Turns Out People Actually Do Like Smart, Long Form Content Online

from the well,-how-about-that dept

You may have noticed that I tend to write a lot of posts for Techdirt each day. There are times when I consider whether it might be more useful to cut it back to just one or two posts per day that are much longer and more in-depth. I have ideas for more in-depth pieces, but I often don’t have the time to set aside to focus on just those pieces. And, besides, according to folks like Nick Carr, people don’t read long pieces on the internet, as it’s trained our brains to only want short snippets. Or, in the parlance of commenters trying to be funny, tl;dr.

Over at Slate, they’ve apparently tested this assumption, with a project that gives journalists there four to six weeks off from their usual beat, to focus on working up one super in-depth piece (or, perhaps, a series of in-depth pieces on one subject). It’s created some impressive (and long) works of journalism:

So far, the project has netted such praiseworthy specimens of long-form as, among others, Tim Noah’s analysis of why the U.S. hasn’t endured another successfully executed terror attack since 9/11 and Julia Turner’s look at the fascinating complexities of signage and June Thomas’ examination of American dentistry and Dahlia Lithwick’s crowd-sourced foray into chick-lit authorship and John Dickerson’s reclamation of risk-taking after the financial crash gave that quintessential American practice a bad name.

But, of course, no one’s reading these because they’re all way too long, right? Wrong.

The other thing the initiative has netted? Pageviews. They’ve been in the millions, a Slate rep told me: over 4 million for Noah’s piece, over 3.5 million for Thomas’, nearly 3 million for Turner’s. That’s especially significant considering the length of the pieces, which often run in the tens of thousands of words. Combine that with New York Times Magazine editor Gerry Marzorati’s claim, last year, that “contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s our longest pieces that attract the most online traffic” … and “tl;dr”: you are on watch.

This goes back to our recent discussion on content farms. No content farm is going to create the type of content described above. They won’t even come close. Perhaps one of the problems with traditional media is that they’ve focused on writing stories that can be easily copied by content farms. Instead, they should be focusing on deeper, quality work. Let the superficial coverage go to those who can do it cheaply, and for more traditional organizations, focus on quality.

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Comments on “Turns Out People Actually Do Like Smart, Long Form Content Online”

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cc (profile) says:

Long articles would give a competitive edge when there are a lot of others producing short, low-quality content on the same topics. Techdirt doesn’t have THAT much competition from other sources, that I can think of.

That being said, I would welcome longer articles once or twice a week, but it’s definitely easier to make time to read short articles (this has nothing to do with “internet attention span”, but TIME).

If you are going for longer articles that discuss some issues in depth, you may wish to make a special section for them on TechDirt, and perhaps license them under CC as they might have a longer shelf-life than usual.

Anonymous Coward says:

I really wonder how much this has to do with editing. I haven’t looked at any of the articles yet, but my assumption is that they spent a good amount of time editing the articles as well. In contrast, most of the ‘snippets’ you find these days are littered with typos and bad grammar in addition to their total lack of any real content.

Anonymous Coward says:

Long or Short

I do so enjoy reading a good long article on something I find fascinating, knowing I am getting alot of information. There is only one problem though, I hate reading more than 1 or 2 a day, simply because it feels like my eyes have been burnt out of my head by the computer screen.

Bright white, with black writting has always been the bane of human eyes. Just softening the page a little with a slight tinge of beige saves my eyesight.

Sure I could turn the brightness down on my monitor and make everything look dull while i read.. But cmon.. Theres just too many buttons.

Anonymous Coward says:

These are interesting numbers.

Let’s make some reasonable assumptions:

– There is an ad on every page.
– Slate gets the going rate for ads on news sites, about $10 per 1000 ad impressions.
– The top stories of this form, which took 4-6 weeks to create, get 3-4 million pageviews.
– Some percentage of visitors are running ad blockers.

The last one is tough to calculate because depending on the site it could vary from a few percent up to a large number like 60%.

Let’s take the average of time to write and pageviews, so 5 weeks and 3.5 million pageviews. That’s potentially $35,000 in revenue if nobody runs an adblocker, but let’s say 25% do. So $26,250.

Overhead for a full time employee is probably around 50% to keep the lights on, pay health insurance, pay managers, give them a computer, Internet connection, and so on. So $12,125.

Asssuming further that:

– The reporter can do this repeatedly on demand 50 weeks a year
– Everybody else involved can be paid out of the 50% overhead (the editor, the copy editor, the layout guys, the Webmasters)
– The site profit can come out of overhead as well
– No other unprofitable activities have to be subsidized out of this success

Then the very top reporters (i.e., the ones that Slate would brag about) can be paid $121,250 a year.

That’s not a terrible salary in this day and age. For the top people in an important field, it seems a little low to me. You might be able to afford a condo in the Bay Area if you saved up for a few years with that money.

TechnoMage (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Then the very top reporters (i.e., the ones that Slate would brag about) can be paid $121,250 a year.

That’s not a terrible salary in this day and age. For the top people in an important field, it seems a little low to me. You might be able to afford a condo in the Bay Area if you saved up for a few years with that money.

