Short Won’t Sell

Winding road

“When 27 year old Jason Bloomstein from Turtle Bay, Alabama walked into his local Piggly Wiggly in early May he was surprised by the number of…”

Feature style articles often start with this kind of anecdotal lead. It is usually followed by some numbers from seemingly respectful sources and one or more pundit opinions. The writer then goes back to the anecdote, finally telling us what happen to poor Jason when he stepped into that supermarket.

Many magazine and newspaper articles start with such deluge of frivolous details meant to paint a mental picture. This could have been interesting if not for the fact that no one really cares about young Mr. Bloomstein in an article about the growing popularity of pickles. He is featured there to make the readers feel part of the story, being a “guy next door” type person.

Other articles are just needlessly long – not telling any story, but adding plenty of unnecessary details. The thing that is often lost in the details? the important facts. More often than not the writer turns a fact that could have been summarized in one or two sentences into a thousand word article, adding negligible value to the reader. But why? Why not respect the reader’s time and provide just the succinct facts? Why do magazines and newspapers bother to write long articles?

One reason lies in emotional value. People like good stories. They like gossip. They like statistics (useful or useless). By turning dry facts into a personal saga, articles provide the readers with an emotional outlet. Readers [hopefully] feel that this could have happened to them and are therefore more likely to engage by following links and clicking on ads. Another reason is findability: two-sentence articles won’t get found online. Even if they are, you won’t be able to post ads against them because there’s not enough “meat” for advertisers to find a good content match. Let’s compare:

Typical article
Length: ~1000 words
Time to get the important facts: ~5 minutes
Monetization potential: High

Important Facts Only
Length: ~20 words
Time to get the important facts: ~5 seconds
Monetization potential: Low

Readers would clearly fare better if they’d get the facts only. The paradox is that they will only pay for the long form (indirectly by consuming advertised goods). Since there’s no business opportunity in distributing the facts only, no one provides that (except for aggregators like Breaking News). Readers therefore end up paying for an inferior product that wastes their time.

P.S.: Yes, I know, the gist of this blog post could have been summarized in two sentences.

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