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Do Long Articles Work for Small-Screen Readers?

Posted on Wednesday, June 29, 2016 at 11:19 PM

Challenging the notion that mobile readers prefer shorter articles.

By William Dunkerley

"Less is more" when it comes to capturing the interest of mobile readers. At least that's been a commonsense notion about article length so far. That's presented editors with a dilemma: Do articles have to be abridged for readers using small-screen mobile devices?

Is Less Really More?

A new research report is causing some editors to question the less-is-more assumption. The Washington Post, for instance, ran the headline, "Surprise! People will actually read long news stories on their smartphones."

The WaPo lead goes on: "Those fretting over the effect that small screens have on big news stories may be able to breathe a little easier. A new survey from the Pew Research Center shows, somewhat surprisingly, that those reading on mobile devices actually spend more time with longer articles on their phones than they do with shorter ones."

This is an important consideration for any editor. The Pew report claims about 7 in 10 American adults currently own smartphones. But many editors have been perplexed about how to handle today's reality.

Pew explains: "One particular area of uncertainty has been the fate of long, in-depth news reports that have been a staple of the mainstream print media in its previous forms. These articles -- enabled by the substantial space allotted them -- allow consumers to engage with complex subjects in more detail and allow journalists to bring in more sources, consider more points of view, add historical context and cover events too complex to tell in limited words."

What Reader Statistics Are Telling Us

The survey results? "The analysis finds that despite the small screen space and multitasking often associated with cellphones, consumers do spend more time on average with long-form news articles than with short-form. Indeed, the total engaged time with articles 1,000 words or longer averages about twice that of the engaged time with short-form stories: 123 seconds compared with 57. This gap between short- and long-form content in engaged time remains consistent across time of day and the pathway taken to get to the news story. However, when looking solely within either short- or long-form content, engaged time varies significantly depending on how the reader got to the article, whether it is midday or evening, and even what topic the article covers, according to the study.

"Return visitors to long-form articles spend 277 seconds with the article compared with 123 seconds for users overall. For short-form content, return visitors spend an average of 110 seconds of engaged time with the article compared with 57 seconds for users overall."

Time Spent with Mobile News Stories

Once an article is published, how long does it take before the reader views start to die off? Pew found that to be variable:

"Time spent with longer news stories on cellphones shows somewhat more fluctuation. In the first week after publication, the average time cellphone users spend with a given article steadily increases, from 117 seconds on the first day of publication to 147 seconds on day seven. But engaged time then steadily declines, falling to 96 seconds on day 28 before a slight uptick for the remainder of the month.

"The total time spent with short-form news (fewer than 1,000 words) hovers around 58 seconds throughout the first 10 days after publication. After day 11, average engaged time slowly drops off until it reaches a low of 35 seconds on day 27 before a slight uptick through the remainder of the month (although there are fewer than 100,000 interactions during the last few days).

"The trend of increased engaged time during the first week after publication is even more pronounced for articles that are 5,000 words or longer. For these news stories, average engaged time increases from 199 seconds the day of publication to 373 seconds 8 days later, an increase of 87%."

What the Statistics Really Mean

So what can we make of all these statistics? I find them interesting but feel a need to observe caution in interpreting what they mean for us.

First of all, the statistics come from tracking the online behavior of consumers. The data are an aggregation of consumer interaction with the content of 30 different news organizations. The content in the overall magazine field is likely to be more diverse. Even within the news category there is considerable variance in consumer behavior. For example, articles longer than 5,000 words on the subject of crime command 490 seconds of engagement. Similar-length articles in the area of science and technology get only 99 seconds.

That all suggests that it's hard to reliably extrapolate the Pew statistics to any given publication or audience. The takeaway, I think, should be that every editor should hold in abeyance assumptions about his or her readers' preferences and actively seek feedback from them.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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