Pew Report: Long-Form Reading Shows Signs of Life in Mobile World

Pew Research CenterAn analysis by the Pew Research Center looked at time spent on mobile phones viewing long-form content vs. time spent viewing short-form content.

The report’s big takeaway: “Consumers do spend more cellphone time on average with long-form news articles than with short-form.”

Full press release below:

Long-Form Reading Shows Signs of Life in Our Mobile News World

Washington, D.C. (May 5, 2016) – In today’s mobile-centric news environment, characterized by small screen space and multitasking, the fate of long, in-depth news reports has been uncertain, prompting the question of whether people will engage with lengthy news content on their cellphones.

A new analysis by Pew Research Center, conducted in association with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, addresses this question by looking at time spent on mobile phones with long- versus short-form news. The report finds that consumers do spend more cellphone time on average with long-form news articles than with short-form. Indeed, the total engaged time – time spent scrolling, clicking or tapping – with news stories that are 1,000 words or longer averages about twice that of the engaged time with shorter-form stories (101-999 words in length): 123 seconds compared with 57 seconds. What’s more, sliced more finely, engaged time increases steadily as word count increases.

To conduct the analysis, researchers used audience behavior metrics provided by the web analytics firm Parse.ly. The analysis covered 117 million anonymized cellphone interactions with 74,840 articles from 30 news websites in September 2015. This large dataset is not fully representative of all news organizations or of all digital news users, but cuts across a mix of general and subject-specific news sites, legacy and digital-only sites and sites with large national audiences, as well as those with smaller, niche user bases.

The gap between engaged cellphone time spent on short- and long-form news content remains consistent across time of day and the pathway taken to get to the news story. However, when looking solely within either short- or long-form content, engaged time varies significantly depending on how the reader got to the article, whether it is midday or late at night, and the article’s topic.

The data also reveal that while shorter news content is far more prevalent than long-form and thus draws more total traffic, long-form articles are accessed at nearly the same rate. Fully 76% of the articles studied were less than 1,000 words in length. But, article for article, long-form stories attract visitors at nearly the same rate as short-form: 1,530 complete interactions (all of a visitor’s interactions with an individual article) per long-form article and 1,576 per short-form.

“These findings suggest that on small, phone-sized screens the public does not automatically turn away from an article at a certain point in time – or reject digging into a longer-length news article. Instead, the average user tends to stay engaged past the point of where short-form reading would end, suggesting that readers may be willing to commit more time to a longer piece of work,” said Amy Mitchell, Pew Research Center’s director of journalism research.

Among the report’s other key findings:

· In addition to a higher average engaged time, long-form news articles also outpace short-form articles when it comes to the portion of cellphone readers who stay for longer periods of time. Roughly a third (36%) of complete interactions with long-form news last over two minutes, compared with 10% of those with short-form. At the other end of the spectrum, fully two-thirds (66%) of complete interactions with short-form news are a minute or shorter, compared with less than half (42%) of interactions with long-form news.
· Cellphone news users spend the most time reading long-form content when arriving at an article from an internal link, and the least time when arriving via a social network. Long-form news readers spend an average of 148 seconds with a news article when arriving from an internal link. That falls to 132 seconds for those who visit the article directly or follow an email link, 125 seconds for those who arrive from an external website, 119 seconds from search and 111 seconds from social media. For short-form reading, the average times are lower, but social media is again at the bottom. Nonetheless, social media sites drive the largest share of traffic overall – accounting for roughly 40% of cellphone visitors to both short- and long-form news.
· For both long- and short-form articles, Twitter tends to bring in people who spend more time with content while Facebook delivers more readers overall. Within the longer news content studied, users that arrive from Facebook spend an average of 107 seconds, compared with 133 seconds when they come from Twitter. The same pattern emerges within the shorter content: Those arriving from Twitter spend more time with that content (58 seconds) than those coming from Facebook (51 seconds). Yet, for both short- and long-form content, Facebook referrals drive about eight-in-ten initial visits from social media sources while Twitter drives about 15%.
· Readers of both long- and short-form content spend the longest average engaged time late at night or in the morning: 128 seconds late at night for stories 1,000 words or longer and 60 seconds for stories shorter than 1,000 words. In the morning, the figures are 126 seconds and 59 seconds, respectively.
· Just a small fraction of users who access either a short- (3%) or long-form (4%) news story on their phone return to it on that phone, but those who do tend to spend more time with it than do users overall. Return visitors to long-form articles spend 277 seconds with the article, compared with 123 seconds for users overall. For short-form content, return visitors spend an average of 110 seconds of engaged time with the article compared with 57 seconds for users overall.
· Both long- and short-form news articles tend to have a very brief life span. Fully 82% of interactions with short-form articles begin within the first two days after publication, as do 74% of long-form interactions. By day three, that rises to 89% of short-form interactions and 83% of long-form interactions.
· An overwhelming majority of both long-form readers (72%) and short-form readers (79%) view just one article on a given site over the course of a month on their cellphone. Users who visit at least one long-form article are somewhat more likely to view multiple articles on their cellphone than those who initially access a short-form article, but the numbers for both are small: 28% and 21% respectively.

An in-depth discussion of the methodology behind this study can be found here.

There also is a glossary of the terms and measures referred to throughout the report.

The full report is for immediate release and available at: http://www.journalism.org/2016/05/05/long-form-reading-shows-signs-of-life-in-our-mobile-news-world

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact Rachel Weisel at 202.419.4372 or rweisel@pewresearch.org.

Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan “fact tank” that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does not take policy positions. The Center is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, its primary funder. This report was made possible by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which received support for this study from John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Subscribe to our daily and weekly email newsletters or follow us on our Fact Tank blog.


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