A new Pew Research Center study examined how people read news online at a time when many news websites tout shorter stories and clickbait headlines as the cure to low reader engagement.
You won’t believe what happened next.
The study, conducted with the journalism nonprofit Knight Foundation and Web analytics firm Parse.ly, found that people spent as much time reading articles 1,000 words or longer as they did with shorter, punchier articles which, the report notes, are “far more prevalent and thus draws more total traffic.” The Pew findings echoed a similar study from the Brookings Institute released in March, which also found high reader engagement with longer articles.
Most Americans own mobile phones — a 2015 Pew study found that about two-thirds of Americans owned one and of those, about 19 percent rely solely on their phone for an Internet connection. Most of them (about 68 percent) cited their phones as crucial for following the news. A 2014 study from analytics firm comScore found that Americans spend the majority (60 percent) of their time online via a mobile device.
Pew’s director of journalism research Amy Mitchell said the findings upend many assumptions the news industry continues to grapple with as revenue has dried up over the past decade or so. Among them is that the rise of devices like smartphones has given way to a “TL;DR” (Internet slang for “Too long; didn’t read”) mindset among readers, particularly younger ones.
“This is important for us to explore because there’s been a fair amount of conversation around whether there’s a place for longform (journalism) on these small screens and whether people would devote the time to completely read these stories,” Mitchell said. “The overall takeaway is that users don’t seem to turn away from news article or reject digging into the news as was previously thought.”
The study also challenged the assumption that the key to boosting readership is through social media referrals. While social media was responsible for most site traffic to news websites, the study found that phone readers spent the most time reading long-form or shorter stories when they found them on a news site and the least amount of time when arriving via social media.
“What was most striking was the consistency,” Mitchell said. “While there were different ways readers may come to an article — like social media, a related link on the same website or an email referral — we saw consistently that engagement grew with the article length and continued past the point where engagement would end with short articles.”
That's likely a relief to journalists who are wary that social media outlets don't especially care about or respect journalism in general, even as they seemingly "take over" news consumption. A recent story from Gizmodo investigated the shoddy treatment of journalists Facebook hired to manage its "trending news" feature launched in 2014.
“It was degrading as a human being,” one Facebook journalist told Gizmodo anonymously. “We weren’t treated as individuals. We were treated in this robot way.”
The new Pew data are also consistent with reports of some sites formed on short-form, clickbait business models faltering of late. Most notably, popular news and information site Buzzfeed missed its 2015 revenue goals by 32 percent and slashed its 2016 projections in half, as Newsbusters reported. Similar sites once believed to have prospered under a digital-only, shortform-driven business model have also seen revenue losses.
This is all hardly surprising for journalists who feel the digital disruption of their industry (which most often offers news for free online) has forced them to sacrifice quality journalism for celebrity gossip or fluff pieces to get clicks.
"The industry is hemorrhaging revenue and readers. And all the cuts over the past nine years haven’t stanched the bleeding," Teresa Schmedding wrote recently for the Poynter Institute. "The reason is simple: You cannot make a case that your stories are worth paying for by delivering crappy content."
There's just one problem: Many news outfits think they're keeping themselves afloat with short stories and clickbait — and they’ve adjusted their newsrooms to fit that philosophy over the past decade or so.
Former USA Today film critic Scott Bowles told Harvard Political Review that prior to his layoff in 2014, he and other reporters were urged to explore stories that would compel clicks rather than focusing on journalistic excellence.
“We were told to make stories shorter [and] pay attention to what is hot on social media,” Bowles told the Review. “We were writing about Justin Bieber in a way we never were before. We were covering things that only kids cared about and that was now driving news.”
So what happens now that some of the news industry's assumptions about success have been questioned? Poynter Institute media business analyst Rick Edmonds reported in March that the new data may finally arm publishers and editors with the knowledge that they don't have to give up deep, investigative journalism to gain a wide digital audience. In fact, they may find that long-form is preferable to its new readers.
"Editors need to factor in that some topics — say, water quality — are essential though not wildly popular," Edmonds reported. "And more effective coverage of a given subject might mean more explanatory, how-this-affects-you stories and fewer for-the-record, incremental pieces."