Can Wired Make Instagram Journalism Mainstream?

When editor Joe Brown posted his first images on Instagram, in 2010, he had to snap photos on his Android and transfer them to his iPad just to be able to upload to the platform. Over the last five years, Instagram has evolved from an app that could make your photos look like boxy polaroids to a publishing machine with more than 400 million users. And as part of that evolution, Instagram is no longer a place just for images and hashtags—it’s fast becoming a home for longform journalism.

In early November, Wired became the first major publication to debut a longform story exclusively on Instagram.[note]Wired eventually published the story with a different title, The Land That the Internet Era Forgot,” a few days later on its website.[/note] “Left Behind in a High-Speed World,” follows a man who teaches rural Mississippians about the value of being online. (Mississippi ranks last in the country for high-speed household Internet access.) The story was released as a series of 11 Instagram posts that combined stunning photography with long passages of text included in the captions.  As part of a package on equality in the digital age, writer W. Ralph Eubanks not only profiles the teacher, but also shapes the story as part memoir and history, which was challenging for the design department to illustrate.

Instead of giving the piece a standard treatment, photo editor Sarah Silberg asked photographer Tabitha Soren to capture mostly atmospheric shots. “We wanted to set the scene for the story to take place in,” Silberg explained over the phone.

When the photos came back, it didn’t seem right to shoehorn them into a magazine format. “They were all so powerful, it felt strange to make some of them small and some of them big,” Brown explained. “As we do at Wired right now, you assign a featured story and you figure out the best platform for it once it comes in. Usually that’s a choice between the magazine, the digital edition, the website, and video. But in this case, we were lucky that the story itself asked to be on Instagram.”

The platform also seemed poised for such a project. Certain publishers have started to experiment with text on Instagram. Humans of New York, which posts short nonfiction profiles, has 4.2 million followers, and as we covered this summer, the literary magazine Virginia Quarterly Review began testing longer Instagram articles. Around the same time Wired released its story, Instagram also launched curated content streams, telling users they could “Watch Halloween Live.” In previous months, the app began allowing non-square images in feeds.

As it has grown, Instagram has become more versatile, encouraging users and publications to play, but on a platform where users might expect mindless image scrolling, a slew of words isn’t exactly inviting. National Geographic, for example, has one of the best Instagram accounts in publishing, but when’s the last time you read a paragraph on its feed about arctic exploration or orangutans?

One possible solution to overcoming the word slog is a choose-your-own-adventure approach. The way Wired divided the narrative, readers could begin on any image and still get enough context to explore the rest of the story.

When trying to attract readers to a longform piece, Brown saw the flexibility and piecemeal nature of the social platform as a plus. “We are all so distracted and we’re chunking up our lives into digestible bits,” he said. “What’s cool about Instagram is that it gave us these visual bookmarks.”

[07/11] Increasingly, there are two main paths out of high school in the Delta, and both of them lead to the same place. The biggest employer in the area today is a network of local prisons whose population—of both inmates and guards—is largely African American and drawn from the Delta’s native sons and daughters. ¶ Gallardo tells me that many Delta residents are too poor to own a computer or a wired Internet connection, even if their town has a broadband carrier. Smartphones are fairly pervasive, but so are limited data plans, which put a ceiling on their functionality. And besides, Gallardo asks, have you ever tried, say, filling out a job application on your phone? A few months ago, I pulled over at a McDonalds in the Delta town of Marks to use the restaurant’s Wi-Fi. A fellow customer came up to me to ask what kind of computer I was using. She had never seen a Mac before. ¶ In the small Delta town of Ruleville, the only public space with a strong Wi-Fi connection is the public library, open just two days a week. Sharonda Evans, a 16-year old student at the local high school, tells me that she’s one of the lucky ones in her town: Her family pays $50 a month for a slow connection. “Those who live outside the center of town can’t get Internet access even if they can afford it,” she says. And as far as I can tell, there are no plans in the works to bring broadband to Ruleville. (? @tabithasoren | ✏️ @wreubanks) A photo posted by WIRED (@wired) on

Wired published all 11 images at once, which left some users complaining that the magazine “blew up the feed.” But Brown’s top priority was giving users the chance to read the story in order. If Wired serialized the story and waited days between installments, he wouldn’t have been able to post anything else on Instagram in the meantime. And while the all-at-once approach might have made some people mad, Brown is happy that it piqued their interest at all: “If you put out eleven really striking photos with eleven pushing-the-boundaries-of-Instagram-caption-limit captions, you get people’s attention.”

