Long Form Is Underrated

Essays are the way of the future.

Long form content is underrated. We tend to prefer short form media or lengthy books over long form. This is a mistake.

The news is overly sensational. Throughout much of the 20th century, you paid for the news by subscribing to newspapers and other print media—your dollars went directly toward the salary of journalists and reporters. Today, most media outlets make their money by serving as a platform for advertising. There is fierce competition for clicks and news producers are incentivized to pander to outrage and other clickbait-y content. Short form media has become sensationalized to the point that it blurs information with entertainment.

Books are also often a waste of time and more focused on enjoyment than the actual transmission of critical thought. The same economic forces that are diluting news’s value plague books as well. There’s a formula for a NYT bestseller. Again, emphasis is placed on virality & wide appeal rather than nuance and depth. Most books are full of fluff and not actually the most efficient way to convey an idea.

I’ve found long form content to be my happy medium. Essays fix my gripes with the news and books in a few ways:

  • The length of an essay makes it harder to sensationalize than short form media. You get the same number of ad dollars for a page with 400 words of content as for one with 4000. Thus, while the title may serve to trap attention, the author has no incentive to sensationalize the longer body of the essay. They would’ve written a hollow news clip if they wanted to keep things short.

  • Limited attention spans create a natural ceiling for the length of an essay. Readers expect 300+ pages of content from printed books to justify the price, often leading to repetitive fluff. Conversely, long form authors take as much space as they need to make their point and no more. If anything, the fact that most long form outlets like The Atlantic commonly come in printed form creates a natural cap on the length of this content.

  • The audience of essays is more astute and critical than that of short form media (and probably most books too). I see a lot of low quality, clickbait-y short form shared on social media. There seems to be a social norm that short, digestible content that’s optimized for rapid consumption is the best to share (or perhaps that just reflects the average person’s media diet). As a result, you’ll often find long form shared via word of mouth or through curated newsletters such as via Substack. This leads to better conversations around the long form content because people are more deliberate in how they share it.

  • Essays take longer to write than short form, leading to thoughtful reflection and nuance. Newsrooms typically prioritize reporting current events as fast as possible. Not all long form is necessarily topical, but when it is, authors have the time to weave together a narrative and situate the story into a broader context.

Long form isn’t perfect. Essays can still fall victim to misaligned publishing incentives and might fail to strike the right balance between information and entertainment. However, I’ve had much better luck with this medium than all others. If you’re finding yourself exhausted with the shallowness of today’s media environment, I’d recommend you give long form content more attention.

Thanks to Raymond Wang for reading drafts of this.