I thought long form was dead – then I saw these awesome stats

We investigated the length of articles that get the most shares for major publishers – and it seems long form content has a long tail.

Last month, Quartz editor Kevin Delaney gave some insight into the fast-growing business-news outlet’s publishing strategy.

Delaney said that the site does not publish articles between 500 and 800 words – the length that much newspaper reportage traditionally falls into.

“Too much reporting is 700-word articles that everyone else has got,” Delaney said. He explained that the site either published articles of less than 500 words, or else more in-depth and analytical features of around 1,200 words.

His theory is represented in a ‘V curve’ (below) which demonstrates articles’ chance of social media success vs length.

Working with the data underscoring the biggest social publishers of November 2013, we decided to gauge what social success different publishers are having with various average article length.

Top publishers’ average word count

We looked at the top 10 stories on Facebook for five different publishers – the New York Times, BBC, The Huffington Post, CNN and the Guardian  - to get a sense of the average length of articles engaging their readers.

To do this, we picked the top 10 most-shared stories on Facebook for each publisher during November. Here’s a chart showing the average word count (not including headlines, captions or pull-quotes – just the main body of text) of the top 10 most shared stories on Facebook for each publisher last month:

Average Word Count, November 2013As you can see, much of what Delaney says about the ‘middle zone’ of 500 to 800 words makes sense. The BBC seemed to be the one publisher whose articles were consistently in this range. These were almost all news stories rather than features, analysis or commentary.

The shortest articles we reviewed were a quick call to action (211 words) and a snippet about a protestor who nailed his testicles to the Red Square (291 words).

For the rest, average word count seems high. Long form, high quality writing and interesting op-eds seem to make up the bulk of the big hits for these publishers. Examples last month included a piece about life on welfare, the discovery of a 24,000 year old body in Siberia, and extensive news coverage of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

The New York Times’ top ten stories had the highest average word count, coming in at just over 2,000 words. This included one mammoth 10,000+ word Magazine piece on Australian immigrants, which bumped the top ten word average up from 1,100 to just over 2,000. The fact that this article – the length of a decent-sized short story – managed to clock up over 47,000 Facebook interactions points to the ruddy health of interest in longform journalism for certain audiences.

Similarly, The Guardian’s top stories included a six-part multimedia feature on the NSA revelations, totalling over 4,000 words in length.

Longform Lives

So what do these figures show? Just this week, the Columbia Journalism Review published a story indicating that the funeral pyre for longform journalism needn’t be lit just yet. “Longform has gone digital and is thriving,” commented the writer, pointing to the appointment of ‘longform editors’ at the likes of BuzzFeed. Our quick analysis backs up this sentiment. So does the front page of NewsWhip, which shows the most viral stories in the world. These often are long form pieces dealing with topics including homelessness, civil war, and international disputes.

The long-form medium has started to take on new formats, with 2013 ushering a new age of multimedia features, such as the New York Times’ ‘Snow Fall’, and video content accompanying many pieces. Meanwhile, we expect that this strong, detailed reporting will draw serious sharing on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

NewsWhip gathered this data using Spike, our platform that tracks which content people are sharing and engaging with on social media in real time. There’s a free trial for new users, so why not go explore.

You might be interested in The Atlantic’s coverage of our ranking of the most viral publishers this week. Same goes for Wonkblog on The Washington Post.