Beyond 800 words: new digital story formats for news [review]

News format diagramm
A visualisation of digital news formats. Source: Ferne 2017

The 800-word article is still the dominant form of online news from most publishers. This largely seems to be a legacy from printed newspapers and to a lesser extent this is true for online news video online too, with much of it still produced in traditional made-for-TV formats albeit shorter.

But back in 2014 research from Quartz found that “the place between 500 and 800 words is the place you don’t want to be”. They found that this length lacked both the focus and share-ability of a short piece and the pay-off of a longer piece. This length of article isn’t distinctive and is often duplicative.

The news industry in 2017 has well-recognised problems around attracting and retaining audiences. There’s competition from all the other attention-sinks on the internet, the challenge of sustaining business models and the need to continually cope with increasing disaggregation of the news by tech platforms.

One possible response to this situation is to develop new formats that are designed for news. Formats that better fit peoples’ habits and contexts and technology, or better meet the “user needs” (though what are the user needs for news? That’s quite a rabbit hole). Developing and popularising useful and attractive new formats could make news stories more recognisable when aggregated and consumed on other platforms, and provide more compelling reasons for people to visit the source sites and apps.

For the inception of a BBC R&D project to explore alternatives to these conventional formats I’ve conducted a review of the landscape of digital news, looking for innovations in article and video formats online. I’ve been looking particularly for story formats used for news that aren’t legacies from print or broadcast, that try to use the affordances of digital, that have been specifically designed for news and that are re-usable across stories and genres.

I’ve grouped most of what I found into these 12 categories:

  1. Short & vertical video; often with captions, pioneered by AJ+ and NowThis
  2. Horizontal *Stories; swipeable cards like Snapchat Stories and its clones
  3. Longform scrollytelling; evolved from the original NY Times Snowfall
  4. Structured news; like the original Circa or the reusable cards at
  5. Live blogs; frequently used for big events
  6. Listicles; like Buzzfeed
  7. Newsletters and briefings; which seem to be on trend right now
  8. Timelines; which I expected to be more common
  9. Bots and chat; from the chat-styled Qz app to the many attempts to deliver news within chat apps
  10. Personalised; which typically is used to filter the choice of stories, rather than the story itself
  11. Data visualisation; from graphs to interactives
  12. VR and AR


Acces to article

Beyond 800 words — part 1: new digital story formats for news


Ferne, T. «Beyond 800 words — part 1: new digital story formats for news».  BBC News Lab. Sept. 26, 2017. Access: Medium-BBC News Lab.