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From AJR,   June/July 2010

Going Long   

There's a substantial online audience for compelling, in-depth journalism-- and that's a good thing.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

It's important to remember that the era of digital journalism is still in its very early stages. It's going to evolve dramatically over the years. That means that many of the truths about online news that we hold to be self-evident aren't written in stone, etched in granite or ready to be taken to the bank.

Take the notion that "information wants to be free," that you simply can't charge for content because that flies in the face of online culture and no one will pony up. Sure, the Wall Street Journal has made a couple of bucks, but that's an anomaly, went the refrain.

But now many people aren't so sure that's the case. News organizations everywhere are frantically cobbling together new approaches to putting a price tag on their wares. From the New York Times'coming metering system to LancasterOnline's decision to charge readers outside of its home base for obits, a spirit of experimentation is in the air.

Does that make sense? Sure. Gathering the news is an expensive proposition. Something has to pay for it. Print advertising is sagging, classifieds are largely gone and online ads are hardly making up the difference. And as for those nonprofits, there's no guarantee that the various foundations and benefactors will be writing checks forever.

Will it work? Who the hell knows? Even the most optimistic forecasts don't suggest a panacea. But it certainly seems worth trying.

Then there's the question of long stories. People just don't read them online, goes the conventional wisdom. The Web is about grazing, about getting in and getting out, about instant gratification and Mel Gibson audio and slideshows of Lindsay Lohan's most humiliating pratfalls.

Or maybe not.

In a good piece on Nieman Journalism Lab, Megan Garber explores Slate's Fresca initiative, which gives staffers weeks away from their day jobs to put together long-form stories on subjects close to their hearts. The project, named after Editor David Plotz's inexplicable fondness for the best-forgotten grapefruit-tinged soda, has yielded in-depth pieces on such heavy duty subjects as why the U.S. hasn't been hit by a major terrorist attack since 9/11 and financial risk-taking in the wake of the economic collapse.

And you know what? People are reading these blockbusters. Slate told Garber that some of them have attracted 3 million and 4 million page views.

Plotz sees the Fresca project not just as a way to keep his journalists fired up – who doesn't want to spend six weeks putting together a major piece on something really interesting? – but as an essential part of Slate's strategy.

When he took over in 2008, Plotz told Garber, he realized that "in order to really thrive, in order to have the kind of committed, excellent, well-educated, media-engaged audience that we've always had – and to build that audience – we had to do something more than just 1,500 word pieces, and more than just explainers."

And this is hardly an isolated example. Last August, New York Times Sunday Magazine Editor Gerald Mazorati said in an online chat that the magazine's deep dives are extremely popular with online readers.

"Readers still want long-form journalism – despite information overload and hectic schedules and so on – and the numbers prove it," he said. "It's the magazine's longest pieces that get the most page views each week, often more than a million. (Are they reading it on their monitors or printing it out? Good question.)"

I've opted for the monitor. Although I've spent many years in print journalism, I find myself entirely comfortable reading big projects online. My breakthrough came with the Washington Post's terrific series in 2007 on terrible conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The series began on a busy Sunday. I read up to the jump, then put the story aside to finish later. By the time I got into the office Monday morning, it was clear that this was going to be a very big deal. So I read the entire Sunday and Monday packages, sidebars and all, at the terminal.

When Mazorati's magazine posted its mammoth must-read , zeitgeist-defining profile of Politico's Mike Allen in April, I gobbled up every word on the computer. When Rolling Stone finally posted its explosive piece on Gen. Stanley McChrystal in June, same deal.

As a fan of in-depth journalism, I'm glad to see I'm not alone. And I suspect the rise of the tablet will only increase the audience for long-form.

Of course, long articles aren't for everyone. Even in newspapers' heyday, there's no doubt many "readers" were attracted not by the compelling exposés or in-depth enterprise pieces but by the comics, horoscopes and box scores.

But as the digital revolution continues to work its will, it's critical that in-depth journalism be part of the mix.