It’s time to think more seriously about story formats

By Amalie Nash


Denver, Colorado, United States


Why is so much of the journalism we produce still written in a traditional style when research has shown readers prefer more digestible, scannable content?

That’s a question we need to be asking ourselves more. We need our stories to be relevant, readable, and respectful of our readers’ preferences and time. Too often, we default to a story that is a series of paragraphs instead of any number of other ways to present the information — such as lists, takeaways, smaller sections with subheads, Q&As, FAQs, timelines, and more.

Consider this:  

  • The average reading speed for adults is around 200 to 250 words per minute.

  • The typical length of a news story is 300 to 800 words.

  • Readers typically spent one to five minutes reading a news article online.

We’re writing a lot of words that most people aren’t reading. And there’s evidence that readers are willing to spend more time with formats they find easier to navigate. 

A few takeaways from an Axios piece on the subject:

  • Streaming and smartphones have made it easier to turn big stories into more digestible formats.

  • Newsrooms are pivoting away from large chunks of text online because the format doesn’t suit readers’ attention spans on mobile phones.

  • Bigger projects are now being published with accompanying audio, video, or newsletters. Long-form journalism still has its place, but it’s being packaged differently.

At Newsday in the United States, the editorial team has goals and expectations on alternative storytelling. It’s been in Newsday’s DNA for years, and three years ago, Publisher Debby Krenek says it became more of a focus with specific goals that have increased each year.

“We started making specific goals to go along with all the training we were providing,” Krenek says. “The goals have increased every year because our newsroom sees how our audience is engaged with these formats, and their collaborative work always surpasses the goal.”

Their toolkit includes everything from need-to-know boxes to charts to data to multimedia elements. A recent example: Newsday published a story on Long Island’s 139 missing persons cases, which generated more than 50 paths to conversion. A searchable database, published as a standalone piece, got 20 more.

Journalists at Newsday take a six-week internal training course on alternative storytelling, where they learn best practices, templates for different formats, and the reasons for doing it.

“They’re on board and understand the engagement they get from alternative storytelling,” Managing Editor Rochell Sleets says. “We talk about it in training, in our budget meetings, with our topic teams. It’s part of the conversation, which makes it part of the culture.”

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About Amalie Nash

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