Although there are plenty of exceptions, I try to keep the length of the posts I write to less than 500 words. Often enough, they run something like 300 or 350 words.

I’m able to do that in part because I typically write about a single topic. I also use hyperlinking to identify both sources and opportunities to access additional information.

In a post written last month by Dean Starkman, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) published the results of a study of long-form journalism at four large U.S. newspapers: the New York Times; the Wall Street Journal; the Washington Post; and the Los Angeles Times. Nothing I write competes against these institutions, but the ideas of quality and length certainly resonates.

CJR defined “long-form” as a story with more than 2,000 words. Over the last decade, the total number of these stories has declined, both in absolute terms and as a share of total stories appearing in the four newspapers.

A few days after the CJR post appeared, Mathew Ingram (writing at paidContent) asked, “Is the decline of long-form journalism a good thing or a bad thing?” In it, Ingram points out that multimedia approaches can tell a complex story without necessarily piling on the words. He also notes that platforms like Byliner, Atavist and Longreads have opened up new avenues for long-form writing.

Personally, I’d like to see more effective use of hyperlinking of journalistic content. Right now, ad-driven sites (a model I think is unlikely to persist for most media properties) are reluctant to give readers a reason to leave. As well, there’s a natural reticence to point to content “not invented here”.

The recent report on “Post-industrial journalism” and a book by C.W. Anderson (a co-author of the post-industrial assessment) both call for greater cooperation among journalistic institutions. An example from the CJR post applies here:

Story-length is hardly meaningless when you consider what it takes to explain complex problems, like say, the financial crisis, to the broader public.

In this instance, Starkman equates length with depth. But in practice, someone else has already written the best explanations of core aspects of the financial crisis. Reproducing them in a long-form piece adds less value than co-operatively linking to them. In fact, linking can do the reader a service, allowing selective reading on unfamiliar parts of the story.

That’s the second that struck me reading the CJR report: even if we establish the journalistic value of length, it’s not the same as someone reading the whole piece or actually understanding its content. The right measure of quality journalism Is not just what is provided, but whether it makes a difference. Maybe there are short-form, hyperlinked approaches that would better inform a share of the population.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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