Later this month will mark the seventh anniversary of the day when the New York Times’ Snow Fall burst onto the scenes, forever (or at least for the better part of a decade) changing how we think about storytelling in the digital age.
In the years since, an increasing number of think tanks have embraced the idea of the longform. And yet. We still struggle with knowing when to produce them, how to produce them, what to do with them.
Worse, we’re not always clear about how it is that they fit into our overall missions.
At the October breakfast club in the Soapbox studio in London, Helen Dempster, Assistant Director of Migration, Displacement, and Humanitarian Policy at the Center for Global Development and Jen Thorley, Head of Digital at The King’s Fund, explained how they have tackled the ins and outs of longform.
Here’s some of what we learned.
1. Choose your audience and what you want them to do.
Yes, longforms seem like something we ought to do. They’re trendy. They’re far less daunting to tackle than a 75-page research report. They’re all over journalism sites.
But it’s not always clear who we’re writing these things for.
Researchers? They probably just want the big report. Policymakers? They often want a to-the-point brief. Journalists? They want to write their own longforms.
Unless we have a clear idea who it is we want reading these pieces—and, just as importantly, what we want them to do once they’ve finished reading—we may be putting a great deal of effort into something that’s not really advancing any of our strategic goals.
2. Longform is popular.
Longforms may not have a particular audience, but it’s abundantly clear that they do have some audience. One breakfast club participant discussed a longform with nearly 21 times the traffic as the report that it drew from. And while that longform was an exception, most people in the room cited examples of longforms that outperformed traditional research reports.
3. They’re hard to write.
Popularity is not without work.
Let’s face it. Our organizations are full of people who are quite good at writing traditional research reports. It’s what our researchers learned to write in graduate school. It’s what our editors spend their days honing. It’s embedded into our institutional memories.
When push comes to shove, it’s what our comms teams are used to turning into tweets or pitching to the media.
We are not organizations full of people accustomed to thinking about narrative or about pacing or about dramatic tension. We’re excellent at letting the data speak for itself. We’re much less comfortable letting people speak for themselves. We excel at 10,000 meters. We struggle at 1 meter.
Writing a good longform requires a particular set of skills. We may need patience as we upskill staff. We will definitely need good lines of communication with our researchers as we socialize the value of new ways of writing content.
4. Longform isn’t just one thing.
We hear “longform” and we immediately jump to a very specific thing. It’s mostly text, but with some multimedia added in. It’s written in a narrative, journalistic style. It’s a single, scrolling page. There are probably some full-bleed images. It’s likely something is parallax.
But that’s not the only kind of longform content.
Podcasts, mini documentaries, even interactive data-driven dashboards or toolkits can be a kind of longform content. Looked at this way, longform is less a particular type of content and more a mindset. It’s a way of sharing complex research and policy in ways that aren’t the traditional research report.
The key to a good longform isn’t finding a way to cram your content into a Snow Fall clone. It’s finding the format that best delivers your content.
5. They are the future.
The first academic journal was published 354 years ago this January. Its descendant—the modern research report—has evolved a bit in the intervening years, but it would still be generally recognizable as a kind of journal article to a late 17th C person of letters.
There’s very little reason to believe that we humans just happened to hit upon The One True Format for research outputs the year before the Great Fire.
That we’ve stuck with the research report for so long is mostly an accident of technology combined with habit. Printing presses, typewriters, word processors and digital printers all make it easy to produce long, basically linear documents. And because we have always read research results in this format, we’ve come to accept that this is just the way such content is organized.
But it’s only a way of arranging content, one that was shaped by the limitations of our authoring tools.
It sounds a bit clichéd, but the internet really does enable an entirely new way of writing. It unshackles us from print’s tyranny of the linear, allowing us to make connections, to add twists and turns, to let readers decide how they will interact with our work.
Longforms offer us the opportunity to embrace new formats and new ways of approaching research content. They’re probably not the final answer. But they are our first halting steps into this brave new world of digital-first writing.