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Jonathan Shainin on what makes a good long read

Longform journalism is a big operation within the Guardian, with the Long Reads department producing around 150 articles each year.

Editor Jonathan Shainin – speaking at Well Told on Friday 1 March – estimates that more than 500 long reads have been produced since its inception in 2014.

Each story “involves an investment”, he explains, comparing the process as similar to that of documentary-making, along with writer contracts and expensive commissions to consider and justify.

But Long Read stories bring something new to the table. Much like the BBC produces both the News at Six and Newsnight, the Guardian’s Long Reads team and general news desk both have a vital role to play, he argued.

“We’re a little bit like a film production studio that sits within the paper… It’s a different form, but holds an equally valid place in journalism”.

Tips for longform journalism pitches

Having read and published hundreds of longform stories in recent years, Jonathan has plenty of tips to impart when pitching a deep-dive article.

One to avoid in particular, is anniversary pitches. When Guardian Long Reads was first set up in 2014, he received countless pitches for stories to mark the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And five years later, he received the same pitches again.

But an anniversary is not cause for a story, he argued: “If it was a good story it wouldn’t matter that it’s the 25th anniversary,” he said. “The story should be its own justification.”

Every longform article also needs to have a greater social and cultural meaning he added. Jonathan referred to an article by Sam Knight (who spoke earlier at Well Told) about what will happen when the Queen dies – also the most read Guardian Long Read ever – as an example of a story that goes deeper than may first appear, diving into the “fucked up psychological relationship we have the monarchy”.

In addition – as is a generally-accepted rule in good journalism – he reiterated the need to find stories that will capture the public imagination and take root, and get that across in the first few lines of the article.

“Writing longform articles in a newspaper is about discipline,” he said. “The headline has to be clear on what this is, about, it’s got to have a flicker of the story in the first paragraph.

“It’s like a movie trailer, you’ve got to get it into the beginning to give people an idea of how to read it.”

Looking ahead

From a statistics point of view, the future of longform journalism looks bright. The Guardian has an in-house analytics tool called Ophan, which is used to track engagement with its articles.

Jonathan said that longform stories tend to defy the theory of short attention spans online.

The execution of these pieces means that they continue to do well despite behavioural trends, he added. “You take more time on the story, you put more effort into it, you spend more money. There’s an idea that there’s a value in the detail.”

Words by Juliette Rowsell