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How millennials interact with long-form journalism on mobile devices

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Three RJI Research Scholars spent the past year studying the effectiveness and sustainability of long-form digital journalism. This is the first in a five-part series based on 53 interviews with millennials to gauge this audience's reception to long-form journalism delivered on mobile platforms.

Since the late 1990s, as breaking news and other types of journalism adapted, long feature stories remained best suited for print. Written in the narrative tradition, often using literary techniques, this kind of journalism clashed with the nonlinear nature of the web where information was best consumed in visuals and quick bits. Then, in 2012, The New York Times published "Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek," a 17,000-word narrative so infused with video, infographics and impressive design elements that its title became a verb to describe the many similar works that followed.

"Snow Fall" was designed for the new "lean-back" platform, the tablet computer. It featured multimedia elements that were artfully included in the text in a way that added to the readers' experience of the story. Soon afterward, Medium's Bobbie Johnson created an open Google spreadsheet called "Snowfallen Stories," where producers logged hundreds of similar works into what essentially became a clickable index of the form.

The "Snowfallen" now go by various other names, including "multimedia narrative" and "digital long form." The genre's identifying characteristic: writing of at least 2,000 words integrated with purposeful multimedia, including photographs, video, infographics and web applications. A broad spectrum of media outlets, including legacy news organizations, startups and nonprofit outlets, produce this work using simplified technology. Drag-and-drop web templates, often free to use, make these works easier to produce and consume.

How effective is digital long-form journalism?
Early benefits of producing "Snow Fall"-like works included prestige and engagement. Jill Abramson, then the Times' editor, told her staff the project garnered a remarkable number of page views (3.5 million) and kept readers for about 12 minutes on average. The presentation received a Peabody Award in 2012 as well as the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2013. Other digital journalism outlets, including BuzzFeed, Politico and SB Nation, created their own original long-form work.

Soon after the publication of "Snow Fall," however, bloggers and commenters debated whether the presentation was worth the time and resources spent producing it. Media critics predicted that the audience would not care to see much more long-form work with "Snow Fall"-like multimedia. Farhad Manjoo, writing in Slate, called "Snow Fall" "an example of excess, a moment when designers indulged their creativity because they now have the technical means to do so, and not because it improved the story or readers' understanding of it."

Three years later, however, there is new hope for the form. Research suggests that story length, a defining characteristic of digital long form, is not an immediate deterrent. According to a study of online viewing behavior by Pew Research Center, readers are engaging with long-form content on mobile devices, spending more time on average with long-form news articles than with short-form articles: 123 seconds for articles 1,000 words or longer compared to 57 seconds for shorter stories. As the Pew study states, "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."

What do audiences want?
Although a great deal of long-form journalism is being published, little is known about how those audiences interact with long-form stories and why.

As the news industry attempts to capture audiences on the spread of mobile adoption, it is vital not only to understand how users experience mobile media, but how users experience media that are made to be accessed on multiple platforms, such as laptops, cellphones and tablets.

In order to better understand the long-term sustainability of digital long-form journalism – that is, whether the audience can make it economically feasible for news organizations to continue to produce long-form work – an analysis of audience receptivity is required. Using both qualitative and quantitative measures in September 2015 through January 2016, we interviewed 53 millennials to gauge this audience's reception to long-form multimedia journalism delivered on mobile platforms.

A recent study by the American Press Institute showed that millennials do regularly use and often pay for news or news products. We attempted to understand the degree to which this demographic group responds to long-form digital journalism.

Next posts:

  • Millennials read to learn. Even with so many media elements on a mobile screen, eye tracking showed that millennials read the text, particularly the main story. In post-session interviews, they said they read in order to learn about topics that interest them.
  • Apps add an edge in mobile long-form journalism. Millennials found interactive applications that were well integrated within the narrative flow of long-form stories to be “cool” and “engaging.” However, millennials were turned off by technical glitches and interactive elements that removed them from the context of the story.
  • More time on text and video, but more praise for images. Eye-tracking study participants spent a great deal of time on video and text, but feelings on both were often mixed. In post-session interviews, most participants reported liking the photographs in all but one presentation, where the photographs seemed like clip art and didn’t help tell the story. Photographs got the most positive comments of all the elements; infographics were identified as the best element in three of the four projects studied.
  • Mobile long-form journalism: The future is (even more) visual. Millennials who designed their own long-form mobile stories on cellphones cut the text by three-fourths and increased the use of infographics, video and interactive images. In individual interviews, participants said they preferred stories in which long passages of text were broken up by visual elements.

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