Longform Journalism: What Is Possible?

Delving into the wide world of longform journalism, it immediately becomes clear that there is not one way to write an article reaching beyond 3.000 words. In the following I will present several different approaches, which all have their length in common, but which vary regarding their use of paratextual elements and multimedia formats, their narrative style and their choice of topic. Starting with an example which is using a very simple design and ending up with a unique experience of engaging with longform content, the whole range of longform practice should become evident.

1. The Boston Globe: »Two Sisters, One House, And A Mystery«

Let us start with »Two Sisters, One House, And A Mystery«, an article published by The Boston Globe, which is presented in a rather simple design. Using just a few photographs, the focus of the article is almost exclusively on the text itself. Therefore, it is particularly of importance for the author to design the content as appealing as possible to prevent the reader from losing his or her attention during the long read. Besides using a very narrative and personal style of writing, the author decided on keeping the reader’s attention with her choice of topic – a woman who died under mysterious circumstances.

There are many longforms like this, which are taking up elements from the crime and mystery genre while still maintaining their journalistic approach. Looking for instance at the ten most popular longforms on the website longform.org, the articles are all revolving around topics such as crime, scandal or mystery. In this way, the articles do not depend on extended visualization but rather on the narrative style and the story’s content. Another common feature to this is the structure of the text into chapters, making it even more like reading a novel than an online article. At the same time, the longform appears more finite and hence assures that the reader can come back and easily take the article up from where he or she left it.

2. The Verge: »Cracking the Elaborate Code«

With The Verge’s article »Cracking the Elaborate Code«, which is already quite familiar to us, we slowly move on to articles that make more use of multimedia possibilities. Like its predecessors, the focus of the article is on the text. However, with this article, the attempt to enrich the text with different forms of visualizations is a lot stronger. The Verge is working not only with images and GIFs, but also with an extensive video, supporting the content and the reader’s understanding of the topic.

Especially the video, which is already put in in the very beginning, offers the reader an easy introduction, trying to provoke his or her interest for the following paragraphs. These paratextual elements enhance the attention span of the reader and ensure that people who may not usually be interested in the topic or who are tied to another specific genre are the target for engagement.

3. Pitchfork: »Machines for Life«

From this point on, the engagement with the format of longforms is getting more experimental. Pitchfork for instance is showing a very appealing approach to longform publishing with its cover stories, where they present different artists to the readers. As we can see in the article about Daft Punk, »Machines for Life«, Pitchfork uses various animations going along with the background of the text, as well as both horizontal and vertical scrolling which enables the content and the visualizations to change during the reading of the article.

Another interesting feature in this longform is the full screen mode, which prevents the reader to be distracted. Whereas the topic is rather easy to understand, the visualizations make it more exciting. It seems like the focus is even more on these paratextual elements than it is on the mediation of the content. This becomes especially evident at the point where you catch yourself just scrolling the page up and down instead of finally reading the article itself.

4. The Washington Post: »The Perils of Great Falls«

»The Perils of Great Falls« is an example of an article, which uses the available digital possibilities to not only support the content of the article, but to actually extend the amount of information that the reader can get. In an attempt to explain the dangers which are connected to rivers such as those in the area of Great Falls, the interactive animations and clickable maps are helping the reader to understand what is going on under the water surface.

While the text is still written from a quite personal perspective, telling the story of the victims that underestimated the rivers strength, the animations are very informative and instructive. Therefore, here both the text and the visualization are playing a significant role for the presentation of the longform, making it a good read.

5. The New York Times: »Snow Fall«

From here, we are going over to The New York Times, which are already quite famous in experimenting with the longform format. »Snowfall« is one of their most remarkable pieces, being mentioned in several top lists of longforms.

»Snow Fall« tells the story of the survivors of a great avalanche. Structured in several chapters and written in a very narrative style, it attracts the reader not only through its content, but additionally by employing extensive multimedia material. Small features such as the possibility of starting a video from within the text by clicking on a link, but also more sophisticated additional material are available. Maps that navigate the reader through the text and audio and video material that were recorded live during the incident help the reader relate to what happened.

Alike the narrative longforms from the beginning, revolving around tragic and exciting topics, this longform also takes up an approach of telling a personal story. However, here multimedia is used to allow the user to relate to the article in an even stronger way.

 6. The Washington Post: »The Waypoint«

With »The Waypoint« we are slowly entering a space where it is hard to say if we are still facing longform articles or if we already crossed the line to other formats. »The Waypoint«, again published by The Washington Post, is an article mainly putting attention on the user experience with the application of extensive video, image and audio material, drawing from the immense variety of digital possibilities.

The whole experience is based largely on the interaction of the reader with the story, leaving him or her to decide where to go on. The text itself is parted into many very small paragraphs, making the paratextual elements the key point for catching the content of the article. Another element which causes »The Waypoint« to stand out from other longform articles is its use of a horizontal instead of a vertical orientation as well as the keyboard for navigation.

7. SBS: »The Boat«

»The Boat« finally is a longform which probably should rather be described as a Graphic Novel. However, fitting into the over 3.000 words criterion, it can still be a source of inspiration for longform journalists. »The Boat« is a fictional story which is very easy to delve into. As the reader scrolls along, he or she gets drawn into the world of »The Boat«, which is largely fostered by illustrations and sound effects, bringing the story to life.

Together with »The Waypoint«, »The Boat« seems to be more like a unique experience than a normal online article. However, there are functions that could also be of use for other longform articles, for instance the auto scroll, the full screen mode and the structure into several chapters.

Outlook

There are many ways to approach the presentation of a longform. Some of the articles we looked at are mainly coming from a genre taking up rather thrilling content, revolving around tragedy and crime, as for instance the avalanche accident or the story of the woman that died because of mysterious circumstances. On the other hand, however, and maybe more interesting for us, there are also authors who are using longform possibilities to enrichen their content, trying to improve the comprehensibility of the article, as for instance The Washington Post with »The Perils of Great Falls« or The Verge with »Cracking the Elaborate Code«.

From using a narrative and personal style and a carefully curated topic, over extensive illustrations and animations, to interactive infographics extending the content itself, there is a variety of possibilities around content and paratextual elements that can be drawn from.  To go on from here it is therefore important to analyze which of these functions could be of interest for experimenting with longforms in an academic context. For this, the examples gathered here can be seen as a first source of inspiration for the following research.

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