Longform journalism morphs in print as it finds a new home online

As technology has renewed attention to longform journalism with platforms, apps and sites like Instapaper, Longreads, Byliner, The Atavist, Kindle Singles and The Longform iPad app to name a few, I wondered: Does longform journalism still have a place in print?

Rethinking how we define longform

What do we mean when we say longform journalism? Is it defined by length, by quality, by the time it took to write it? Some journalists say the way we define longform journalism — particularly in print —  needs to change.

Oregonian Senior Writer Anna Griffin says that because of limited resources and a smaller newshole, “longform” no longer means a 200-inch story.

“The days of a big, four-column double truck in a daily paper are over. You can find a way to write longform, but you have to be much more judicious about how long it’s going to be,” Griffin said by phone. “There is magic to a really great 50-inch feature that we’re learning to appreciate. But even 50 inches has become a hard thing to get.”

Neil Brown, editor of Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times, says he’s become increasingly concerned with the phrase “longform” — particularly given that print longform stories are so often accompanied by multimedia online.

“Does longform mean only a written, narrative story, or does it include the whole multimedia package? If you define ‘longform’ only by the written story, then I think that’s a flawed way of looking at it,” Brown said by phone. “The problem with the part before ‘form,’ is that — if storytelling is reduced to length only, I think there’s always going to be a limitation.”

Emphasizing quality over quantity

On Sunday, the Tampa Bay Times launched a new version of its “Floridian” section — home to its narrative and longform stories. The Floridian is now a monthly magazine that’s inserted in the Sunday edition of the Times.

Previously, it was a weekly insert and a daily at one point. Contrary to what people might assume, Brown says, this doesn’t mean the Times is going to publish fewer features or longform stories in print.

“We’re actually raising the bar a little bit,” he said. “If you look through the Tampa Bay Times over the course of a month, I don’t believe you’re doing to see any sort of fall-off in our commitment to enterprise journalism.” The previous Floridian section was four pages; the first edition of the new Floridian is 16 pages.

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Lane DeGregory, who joined the Times in 2000, says she thinks the paper will continue to publish the same sorts of longform narratives that first drew her to the news organization.

“It just means that now more of my work will appear in places other than Floridian,” DeGregory said via email. “Instead of having a weekly deadline for meatier feature stories, I will have more time to work on ones that will run in the magazine — and I’ll spend less time looking for quick, small features to anchor the bottom of the features section.”

Brown said that having a monthly magazine gives writers and editors more time to produce quality content, and that makes more sense for the Times. Ultimately, it could also make sense for advertisers, too.

“We understand that most newspapers have gotten rid of their weekly Sunday magazines. This is a monthly, which gives us a better shot,” he said. “There is not much ad support for magazines in the Sunday paper. That said, we’re all hoping to get out of the chute strong and hope that advertisers recognize that these are very well-read sections.”

Brown said that after the Times’ newly redesigned website launches, the Times plans to create a more robust online component to the new Floridian. Based on reader response, he’s found that there’s room for longform in both print and online.

“I don’t think it has to be either or,” Brown said. “I think there was a little bit of an instinct to think that longform journalism was only the stuff of print. We’ve found longform journalism can work digitally as well. I reject that it’s an either or.”

The success of online efforts such as the longform science magazine “Matter” shows there’s an audience for longform online. But of course, some readers still like consuming it the old-fashioned way.

“I don’t think it’s anywhere near as effective online, because when we go online, we are all so accustomed to hopping from one thing to another so quickly,” said author Adam Hochschild. “And then there are all those damned links online.”

Preserving print longform, charging for it online

The Virginian Pilot publishes longform journalism online, in its newspaper and in booklet form. Every summer since 2005, the Pilot has published a serialized longform series. Some have run for as long as 14 days.

Staff writer Diane Tennant, who was once on the paper’s now defunct narrative team, thinks it’s necessary to run the series in print.

“We’re not going to go completely online, simply because some of our readership don’t use computers,” she said by phone. “We have very loyal older readers who want it in print, and they’re still going to get it in print.”

In addition to running the series in the paper, the Pilot reprints each series as a 8 ½ X 11 booklet. Virginian Pilot Managing Editor Maria Carrillo said each of the booklets has sold thousands of copies. They started out as $7, then went up to $10. The latest booklet — based off a series that Tennant wrote on the Project Mercury — was nearly 90 pages long.

“We do make money on these reprints; it’s a nice little business. But more importantly, readers really get drawn in,” Carrillo said via email. “We hear from them about how caught up they are, how they can’t wait for the next installment. They look forward to these stories every year.”

The Pilot allows only subscribers to access its annual series online — an interesting approach given that the site’s not behind a paywall. “The reasons are twofold,” Carrillo said. “We do want to encourage people to buy the reprint and we also want to make subscribers feel like they’re getting something special for being subscribers.”

Taking better advantage of the Web

As more papers switch to paywalls and some adopt a three-day-a-week printing schedule, they would do well to think about where longform fits in the equation. The Times-Picayune has been trying to take a hybrid approach since reducing its print frequency.

“Compelling stories have to find their place both in the printed publication and what we do in our various other platforms online. That’s been our guiding thinking,” Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss said by phone.

“Does printing three days a week bias us in favor of longform journalism? To some extent. But we see the paper as a mixture of enterprise and non-enterprise journalism, whether it’s breaking news or political news or traditional forms of journalism.”

The Oregonian’s Griffin wonders what a reduced print schedule will mean for longform. The paper, which is owned by Advance, will likely go to a three-day-a-week schedule in the near future.

“We’re waiting to see what three days a week actually looks like. It feels like we’re in limbo right now; I think we’re all so busy trying to keep our heads above water that we haven’t gotten used to making use of the space and technology that we have,” Griffin said. “My hope would be that as we get more digital and our audience gets more digital, we can use the blessing of space that is the Internet to run more longer pieces when the stories merit them.”

The journalists I talked with said they want to find a home for longform journalism in both print and online because they believe the content is valuable.

“I think the underlying truth that we all recognize … is that readers still want a good read,” Griffin said. “They still count on newspapers to explain the world to them, and you can’t always do that in 15 inches. As we rise up from the ashes of what was, I think you’re going to see some papers doing very cool things with whatever the platform looks like.”

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