Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

How to engage readers with digital longform journalism

Introduction

Major enterprise stories — stories that take deep dives and attempt to inform readers in substantive ways or to elicit impact — these are the types of stories that encourage readers to move beyond binary and dogmatic thinking about local, national and world events.

However, these enterprise stories require considerable resources: time and effort from reporters and a financial investment from the news organization. And once the story is published, the potential audience is limited.

With these types of stories, “You’re automatically limiting your audience,” said Terri Rupar, national digital projects editor at the Washington Post. “You’re limiting yourself to people who want to give up their time, who are interested enough in the topic to read into it, who are not just for something quick.”

That’s why it’s important to get readers who do check out the story to stick with it until the end.

So how can journalists get readers to complete these long pieces?

One way, this analysis has found, is to use multiple elements and platforms to tell the story. That means taking advantage of several multimedia tools, including audio elements embedded in text, video clips intertwined with the story and interactive graphics, among others. Lucky, then, that we live in an era of digital media when this is not only possible, but increasingly accessible.

One way [to get people to read longform journalism] is to use multiple elements and platforms to tell the story.

In 2012, the New York Times published Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek. For many readers — and many journalists — this was the first time they had seen a piece that was entirely interactive. Animated maps autoplay, showing viewers paths on the mountains. Videos and photos intertwine through the text, and some photos spread across the entire page.

These elements — the parts that pull your readers into the piece, play with it, learn from it — are key to keeping readers engaged in large enterprise pieces. Since Snowfall, several newsrooms have experimented with innovative longform storytelling; these newsrooms tend to be large and medium-sized. But all newsrooms have the capability to create these stories, and they should.

“It’s about the experience, and what can we deliver that’s impactful for the readers, the users?” said Paul Cheung, director of interactive and digital news production at the Associated Press. “And I think at the end of it, it’s really about this: How does the story connect to (readers) on an emotional level? Do they find delight? Where they prompted into action? Did they develop empathy?”

In this report, you will find a how-to guide for newsrooms on how best to engage readers in enterprise journalism. Even those newsrooms that have recently consolidated, keeping on a smaller numbers of journalists and working with limited resources, will find useful strategies to pursue substantive stories and tools to help tell stories in innovative ways. Most of these tools require no programming experience, special skills or even any cost. They can, however, make a big difference in your coverage and presentation.

In this report, you will find a how-to guide for newsrooms on how best to engage readers in enterprise journalism.

The best practices are based on some data — an analysis of engagement for thousands of major enterprise and watchdog stories tracked by publishers in the American Press Institute’s Metrics for News program. The primary measure of success is the Engagement Index, a metric created by the American Press Institute to consider all the ways readers interact with a story. The index blends many measures of engagement, such as the number of pageviews; the average time each user spends on the story; and the average number of shares a story receives.

Data is sometimes messy, but it’s clear on one point: Longform stories still pull in readers.

Engagement numbers for stories categorized as “longform” surpassed engagement numbers for other stories — the difference was especially significant when it came to watchdog stories.

Among all stories Among stories categorized as "Enterprise" Among stories categorized as "Watchdog"
Longform stories 127.714 113.071 144.357
Non-longform stories 93.643 82.769 87.429

American Press Institute

Readers spent more time on longform stories. This is not surprising, as longer stories inherently require more reading time. But they also received more views and shares than other stories.

So, the data shows readers generally engage more with longer stories. But numbers can’t explain why this is the case. Nor can they teach how journalists can create enterprise stories that engross readers to their full potential.

That’s why this research also includes interviews with 14 journalists and experts. These journalists offer advice on how to most effectively create enterprise packages. They also share their observations on what works — and what doesn’t.

Ultimately, nothing replaces the value of solid reporting and storytelling, but those practices can and should evolve to take advantage of what readers expect from digital media. This report is not an endorsement of using gizmos and gadgets for the sake of publishing a flashy package. It’s about finding innovative ways to tell stories.

Need to Know newsletter

The smart way to start your day

Each morning we scour the web for fresh useful insights in our Need to Know newsletter. Sign up below.

Featured topics

Go deeper on…

Dive deep on everything we produce about these key topics.

Strategy Studies

The best practices for innovation within news organizations

This Strategy Study presents examples and insights about journalism innovation, offering actionable advice and methods to move your journalism and business forward.