Done well, and done right, longform stories have the potential to keep readers on site longer, boost engagement, and bolster loyalty. For starters, here are four things to consider.

Put your audience first, always

  • Why does your audience care?
  • How does your audience care?
  • Actually, do they care at all?

Your audience ‘why’ and your newsroom ‘why’ have to be the same.

Portrait of Dmitry Shishkin

Dmitry Shishkin CEO @ Ringier Media International

Start with the needs of the audience, and you’ve already won half the battle: you know that you’re addressing existing concerns, answering questions and tapping into their interests.

Within our universal wheel of user needs, certain needs lend themselves to longer form more than others: ‘Update me’ content generally serves a kind of triage role in getting the information out quickly. Follow up content is designed to bring breadth and depth to those issues, events or breaking news.

The notable exception here being investigative pieces, where the aim surely is to break news that’s less obviously available in bombastic, hopefully Pulitzer-level ways.

Use this decision tree to make sure that your focus is on the audience.

If you can use images, videos or infographics, do

The reading experience on devices is different. There’s no doubt about it. With newspapers, the eye could take in a double spread and see the formatting: a column here, a featured image there. Columns might be different sizes. There was a lot of visual interest. Now, with most of us consuming news on our mobile phones or tablets, things have changed. Mobile screens, for one thing, are much, much smaller. With fewer words on screen, care needs to be taken to vary the scroll experience.

Visual interest should not be underestimated. Photos matter. Pull quotes matter. Videos add more, too. Not all articles should include multimedia, but if it’s appropriate, do.

Our labs team looked at articles that scored highest (1000) for engagement CPI published between June 1 and July 31, 2023 and found that 20% of these articles included a video.

With any images, infographics or non-text-based content consider this checklist:

  • Make sure the picture supports the main message of the paragraph above it
  • Use a nice design for graphs
  • Make sure the graphs are super easy to interpret

Here are five inspirational examples of innovative engaging longform stories.

Think critically about your format of choice

Writing in the 2024 Nieman Lab predictions, Sumi Aggarwal makes the valid point that long form articles are only ever going to reach a certain demographic - and that demographic skews older, whiter and more affluent. This - and let’s be clear here - can be absolutely fine, but it’s also worth pausing to consider if other formats and approaches might communicate the message more effectively.

“But if we want to reach impacted communities — as many news outlets say they do — we must think beyond that traditional website reader. In fact, we have to accept that our “readers” might not be readers at all. We have to innovate and find ways to deliver investigative reporting and findings in ways that will be meaningful to our audiences and help create new relationships with news consumers and newsrooms.”- Sumi Aggarwal

Her suggestions for distribution include serialising content over social, utilising billboards and, interestingly, “partnering with influencers to share findings”. This last one, recognising the fact that figures of trust frequently lie outside the sphere of the newsroom, is a suggestion worth pausing over. If the story warrants 5000 words, should there be commensurate effort made in ensuring it reaches the widest possible audience - many of whom might not sit in traditional areas?

Check out more format tips here, and even subscribe to get your own set of format cards - a super useful resource.

Read these books about storytelling

Humans are hardwired to channel comprehension through stories. It’s how morals and mores have always been transmitted, it’s how points are made, how empathy is built, how compassion travels.

Sometimes it’s worth reflecting on these things in our sector too: longform in particular is about storytelling and about gripping the reader - whatever the subject or theme. Next time you have a free coffee break or lunch hour, stop scrolling and pick up one of these analyses - you’ll probably find you can draw lessons into your professional work:

  • Will Storr - The Science of Storytelling
  • Joe Moran - First You Write a Sentence
  • Jonathan Gottschall - The Storytelling Animal
  • Bobette Buster - Do/Story
  • Seth Godin - All Marketers Tell Stories

And, our pick for out-of-industry analysis try Katherine Rundell “Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old And Wise”. Why? Because those books speak truth, and the lessons of how they manage that are applicable to anyone who writes stories of any kind, anywhere. Especially those who tell stories and report news about the world around us:

“Children’s novels, to me, spoke, and still speak, of hope. They say: look, this is what bravery looks like. This is what generosity looks like… They say: bravery will matter, wit will matter, empathy will matter. These things may or may not be true. I do not know. I hope they are. I think it is urgently necessary to hear them and to speak them” - Katherine Rundell