Resurgence of the Long Form on the Web

It started with lists. “Everyone loves lists,” was a pretty common refrain. Pretty soon every damn website was creating 10 X that you Y lists. Buzzfeed was (still is) the king of that game, and became the first enormous source of “click-bait.”1

These short, easily consumed items are like the Pringles of digital content and the rise in popularity makes a lot of sense from a sociocultural standpoint. Now that we have the internet at our fingertips at almost every waking moment, content consumption has become a game of instant gratification. Immediacy is the new black.

The Flipside

The fact that while snackable content has exploded, there has been a more gradual understanding of what digital content can be when placed in the hands of writers and designers who really care about the art of storytelling.

When the Web first became a viable source for reading “the news” and “magazines articles,” there wasn’t too much effort put towards translating these articles for a digital experience beyond simply making them available. The content was just slapped into a generic template. In fact, that’s still what happens most of the time (and this makes sense—not every article warrants a custom layout), even with big, several-thousand-word features. It’s a very different mentality than one finds in magazines, which can often have amazing layouts that make reading an aesthetic experience as well as an informative one.

Enter Snowfall

It took a really, really long time for me to find an online feature that I felt created an experience that was specifically tailored to this digital medium; it could ONLY be had online: Snowfall, by the NY Times.

If you haven’t seen this yet, do yourself a favor and check it out. It combines top-notch writing with imagery, video, and interactivity so seamlessly. The Times has a good pedigree for such features: certainly, they create fine written content, and they’ve done a lot of interesting interactive projects so it makes sense that they’d usher in a new wave of long-form digital reportage.

Since it came out, there’s been a gradual increase in high-quality features like this. The Times itself has obviously published some, as have sites like Polygon, ESPN, and more.2

But what is it that makes these articles so damn great and why do I refer to them as being tailored to the medium? I won’t detail every nuance, so here are a couple of the big rocks.

Chaptering

Easily the simplest aspect to some of these longer articles is the chaptering aspect: In-article navigation allows you to see where you are overall, to skip easily from chapter to chapter, and to get a sense of how long the piece is.

This is such a small thing, but it adds so much. With magazines, one can always just dog-ear a page and go back to it later. Online, we can bookmark a page, but if the article is a big long-scroller, finding where you left off can be a pain (and the less said about articles using traditional pagination the better). It also makes sharing a snap, as you can deep link into sections of an article. Fantastico!

Design and “Multimedia”

Yup, I went there.3 When form and function meet, dope stuff happens. Design and interaction touches like use of custom typography, in-line video, brilliant use of parallax scrolling all make you realize that this would not be possible with a set of saddle-stitched pieces of paper—no matter how glossy. This is where technology, design, and writing meet and create something spectacular; something that could only exist now.

And it’s not just eye candy for the sake of being pretty (when done well, anyway): a smart layout will use all the content to enhance the level of storytelling: images and videos can punctuate the points made in preceding paragraphs, or act as introductory elements to a new concept.

There is, of course, an immense amount of work that goes into producing features like this, so it would be foolish to either complain that it isn’t done enough or forecast that soon every article will take on such rich formats. What I think we can fairly safely say is that your average article will continue to be presented in a cms-driven, templated framework, but we will see more customized and hyper-designed features from top-tier publishers. Think of them as their cover stories: those articles that deserve special treatment.

More curmudgeonly folks may complain that reading is less popular than it used to be; that “kids these days” only care about the micro-content of Instagram and the click-bait of Upworthy. However, as long as there are designers and writers who are able to push the experience of reading into the ‘now,’ the outlook for long-form web content is fairly bright. Publishing tools will continue to improve, which will make it easier and easier to create high-quality article templates. Not every article can be like The Jockey—those are full experiences that shouldn’t fall into a template—but they don’t all have to look like they’re from 2002 either.4

The future is unlikely to be as bleak as your crotchety uncle imagines.

  1. In defense of Buzzfeed, they always have lists on single pages—none of that click-through nonsense—and have always included more in-depth content, it just never got the same traction as, say “30 happiest animal couples.” []
  2. A few more that I like, both for content and design:

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  3. Some will remember when that term was all the rage. “It’s the age of multimedia! Video on demand on the computer! With text! And images! And audio! Wow!” It was a pretty exciting time and the thought of it all was exciting and new and it felt like the future. Unfortunately, it took a long time for anything ‘multimedia’ to go beyond the unfortunate state of being rudimentary. []
  4. Besides, who’s to say in a couple years we won’t be able to create something like that using a CMS anyway? Have templates for ‘pieces’ within articles and just plug in images, videos, pull quotes, audio, etc. Jigger parallax effects within the tool. If there’s enough demand for software that does this, I can see it being created and licensed. At that point, it’s really a production issue on the publisher’s end. []

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