It’s a truism that long-form journalism doesn’t work online: readers, “they” say, are only interested in quick sound bites and don’t have the attention spans to sit down and actually read.
I’ve always disagreed with this statement. Attention span has to do with where the reader is, not where the text is. If most of the people who access your website are at work/eating breakfast/on the bus/in a hurry/sitting in an uncomfortable chair at an ancient computer, then of course they’re not interested in reading a long, in-depth story. But as computers become more portable and more pleasurable to use, people are more likely to have the physical and mental attention span to focus on longer stories.
As evidence, Megan Garber of the Nieman Journalism Lab reports on a project taking place at Slate, where all editorial staff get the chance to take four to six weeks of paid time off in order to focus on one in-depth piece of reporting (or a series) “on a topic that compels them”. And the results have been positive, both in terms of quality of work and in terms of pageviews.
You’ll always have people who don’t read: tl;dr [too long; didn’t read] is an often-commented string of characters that I learned about while reading this piece. But to cultivate a quality audience, you need to give them quality stories to read. It’s worth thinking about that rather than always aiming for the lowest common denominator.