May 5, 2016

Online journalism has traditionally put a premium on pithiness. Shorter is better, the conventional wisdom goes. Readers are looking to snack, not devour a five-course meal.

But according to a new report from the Pew Research Center, reader behavior indicates a willingness to spend more time reading long-form journalism on mobile devices than they would on shorter articles.

The report, which is based on an analysis of data from, shows that readers spend more than twice the amount of time reading and scrolling through articles longer than 1,000 words than they do on short-form stories. And it’s not a small group of dedicated readers diving in, either — longer articles get about the same number of visitors as their shorter counterparts.

The basis for Pew’s findings were 117 million cellphone interactions on content from from 30 news websites in September 2015.

The report puts the tendency to read long into the broader context of the industry-wide shift toward digital readership. Online news, which removed space constraints for journalists and their readers, gave rise to long-form journalism that gave outlets the freedom to bring in more sources and add historical context. Pew says its report shows that readers reward ruminative work with their time and attention.

When it comes to the relative time consumers spend with this content, long-form journalism does have a place in today’s mobile-centric society.

Pew’s report also breaks down several ways readers consume news on mobile devices. Among its findings:

  • Facebook drives more traffic than Twitter, but Twitter brings more engaged users.

    While Facebook drives more traffic, Twitter tends to bring in people who spend more time with content. For longer content, users that arrive from Facebook spend an average of 107 seconds, compared with 133 seconds when they come from Twitter. The same pattern emerges with shorter content: Those arriving from Twitter spend more time with that content (58 seconds) compared with those coming from Facebook (51 seconds). Yet, for both short- and long-form content, Facebook referrals drive about eight-in-ten initial visits from social media sources, while Twitter drives about 15%.

  • Readers spend more time on long-form news when they access it through an internal link, followed by a direct referral, an external link, search and social:

    Long-form news readers spend an average of 148 seconds with a news article when arriving there from an internal link. That falls to 132 seconds for those who visit the article directly or follow an email link, 125 when arriving from an external website, 119 from search and 111 from social media. For short-form reading, the average times are lower but social media is again at the bottom. Nonetheless, social media sites drive the largest share of traffic overall – accounting for roughly 40% of cellphone visitors to both short- and long-form news.

  • No matter how long the content is, it’s mostly read within the first two days of publication.

    Fully 82% of interactions with short-form articles begin within the first two days after publication, as did 74% of long-form interactions. By day three, that rises to 89% of short-form interactions and 83% of long-form interactions.

  • Readers are more likely to consume longer content early in the morning or late at night.

    For both story lengths, the longest average engaged time occurs in the late night and morning hours. For long-form reading, that amounts to 128 seconds late at night and 126 seconds in the morning, compared with 60 seconds and 59 seconds, respectively, for shorter stories. This stands out in particular, because late night attracts a smaller portion of visitors than any other daypart – just 6% of sessions with long-form news occur in the late night hours.

The report fits in with a growing body of wisdom regarding online reader behavior, including recent research from the American Press Institute that found long-form journalism did just fine with readers. According to the report, stories longer than 1,200 words got 23 percent more engagement, 45 percent more social referrals and 11 percent more pageviews. A 2015 report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism reached a similar conclusion: Readers finished nearly all of the longform journalism they started in a three-week span.

Here’s a link to the full report.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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