CXO

Why 'long form' journalism matters, and what we call it instead

While it's suddenly fashionable to bad-mouth long form, TechRepublic and ZDNet are true believers. Here's our approach to the renaissance of in-depth journalism.
 
 Image: iStockphoto/stocksnapper

"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.

Special Features

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.

Cover Stories

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'

ZDNet 'Special Features'

About

Jason Hiner is the Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He is an award-winning journalist who writes about the people, products, and ideas that are revolutionizing the ways we live and work in the 21st century.

6 comments
cougar.b
cougar.b

People are schizophrenic about reading. Many people are willing to load books onto an e-reader or tablet and read them, but you give them a link to a longer web page that they can read on the very same device, and it's <tl:dr>. There's little sense to it. I'm formerly a journalist who specialized in short pieces for trade magazines as my bread and butter, but it is the long-form journalism that I still brag about today. So I've felt somewhat disdainful for the modern online approach to writing. To me, it's like the everyday shlock that I had to churn out to keep food on the table.


I like the approach of providing cues that say "This is a special feature," or "This is a cover story." What we need is an established idiom that crosses the entire online culture that serves as the accepted cultural cue for long-form writing of any form. "Build it, and they will come."

Currently retired, I'm working 80 hours per week on a huge project that is entirely long-form. I consider this to be my life's work, and I'm putting it online, knowing that the speed of the internet is incompatible with what I'm doing. But I'm building it anyway.

Included in this work are "long-form apps" for personal growth and transformation and many other things that do not fit the culture of the internet as it now exists. I've just finalized the template, including the JavaScript programming, that I will be using to present the apps, and I've set up five wordpress.com sites for different elements of this project. I have a PHP navigation engine and a 1.5 million-word offline document which I'm revising and publishing in a strategic manner. The demo project will take me the better part of this year--the whole project will take me many years.


I know that I'm going to get a lot of <tl:dr>. My response is, "If you don't want it, you can't have any. It's your loss."


Shawn Quinn
Shawn Quinn

How about the true story of what happens to all those old computers and cell phone and office telco equipment and server racks ... after they get tossed.

krr711
krr711

macmanjim help clarifiy the matter with his comments. If you don't have something to say that is pro-liberal politics and the "we are all a village" mentality then you will be pressured to be silent. I would be more inclined to say that religious causes are less included in mainstream media. We readers know that the New York Times presents the world as they would have you see it rather than as it truly is. Thank you for a thorough, accurate, and unapologetic report on this powerful and damaging trend in journalism. Please keep delivering articles as you have been with long form when you think it is best.

cromero
cromero

Anyone with more than a gnats-worth of interest in ANY subject already knows commenting on the death, or even annoyance, of long form journalism is just comment baiting,  entertainment news, stupidity, or combination of all three.


Product reviews and comparison typically take an in-depth look at products in long form.  There a many products out today needing the deep examination.  


Science news also provides long commentaries about direct, and indirect information relating to the topic.


Even biographical stories have to utilize the type of presentation that will introduce the reader to the person as it also relates  history up to the current moment.


Long live long form.  

macmanjim
macmanjim

Much of mainstream journalism is dead because they've become mouthpieces for political, social and what I would call religious causes. The journalism of the 5Ws and sometimes how is a distant memory and you know it's true when Bob Woodward says something that isn't pro-current administration, he's basically told to got sit in a corner and STFU. Bob Woodward mind you, one of the best investigative journalists. How far we've fallen in such a short amount of time. 

NickNielsen
NickNielsen moderator

@krr711 We *are* all a village.  How much of what made it possible for you to make this post is available to you without the work of somebody else?