While haters are everywhere online, if you make your way to the end of the story, you’ll see something you might not have thought possible: Three separate people wrote coherent, genuine sentences in praise of Wired‘s project. The best of them? @jenpioneerpress, who wrote, “I read it all and probably wouldn’t have otherwise.”

To anyone in social media or publishing, those should be the magic words. In a world where homepages have gone the way of phone booths, publications have to be sending messages on the move. New audiences await, whether they’re 13-year-olds addicted to Snapchat or rural Mississippians just beginning to grasp the opportunities of the Internet.

Writer W. Ralph Eubanks recognizes the value of reaching new audiences on Instagram, and while he conceded that “it is a little odd for it to exist right now exclusively on a social media platform,” he told me he sees Instagram as a way to build an audience for the story until it is presented in full. Publishing on Instagram didn’t reduce the editorial process for him; he worked with editor John Gravois to create the excerpts of the story.

[11/11] After my visit to Quitman, I decide that I want to see how a large Delta town has responded to C Spire’s call for sign-ups. So I set my GPS for Clarksdale, a city of about 17,000 people that is 80 percent black and has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the state. Gallardo can’t make the trip with me, but he puts me in touch with the mayor there, a former Democratic candidate for governor named Bill Luckett. ¶ Luckett has been in touch with Gallardo and seems genuinely interested in technology. “I do see broadband as a game changer,” Luckett tells me in his office, whose walls are lined with antique maps of Mississippi. “But we’re spread out here in the Delta.” Luckett says he can’t justify committing the time, resources, and political capital it would take to rally his constituents around signing up for a new high-speed broadband network that will ultimately cost them $80 a month. For one thing, many of them would not be able to afford it. Nearly 90 percent of students in public schools here qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches. ¶ Plus, Luckett has bigger fires to put out as mayor: crime, poverty, and all the ripple effects of families divided by incarceration. At the time of my visit, the local media’s attention is preoccupied with the recent fatal shooting of a Clarksdale attorney—a killing that Luckett witnessed himself. ¶ Clarksdale does have at least one high-speed fiber broadband connection, though. The Ground Zero Blues Club, which Luckett owns with the actor Morgan Freeman, uses its fast pipe to live-stream performances by Delta blues performers from its stage. The club’s name is a reference to the nearby crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, where the bluesman Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical talents. Luckett tells me that tourists sometimes come to the Ground Zero not for the blues, especially, but because they hear it has the best Wi-Fi connection in town. As for the rest of the Delta, it seems the Devil isn’t even offering deals there anymore. Like everyone else these days, he probably prefers a faster connection. (? @tabithasoren | ✏️ @wreubanks) A photo posted by WIRED (@wired) on

How does the business side of Wired feel about all this? As of yet, this story hasn’t resulted in direct referrals, which means no ad deals. But as Brown told me, “If we find a way to dramatically engage readers, they’ll be there with a way to figure out how to make it work for us,” he said.

Brown also believes that the story has started conversations about how to post in ways that feel more socially native. As a magazine that focuses on technology, Wired seems obligated to lead that charge. “Seeing the world changing the way we have institutionally, we feel a great responsibility to be there when it changes the next time,” Brown said.

Publishers stuck on reiterating web content or posting shots from around the office should take note of Wired‘s example. Instagram has moved past its old square crops and borders. It’s time for others to do the same.

[Full disclosure: Ella Riley-Adams works for The New Yorker, which, like Wired, is owned by Condé Nast.]

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