Can long-form journalism, a genre home for explanatory and literary forms, make a comeback in a digital age?

The short answer: Yes, but some things need to change.

As we posted earlier, our RJI-funded project examines the sustainability and audience interest in long-form multimedia journalism similar to that of The New York Times’ Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.

Building upon an article we published in Journalism about literary long-form multimedia projects, we are working in two U.S. regions to understand how audiences may interact with long-form multimedia projects, such as The Guardian’s Firestorm and NPR’s Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt.

Tracking attention

At Kent State University’s IdeaBase, Jacqueline Marino has just completed collecting eye-tracking data from participants who viewed several long-form-style projects on iPads. Using Tobii 2 glasses, the data of what elements drew users’ attention — and held it — are now being analyzed.

Along with three other related studies, the findings will allow us to propose where future types of multimedia journalism might go, particularly as media becomes more mobile.

At Florida International University in Miami, Robert Gutsche Jr. is completing a second round of focus groups where users not only discuss — but also help design — future mobile long-form multimedia projects. In a first round, participants explored the long-form genre on laptops and phones to identify which elements were more enjoyable and meaningful on different screens.

Focusing on interactivity

Researchers at FIU just concluded a second round of piloting for focus groups that will employ paper prototyping to examine the elements of storytelling that users would most like to see and experience on their phones. Here, users are asked to transpose an online, long-form-style piece related to sea level rise in South Florida onto a mobile platform.

Participants aren’t expected to be designers, but they will be asked to explain what elements are a must for mobile multimedia projects.

Addressing apps

Later this fall, Susan Jacobson, also at FIU, will be sitting down with another group of participants to walk through their interactions with maps, games and apps embedded into long-form news stories.

One of the apps that participants will study is the Sea Level Rise Toolbox, an application that lets citizens of South Florida visualize the possible impact of sea level rise on their homes and businesses.

The app was created by students and faculty at FIU with the help of Code for Miami and Hacks/Hackers Miami and has been used by local and national media in covering rising seas. It was embedded, for instance, within a long-form-style story on sea level rise in Miami Beach by Fusion earlier this year.

Student participants have repeatedly said they want to engage with information — not just view it. Said one student, “When I’m looking at something on a tablet, I want something interactive.”

Initial findings

By discussing users’ interactivity with long-form multimedia stories as they are engaging with the content we hope to uncover insights into ways interactive elements embedded within long-form multimedia projects provide audiences with informational value and how next-generation tools might enable journalists and designers to best utilize innovative technologies to attract audiences. Already, this project yields some interesting, initial findings that we will keep developing over coming months.

1. Phone first, if at all. Participants suggest that long-form projects published first to the Web are difficult to navigate and experience on the phone. Creating a more fluid transition from a laptop to a mobile phone in terms of content, design and function, they say, would increase the likelihood they would move back and forth between screens to complete a single project.

2. It’s all about visuals. The future of multimedia long-form journalism might be in the ability of wordsmiths to lessen the prose or to work closely alongside videographers and graphic artists to incorporate text into a visual-heavy format that still meets the needs and styles of the long-form journalism genre. In short, long-form is too long for the phone — as long-form appears today. Participants tell us they like seeing these projects on a large desktop or laptop screen and suggested that words should reflect — not replicate — what’s placed in graphics and video.

3. Topics matter. Participants have consistently told us that their interest in this genre of journalism is driven largely by the topics of the stories themselves. While there may be some elements of the long-form format that can attract and hold users' attention, what's needed is content in a story that allows users to stay long enough to experience both editorial and advertising content. This finding is an important reminder that journalists must continue to identify the interests of their audiences and cover that which is more likely to be fully examined and enjoyed, especially if such projects are costly and time-consuming to create. Participants have also suggested one of the beats best suited for this format is sports.

Future steps

In addition to an industry white paper that RJI will publish in Spring 2016, we will present further updates and findings on this blog, at conferences, and in academic articles. In the meantime, continue to stay in touch with us to discuss your thoughts on the methods of examining long-form multimedia journalism and the possible meanings of users’ interactions.


Top: Students in Robert Gutsche Jr.’s Audience Analysis course at Florida International University pilot paper prototyping to learn about audience research and to prepare for focus groups related to an RJI-funded project on multimedia journalism. Credit: Robert Gutsche Jr.

Below: Paper prototyping allows users to redesign platforms and to express elements that will make media products attractive and functionable. Credit: Robert Gutsche Jr.

Robert Gutsche Jr.  
Research scholar

Jacqueline Marino  
Research scholar

Susan Jacobson  
Research scholar


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