The Long and Short of Storytelling

by Lewis DVorkin and Forbes, Inc.

This chapter is a free excerpt from The Forbes Model For Journalism In The Digital Age.

When I first transitioned to the digital world more than a decade ago, my traditional media colleagues ribbed me for abandoning “real” reporting in favor of the fast and the short. No one reads in-depth stories online, they said. When I started True/Slant, that just confirmed it for them. I had once and for all gone over to the dark side of journalism (never mind that our top contributor at T/S consistently wrote 2,000-word posts).

Perhaps audiences back then did gravitate to shorter fare. But today, they want it all. Some readers want short-form content, others long-form and still others the short-form version of the long-form. Journalists need to meet all consumer needs. As we build out our strategy at Forbes, veteran journalists – like Eric Savitz, our highly respected Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, and Matt Herper, one of the nation’s top pharmaceutical writers – and the digital-savvy reporters of a new generation are using our highly customized publishing, commenting and data tools to discover and serve audiences. It’s all good for journalism, and for building the new media experiences required by today’s audiences, which are as fragmented as the media itself.

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When I first transitioned to the digital world more than a decade ago, my traditional media colleagues ribbed me for abandoning “real” reporting in favor of the fast and the short. No one reads in-depth stories online, they said. When I started True/Slant, that just confirmed it for them. I had once and for all gone over to the dark side of journalism (never mind that our top contributor at T/S consistently wrote 2,000-word posts).

Perhaps audiences back then did gravitate to shorter fare. But today, they want it all. Some readers want short-form content, others long-form and still others the short-form version of the long-form. Journalists need to meet all consumer needs. As we build out our strategy at Forbes, veteran journalists – like Eric Savitz, our highly respected Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, and Matt Herper, one of the nation’s top pharmaceutical writers – and the digital-savvy reporters of a new generation are using our highly customized publishing, commenting and data tools to discover and serve audiences. It’s all good for journalism, and for building the new media experiences required by today’s audiences, which are as fragmented as the media itself.

The fact is, long-form and short-form can work hand in hand. In the case of our magazine cover on billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his vast casino, hotel and resort business, we paired the cover article with a sidebar on his $11 million investment in Newt Gingrich’s presidential ambitions. Published on Forbes.com on a Tuesday, the sidebar was intended partly to generate interest in the longer cover story, which we posted the following day. Both were heavily shared across the social Web, particularly on Facebook.

But we’re not the only ones finding success with long-form content in the digital era. In an email exchange I had with Mark Amstrong, the founder of Longreads.com, Mark attributed the “resurgence” of long-form journalism to a number of factors:
  1. The embrace of mobile devices and tablets.
  1. The rise of social recommendation – when people read something they really love, they become its biggest cheerleader.
  1. A community that has embraced a new way to organize this content (#longreads).
  1. The rise of time-shifting apps like ReadItLater [Mark is an adviser there]. The ability to take a story offline with you – and finish it in places where you might not have wifi – is critical to the success of long-form content.
Mark pointed me to a post by ReadItLater, which enables consumers to save content from their browser or more than 300 apps and read it later on most devices – with or without an internet connection. Perhaps not surprisingly, the data from more than 100 million articles on ReadItLater shows that consumers save articles consistently throughout the day. But here’s when they’re reading it:
  • Computers: 6pm-9pm
  • iPhones: 6am, 9am, 5pm-6pm and 8pm-10pm (“the moments between tasks and locations”)
  • iPads: predominantly 8pm-10pm.


The ReadItLater graph shows both time-shifting and device-shifting for iPad owners reading saved articles.

Longreads, ReadItLater, InstaPaper and other similar ventures are discovery engines for long-form content created by publishers like Forbes. There are also startup publishers finding success in original long-form digital content. The Atavist is one. Evan Ratliff, a co-founder, mentioned in an email discussion that The Atavist wanted to create

“a place that first of all allowed us to publish a certain length [5,000-35,000 words] of quality nonfiction story, between magazine articles and books, sold as individual issues.  So in our app we lace our stories with integrated audiobooks, maps, timelines, music, animations, video – whatever the particular tale calls for.”

In its first year, The Atavist sold more 100,000 copies of 10 titles ($2.99 for multimedia, $1.99 for text), each heavily reported narrative nonfiction. The company hopes to launch a subscription business this year.
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