In the early years of online publishing, newspapers – the old guard of the journalism world – viewed digital platforms solely as a means to replicate print, which still partly explains the lagging state of the industry.

However, digital has shown its vast potential, and the old belief that netizens have the attention span of a hyperactive gnat is clearly outdated when we take a look at some of the amazing longform pieces that have been created purely for digital. “I think that there is an accepted consensus that stories have to be told in an innovative way to get attention in the web based era,” says James Hill, a Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist and contributor to the New York Times.

A different experience

While there are of course digital editions of print newspapers, there are few good reasons why their digital counterparts can’t do something that offers a genuinely different experience for the reader, engaging them differently and making the most of the capabilities that online offers. Where journalists are embracing the potential, the results are often breathtaking.

“When published, the team was amazed to find that it was attracting an average attention time of between 15 and 18 minutes”

Emily Chow, Graphics Editor at The Washington Post, has seen the efficacy of this first hand. An article which she and her team worked on was presented in chapter form, incorporated an array of audio clips, interesting graphics as well as having – at its very core – a thoroughly compelling narrative. When published, the team was amazed to find that it was attracting an average attention time of between 15 and 18 minutes. That’s extraordinary, but of course, so was the article.

Handle with care

The thing with utilising multimedia is that it must be done judiciously. Not every story needs a graphic accompaniment. Some may be suited much more to static graphics, others to a more interactive form. Says Emily, “sometimes it’s just about taking a really large data set and making it comprehensible and personable. On the other hand, there are also moments where there is an opportunity to create emotion through animation”.

That said, there’s no doubt that using multimedia can increase accessibility. Scrolling through a visually compelling article, it’s possible to get a sense of the story without getting into the data sets. Similarly, it’s entirely possible to lose yourself in patterns, numbers and comparisons. “It’s almost like there are different levels of engagement to cater to and understand,” explains Chow, and she’s absolutely right.

Engagement counts

When readers are given an interesting subject, a compelling narrative and the opportunity to delve deeper should the urge take, it’s not so surprising to see average attention times like those mentioned above, but even if those readers aren’t spending 15 minutes on a piece, there’s every chance they’re engaged for a more typical yet still wholly respectable seven or eight.

5 masterpieces

What binds all of these ideas together is, of course, a strong commitment to storytelling. Here are five longform stories told extremely well using the latest in online tech.

New York Times: ‘Riding the New Silk Road‘

Although being an ‘oldie’ on the interwebs, James Hill’s photographs and videos taken along the train line of the New Silk Road are still mesmerising. They are contextualised by the interactive map they’re set into. Photojournalism is, in many ways, a different beast to its written counterpart, but of course it shares the same core values as any other piece of journalism. It exists to open peoples’ eyes to another place, community or event. “The idea with this story,” says James, “was to give a sense of the journey and the desolate nature of the far-flung corners through which this train was passing en-route to Europe.”

The Guardian: The rise of the deepfake

In this side-by-side set-up, the reader has the option to just keep on reading or to enrich the story by diving into the videos, soundbites and interactive tools. There’s a practical reason for this approach: it makes reading on mobile screens just as easy.

BBC News: China’s hidden camps

BBC News might be regarded first and foremost as a broadcasting house rather than a publisher, but it has earned its laurels in storytelling. In this article they go all the way. With interactive images and even a chapter menu in the header, it’s a great example of longform that doesn’t send its readers into disarray.

Tampa Bay Times: Scientology’s Clear takeover

What a way to start a story. Here, the image is in the lead and copy supports. And when the point is made, you scroll naturally into the article and its fact-building. Compelling and informative at the same time.

Washington Post: Scaling Everest

It doesn’t get more visual than this. A perfect example of form and content working together to tell the story. Although you might argue that this article is more about throwing facts against the wall, it certainly sticks. We particularly love the opening move, where you dive into the story by starting at the bottom.

Bonus: longform.org

The final proof that longform has a future can be found in the many online hubs that focus solely on extensive journalism. Longform.org is just one of them. Maybe not every story is as innovatively presented as the above mentioned examples, but they are still powerful. This platform even has a podcast section (and that’s a whole other ball game...).

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