Well thats an interesting Idea you have there… So let us do some other math:

NSF REU program gives out ~1500 “NSF Fellowship” grants each year to graduate students that ends up coming to 30k/year for 3 years, for living expenses. This is suppose to support our fledgling researchers so that they can focus on their studies/research. Whether you agree this is a smart decision or not, (I personally think it should be expanded heavily). Looking at the graduate student model : “slave labor” for 5~7 years while they work on their Dissertation, and then maybe a few more years as a Post-Doc. This and other Fellowship programs are the driving force for funding for graduate students (for PhD) at universities. These grad students are the driving force behind most university research (as work horses at least).

Now I’m not saying that model is perfect for all news sites, but some might try it. My main point is that 30K$/year is enough for a lot of graduate students to fund their lives, and who says that they HAVE to live in the bay area? There are plenty of cities with plenty to offer reporters other than “the bay” area: Cleveland, Detroit, Youngstown, Pittsburg,(any other “Rust belt” city) where 120k$+/year would be much more than would “need”. I think people’s expectations that everywhere is as expensive as “the bay” or Boston/New York is very unfounded. ONLINE news sites can have …and here is the secret… “online” news reporters… who might not live where people expect, but can give thoughtful well written/researched commentary on subjects.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for almost anything, especially media in today’s/tomorrow’s media. So don’t assume that just because you think that some X$ amount isn’t enough for some task, that everyone agrees with you.

I have no clue where ‘YOU’ live, and you have no clue where ‘I’ live, or that I’m even in the United States when posting this. Just think about that for a minute. I might live in one of those above mentioned cities, or I might have visited them, or I might be an economics student, or an Engineering Professor from UC Berkeley, or I might be a 419 Scammer who likes to post on tech sites in the US when I’m bored…. and thats the point. Online content doesn’t discriminate about where it comes from as long as the content itself is of high quality.

Today’s definition of “top” probably isn’t going to be tomorrow’s. Today’s top news reporters (if you quantify that on the level of knowledge of the viewers/readers) are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert

A new study by the Pew Research Study shows that viewers of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report have the highest knowledge of national and international affairs, while Fox News viewers rank nearly dead last


Rooker (user link) says:

Re: Big walls of text

I forgot to mention… I dislike having to read something that’s spread across multiple pages. If there’s more than two or three pages involved, I view it as an attempt by the website to defraud their advertisers by jacking up page views.

When I see something like that, I’ll go looking for the print link to see if I can get the whole thing on one page. If not, I’ll often abandon it without reading for being too annoying.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Long articles versus short bites

Once again, “the road has no middle”, right?
Something new gets our attention. So, if we are doing long articles, short articles will get a “blip”. Short articles, a change to a long article, another “blip”.
For long term survival, BALANCE is needed! Important things need in-depth treatment (which they seldom get, you’re right), while trivia, like the dentistry article, may work for a single long article, but should be concise as a general rule.
Try a series of articles on someone’s teeth – watch the readership dwindle to nothing. Go for something really important, but give a quick dismissal, and you will see the same thing.

Anonymous Coward says:

long versus short

Personally, I just think that long articles must be written far better than short ones. I can muddle through a poorly written article if it’s only a couple paragraphs about something interesting. A long article, on the other hand, has to be extremely well written to hold my interest regardless of the topic.

Anonymous Coward says:

In my experience (both my own actions and other people I know), the “tl;dr” attitude generally means “too long to read *right now*”, i.e. they’ll load the same page up again later to read through it properly.

So I wonder how many of those pageviews, if they’re a simple hit counter rather than unique hits, I’d be willing to bet a good deal of those links are the same person.

Like their friend links them to the article at 3am, they bookmark it to read later, or maybe going back to it multiple times to read bits.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Now for what is actually happening ....

“And, besides, according to folks like Nick Carr, people don’t read long pieces on the internet, as it’s trained our brains to only want short snippets.”

The man is an idiot. Its not trained into our brains. We read what interests us. People short scan everything presented, then choose what they want to read.

Peoples news reading habits are going more towards their interesst and less towards general interest choosen by news oranizarionsn….

Brennan Hildebrand (user link) says:

Anybody every read the New Yorker?

Seriously, this has been proven many times over by many different publications. A piece that actually includes information and takes the time to prove a point rather than a simple conjecture in a three paragraph statement some people actually seem to appreciate.

If you think that any real information can be stated in a short not backed up piece with no citations, well, that says something about the quality of your statements.

Study, research, and cite. Otherwise, it’s simply opinion. The long work is likely better researched and supported. If you can’t handle reading or writing more than three paragraphs then you probably don’t know much about the subject you are commenting on, so why should I think you’ve got any weight on the topic at all?

Sigh. Don’t let your short attention span and the web make you an idiot..

Adam G (profile) says:

I have been a long time follower of techdirt and I personally feel the lengths/depths of your articles are the perfect length for me. Where I can skim over and get the gist of what I want. If I am interested, I read the whole thing. If I still want more there is usually links/sources/etc… where I can just find out more on my own and create my own decisions and opinions with an excellent jump start and intelligent observations from Mike.

I wouldn’t be opposed to an occasional long article but I don’t think it should be a regular thing, but that also depends upon the definition of how long is a long article and how much does it take away from the other short articles.

Also, I love the fact that there are so many updates each day. Not everyone is super interesting for me personally but I tend to lose interest in sites if I check back semi often and have no updates. But I feel like techdirt is a heartbeat of technology news and insight.

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