Blog2013 December 04

The Guardian’s NSA Files Decoded: Did you really read it?

One summer several years ago I bought a copy of Don Quixote. When it arrived on my doorstep from Amazon I lugged the cement block of a package up the stairs, opened the box, and saw a thousand-page hardcover tome staring back at me. After appreciating the cover and flipping through its deckle-edged pages, I immediately (and embarrassingly) thought: Holy shit, how am I ever going to read this thing?

Over the past few weeks a group of us at Threespot have been discussing The Guardian's in-depth feature on the NSA surveillance leaks, NSA Files Decoded. I shared with the group that my initial reaction to the feature was a more extreme version of my reaction to Don Quixote. My thought process over the course of thirty seconds:

  • The Guardian put together a big story around all of their NSA work. This is awesome.
  • Wow this thing is really well put together. Responsive layout! Videos and interactives!
  • Man, there is a lot in here.
  • There really is a lot in here.
  • Oh my god, there is so much here.
  • I don't have time for this! Maybe this weekend?

Despite its beautiful design, the NSA feature asked too much of the reader. The videos, interactives, and text content all had equal priority, which made me feel like I had to consume everything to consume the story.  Reading, watching, and engaging with the entire experience from top to bottom in one sitting was too much for me to take on. So about a quarter of the way through, I gave up.

In his blog post about the NSA feature, Khoi Vinh called the piece a “multimedia extravaganza” and said “These things, I think, are meant to be marveled at more than they are meant to be read.” I too wonder about the effectiveness of highly interactive longform pieces such as these. They surely attract attention. But do they get read?

The best way to answer this question is to go to the data. I'd love to see The Guardian, New York Times, The Verge, and others doing this form of journalism share some quantitative insights.  How are users engaging with the interactives?  How many videos are they playing? How far down the page are they scrolling? Do you see increased engagement (or abandonment) with certain types of content? Is visitor behavior different on mobile devices? What about tablets?  A decent Google Analytics implementation plus Chartbeat would answer these questions and more.  

Let’s shift the conversation away from opinions. If we are to truly benefit from all the experimentation happening with longform storytelling on the web, we need to objectively evaluate what’s working and what’s not. Show me the data. There’s still a lot to learn from these pieces, even if I may never finish one.

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Here are some other Spot reactions to Decoded that have circulated on our company email list:

"There's no disputing that it's successful from a technology perspective. The level of experimentation by NYT, The Guardian, and others is inspiring. It's a great time to be in our industry and it's exciting to have storytelling tools like these at our disposal." - Sid Barcelona (@sidbarcelona)

"…I applaud them for trying because it's hard to allocate resources/attention for something like this in a newsroom (even over a story like this) and it's good for the future of journalism (and society) that people are eager to consume it." - Nitya Chambers (@nitya413 )

"Perhaps even if these types of pieces continue to be more expensive than their direct ROI, they could still be seen as a necessary loss leader, a cost of entry for doing serious, compelling journalism on the web, and a way to foster brand affinity." - Gordon Withers (@trisloth )

"Personally, I believe in the concept of editorial prerogative and I think there is an audience out there for long form, rich journalism like this that engages a reader and allows them to become more informed…While we have to make sure it's effective, I would probably search to find ways to improve and streamline this format rather than say it's too big of a lift." - Chris Montwill (@cmontwill )

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What do you think? Did you read it? Share in the comments below.
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