"Long form" journalism has been taking a bit of flogging lately. First, The Atlantic published a piece called "Against Long Form Journalism," next The New York Times chimed in with "When Long Form is Bad Form" and then Instapaper founder Marco Arment tossed out his own semi-coherent rant against it.
The fact that all three of these perspectives got as much attention as they did is evidence enough that the long form journalism movement is alive and well.
I have endless respect for The Atlantic and The New York Times. They have been doing this kind of journalism for over a century, so no one knows more than those two about how to do it well. While it's worth reading what The Atlantic, The Times, and Arment wrote about long form, I'll sum it for you in one sentence: Quality matters more than ever, but just because it's long doesn't mean a story is good. Fair enough.
Over the past two years, TechRepublic and ZDNet have been experimenting with how to make long form work on the web for tech journalism. It's turned into something that we're really passionate about. Since we have a stake in the game, this recent kerfuffle gives us the perfect opportunity to talk about our approach to long form.
In 2012, I started splitting my time between two jobs—my traditional gig as editor in chief of TechRepublic and a new gig as long form editor across ZDNet and TechRepublic working with our teams of journalists in the U.S., UK, Australia, and Asia.
The mission was to fully take advantage of the brain trust of writers and editors we had across the globe. We had people who could go in-depth, do investigative work, write great features, and do narrative nonfiction. Unfortunately, we were rarely taking advantage of those high-value journalism skills. And, when writers did go deep, the effort was being lost when their stories got drowned in the same river of links as all of the shorter stories we do every day. They got washed away so quickly that only a few people ever got a chance to notice how amazing these stories were.
It was time to change that. We needed to identify which of our journalists had the most passion and skill for feature writing, and we needed to carve out the time to let them do more of these in-depth stories. But we also needed to rethink the ways that we published these stories so that we could shine the spotlight on them. We needed to make them special.
When most of us think of 'long form' we think of a single story that uses thousands of words to deeply illustrate a great topic. However, when our editorial leaders decided to go all-in on long form we approached it with a two-pronged strategy. We planned to do in-depth stories, but we also planned to do packages of features where multiple writers and editors across different continents could all attack the same topic, but do it from a variety angles and perspectives. In other words, we team-sourced long form.
We already had journalists in every region doing scattershot features that were mostly getting lost in the shuffle every month. If we pooled our efforts and all focused on one key topic each month, then we knew we could create a feature package that would have a much bigger impact.
We called these "Special Features" and we launched them as the first stage of our long form strategy. But, pulling them off meant that we had to do a better job of planning ahead and communicating—especially across time zones. So, we created a features calendar with a topic-of-the-month, featuring a mix of core business tech topics with forward-looking tech topics. We planned out 12-15 months ahead of time. And, I set up weekly video calls to check in with our teams on the status of features in progress and brainstorming the planning of the next ones. We had a Thursday morning call with the U.S. and UK journalists and a Tuesday evening call with the Australian and Asian teams (Wednesday morning for them).
By the end of 2012 we were preparing to launch our first Special Features as pilots, but we still had a problem—how would we present them on the site? We couldn't just put them in one of our standard topic pages as a list of links. I argued that would be like taking Superman and turning him into Clark Kent.
Our team rallied and created an entirely new page design to present this great content in a way that was different and special and powerful. We also made these pages heavily optimized for touch screens, since we had already figured out that many people preferred to read long form on their tablets on the weekends. Instead of a list of links we designed a page of tiles so that each box was easily clickable with an imprecise finger tap. We also decided to introduce each Special Feature with a two-minute video that would tie the whole package together.
The first two pilots—Windows 8 and Big Data—launched in November and December of 2012, respectively. Then, we launched one every month in 2013—from Tapping M2M: The Internet of Things in January to IT Security in the Snowden Era in December. Along the way, we even worked in a few extra Special Features to coincide with key events, such as Steve Ballmer: The Exit Interview and CES 2014: What the Professionals Need to Know.
Writers and editors from across ZDNet and TechRepublic collaborated to create these feature packages, but for simplicity sake we decided to publish all of the articles and the package itself exclusively on ZDNet.
