A frequently heard complaint about news online and the use of web metrics is that they might dumb down the news and reward sensational and short pieces over serious journalism. The Longform Blog would seem to be made specifically to fly in the face of any tendency toward short, unserious news: Every day it recommends four stories — non-fiction only, each 2,000 words or more. As explained in a second-anniversary post:
“There’s no Most Popular box to keep the numbers churning for particular stories, we don’t SEO the hell out of posts, and every piece we recommend spends roughly the same amount of time at the top of the homepage. In deciding what to click, all readers have to go on is who wrote an article, where it was published, when it came out, and what it’s very basically about.”
And so, out of the 2,805 articles recommended since the site went up two years, the editors have looked back and drawn conclusions about what really interests people who go out specifically in search of longform journalism:
“So, turns out that it doesn’t really matter what kind of content you’re talking about—video, pics, 5,000-word features—sex on the internet is still sex on the internet. Stories in the sex category were nine times as likely to end up among the year’s most read. Looking for an even more sure-fire way to make the list? Write a story about porn.”
Murder also rates very high.
On a much more encouraging note, the stats show that truly compelling narrative non-fiction has legs — or, in webspeak, I guess it has a long tail:
“Readers on Longform are more likely to send an older story to the most-read list than they are a new one…”
The moral? Maybe it’s pay attention to web metrics or don’t, it doesn’t seem to change what people want to read.