Bite-size news and news digests seem ideal for smartphone screens. But people reading on smartphones tend to spend more time engaged with stories longer than 1,000 words than they do with shorter stories, according to the study done with the audience and data analysis firm Parse.ly. (A thousand words is about 30 inches of newspaper columns. For reference, this story is about 520 words long.) Long stories also get roughly the same number of visitors as short stories.
According to the study, people spend about twice as long scrolling, clicking and tapping on stories of 1,000 words or longer — 123 seconds as compared with 57.1 seconds for shorter stories of between 101 and 999 words. Not only that, the time spent actively reading an article grows incrementally with the length of the article.
“These findings suggest that on small, phone-sized screens the public does not automatically turn away from an article at a certain point in time — or reject digging into a longer-length news article," Amy Mitchell, Pew Research Center’s director of journalism research, said in a statement. “Instead, the average user tends to stay engaged past the point of where short-form reading would end, suggesting that readers may be willing to commit more time to a longer piece of work.”
The study doesn't address the effect of recent programs such as Facebook Instant Articles, which host content within the social network. It looks at only articles hosted on news sites. It also doesn't examine whether articles contained videos or graphics. Researchers said that while the study isn’t fully representative of all media, they did take pains to look at a variety of types of news websites; 30 publications, described as “U.S.-based, non-local sites that produce original political or general interest news content.” The study’s dataset included 74,840 articles accessed by at least 71 million visitors — you can see the full study and its methodology here.
The study also found that while Facebook pulls in far more visitors, Twitter tends to direct more engaged readers to news sites. On long stories, the average Twitter user spends 133 seconds with an article as opposed to a Facebook reader’s 107 seconds.
That may not sound like very much time for reading, but as the study points out, it is longer than the average local television news segment.
The new study also offers information on cellphone users’ media habits. Weekend mornings are when the most people tend to read for the longest; late nights also tend to be a key reading time, but for fewer people overall. Subject matter also has an effect on how people read — they like short science, tech and political articles but prefer long world news pieces. And crime will keep eyeballs for the longest time no matter what.