solved, this will NOT turn out to be a murder mystery.”

Jon Ronson, The Last Days of August : The Last Days of August: Episode Two

It’s a bold decision to take, and even bolder to be open about it so early in the piece.

Perhaps a glimpse of Ronson’s motivation came in a conversation he had with Manveen Rana for the new Times podcast Stories of our Times in which he discusses his history of anxiety and how that’s been affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

“I also developed a new kind of anxiety called scrupulosity. It’s an excessive concern about behaving in an ethical manner. You tie yourself up in knots about doing the right thing ethically…. Specifically I suppose mainly as a journalist. You want to make sure that your stories are ethical, that you’re treating everybody in the right way, whilst still being a proper journalist. You know as journalists we have a great responsibility over people we are chronicling, and you’ve got to be ethical.”

Jon Ronson, on Stories of Our Times
Conference info

Will Storr on the science of storytelling

Will Storr, author of the best selling Selfie: How the west became self-obsessed, closes this year’s 2019 Well Told Conference. He tells us, good story taps into instinctive human behaviours

He begins by asking the audience, “Why do smart people believe crazy things?”

The brain tells a story, that we’re the heroes of our own lives, he says. “The brain creates a sense of self,” he adds.

“When you’re coming up as a writer…you’re lead to believe storytelling is storytelling because it’s done by a genius”



Storr’s talk finds justification for our reading habits in our biology and human history.

He begins by examining the neuroscience behind the eye and our perception. He says the brain is a storyteller, therefore we must understand science to write a good story.

As humans, “we’re constantly investigating,” he explains. Everyday, our brains are analysing the story we’re seeing, “looking for anything unexpected”.

The unexpected signifies a change, and a change is where a story begins. According to Storr, great journalism and great interviews “connect moments of change”.

Storr gives examples from Karl Marx to Suzanne Collins to highlight where change works to tell a story.

Good long form journalism “doesn’t just fall into the realm of facts”. The brain isn’t interested in facts: “It’s interested in change.”

Stories which ignore cause and effect, and follow an ‘and then’ format are bad writing. Journalists must avoid this if they are to write good journalism.

However, it’s not just cause and effect that the brain understands. He says that good longform journalism taps into all instinctive human behaviours.

Another instinct he identifies that constitutes good journalism is gossip. He explains that gossip is an integral part of human history, originating in tribal behaviour which helped protect the tribe.

“That’s exactly what journalism is: gossip.”

Gossip stems from antagonists, and our moral instincts refute selfishness. Storr says, humans have “mastered the idea of cooperation, unlike all the other apes, we’re really good at cooperating.”

It is for this reason we hate selfishness, and selfish people cause upset, affecting people. To that effect, when someone acts against the tribe, we gossip. He pulls up a study to highlight how gossip sells because on an intrinsic level it’s what we do. “They would create the emotion of moral outrage,” he says.

Gossip turns into moral outrage, and moral outage drives journalism. You don’t hear about moral outrage without wanting to do anything about it.  We want to hear about people doing the bad stuff to protect ourselves and protect the tribe’s interests

When a villain arises, so does a hero, who is the opposite. In every story with a villain, there is opportunity for a hero to be born, “a moment of supreme selflessness that defines the hero.”

To summarise: a good longform writer needs to understand how the brain processes information in order to write a great story.

Will Storr’s new book The Science of Storytelling will be available soon.






Words By Juliette Rowsell and Corrie David

Conference info

New tools of storytelling: Aid or hindrance?

CIJ Well Told’s panel discussion on “Interactivity vs Storytelling” brought together Zillah Watson from BBC‘s VR studio, Ben Fogarty, CEO of and host Joe Bond from The Spectator to discuss whether new tools and technologies enhance storytelling or whether they just get in the way.

According to Zillah Watson, VR works for journalism by “employing traditional storytelling techniques brought to a new medium”. She explains that VR has changed the way we tell stories. “VR is experiential: audiences are able to see or feel an experience for themselves, it takes audiences on an epic journey.”

For Ben Fogarty,  VR needs to look real. “If we’re creating something, for example, an immersive journey to a new world; it better look real – we don’t want to be gimmicky,” he says. “To be successful, the VR needs to create a real and immersive journey,” Watson added.

The panel also discussed how VR adds to a story and should be used when it can tell a story better than television. The BBC VR documentary Damming The Nile told the story of the great renaissance in Ethiopia and the geopolitics of building a dam and has been successful with VR headsets as it allows users to see and the experience the story for themselves, said Watson.

The documentary had to be re-versioned for YouTube, Watson added. “The VR and 360 elements didn’t work well without a headset, you have to re-version the story for a new version,” she said.

