I love news analysis that frames itself in the terms of a question. Those kindly authors make it all the easier to, if not poach content, enter into the conversation. Michael Learmonth, writing for AdAge yesterday, asked his readers, “Did The Daily Beast Eat Newsweek?” Learmonth provides an adequate answer to his own question—no spoilers here, click away—but I am interested in one piece of his argument:
“In the world of print, competition isn’t just a click away. But the web is a different story. Online, a four-paragraph summary of a story, skimmed between emails, will generally suffice when the alternative is a longer-form, high-polish take that requires pulling out a credit card or remembering a password.”
According to Learmonth’s logic, The Daily Beast/Newsweek strategy, predicated on a complementary short/long-form reading environment, is all wrong for online. Learmonth believes long-form to be a product of print news platforms. Magazines and newspapers now justify their subscription fees with the quality long-form they deliver; for the last decade at least, the Internet has far outstripped print’s capacity to carry breaking news. But long-form is experiencing a moment in the new media industry. See, for example, Jeff John Roberts’s account of why BuzzFeed is publishing long-form content.
I do not believe that there are many binary truths, 0-1 solutions, either-or grammars. In the case of online news analysis, however, I do think that long-form is either a tenable form or not. There is not really a middle-ground scenario. Medium-form ‘isn’t a thing,’ so to speak. Yet I do find the shrinkage of long-form a fascinating phenomenon. Apparently, 1,000 or so words now count as long-form. To me, 1,000 or so words are a complete thought. Assuming a definite difference between long-form and short—that is, the maintenance of a distinction between in-depth, thorough, “deep” writing and scannable news briefs—our tenuous balancing act, the simultaneous entertainment of long- and short-form in the same spaces, cannot last. Either the room afforded to long-form will continue to shrink, until only a few hold-outs and bastions of tradition remain, or long-form will establish itself as around for the long-term.
It seems unlikely that long-form will continue to shrink, up to and perhaps including the point of extinction. I think digital long-form is going to assume a more entrenched position with and against short-form news media. The real question is, how will long-form get delivered to readers, and how will readers consume it? Short-form has achieved the definite upper-hand for a reason: it is a more natural fit for Internet consumption habits, “surfing” as it was called in my younger days. Attending to long-form is aberrant behavior online. In fact, if you are reading this far down the page, congratulations: I’ve almost reached the threshold of short-form right about…here.
A website like Longform.org is representative of future delivery technologies. To compensate for greater investments of reading time, long-form needs to get to readers more efficiently. Longform.org aggregates “the best of” long-form content. But the interface is somewhat “lo-fi,” so-to-speak, and certainly disorganized. Long-form needs to be delivered with the mad efficiency of short-form.
A tool like Readability is representative of future consumption methods. The app allows readers to save articles for later perusal, for future revisiting. The depth and density of long-form content may require multiple reading sessions, spread out over a correspondingly longer period of time.
I predict that a digital news publication will emerge that performs the aggregation and time-delay functions of Longform and Readability and generates the aggregated and saved content. The distribution of similar kinds of long-form content production across multiple news sites is inefficient. I think that the withering away of long-form sources like Newsweek will provoke a natural convergence of long-form freelancers and editors towards a smaller number of long-form purveyors. The rapid rise of Grantland demonstrates how a conjunction of great writing, great editing, built-in credibility, and a built-in audience can fuel a long-form publishing system.