L.A. Times’ long-form stories fall 86%; can tablets save in-depth reporting?

The number of stories over 2,000 words has sharply fallen at several major publications, with The Los Angeles Times seeing an 86 percent decrease in the last decade, according to research by Dean Starkman of Columbia Journalism Review. While some fear that the golden age of long-form journalism may have ended, many cling to hope that surging tablet use will usher a rebirth of “contextual” reporting.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | March 15, 2013

“It’s pretty shocking to see what’s become of the time-honored form since the newspaper industry’s great unraveling started a decade ago,” Starkman wrote.

The industry saw a steady rise of long-form contextual journalism from the 1950s to the early 2000s, according to a new report by Katherine Fink and Michael Schudson of Columbia University. But Starkman’s research suggests that such in-depth coverage might have peaked about a decade ago.

Starkman examined The L.A. TimesThe Washington PostThe Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and reported that all but The New York Times saw steep declines in their long-form coverage. The Post’s 2,000 word stories dropped about 50 percent between 2003 and 2012, and The Journal’s fell 35 percent. These declines are even sharper for 3,000 word stories: The L.A. Times saw a 90 percent decrease and The Journal a 70 percent decrease.

While The New York Times’ number of 2,000 word stories fell 25 percent, that decrease was perhaps compensated by their 32 percent increase in 3,000 word stories.


Graphs courtesy of Columbia Journalism Review

Of course, newsrooms themselves have shrunk and ad revenue has declined in the same time period, but Starkman found that the percentage of long-form stories relative to all published articles fell for The L.A. TimesThe Post and The Journal, though only by a few percentage points each.

While Starkman conceded that there is no direct correlation between word count and story quality, he noted that for highly complex pieces, length is a necessity. He provided the example of David Barstow’s 7,000 word expose of corruption at Wal-Mart, which he suggested would have been impossible to successfully mimic with greater length restrictions.

But L.A. Times spokesperson Nancy Sullivan emphasized that “narrative is not a function of length and has never been,” and that her newspaper is “as committed as ever to the form.” Moreover, she pointed out that Starkman’s statistics did not take into account the increase in slideshows and videos that now accompany long-form stories (and the cliche goes they’re worth at least 1,000 words each).

So many, including Toronto Star’s Sandro Contenta, have pinned their hopes on tablets as “the thing that saves journalism.” Contenta told Ryerson Review of Journalism that the devices are “revolutionary” for the industry in this respect.

A 2012 Pew study found that 73 percent of tablet owners use their device to read long-form articles, and 61 percent read more than one such article per sitting, according to Ryerson Review. More than 70 percent said their tablets have allowed them to discover in-depth articles they didn’t originally intend to read.

Moreover, the Publishers Association found that ebook sales rose 188 percent in the first half of last year, with €145 million of digital sales. Such stats, New Model Journalism argues, suggest that “there are readers out there who are willing to lay down serious money to fill up their devices.”

Several newspapers are taking advantage of this ravenous market. The Toronto Star’s Star Dispatches program offers readers narrative stories for $2.99 each, with the option of subscribing to all such stories at the rate of $1 a week. This model has proven successful for the newspaper, with Paula Todd’s 14,000-word piece on tracking a serial child killer generating more than $200,000 in revenue and 65,000 downloads, Gin Sexton reported.

“While shorter pieces in traditional newspapers and online serve one type of interest, I think people are hungry for more in-depth information,” Susan Renouf, who helped start Star Dispatches, told Ryerson Review. “We’ve had significant interest in it; the numbers go up every week.”

To encourage readers to devote time to their longer pieces, newspapers should embed apps such as Pocket and Instapaper that allow interested readers to save articles to view at their convenience, Kitty Barran suggested.

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