At Holoscribe, journalists also use 360 to “allow a user to control their path, instead of dropping them in and telling them a story,” Fogarty explained. Wilson agreed, “More seeing, less telling.”

Wilson also explained that you need a really strong narrative to carry users in VR. “In 360, users will engage and revisit stories where they can pick characters and stories,” Fogarty added.

Joe Bond also talked about how VR can be used to capture serious topics. Watson told of a shocking experience of VR in Prague [where the participant experience] execution, which was interesting but not something the BBC would explore, she said. Instead, the BBC is exploring audience focused pieces and use audience testing to work out how best to use VR.

In the near-future, BBC VR will bring quality scriptwriters and drama that creates pace and tension to users in an immersive VR experience based around Doctor Who, Watson said.

Words by Molly Dowrick

Conference info

Victoria Anderson and Wallis Eates on writing from the inside

The Wings project Kickstarter page is here.

Victoria Anderson and Wallis Eates discuss their experiences of acquiring access to HMP Wandsworth Prison, only to be told to destroy all of their material.

Anderson and Eates first went to Wandsworth prison in 2017 on behalf of Stretch Charity. They had access to the prison for five months, and worked alongside the prisoners to help them make animated films.

Describing arriving at Wandsworth for the first time, Anderson said, “The physical space of Wandsworth Prison is extraordinary. It looks like a dungeon, like a castle,” she says.

“We were part of a charity that has been cleared to take digital equipment to take recording equipment into a prison. We were part of the only charity that had been granted permission to take recording equipment into the prison,” Anderson says. “However despite this, we got taken to security twice as a result. We had to destroy all footage.”

The decision to delete the films was made by the comms department who were worried about the films creating negative media traction. Which is ironic Anderson says, as they were they there to give voice to the prisoners, not demonise them. “We wanted to honour what was going on and the people there, not do an expose on it.”

Anderson and Eates said the prisoners were excited to get their stories out, that they were finally being heard. “They [the prisoners] were tremendous,” Anderson said. “Of all my times working in prisons, I’ve never met people more willing to talk about the big stuff,” Eates says. “Aestheticism, life, death, mortality.”

The issue then resulted into a question of storytelling itself. “How do we visually bring out these men’s stories to audiences? Bring out that their nuance? Not illustrate every single thing, but allow those words to breathe.”

Words by Juliette Rowsell

Conference info

How to master the art of pitching with BBC, GQ and 1843

Having an idea is one thing, pitching it effectively is another. This afternoon’s panel brought together Stuart McGurk of GQ, Rosie Blau of 1843 and Finlo Rohrer of BBC News. Hosted by Chris Stokel-Walker, the three discussed what makes a good pitch to them.

Rohrer says, “One of the most important things is you can immediately see it on the page.” For him, the person needs to have a coherent idea of what they want to write and that needs to come through in the pitch. He wants to know how you’re going to approach it in detail. You should be able to answer the obvious question: “What’s the headline?”

“Most stories need some pre-reporting,” says McGurk, “You need to have done some digging.”

Blau agrees. “The worst thing you can do is pitch something you don’t yet know yourself,” she says.

When editors’ inboxes are constantly receiving pitches, they make quick decisions about your pitch. A pitch that is too long won’t get chosen because it tells the editor you don’t know what’s important within the story. “It can always be shorter,” says McGurk.

If you catch the interest of the editor, they will then ask questions to get more detail from you. Blau believes the pitch reflects the quality of your work, explaining, “if you haven’t taken the time making it short, I can’t rely on you writing the piece properly”.

Editors are busy, so pitching at the right time in the production cycle can make all the difference, but generally, first thing in the morning is a good idea. To get McGurk’s attention, he says to email him “first thing when I’m in ‘coffee, email, getting admin done’ mode.”

On top of this, write a specific subject line to catch her attention, “‘Hello’ or ‘An Idea’ is a rubbish subject line,” Blau says.

She says the magazine relies on freelancers, and welcome their pitches but have to reject many of them because they are not detailed enough. “People keep pitching subjects instead of stories,”  she says.



“Tell the subject through the story is always the mantra,” adds McGurk.

Blau wants to be surprised, and a surprising pitch is more likely to be picked. She says, “There should be a sentence you can tell me that makes me think ‘that’s amazing!'”

If you’ve been unlucky enough for your pitch to be ignored, it’s always worth chasing up.

Rohrer says, “You definitely should follow up.” Even if your pitch isn’t right, it’s worth finding out. “I’ve always tried to give people feedback on why we haven’t taken something.”

For those who haven’t freelanced before, it can be hard getting an editor to take a chance. Blau says, “I really want to know you can do it.” If you haven’t got long clippings to include, say what you have done that makes you specifically qualified to write this. For new writers, she asks they “include two things of what they’re most proud of writing.”

Words by Corrie David