Tablets, eReaders and Long-Form Investigative Journalism

New reading, publishing and distribution tools are leading long-form investigative journalism through an important metamorphosis

The doomsday predictions that the Internet will kill long-form investigative journalism have gone the way of “video killed the radio star.” Not only have the naysayers been proven wrong, but journalists have fought back, evolved, and set a revival in public service content in motion.

However, online investigative journalists still face two major hurdles: what platform to use for their long-form content and how to get their audience to read it.

The answers may be coming into better focus:  the coming of age of tablets and e-readers, and a bevy of new applications and plug-ins.

According to news industry analyst Ken Doctor, speaking at a recent USC Annenberg Media, Economics and Entrepreneurship event, 2011 will be an “inflection point” in American journalism partly driven by the 70 million tablets and e-readers projected to be sold in the U.S. in 2011-2012.

And, International Data Corp., the leading information technology market researcher, just announced that smartphones outsold PCs for the first time in fourth quarter last year.

Most major news outlets now have a tablet application or device-optimized layout that makes the reading experience more mobile, interactive and user-friendly.  Together, these technologies are making long-form investigative writing more accessible for people who want in-depth, focused and meaningful reporting.

Users now dictate the environment in which they want to consume news and they will consume in multiple ways,” said Kevin Davis, CEO of the Investigative News Network. “This represents a fundamental shift in the traditional news model.”

Save-for-later options

A slew of apps now make it possible to access, archive, organize and read what you want when you want it.

People can save the must-read stories they don’t have time to peruse now to Read It Later or Instapaper and come back to them at their convenience on- or off-line.  Saving content to Flipboard creates a personal news and social digital magazine. Laterloop is specifically designed for reading on smartphones; LaterThis is a like a better, faster favorites bar. The basic versions of most of the tools are free. Upgraded paid versions have additional features.

These tools allow investigative newsrooms to overcome the incessant Internet news cycle and restless reader to find a platform that encourages thoughtful analysis and additional study.

“I am a big fan of Instapaper. I use its iPhone app to read articles when I am on the move,” said Abhijeet Mukherjee, Editor of Guiding Tech. “Whenever I come across a nice article, which I know I wouldn’t be able to read immediately, I send it to Instapaper. That’s much better than keeping it open in one of the gazillion open browser tabs that I already have. Sending it to Instapaper makes sure that I will read it soon enough.”

Alternatively, any story can be archived on a Read It Later list with a simple-to-install bookmarklet. Read it Later converts the HTML distractions of the common website into a clean, easy-to-read page-like format for computers, iPads and iPhones, other smartphones and e-readers. Users can also sync their list to all of their computers, phones and other reading devices so they can retrieve the materials anytime, anywhere.

“I like reading many articles together in a flow, so this add-on was pretty useful for me,” said Shafar Bava, a self-professed tech freak.  He adds, “Trust me, it saves time too.”

INN’s Davis agrees, “Where newsrooms benefit is putting content where the people are. These services play to the strengths of long-form journalists because they allow the content to resonate and have greater impact. Served this way, the information has a better chance of being absorbed and actionable.”

Online investigative news organizations that have a lot of long-form content should consider embedding a Read It Later or Instapaper button on the homepage or add them to single articles or blog posts with a reminder to save the article now before the reader jumps ship.

Changing form factors

Flipboard doesn’t allow users to save content for off-line reading, but it does provide visually stimulating and easy-to-navigate content panes, regardless of original format, to quickly go back to material you want review again.

Tim Collie, co-founder of Content Creators in Boca Raton, Fla. says, “What I like about Flipboard is just its sheer ease and novelty; it probably could use some more organization tools, but it really feels like for the first time you’re reading on a 21st century device.”

Davis sees another benefit. “Flipboard changed the paradigm by not having pre-conceptions about form – form is determined by the medium,” he said. “Giving the consumer the ability to read content across platforms means journalists can get back to being journalists and worry less about being web-designers.”

Other new tools make it easier to publish and share long-form content, too.

Amazon’s new Kindle Singles is a self-publishing concept intended to give a new voice to long-form journalism that gets caught between a magazine article and a book. Writers submit manuscripts to Amazon for review, and accepted stories are turned into downloadable single articles for purchase. The company says that Kindle Singles will “allow a single killer idea — well researched, well argued and well illustrated — to be expressed at its natural length.”

Gene Cryer, former editor of the South Florida Sun Sentinel and now a self-published fiction author, thinks the notion has potential for discouraged writers of “‘tween” material.

“It provides a way for writers to get material into print that didn’t exist a year ago, and that will ease their frustrations,” said Cryer.

But he doubts that journalists will be able to make a living producing singles.

“It’s a problem of promotion. The writer has to do the promoting, and with royalties ranging from 70 cents to $2.80 per unit, he or she will need to do a lot of promoting and selling,” he said “There will be some readers willing to pay for ‘stellar journalism,’ but I don’t think there will be any sort of stampede. I’m glad Singles is happening, but I’d be shocked if it became an incredible success for anyone but Amazon.”

One INN member believes the quality of the presentation should reflect the quality of the journalism.

The Center for Public Integrity has used Treesaver to publish Looting the Seas, an online documentary about the black market bluefin tuna trade, and The Truth Left Behind, Inside the Kidnapping and Murder of Daniel Pearl. Treesaver is a digital publishing technology that creates a magazine-style experience that automatically adjusts the layout to the size of any screen — computer, laptop, notebook, tablet or smartphone.

The three most important words in journalism: distribution, distribution, distribution

“The job of journalists is to get news into the hands of the target audience,” Davis said. By adopting a growing suite of distribution tools in addition to Facebook and Twitter, Davis says editors can “reach a generation not likely to pick up a newspaper and who expect their news experience to be social and interactive.”

For example, editors might suggest that readers tweet an article using the #longreads hashtag to introduce like-minded others to interesting material. Longreads is a rolling reader-generated article anthology based on Twitter posts with a #longreads hashtag. The editors at Longreads search the Internet daily looking for the best stories on the web and from their content partners, but anyone can suggest a great article by tweeting the URL with a #longreads hashtag.

Longform.org is another archive of long-form non-fiction. Compelling narrative and investigative pieces can be submitted for inclusion by emailing the editors.

Reading, publishing and distribution tools work together:  a reader sees an interesting article in Flipboard from their Google Reader feed. Looks interesting, but they just don’t have time right now.

The editor tagged the story with a save-for-later button, so the reader clicks the button, saving the article to their read-later service of choice. Later that day, the reader goes back to the article for a closer look. After taking in the material, the reader decides it’s worth sharing and tweets the article with a #longreads hashtag. Another person sees the new Longreads post, clicks the link, and the cycle starts all over again.

Journalists and editors now have more publishing tools and distribution channels than ever before, and tech-savvy readers have countless ways to find the information they want, packaged and delivered in ways that keep them coming back for more.

By being lithe and open to change, long-form investigative journalism and the people who write it will survive to tell another tale.

About the author: Kitty Barran is a free-lance writer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and volunteers for INN member BrowardBulldog.org, the nonprofit investigative newsroom keeping an eye on the civic welfare of Broward County.