In a world where information can be condensed into a 140-character tweet, the future of long-form journalism looks grim. But newspapers and digital magazines are hoping the growing popularity of tablet technology will fulfill a desire for in-depth, quality reportage and represent a new revenue stream.
Last November, the Toronto Star launched Star Dispatches, a service that delivers digital long-form stories called eReads to its readers. For $2.99 you can purchase an individual feature, such as reporter Sandro Contenta’s “Linda’s Story: Inside the Mysterious World of Amnesia,” or subscribe for $1 per week and read each new feature as it appears on your tablet, e-reader, or computer—if you’re willing to sit hunched over your laptop for about 40 minutes.
But statistics suggest that much of this reading will be done on tablets, which are now owned by more than one-fifth of Canadians. A 2012 Pew Research Center study found that 73 percent of tablet users read long-form articles on their devices, and 61 percent of that group reads two to three pieces per sitting. As Jeff Sonderman, Poynter’s digital media reporter, says, “They’re [tablet users] more inclined to relax with high-quality, in-depth content that they can get lost in,” adding that this desire is increasing the need for experienced and talented long-form writers.
The launch of Star Dispatches was preceded by the success of Canadian journalist Paula Todd’s “Finding Karla: How I Tracked Down an Elusive Serial Child Killer and Discovered a Mother of Three”. The eRead is a 14,000-word piece detailing how Todd found one of Canada’s most infamous female murderers. After selling between 65,000 and 70,000 copies, Todd has made as much as $200,000 in gross revenue. A few months earlier, The Globe and Mail columnist Russell Smith made a splash with his e-book Blindsided, a story about the severe deterioration of his eyesight, which was published by the Canadian Writers Group and sold for $1.99.
“While shorter pieces in traditional newspapers and online serve one type of interest, I think people are hungry for more in-depth information,” says Susan Renouf, the publishing consultant hired to help get Star Dispatches off the ground. “We’ve had significant interest in it; the numbers go up every week.”
Renouf expected that Star Dispatches would be most read as PDF files on computers, but the International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN) used to track the different platforms show that there’s been an equal split between PDFs and tablets.
Toronto Star feature writer Jim Rankin is accustomed to getting considerable space in the paper, but says the room he’s afforded in print is nothing compared to the space he and co-writer Paul Hunter had for “I Remember: Stories from the Conflict Zones,” one of the first Star Dispatches titles. The 20,000-word piece that honours Remembrance Day by interviewing 20 war veterans was offered for free last November to generate interest in the concept. As of November 9, 2012, 12 more stories have been posted.
As a tablet user himself, Rankin can understand how such articles are well suited to those who don’t want to purchase a physical copy of a story, and would rather not sit in front of their computers to finish one. “I won’t read long stories on my computer,” says Rankin. “If I have a story that I want to read, I’ll print it out, but tablets are bridging that gap.”
Rankin’s colleague Sandro Contenta, who’s been in the business for about 30 years, is equally satisfied with this new technology: “I think tablets could be the thing that saves journalism, in the sense of saving newspapers,” he says.
“It not only provides the platform for long-form journalism, but also provides a financial sort of platform too. The tablet is the closest thing to the book; it has the potential of transforming society and the market the way the book did. I think it’s revolutionary.”