We had something else in mind for TechRepublic.
While our Special Features were long-form-by-committee, we also wanted to turn loose our journalists to do some traditional, lonely, one-writer-locked-to-a-keyboard, in-depth storytelling—optimized for the 21st century web. First, we had to figure out who on our staff could best write these kinds of deep-dives.
We had plenty of journalists who had written these kinds of stories in their past lives as ink-stained wretches. But, who really wanted to do it? Who needed it? Those were the ones we had to find and give the freedom to go chase a few big stories once in a while.
So, we asked everyone, "What's the one huge story you've been dying to chase down, but haven't had the time for it? If we carved out the opportunity for you to work on it, are you prepared to dive in and go for it?"
We came up with a small group that was passionate about this kind of storytelling and wanted to make this part of their regular publishing rhythm. We brainstormed our first set of ideas and started percolating them in the background in between our daily work. We also had a few others who didn't necessarily want to make this part of their regular work, but had one big story they were intensely interested in or liked the idea of doing one or two of these in-depth stories a year.
By mid-2013, we had a half dozen really interesting story concepts in progress. However, we had a similar problem to the one we had with Special Features. If we published these in-depth stories in our regular article template, then they would just look like a longer version of one of our daily stories, rather than the intensely-researched, highly-edited, refined pieces of writing that they really were.
We needed a way to subconsciously tell our audience: "These are different!"
We had already decided that these stories would exist exclusively on TechRepublic, since it was much more of a 21st century online magazine than a news site like ZDNet. Like we had done with Special Features on ZDNet, we decided to create an entirely new kind of page to present this content to our readers.
Our big goal was to create an immersive online reading experience. We wanted a more magazine-like layout that had far fewer distractions on the page than a normal web article and that was optimized to handle photos and pulled quotes and (eventually) interactive elements.
We launched our first one—Jo Best's feature on the origins of IBM Watson—in September 2013 and then we launched one each during October, November, and December, respectively. We were extremely encouraged by the positive comments in social media. Readers responded to these stories with a lot of enthusiasm. Two of the stories became our two top traffic-drivers on TechRepublic in the fourth quarter.
Since readers have told us and showed us how much they appreciate these stories, we're going to do more of them in 2014. We already published two more in January, and our pipeline of these stories for the rest of 2014 is filled with a lot of exciting stuff, including some interesting new experiments.
We've decided to call these "Cover Stories" since they most resemble the lead story in a traditional magazine. Like the Special Features on ZDNet, staff journalists across both TechRepublic and ZDNet contribute Cover Stories on TechRepublic. Again, this enables us to play to the strengths of our journalists. And, the cross-pollination is great for both brands.
Internally, we sometimes still refer to our Special Features and Cover Stories as 'long form' but we know that's not a term that means much to readers so we don't use it on the site. In the age of TLDR, if long form does mean anything to readers, then it's probably not a good connotation. Nevertheless, we couldn't be more committed to bringing thoughtful, useful, in-depth journalism to TechRepublic and ZDNet readers.
TechRepublic's 'Cover Stories'
- First came the artists, then came the hackers: The strange history of London's own Silicon Valley
- From Angry Birds to Nokia alums, Finland's startup scene has huge ambitions
- Robots of death, robots of love: The reality of android soldiers and why laws for robots are doomed to failure
- How Munich rejected Steve Ballmer and kicked Microsoft out of the city
- How Israel is rewriting the future of cybersecurity and creating the next Silicon Valley
- IBM Watson: How the Jeopardy-winning supercomputer was born, and what it wants to do next
ZDNet 'Special Features'
- Feb 2014: Windows XP and the Future of the Desktop
- Jan 2014: CES 2014: What the Professionals Need to Know
- Dec 2014: IT Security in the Snowden Era
- Nov 2013: The Battle for the Soul of IT
- Jul 2013: IT Innovation for Small Businesses
- Apr 2013: The 21st Century Data Center
- Feb 2013: BYOD and the Consumerization of IT
- Jan 2013: Tapping M2M: The Internet of Things
Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.