Why longform journalism can help publishers stand out in the age of ubiquitous instant news

Readers know the satisfaction that comes from a really engaging longform article, even if they have never seen the hashtag #longform.

For them the article is rewarding because it’s a proper in-depth treatment which tells an entire story, full of the complexities that situations, events and characters contain. It treats the readers as human as well as the subjects.

In a world where news sites are forever chasing each other’s tails, longform narrative journalism is one way publishers can distinguish themselves, increase their engagement metrics, and reward their readers’ investment in their site.

Longform can also, incidentally, inspire their staff.

Journalists who are lucky enough to be given the chance, time and space to research and write a longform story, know that these pieces are the ones that get noticed, and that people remember. These are the articles that careers are built on – and are a world away from the hated tasks of rewriting, lifting and following up other people’s stories.

So why aren’t more UK publications staking a claim to this territory? The rise of impressive web and mobile publication tools, combined with the firepower of social sharing of links means the possibility of getting noticed is greater than ever. Millions of people spend hours on their phones every day, actually looking for things to be diverted by.

Longform, narrative journalism. This is your opportunity.

It may be that editors have not yet worked out what are the most successful kinds of longform stories to put in front of a digital audience. Perhaps they haven’t yet learned what are the best days and times to publish, and which social networks will be the most lucrative for converting casual browsers into longform readers.

Sorting out and sharing some of the winning tactics will be part of the agenda at Well Told, the UK’s first longform conference which is taking place in London this weekend – 27/8 May.

For the conference, our sponsors Chartbeat – whose tools allow publishers to measure and understand reader engagement on a particular story – analysed thousands of UK longform articles to identify top performing pieces. The results shed fascinating insights into the tastes and habits of the UK reading public. It has crime, intrigue and human interest, and also politics and international relations. But whatever the subject, it seems clear that people want – and will stick with – *complete stories*.

The full list, along with some insights about days, times, places & devices,  will be unveiled at the conference.

Fingers crossed, the interest shown in Well Told seems to be part of a growing interest in UK longform.

If it is, it’s about time. Well Told’s  equivalent conferences in the US have been running for nearly 20 years.

In 2013 the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published a paper by Finnish journalist Anu Nousiainen which attempted to diagnose the sluggish growth in narrative journalism in the UK and Europe compared to the US. One of the factors, she wrote, was that in the UK it “seems to have been common to devalue journalism as a creative profession”.  In addition, many ambitious British feature writers find it hard to get published, she said,  certainly at any length. Many have instead turned to writing books.

There are, though, signs of change which have been encouraged by the growth of digital – the Guardian and the FT give real resources to long reads. There is a growing network of longform link-sharing. And the BBC has done a magnificent job in helping get readers into the habit of reading properly told text-based stories. The interest we have discovered from young freelance writers who are eager to make the most of the opportunity of longform has been remarkable.

It may be that they have realised what is actually worth dedicating their careers to.

 * Giles Wilson was founding editor of the BBC News Magazine. He is director of the Well Told longform conference – welltold.org/schedule – which is taking place on 27/8 May in London. He also runs Harpoon Productions which produces digital content for publishers.

 

 

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