Can long-form journalism bring readers back by learning from the literary essay? (Here are 17 concepts it can use)

Long-form journalism enjoyed a resurgence when editors tried to retain readers in the early 2000s — but the rise of mobile-first publishing has presented a challenge. In a special guest post for OJB, Michael Bugeja outlines how it can draw on narrative techniques from literary essays to keep readers reading — and coming back for more.

In 2016 a Pew report looked at how readers interacted with over 74,000 articles on their mobile phones. It concluded that long-form reporting was holding its own despite the shift to mobile, boasting a higher engagement rate (123 seconds compared with 57.1 for short-form stories) and the same number of visits:

“While 123 seconds – or just over two minutes – may not seem long, and afar cry from the idealized vision of citizens settling in with the morning newspaper, two minutes is far longer than most local television news stories today.”

Tweaking the concept of long-form

But buried in the report were some problems: only 3 percent of long-form and 4 percent of short-form news returned to the content once they left it — and both types of articles had brief lifespans after content was posted, with interaction after three days dropping by 89 percent for short-form and 83 percent for long-form.

Moreover, an “overwhelming majority of both long-form readers (72%) and short-form readers (79%) view just one article on a given site over the course of a month on their cellphone.”

Long-form content appeared to be performing better than short-form content on most measures — but it was a pretty low bar.

If the genre is to survive in the current digital environment the prevailing concept of long-form journalism, it seems, still needs tweaking so that readers read more stories, return to them more frequently in order to finish them, and engage for even longer periods.

17 rhetorical devices that can be used in long-form

Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory

Read the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory for more on rhetorical concepts

Tenets of newsworthiness — such as timeliness, impact, prominence, proximity, conflict and necessity — shape the evaluation of whether a story is worth telling.

Rhetorical devices, however, are designed to tell those stories with maximum impact. Some cited in several sections of the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory (paraphrased here for conciseness) include:

  1. Backstory. Also known as “grounding,” or exposition “filling in of the circumstances and events” and providing basic information the reader needs to apprehend the topic or narrative path of a work.
  2. Beginning. An introduction or opening of a work, “often with a clause or two … summarizing the story to come.”
  3. Closure. This includes both an “inertial” ending, that summarises information or action and leaves the audience with a sense of satisfaction or mission, and the “non-inertial” or “open” or “anti-closure” ending, that leaves the audience with a lingering sense of scene or milieu.
  4. Epiphany. A moment of clarity in which the writer comprehends a universal truth or “sudden moment of insight.”
  5. Flashback. A “retrospective evocation of an event,” also known as “analepsis,” or passage in a work that refers to the past and momentarily violates the order of incidents or events as they happened in real life or chronological time.
  6. Flashforward. An “allusion to future events,” or passage in a work that refers to the future and momentarily violates the order of incidents or events as they happened in real life or chronological time.
  7. Foreshadowing. “The projection of possible narrative paths” such as a phrase, sentence, or passage — often related to theme — that suggests or hints at a related event or truth coming up later in a work.
  8. Narrator. The character or person who “tells or transmits everything—the existents, states and events in a story.
  9. Paratext. “Additional textual matter” such as title and subtitle, often a word, phrase, or sentence that helps identify the content of a work.
  10. Schema. An occasion involving “narrative circumstances” that helps structure the reader’s understanding of a story, often associated with the topic of a work that adds another level of meaning to the narrative.
  11. Thematic Statement. A phrase, sentence, or paragraph that develops the theme of a work, “indicating its strategic points” and helping readers understand “events, intentions and results of actions” in a narrative.
  12. Theme. Another level of meaning in a work, often developed via foreshadowing and epiphany, that enables “readers to link motifs (such as events or incidents) to more general and abstract categories of meaning.”
  13. Time. The speed of a story, otherwise known as “moment of narration,” including such moments as “summary,” or abbreviated representations of events, removed from the action; “scene,” close to the events and action as they transpire; and “pause,” or descriptive dwelling in a point in time within the narrative.
  14. Topic. Also known as “occasion of narration,” a convention “addressed to a generalized audience” about a single subject matter concerning a person, place, issue, incident, or thing that is the primary focus of a work.
  15. Transition. A phrase, sentence or paragraph that propels a work sequentially connecting “adjacent units of a series, especially scenes or episodes.”
  16. Viewpoint. The subjective apprehension of events in a story “emanating from a particular character’s consciousness.”
  17. Voice. The sound a reader “hears” on the page representing “’how’ the narrator speaks … embracing questions of register, idiom and tone.”

(If you would like to see how I combine traditional tenets of newsworthiness with rhetorical devices, see a sample of my work, a 2,700-word piece in The Malta Independent newspaper.)

Multimedia that maintains the flow, rather than distracting from it

Snow dunes with 'Snow Fall' title

The New York Times’s Snow Fall was a seminal piece of long-form journalism

Apart from recent interest in slow journalism, scholarship about enhancing long-form content has largely overlooked the use of rhetorical devices, focusing on multimedia to engage viewers.

However, multimedia can distract as well as engage. In long-form journalism, nothing is more important than text flow enhanced by image rather than hyperlink and video.

That requires newsrooms to re-evaluate over-reliance on “fast journalism” in an era of social media interactivity and “multimedia” overkill with its interjecting links and videos often at odds with text flow.

It requires photojournalists to work closely with writers in mastering how to augment rhetorical devices such as backstory, flashforward, theme, and occasions and moments of narration.

It asks designers to be cognizant of literary uses of paratext such as title, subhead, caption, and image placement within the narrative.

If written language remains the primary vehicle for viewer engagement (and that “if” is a fundamental question for research within an increasingly visual news culture), then rhetorical devices have a role in enriching long-form journalism based on conventional tenets of newsworthiness.

A new mindset is needed to execute that notion, overcoming attitudes about creative nonfiction, slow and literary journalism, seemingly associated with legacy rather than digital news.

In a 2011 keynote address in Brussels at the annual conference of the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies, John J. Pauly, provost, Marquette University, cited how conventional journalism “unapologetically celebrates … the ‘plain style’ and disdains more complex narratives” while literary journalism, “in its own defense, bemoans traditional news organizations’ indifference to in-depth cultural reporting and nuanced, long-form writing.”

Long-form journalism incorporating rhetorical devices requires newsrooms to understand the power of narrative on deeper levels.

It is an approach not rooted in legacy modes of production, but entirely in keeping with benchmarks for digital news operations employing personnel with diverse skill sets.

Long-form journalism in online venues has value-added outcomes for newsrooms seeking greater collaboration in story development and execution, bringing together editors, writers, photographers, and designers in conceiving content cinematically according to rhetorical tradition.

All they need is the rhetorical toolkit to make it happen.

Michael Bugeja teaches media ethics at Iowa State University


3 thoughts on “Can long-form journalism bring readers back by learning from the literary essay? (Here are 17 concepts it can use)

  1. Pingback: Online Journalism Blog: Can long-form journalism bring readers back by learning from the literary essay? (Here are 17 concepts it can use) | ResearchBuzz: Firehose

  2. Pingback: Hearing Voices, Small Town Photojournalism, Cemetery Records, More: Monday ResearchBuzz, October 7, 2019 – ResearchBuzz

  3. Pingback: Can long-form journalism bring readers back by learning from the literary essay?  – Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine

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