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Will print media be saved by the ‘long read’?

15th August 2017

In a world of social media and tweets you would assume that brevity is the key – and that news grabbing, celebrity-focused media will always win the day.

If George Orwell were to pass the racks of celebrity magazines in a supermarket he would doubtless see it as prolefeed, a conspiracy of mindless entertainment to distract and occupy the masses.

But there are signs of change. Take the two following articles as examples. The first, in Hello, is ‘Geri on marriage, motherhood and the gift of baby son Monty’. The second is a several thousand word review, in the London Review of Books, of ‘Baroque Antiquity: Archaeological Imagination in Early Modern Europe’. Which has the most readers? Well, it is the Hello magazine article. No surprise there. But only by three times as much.

Based on current trends, my calculations suggest that more people will be reading about baroque antiquity than Geri Horner (née Halliwell) in six years’ time. That is because by 2023 the circulation of LRB will pass Hello. And as LRB is mainly by subscription, you can assume a certain amount of loyalty.

Almost all of the celebrity, lifestyle and women’s magazines are losing circulation fast, with Look losing 35% last year. By contrast, news and literary titles like the Economist, the Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement are growing quickly. The TLS put on 17.2% last year.

The situation is, of course, more complicated than this due to the role of digital editions. There may also be a finite audience for the archaeology of baroque antiquity, although the busy open air café at the LRB bookshop suggests not. In this world, Mary Beard outranks Kim Kardashian in terms of celebrity credibility.

However, there is no question that there is growing demand for the long read; articles that devote several thousand words to exploring an issue in depth – and sometimes a relatively obscure issue. Today’s Guardian is an example, which features a 4,000 word article on a kind of goat polo, played with violent intent, in Kazakhstan. I would tell you more but a colleague is reading it right now.

The point here is that the ‘long read’ may offer some protection to print media. It may be less susceptible to the challenges of digital and social media because there is a maximum length people are prepared to read on a screen – without the more gentle illumination of an e-reader. If this is the case, there is hope for celebrity media. It is just that ‘Geri on marriage, motherhood and the gift of baby son Monty’ will need to run to 4,000 words, with no pictures.