What is news? Good question. News is in the eye of the beholder, one might say. What’s important to me can be insignificant to you. That’s what makes it so interesting and that is why every newsroom and every editor has a different approach to bringing the news and making it relevant for their readers.
The needs of readers
When the BBC World Service was looking to create a stronger connection to their audience, they explored more substantiated ways to create their news content. After thorough research among their readers, they came up with six user needs: different perspectives to present stories. Traditionally, the user need ‘update me’ is at the core of every newspaper. It’s all about the news facts, answering the traditional questions who, where, when, what and how.
But is that what readers want? Not all the time. According to Dmitry Shishkin, user needs advocate since being part of the project at the BBC, they “found that BBC Russia was producing 70% of ‘update me’ stories, although they were only bringing 7% of page views.”
That calls for a shift to other needs. Or, as Shishkin puts it: “through data, we have seen that if you start addressing the other needs on a regular basis, you grow.”
How to tell your story
Now, just to be clear, these six user needs are about perspective: which elements of a news story are interesting to a certain reader? It’s not about formats or style per se. Still, during the implementation of the user needs at BBC World Service, Dmitry and his team found that a free approach to the way you present stories can be beneficial.
Shishkin: “It’s very important to innovate with formats and keep coming up with interesting solutions. […] Interesting off-the-beaten-track formats will delight your users and contribute to their growing engagement with your site. […] All good newsrooms will have a set of internal and external tools that allow journalists to express themselves freely, yet within the brand guidelines and standards.”
Longform and user needs
In this light, we’d like to take a closer look at longform journalism. We wrote a blog about the subject, highlighting 5 great examples. We found that “when readers are given an interesting subject, a compelling narrative and the opportunity to delve deeper […], it’s not so surprising to see average attention times of between 15 and 18 minutes.”
How do longform and user needs go together? Well, three of the needs seem to lend themselves particularly well for a longform approach: ‘give me perspective’, ‘educate me’, and ‘inspire me’. They call for strong storytelling, background information, analysis and a wide range of creative audiovisual elements.
Give me perspective
As the name of this need suggests, it’s about taking a broader view of a certain subject. In the words of Shishkin: “That’s where analysts and experts rule, unpacking a complex argument in relation to what it means for a regular person.” These kinds of articles revolve around opinions and quotes. You’ll often see profiles of an expert on the subject in these articles, an analysis or an interview. Of the three needs, this one might provide the least room for creativity or visual outbursts.
- Look at how the New York Times has combined 15 pieces of their opinion columnists into an intriguing page.
- This one shows the documentary about Chlöe ‘OK boomer’ Swarbrick. Simple as that.
‘Educate me’ stories help users to learn more about a specific topic. They feed readers’ curiosity or unravel a complicated topic to its basic components. Longform story building can help users connect with something intricate like space travel or the rise of populism. Using nothing but text here could scare readers off: the most typical formats for an ‘educate me’ piece are a Q&A article, a listicle or a ‘how to’ video.
- Q&A and listicle combined. Why not?
- Beautiful piece about a painful subject.
- How longreads and design go very well together
The quintessential ‘inspire me’ piece is about someone achieving something significant, despite all odds. Classic storytelling, and longform by nature. It’s people-driven, so readers can easily relate. And, of course, the more interesting, inspiring or surprising the subject the better.
Dmitry Shishkin adds a specific category to the inspire me catalogue: solution journalism. Especially Millennials and Gen Z generations seem to have a liking for these pieces. They don’t just want to read about what’s wrong in the world, but also what can be done to change and improve it. At its core, inspire me stories help audiences think more about their social responsibility and make them feel proud of or for other people. The most typical format for this user need is a ‘first-person’ feature or a historical story, with lots of personal photographs.
Longform = freeform
When combining the examples from our previous blog on longform and the learnings from the user needs project, one question pops up: does longform even exist? Or: could every article that’s longer than average and uses some kind of visual element be considered longform? Besides that, doesn’t the ‘long’ in longform somehow sound like some kind of drawback?
That’s why we like to call it freeform, because it gives the editor or writer plenty of room for creativity and old-school storytelling, drawing the reader into the narrative. Before he knows it, 15 to 20 minutes have ticked away and your content has become an engagement generator. Engagement is pretty much the holy grail in journalism, and one of the main motivators behind introducing user needs into the newsroom.
So, when you face the task of writing articles that make your audience dive in and putting their noses to the screen, experiment! When educating readers you might use graphs, animations or comparison sheets. When telling an inspiring story an editor might go for beautiful photography, breathtaking videos or handmade illustrations. When you give your readers some perspective, it sometimes suffices to create a compelling video, instead of putting words on the page.
And don’t worry about length too much. It’s not a necessity or a stipulation. Although a longread is still a thriving journalistic format.
by Wessel Wildeboer
Republished with kind permission of smartocto, the world’s most actionable editorial analytics system offering a bird’s-eye view on The Story Life Cycle©.