The Golden Age of Reading the News 

Small screens don't deter readers—even from longer articles.

Damir Sagolj / Reuters

People used to say no one would ever actually read anything substantial on their cellphones. Back when it seemed normal to hold up an awkwardly large, inky sheet of paper in front of your face, the screens on mobile devices appeared tiny and, frankly, kind of absurd.

My, how the tables have turned.

People are reading on their smartphones, and they are reading a lot. A new Pew study finds high levels of engagement among readers of longer news articles—those that run at least 1,000 words long, by Pew’s definition. (For context, this story clocks in around 600 words long.)

Researchers assessed anonymized data reflecting the behaviors of readers who interacted with nearly 75,000 articles across 30 news websites in September 2015, using metrics provided by the analytics firm Which means Pew’s findings don’t reflect reader behavior across the entire web; though researchers did get a decent bit of variety—including online-only sites, legacy news sites, niche news sites, general news sites, and so on. They also looked at articles from several categories of coverage: entertainment, science, technology, politics, business, sports, crime, and so on.

All in all, they found cellphone users spend more time on average with longer articles. Which, at first blush, makes intuitive sense. Longer articles are, well, longer. So, sure, people take a longer to read them. But the larger takeaway is that not only are people are reading the news on their phones, they’re more engaged with longer articles. Pew found an average of 123 seconds of interaction time (scrolling, clicking, and presumably reading) for stories longer than 1,000 words compared with 57 seconds for stories shorter than 1,000 words. (Which, okay, even two minutes isn’t a very long time, but we’re talking averages here, and averages include the people who click then immediately stop reading.) “Readers spend about twice the time with long-form news content on their cellphones as with short-form,” Pew said.

Relatedly, Pew found engaged time steadily goes up along with word count. Stories under 250 words garner an average of 43 seconds of engagement time; whereas stories that exceed 5,000 words draw people in for a whopping 270 seconds—or four-and-a-half minutes.

These findings become more interesting still when you consider the sea of articles people are choosing from. The vast majority are quite short, and yet people still choose to spend their time in more immersive stories. “Fully 76 percent of the articles studied were less than 1,000 words in length,” Pew wrote. “But, article for article, long-form stories attract visitors at nearly the same rate as short-form.”

Three other interesting nuggets from the Pew study worth mentioning: First, cellphone readers tend to be early birds and night owls, doing most of their reading between 4 a.m. and 9:59 a.m., or between midnight at 3:59 a.m. Second, even though social media is a huge driver of traffic to articles of all lengths, accounting for about 40 percent of cellphone visits to new sites, people who reach news stories through portals like Facebook and Twitter are less likely to spend long periods of time engaged with those stories. And third, cellphone readers seem to be appreciating the Internet-content buffet for what it is. “An overwhelming majority of both long-form readers (72 percent) and short-form readers (79 percent) view just one article on a given site over the course of a month on their cellphone,” Pew said.

The bottom line is this: Cellphones aren’t dissuading people from reading longer news stories. “Instead, the average user tends to stay engaged past the point of where short-form reading would end,” Amy Mitchell, Pew Research Center’s director of journalism research, said in a statement about the research, “suggesting that readers may be willing to commit more time to a longer piece of work.”