Media

Is long-form journalism dying? A five-minute read

Photo by Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images
The building of the Washington Post newspaper headquarter is seen on K Street in Washington DC on May 16, 2019.

Amid relentless teletype buzz of bad news, the newspaper industry printed an obituary this week for one of its last traditional sources of long-read journalism: the Washington Post Sunday magazine.  

Pressed for an explanation by her staff, Executive Editor Sally Buzbee blamed the magazine’s demise on “economic headwinds,” according to unnamed staffers who attended a grim postmortem.  

The final issue of The Washington Post Magazine hits driveways on Christmas Day. In the new year, only two Sunday magazines will remain in the legacy newspaper business, one published by the quasi-national New York Times, the other by a proud but diminished Boston Globe.  

To industry observers, the Sunday magazine is an artifact of a bygone era, a prop in an ancient weekend ritual acted out at the breakfast table with a cup of coffee and a Sunday paper as thick as a phone book, both now casualties of the Internet age. 

A generation ago, when newspaper subscribers read stories mostly in print, the Sunday magazine loomed as a career-capping destination for any journalist, an outlet for some of the industry’s most ambitious work. The Post, Times, Miami Herald and Baltimore Sun, among others, won Pulitzer Prizes for pieces published in Sunday magazines.  

The death of the Post magazine, and the layoff of its 10 employees, “has business implications, but I think it has a lot of craft implications as well,” said Andrew Beaujon, a senior editor at Washingtonian magazine and former media reporter for the Poynter Institute. “Because they’ve gotten rid of the people who know how to craft a magazine story, as opposed to a newspaper story.” 

According to the Post’s in-house report, Buzbee did not offer the magazine staff new jobs at the paper.   

In the Post account, Bill Grueskin, a Columbia Journalism School professor and former newspaper editor, noted that the Sunday magazine is “less of a priority now, given the infinite space available online.” 

The internet allows journalists to write and publish stories of any length, anytime, rendering the magazine format obsolete, at least for newspaper publishers. A long-form journalist can publish a 10,000-word story at no additional cost than a 1,000-word story, in terms of ink and newsprint and lost advertising space. 

But that doesn’t mean people will read it.  

With most journalism online, editors and publishers now know exactly how long the average reader spends scrolling through the average story.  

It is a cruel calculus. At the end of 2020, according to Pew Research, the average visitor to a top newspaper website spent less than two minutes there, down from more than 2.5 minutes in 2015. 

Long-form news articles “are really resource-intensive,” Beaujon said, “and either they hit or they don’t. And if they don’t hit, you’ve really blown it.”  

When long reads hit, they hit big. A 2021 Washingtonian piece by Jessica Sidman, pulling back the curtain on the local Trump Hotel, “was our best-read piece for a long time,” Beaujon recalled, with more than 1 million page views.  

Another celebrated story, penned by Elizabeth Bruenig and published in 2018 by the Washington Post as “What do we owe her now?, typifies the new face of long-form journalism.  

Bruenig reported and wrote the piece, on a sexual assault victim from her Texas hometown, for the Post website. It ran with vivid photos and moving images, a multimedia online melange with a list of cinematic credits at the end.  

“We didn’t have any idea that it was going to be in print, actually,” she recalled. When the story took off, she said, editors arranged to print it in the paper: not in the magazine, but as a special section. It became a 2019 Pulitzer finalist.  

Thousands of readers followed Bruenig’s story to the end. But that level of site-visitor loyalty is rare. 

Another Pew study, from 2016, found that readers spent around a minute thumbing through the average short-form news article on their cellphones. With long-form articles, reader engagement jumped to two minutes.  

But for most long-form journalism, two minutes won’t get a reader anywhere near the end.  

“The question is, how do you get people to hang in with you?” Bruenig said. “I know that people have a lot of options. And I’m trying to get them to read a story rather than watch a video.” 

Longform journalists can always fall back on traditional publishing, running stories in old-fashioned print newspapers. But those options have limited reach. 

According to the latest figures from the Alliance for Audited Media, only nine U.S. newspapers now enjoy average daily print circulations more than 100,000. They are the Wall Street Journal (697,493), New York Times (329,781), USA Today (159,233), Washington Post (159,040), New York Post (146,649), Los Angeles Times (142,382), Chicago Tribune (106,156), Minneapolis Star Tribune (103,808) and Tampa Bay Times (102,266). 

Fifteen years ago, by contrast, the top three papers all had circulations more than 1 million, and several others topped 500,000. 

Overall daily newspaper circulation has dwindled to around 25 million, Pew reports, down from about 51 million in 2007. Daily circulation peaked at 63 million in 1984.  

The corps of newsroom employees has shrunk by half since the late 2000s, Pew reports. Newspapers are closing at a rate of roughly two a week, according to research by Northwestern University.  

“Since 2005, the country has lost more than a fourth of its newspapers (2,500) and is on track to lose a third by 2025,” the university’s Local News Initiative reported this year

Most of the good news in newspapering is online. The top 50 newspapers reaped 14 million unique website visitors in the last quarter of 2020, up from 10 million in 2015, according to Pew.  

In the 2010s, digital advertising more than doubled as a share of all newspaper ad revenue, from 17 percent to 39 percent.  

Ad revenue rewards page views. How much time the reader spends with a story matters. But it may not matter enough to justify the effort and expense of a long-form story. 

“We’re a hits business,” Beaujon said. “It’s like Hollywood.” 

In recent years, nonprofits such as ProPublica have swept in to help newspapers deliver long reads. An innovative newcomer, California Sunday Magazine, launched in 2014, publishing long-form stories in homage to a vanishing breed. 

California Sunday won a Pulitzer Prize in feature writing in 2021. Eight months earlier, the magazine had ceased publication.  

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