There was a piece in Sunday's Observer from John Naughton arguing that "Good journalism will thrive, whatever the format". Have a read, it's a good piece and I wholeheartedly agree with Naughton's central idea:
"The implicit assumption... is that the only way for journalism to thrive is by squirting its inked output on to processed wood pulp. That was true once, but it isn't now. Print is just one way of publishing the fruits of journalists' labours; the web is another; iPhone apps are a third. And there may be more to come as the internet continues to work its disruptive magic. So any intelligent discussion about the future needs to make the distinction between a particular format (print) and the function (journalism)."
But Naughton illustrates his point with an anecdote which I believe to be counter to his own argument - that function must be the hero over format.
He quotes the editor of the New York Times Magazine saying:
"Contrary to conventional wisdom, it's our longest pieces that attract the most online traffic."
Could it really be so simple? Given "long" articles aren't labelled as such (though readers may note labels such as 'Feature' if navigating the publication's site) and length alone is never a reason to read anything it seems far likelier there are reasons beyond their length - such as their positioning and promotion - that play a more logical role in their attraction of readers.
But there is another factor at play in the success of longer articles.
Check out this article from the New York Times website for an example of how it publishes long-form journalism. A reason quickly emerges as to why longer pieces certainly generate, rather than attract more traffic. It is spread over six pages, where readers must navigate from one to the next.
The New York Times Magazine would be less quick to volunteer figures supporting this, but it is a fact of online publishing that long-form articles spread over multiple pages are a marathon that many entrants do not finish.
Of course that's the case in print too but now journalists online - if allowed to look behind the analytics curtain - can see that drop-off with their own eyes. And what's more they can see just how steep it can be.
Page breaks are put in to keep eyeballs up towards the business end of the website. There is an argument about an unbroken column of text being off-putting in itself for readers but the primary reason for splitting articles is commercial. The further 'beneath the fold' readers scroll the further they are from the ads. The more times a publisher makes the reader click, per article, the more times those ads get served.
Now - for argument's sake - let's say 30 per cent of readers decline to click 'Next page', after reading any part of page one. Following that, even if readers tail off at a rate of just 15 per cent per page - figures I'm assured are fairly conservative - that means for every 100,000 readers who start to read a five-page article online there will be just 45,230 who read it in its entirety.
However, the good news for publishers is that article which initially attracted 100,000 readers has actually generated 331,780 page impressions from those readers - including the 55% who didn't read the full article.
So while this model supports the claim that longer pieces get more traffic, returning to Naughton's initial argument I'm not sure it's one where the function, rather than the format, is the hero.
It jars of course that quality journalism could be supported by a business model based on the majority of readers not reading all of the content. But hasn't that always been the case?
The newspaper industry was predicated on a business model that accepted few people read any or all of every single page, yet presented absolute circulation figures to advertisers. The web has just moved this to the article level.
So this is where I am once again in agreement with Naughton. In both instances quality journalism can find a way, I'm just not convinced we can discount the impact of the model or the platform.