Are the stories newspapers write fundamentally ill-suited for the web?

The standard news article that’s been around for more than a century, a concise but comprehensive roundup of facts, still dominates news publishing. But those articles were designed for a specific distribution model, the printed newspaper, which was determined by physical and industrial processes and constraints.

But business news website Quartz has found that its readers are avoiding this sort of middle ground online. As editor-in-chief Kevin Delany told the Digital Editors Network (via videolink), that Quartz readers like:

— Short, sharp creative takes on news stories that are creative and say something new, or

— Long, in-depth articles providing strong detailed narrative or insightful analysis

What they don’t like is the stuff in the middle – 500 to 800 word articles that provide exhaustive detail but no insight. Delaney even has a phrase for the phenomenon:

We call it the Quartz curve. The place between 500 and 800 words is the place you don’t want to be because it’s not short and fast and focused and shareable, but it’s not long enough to be a real pay-off for readers.

The standard of production for most traditional news organisations is still somewhere within that range. For a digitally native organisation there’s an opportunity.

Delaney also says that the Quartz curve applies to how rapidly you publish. An article produced as events unfold will catch the buzz, but a longer piece, such as Quartz’s article days after Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s announced his resignation, which interviewed former executives at the company, will also do well.

It only took Quartz a year to go from an audience of nothing to around 3.5 million readers, largely through social sharing, and the business is aiming for profitability in 2015. It’s obviously doing something right. 

New format, same stories

A very unscientific look at the top articles on The Guardian, Telegraph and MailOnline sites right now shows almost all fall within the borders of Quartz’s 500-800 word no-go zone. 

The topics covered, such as the on-going fallout from the release of documents by Edward Snowdon, debate over whether UK prisoners should be able to vote, and a preview of the new Google maps, aren’t exactly brand spanking new, but nor are they looking back with hindsight either.  

They are all stories based on a model designed for print – even if they may never appear on paper at all.  

The squeezed middle

This phenomenon can be seen in other parts of the media business. Mid-market magazines are struggling while many niche publications thrive. In the advertising economy, scale players such as Facebook are hoovering up mass market brand dollars, while specialist players hang on to more targeted ad budgets. 

Quartz’s experience suggests these trends are part of a broader phenomoen in the digital age which is reflected in how digital consumers want to be told stories.

Disclosure: This article is 488 words long.