Three RJI Research Scholars spent the past year studying the effectiveness and sustainability of long-form digital journalism. This is the third in a five-part series based on 53 interviews with millennials to gauge this audience’s reception to long-form journalism delivered on mobile platforms.


With the tagline “There’s an app for that,” Apple ushered in the Age of the App with its iPhone 3G commercial in 2009. More recently, news organizations have started to develop more complex applications, integrating them within news stories. Interactive applications take time, specialized knowledge and money to produce. So when does it makes sense for news organizations to invest limited resources into creating applications? Our research suggests applications can add an edge to news stories, as long as the apps meet the users' expectations and serve their needs.

Maintain context

Interview participants were more likely to interact with applications embedded directly within the layout of a news page, rather than clicking a button or a link that might take them to another page. More than one participant completely missed a link to an application embedded within the story because it looked like an ad.

Present a solution or a call to action

Our interview participants said they enjoyed stories that presented difficult issues or social problems, but they expected the story to provide possible solutions or at least a call to action to address the issues and problems raised in the story, bringing to mind organizations like the Solutions Journalism Network that help reporters cover difficult stories with an eye toward solving problems. “To a millennial you think about, alright it’s a problem. What can we do about it? Is there anything I can do?” one of our participants said. They were disappointed when these elements were absent.

Be credible

Some good news for mainstream media organizations: Our interview participants viewed the credibility of established news sources favorably and questioned the credentials of lesser-known entities. They also noted where news organizations failed to cite sources and felt that detracted from the credibility of the work. Our participants wanted first-person accounts of how the stories impacted individuals, as well as easily readable statistics to back up the stories.

Make mobile interactive

Participants in all studies thought interactivity was a positive feature of mobile long-form journalism. Although “interactivity” is a somewhat vague term, “interactive” features mentioned by our participants included entering text, clicking, tapping, swiping and scrolling. Cellphones may extend the notion of interactivity beyond the capability of projects designed for laptops: When building the mobile version of a long-form article, one group in the paper prototyping study utilized the rotation and motion capabilities of a smartphone or cellphone to guide viewers interested in accessing video. 

Electronic games also contribute to the repertoire of interactivity in online news. In the eye-tracking study, six of seven participants who interacted with “Rebuilding Haiti” said that they enjoyed it: “The game had purpose,” one person said. “There was information there I was getting by playing the game.”

Next post

More time on text and video, but more praise for images. Eye-tracking study participants spent a great deal of time on video and text, but feelings on both were often mixed. In post-session interviews, most participants reported liking the photographs in all but one presentation, where the photographs seemed like clip art and didn’t help tell the story. Photographs got the most positive comments of all the elements; infographics were identified as the best element in three of the four projects studied.

Jacqueline Marino  
Research scholar

Susan Jacobson  
Research scholar

Robert Gutsche Jr.  
Research scholar


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