Deep it: spend five minutes finding out why we should celebrate the art of the long read

Among the often deeply upsetting news on The Guardian’s home page, I recently found something that gave me optimism for the future. Rather than just tracking which article is “most viewed,” there is now a tab at the bottom that ranks stories by which have been most “deeply read.”

How exciting!

In an age where social media is designed to keep us on platforms with constant dopamine hits, this feature values what people truly engage with, and what is worth spending time on. If we concentrate on everything, we concentrate on nothing – deep reading is fast becoming a lost art. 

Teachers I speak to often bemoan the lack of attention span among young people, while I, someone who is no longer a young person, find myself lamenting my own dwindling attention span, which, like my pace, is nowhere near what it used to be. We’re battling algorithms designed to make us flit from one thing to another, beholden to the scroll.

My old boss always used to say, “You get what you celebrate.”

Internally, news outlets may have celebrated time spent on page, but showcasing it publicly is a small step forward. It nudges people towards quality articles where they’ll spend time, not just clickbait headlines. This shift allows readers to find gems off the beaten track.

A colleague recently asked me about my favourite sunset. I realised I didn’t have one; I’ve never actively sought out a sunset. In the words of Larry David, “Seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all.” However, wherever I am,  I always seek out a newspaper, and I do have a favourite newspaper memory.

In 2019, I was sitting in North Light in Oakland, a friendly little cocktail bar that’s also a bookshop. After several attempts to find a New York Times (newspapers are increasingly hard to find in America…) I found one at the book shop. I bought it.  I ordered an Old Fashioned (OK, a green tea), and I started reading the Sunday edition. In it was a double-page spread about the Greenland Football League. It’s an amazing article, well worth reading (here it is for anyone interested: Greenland Football League).

Reading it, I reflected on how few people are doing just that—sitting and reading a paper or anything, for any length of time. There’s something beautiful about immersing yourself in a subject you wouldn’t otherwise encounter.

When we interview people, we always ask where they get their news. Amazingly, the answer is usually “social media.” Algorithms tailored to our tastes don’t allow off-the-beaten-track stories to get through; they only present what we will click on, not what we will read.

At Story Shop, yes, we pride ourselves on getting journalists to “click”, to read our emails through engaging top lines. But just as important, we strive to tell compelling stories about subjects they may not have had time to explore. Good PR comes from truly understanding the story, finding a Trojan Horse that distils the essence of the client, and making people think differently about them. 

Journalists often decry having to write for hits

While we can’t be entirely independent like journalists—we are paid by our clients—we do have the time to delve deep to find and then write engaging stories. I find as much joy in crafting a story as I do in reading one, and I’m sure the same can be said for most journalists. Hopefully, this switch by the Guardian will lead to more journalists being afforded the opportunity to write for depth rather than clicks; and hopefully, this will get more people reading the work of the many incredible journalists out there. 

The more we celebrate time spent on the page, the healthier our media will become, and in turn, the healthier we’ll become as a society. And the more clients see the value in these deep stories, and agencies are willing to have honest conversations to push for these deeper stories, the healthier the agency-client relationship will be. 

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