Read it later: long-form journalism on mobile devices

By Kaitlyn Till

Long-form journalism and creative non-fiction, a staple of print magazines and newspapers, have been assumed to lead a challenging existence on the web. Competing for the attention of readers and lacking the visual cues offered by the page layout of a physical magazine, the long-form article is fighting an uphill battle—or is it? A 1,500+ word piece can seem like an eternal scroll on the smartphone but, according to web publishers, people are reading them.

In Sit Back, Relax, and Read That Long Story—On Your Phone, Megan Garber of The Atlantic notes that a Buzzfeed article published in early January 2014 titled “Why I Bought a House in Detroit for $500” received more than one million page views—at more than 6,000 words in length; 47 per cent of those views were on mobile devices. Length of time reading on tablets was an average of 12 minutes while on smartphones readers averaged 35 minutes—“a small eternity, in Internet time,” Garber says. This is counter-conventional, but not an anomaly. Ten years ago, Lewis DVorkin of Forbes believed that the long-form article was dead, that is, until the analytics tools were in place to measure user data and viewing habits online. The verdict was in: “Speed, perspective, and analysis are certainly important—but in-depth reporting that often starts its life in longer Forbes magazine stories is fast becoming one of the news enthusiast’s most rewarding clicks,” DVorkin says in Inside Forbes: How Long-Form Journalism Is Finding Its Digital Audience.

One needs to look no farther than the success of Longreads. Longreads requires that stories be a minimum of 1,500 words and its success has spun off an eBook and bookstore reading nights. Other magazines, such as Maclean’s, are curating lists of long-form articles for their readers online.

These articles can require a significant time investment on the part of the reader, but now they can handily be saved into mobile apps for offline reading. Currently there are three major read-it-later apps vying for readers’ use: Instapaper, Pocket, and Readability. They are all immensely useful tools for saving web material to read offline enabling the reader to save material from their PC, smartphone, or tablet browser into the app, which can synch to multiple mobile devices. The apps themselves are slick, generally favouring a bare bones aesthetic, and they are easy to use once set up on all of the required devices, with many useful organizing functions: material can be listed as to-read, it can be favourited, and it can be curated into archives and reading lists; readers can also discover new articles online through read-it-later apps. The specific features of Pocket, Instapaper, and Readability are compared at LifeHacker.

The downside, however, becomes evident during the reading experience. Content is generally easy to read, but the original publication’s formatting is partially or entirely stripped out. It is unpredictable whether a read-it-later app will keep photos from the web article, or cut them entirely. In some cases photo and text elements are reordered. For basic informational reading this might be fine, but an important part of the print and online magazine or blog reading experience is the way the material is presented, particularly for long-form material. Visual cues that break up a long-form article can be key for hooking the reader in the first place: whether it’s the artful drop caps of The Walrus, or the poems and cartoons of The New Yorker, these magazines lay out their articles in a way that provides the reader with benchmarks while reading—and natural places to pause—which can’t necessarily be achieved through use of a plain paragraph break. The value of columns for ease of reading a long-form article also cannot be underestimated.

As these read-it-later apps increase in popularity, a more immediate question must be asked: how can a relatively young online magazine, which publishes long-form content, reinforce its brand as more readers move to reading the material offline in apps that are branding themselves with their own visual identity? Web-based magazines, such as Medium, operate on an important visual principle.

On Medium, the article The Pursuit of Interestingness, when viewed on a PC, has text that is partially overlaid on images in a striking way that reinforces the text. Medium stories have estimated reading times, paragraph breaks, and quotes used as visual cues for the reader. All of these design choices are partially or entirely lost when the material is transferred to an offline reading platform such as Instapaper. The standardization of articles takes away from the intended reading experience and may harm the ability for new magazines reinforce their brand if the stories don’t have their unique, consistent visual style when read. For some online publications this isn’t a big problem—magazines such as The Atlantic and Forbes are established and already practice reinforcing their brand in the text of their articles, often by self-referencing past articles produced by their magazines. For smaller, newer publications designed specifically for the web, however, name-dropping their own publication within their articles doesn’t trigger the same recognition. In fact, when reading in a read-it-later app, without the visual identity of the publication, it’s easy to forget where the article came from in the first place.

For the time being, readers must compromise: choose between utility with some loss of content, or read the way the publisher intended the material to be presented—in a web browser with an Internet connection. For publishers, their long-form material might be wider-read with the availability of read-it-later apps, but they cannot ignore the fact that their brand loses the re-enforcement that comes from their unique visual style. Analytics data that supports reader interest in long-form content is indicative of the need for app and web developers to continue to push the digital reading experience to be as complete as possible, improving the interplay of text and design that has traditionally been delivered to readers in print. In the meantime, it is essential that web-based publishers consider ways of re-enforcing their brands that will translate into read-it-later apps, experimenting with what coding enables photos to translate, and reinforcing their name within textual content—ensuring that the reader remembers where to go to read more later.

 

Sources:

DVorkin, Lewis. “Inside Forbes: How Long-Form Journalism Is Finding Its Digital Audience.” Forbes. Forbes, 23 Feb. 2012. Web. 27 Jan. 2014.

Garber, Megan. “Sit Back, Relax, and Read That Long Story—On Your Phone.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media, 21 Jan. 2014. Web. 26 Jan. 2014.

Gordon, Whitson. “‘Read Later’ Apps Compared: Pocket vs. Instapaper vs. Readability.” LifeHacker. LifeHacker, 27 Aug. 2013. Web. 28 Jan. 2014.

Kamer, Foster. “Longreads.com Gets Their First eBook, and With It, Their First eBook Review.” The New York Observer. The New York Observer, 25 Jan. 2012. Web. 28 Jan. 2014.

 

One Reply to “Read it later: long-form journalism on mobile devices”

  1. Interesting read. I’ve never really used a read-it-later app. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a need for it. If I were to use them though, the thing that I think I’d find fundamentally attractive is the promise of viewing content offline, or when there is no network connection available. Ironic then, that in the majority of cases Pocket doesn’t let you view videos offline (having tested videos from Youtube and Vimeo): http://i.imgur.com/0e3UHZz.png, despite advertising the fact on their homepage.

    In my (limited) experience I’ve found that read-it-later apps do a pretty good job of preserving content and layout. With long-form journalism, where content is word-focused, I think the apps do a good job at removing advertisements and preserving layout – providing the kind of uninterrupted experience I was hoping for. There are some minor formatting issues from sites like Medium where design plays a heavier role, but the issue isn’t limited to read-it-later apps, the interesting design choices behind The Pursuit of Interestingness article you mentioned don’t even translate to the mobile version of the site. I think that in most cases, mobile design is still just an afterthought of desktop design.

    This is changing though. Mobile-first design is a thing. Responsive design is less a choice and more of a requirement, and an ability to adapt to screen size/type/resolution/etc. is a hallmark of survival. However, I wonder if read-it-later apps will become redundant as mobile browser capabilities develop in their place to save offline content and preserve formatting and design elements, and as we continue to move towards an ever-more always-connected, digitally-accessible world. Will read-it-later apps still have a place in the market?

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