Why the shortform vs. longform debate is no longer necessary

One of the internet’s great strengths is its versatility. Back in the day, print publishers would chop news items from the bottom up, and that would lead to a very formulaic approach. The page margins were firmly set, so naturally articles of specific lengths developed – the content was defined by the physical parameters of the page.

But the internet is much more fluid. It has no fixed shape. And it offers an extra dimension to content by, say, clicking through a tweet read a full article, or second screening a TV show on your phone. The key to all this is the content, and that must be quality whatever the length. 

I asked Jez Walters, editor of What’s New in Publishing – an industry title dedicated to keeping abreast of the latest emerging trends – if he felt the length of an article, or the platform is appears on, is still a principal concern for publishers? 

“Whatever platform it’s on, the main thing is the quality of the content,” said Walters. “I think if you’ve got the quality of content people will buy it. That’s the thing. A lot of publishers – or some – have taken their eyes off the ball and are focussing on devices or platforms. They’re not keeping their focus on the content. If the content is good, people will still buy it – they’ll just purchase it according to the device they want and use the most.” 

“Digiday, which is a really reputed trade magazine, have got it right in the sense that you can get short-form articles, and then extend it to a long-form. I think that’s where the future is because some people just don’t have the time, or don’t want to read the whole article just get the main takeaways from it, and some people want to go really in depth and read the whole thing. It’s a question of getting both. I think as we go forward that is going to be the main thing, publishers offering both on the same article: short version, long version – both are equally important.” 

And in evolving online content beyond a digital incarnation of the printed page, we must free ourselves from our preconceived ideas about what a ‘publication’ actually is. The latest FIPP Content Trends report showed that mobile now accounts for 33.4 per cent of global web traffic, and this figure is significantly higher in ‘emerging’ markets. As FIPP president and CEO Chris Llewellyn states, different global territories come with very different interpretations of what digital media is: 

“We talk a lot in media about the shift towards mobile, but in many of these emerging markets this trend has largely skipped the fixed internet stage. For many consumers across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, their first contact with a digital magazine title may well have been on a mobile screen. And if you think about it that creates a completely different experience of online content.”

There’s no doubt that there’s a place for shorter articles and longer articles in the online environment, and their relevance within that spectrum will be determined by a myriad of factors including device, channel, time of day, subject matter, strength of story, and so on. But without the physical predefined parameters of the printing press no longer in play we can no longer segment ‘long’ and ‘short’ into different silos, in the same way that we don’t make video and text content mutually exclusive on a page. The real key to creating quality content is focussing on relevance and tone, and escaping the mind forg’d manacles of the essentialist definitions of shortform vs. longform.  

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