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Readers on smartphones still enjoy long news stories, Pew study finds

Readers on smartphones spend twice the amount of time reading through articles longer than 1,000 words than they do on short-form stories.

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A customer tries out an Apple iPhone SE at an Apple shop in Tokyo. A new Pew study finds that smartphone users are still engaging with long-form news stories.

Eugene Hoshiko/AP

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Despite the fast pace of information these days, in which consumers gravitate toward quick soundbites and tweets for their latest news, it appears that news consumers still have an appetite for long-form stories, even on the tiny screens of their smartphones. 

Americans are increasingly becoming smartphone users. And that means that the number of people accessing news stories  through iPhones and Android phones is also increasing. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, 39 of the 50 most popular news sites had more mobile than desktop visitors.

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And now a new study provides another insight into the behavior of Americans using smartphones to access their news.

People do actually spend more time reading longer stories on their mobile devices, according to the report by the Pew Research Center, released Wednesday. Smartphone readers spend twice the amount of time reading through articles longer than 1,000 words than they do on short-form stories.

The findings add to the growing body of research contending that long-form reading is still alive, and popular among cellphone users, contradicting previous thinking that longer content discourages readers who are on the go.

"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."

And it doesn't mean that people willing to spend more time reading longer articles are the dedicated readers. Longer stories received the same number of visitors that short stories did.

The study was a collaboration effort between Pew, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It employed data analytics provided by the Parse.ly, a company that supplies real-time and historical analytics to a broad mix of digital publishers, including more than 170 top media companies. The findings were based on 117 million cellphone interactions with 74,840 articles from 30 news websites in September 2015.

More people prefer reading early in the mornings or late at night, spending about 126 seconds and 128 seconds reading, respectively. On the other hand, readers reading short stories spend 60 seconds and 59 seconds in the morning and evening respectively. Only a small number of people (6 percent) like to read at night.

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The study also found that long-form readers are likely to access their stories through internal links followed by a direct referral and then through an external link, Internet search, and lastly social media. But social media drives the most traffic to websites, accounting for 40 percent of cellphone visitors to both short- and long-form news.

When it comes to social media, Facebook drives more traffic to websites than Twitter does. Facebook referrals drive about 80 percent initial visits from social media sources, compared to 15 percent that Twitter drives, although readers referred from Twitter are more likely to be engaged that those from Facebook. Average Twitter users spend about 133 seconds with an article compared to Facebook readers who average 107 seconds.