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Rethinking long-form reading on the desktop

In the first article ever written for this blog, The Economist Group’s chief executive Andrew Rashbass laid out evidence for the rebirth of long-form reading, made possible by the advent of the tablet. “Data from all sorts of sources shows clearly that consumers read on tablets in a way much closer to print than to online,” he wrote. “You can’t lump all digital experiences together. This new kind of digital lean back, which we, somewhat lamely, call ‘lean back 2.0′, has the potential to deliver an even better lean-back experience than print.” And so Lean Back 2.0 set out to explore how tablets were changing reading habits and altering the publishing industry. Might tablets rescue long-form news and analysis in ways that the desktop computer never could? 

As I investigated this topic over the past year, I had also concluded that tablets do create a better long-form reading experience. There are often fewer distractions — no open tabs, no flashing inbox alerts, fewer banner ads — when you read on an iPad. Much more attention is paid to the design of iPad articles; the photos look dynamic and the text clean and crisp. You can curl up with your iPad in ways you can’t with your desktop, creating a more intimate experience. Yes, I determined, tablets were the preferred digital medium for long-form reading. 

But then I read this Nieman Lab piece by Kevin Nguyen that details some of the more innovative examples of online long-form articles. Nguyen cites the case of ESPN.com’s “The Long Strange Trip of Dock Ellis”, a feature story about a Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who threw a no-hitter while on LSD. Nguyen writes “It’s arguably one of baseball’s most colorful tales; this take on it is certainly one of the most ambitious web designs ever attempted by a traditional media company for a single article. The piece is generously adorned with accompanying visuals — photos of Ellis, memorabilia like trading cards, pull quotes, all moving and sliding while the reader scrolls.”  The video below gives you an idea of what the article’s design and layout look like. 

 
But it’s worth exploring the article for yourself to get a sense for how different it is from other online articles. It’s clean and free of the normal web clutter. And exploring is a good word for how you interact with it. It doesn’t feel like you’re just reading, but instead engaging with a story. As Nguyen puts it, the article has become an experience, “instead of a block of words surrounded by the detritus of the web”.
 
So what if the notion that the tablet is the perfect medium for long-form reading isn’t entirely right? This ESPN.com example shows that online articles can be made just as engaging and beautiful as their tablet counterparts. All it takes is a rethinking of what the online reading experience is. In fact, John Korpics, vice president of creative at ESPN Digital and Print Media, told Nguyen that the goal of the Dock Ellis piece was, in part, “to replicate the immersive experience of reading a magazine”. 
 
Of course, one of the reasons why it’s such a pleasure to read this article is because it’s shockingly free of the banner ads you’re normally bombarded with while on the web. Most publications would surely be wary of giving up that ad revenue — even if it meant creating a better reading experience for the consumer. Yet, considering the abysmal click-through rates of most banner ads and the recent stagnation of online ad revenue, perhaps publications should be rethinking the nature of online ads anyways. While they’re at it, why not design a better reading layout? 
 
In the end, despite my amazement at the beauty of this online article, the tablet does still have one major advantage: it’s portable. No matter how engaging and immersive online articles become, you’ll never really be able to haul a computer on the subway or curl up in bed with it. In that regard, the tablet still emerges a winner in the world of digital reading. But let’s not discount the desktop quite so quickly.