Try to recall every “writing for the web” conversation you had about a decade ago. Did it involve the advice to keep it short no matter what the subject? Did someone try to give you a magic word limit, designed to fit the modern attention span?
Those conversations play out differently today, and the word “longform” comes up for discussion as much as, say, “listicle.” Call it the “Snow Fall effect,” perhaps, since everyone cites the New York Times’ award-winning experiment in immersion as a milestone for longform digital work.
But enterprise reporting is nothing new, of course. What is new is the spread of parallax design, the emergence of platforms that make it easier to integrate multimedia content, and—probably most important—the realization that readers will definitely scroll, read and share if you give them something worth their time.
Below are two sites that understand that and have responded accordingly, plus a handful that curate some of the best storytelling you can find online. Use these for creative inspiration—or just great reads.
Real-life murder mysteries. True heist stories. Actual spy tales. With this type of material, it’s no wonder Epic Magazine’s distinctive visual style skews toward pulp and genre fiction.
This digital magazine, founded by alumni of Wired and This American Life, seems to have mastered the mix of page-turner storytelling—backed by deep reporting—and packaging. You’ll find the original story that became the film Argo, for example, packed with not only tense prose but also historic photography and documentation that lends to the authenticity. If “stranger than fiction” appeals to you, so will this site’s digital stories.
Part of the thrill of watching longform digital storytelling evolve comes from the creative quality on display. The designers who collaborate with reporters and editors are putting as much care and attention into each aspect of a package as similar teams do for magazine features—just with an expanded toolkit.
The creators behind The Atavist release one carefully crafted story per month. It’s clear they fuss over each one, whether it’s a grim tale about the aftermath of fighting terrorists or a historic tale of a sea rescue. It’s a subscription service, but you can explore certain stories for free. In the quality vs. quantity debate, it seems clear where this site’s creative team would land. They tell one great story at a time, and they tell it well.
The curators and critics
If you want someone to do the work of seeking out the best longform digital journalism for you, your options are abundant.
Longform provides not only current picks from top news sources and magazines but also digs deep into archives for past reporting gems. Bonus: The Longform Podcast provides interviews with the reporters behind some of the best literary journalism featured both on the site and elsewhere. Nieman Storyboard also offers enlightening behind-the-scenes interviews, as well as analysis on what makes certain stories so compelling in its recurring Why's this so good? feature. And Longreads picks and promotes compelling stories from around the web, but it also features exclusives that are funded by members who subscribe.
Long story short: There are plenty of ways to not only keep up with the best digital storytelling but also analyze why it compels us to keep reading.