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Can long-form journalism and rich media be a killer combination?

Confession: I'm a news junkie.  I like nothing better than to sink my teeth into a meaty, well-written article.  You know, those pieces that make you feel like an expert after reading them.  For a while, long-form journalism seemed to be a dying species, the victim of sound bites and 30-second video clips.


The advent of the iPad and e-readers are signs of recovery.  The real saviors may be apps like Instapaper and Read it Later, which allow users to store lengthy stories to read at a convenient time.

Traditional news companies have been trying to mix media together, with so-so results.  Their main challenge is that they're old, entrenched organizations struggling to pivot into a new direction.  A truly effective, modern media service would have to be "born" on the Web from the start. 

Enter The Atavist.  A Wired magazine writer and editor, along with a programmer, set out to create a new kind of publication that combined the best of both worlds.  The intellectual depth of a long article, with the immersion effect of rich media.

For more details, check out this New York Times story: Long form journalism and multimedia at The Atatavist.


The Atavist and its future competitors may reshape the art of reporting.  Instead of just sitting down to type, the next generation of journalists will have to construct a "matrix" of text, photos, videos, infographics, and more to tell a story. 


Until now, I thought the best organization to grasp this concept was PBS Frontline. Each episode is an hour-long examination of an important issue.  Then that report is backed up by a dedicated web page with links to transcripts, video interviews, and other resources.  Looks like The Atatvist is taking that to the next level.

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Comment by Marcus Sortijas on May 16, 2011 at 2:08pm

@Jason Thanks for your comment.  Glad you mentioned The Economist, it's my favorite magazine!  The print version is fantastic, I pick up a new issue every week without fail.


However, their website drives me nuts.  They don't archive their articles as well as the NY Times website.  For example, I can't just click on an Economist section like "Asia" and easily browse through their back catalog of articles.


Like it was said in the other comments, it's hard to charge for general news these days.  The material has to be really business-critical or a niche with raving fans in order to get readers to pay up.

Comment by Jason Hoffman on April 15, 2011 at 7:14am
Has anyone tried The Guardian (UK) or the NYT with their new pay-for-content service? (I have not)  I understand Rupart Murdock is considering the same strategy for his newspaper conglomerate.  While there is more content online, it seems to be returning to the internet's early days where quality is hard to find (CNN provided quality news back when MTV showed music videos).  There seems to be space for something between the the NYT Sunday Edition and 100 words of copy.  Maybe the Economist fills this role?  Thoughts?
Comment by Marcus Sortijas on April 6, 2011 at 10:16pm

@Alex: Thanks for your comment.  That's true, really in-depth, well-crafted articles are hard to manufacture on a journalistic "assembly line."  The audience is certainly smaller, but potentially more educated and affluent. 


This is a bit of a stretch, but that situation kind of reminded me of the demise of my much-beloved "The Art House" on Restaurant Row.  They showed foreign and independent films, on 9 screens! 


Art House went out of business, though.  Turns out that audience doesn't buy enough popcorn and soda, and that's where the money is.  Nowadays, I think if they had put in a wine bar or coffee bar where people could chat about film, they might have had a fighting chance.  Hopefully The Atavist will be a thriving business.

@Brian:  You raised good points.  Time-sensitive and especially business-critical topics seem to be the easiest to monetize.  ESPN and Bloomberg certainly don't have any trouble paying the bills.


Your thoughts on "lifestyle pieces" touched a nerve, ha ha!  I've been keeping a travel blog since 2004 (Marcus Goes Global).  I've long since given up on the idea of ever making money from it.  But I continue because I love traveling, and writing stories for friends.

Comment by Alex Salkever on April 6, 2011 at 5:39pm
I think these types of publications will actually do quite well as artisan, crowd-supported ventures but are likely not scalable to any great degree. Regardless, I'll support them and read them. I love long-form, as well.
Comment by Brian on April 6, 2011 at 12:48am

I think the reason people are willing to shell out $$ for sports and business coverage is when it gives them immediacy (in the case of sports - you can find out for free who won - tomorrow, but watching the game live online will cost $$) - and similarly in the case of business news - immediacy but also reliability. Business news shapes business strategy, so if it's going to affect your bottom line you want to find out soon and you want to be sure.


These qualities don't carry over to other forms of coverage. Lifestyle pieces for example. I really enjoy reading well researched and beautifully written coverage but since these are not as event-based - or will follow the event - I'm less concerned about getting that information right away. Reading it days or even weeks or months later is perfectly adequate. Likewise as the topics are more subjective, as long as I enjoy reading them - it's not as important whether it's "Correct". What that would mean for things like.. coverage of interior design trends I'm not even sure - ignoring a business decision context, of course.

Comment by Marcus Sortijas on March 28, 2011 at 10:44pm


John, thanks for the comment!  Glad you brought up monetization, I forgot to discuss that. 

You're right, it's hard for users to justify the cost of buying short news bites that they could get elsewhere for free. 


As far as I know, the most successful online news ventures have been specialized and niche-oriented.  Business news and sports are good examples. That content is in high demand, so people don't mind shelling out for quality coverage.


Cool to hear your insights from running your own news service.  I got a degree in English Creative Writing before getting into web design.  As an optimist, I like to think that quality content will sell.


With all the news about how the Internet is eliminating old media, I hope that it will help journalists evolve.  The minds at The Atavist look to be creating their ideal journalism environment.  Rather than being crushed by technology, they seem to be using it to their advantage. 

Comment by John on March 28, 2011 at 2:11pm

Marcus, thanks for sharing the Atavist. One other important detail for members is that Atavist is charging $1.99 - $2.99 per each long form / multimedia article and does not appear to run any ads.


I've seen the same trend (my company has been selling news / research for the past 3 years). The content that sells the best is in-depth reporting that includes videos, screencasts, etc. Our new member sign ups spike every time we release a long form report. By contrast, shorter posts don't generate anywhere near the level of attention. I've learned that it's best to focus on periodic big releases.


I think this makes sense from the level of the consumer. It's easy to get short form, text focused content. As such, it's hard for consumers to justify paying for that - even if your similar form content is 'better.'


This is one aspect I've been a little confused about Civil Beat. I was hoping / expecting them to focus on long form, in-depth research but it appears to be primarily shorter daily news items.


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