Hannah Pearson
By on April 15, 2014 in Life
Read time: 7 mins | 4 Comments

Longform is the future

Longreads, the aggregator of longform non-fiction on the web, was acquired this week by Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com. This move will surely add more fuel to the fire of whether longform is a valid medium at all.

See the list of our favourite longform on the web here »

Longreads, for those of you new to the longform world on the web, is a site that’s now been around for five years. It recommends digital reads that are over 1,500 words long and functions by the founder and his small team combing the web for the best articles they find and posting the links on the website. Readers can also make suggestions by tweeting their favourite #longreads that they’ve come across.

Their acquisition is significant

That Longreads has been acquired by Automattic, the company who have WordPress, Polldaddy, Gravatar and Simplenote in their stable, is a significant move.

Mark Armstrong, the founder, said on a short post on the Longreads blog, “We [also] quickly realized that Longreads’ goals and Automattic’s goals were complementary: For us it is to serve readers the best storytelling in the world, and for Automattic it’s to power a world where publishers and writers have the freedom and independence to own and control their own space on the Internet, and to then produce their best work using those tools.”

WordPress’ blog reads along similar lines: “Longreads and its community have created a new ecosystem for readers to find great in-depth stories, and for writers and publishers to distribute their best work over 1,500 words. Longreads will continue to do what it does best — recommending stories from across the Internet ”

So for all intents and purposes, it seems that Longreads will continue to do what they’ve always done – carefully excavate the treasure trove of the internet for both known and unknown gems of in-depth writing.

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, WordPress has been expanding its focus on content discovery, with its page, Freshly Pressed, highlighting new posts that the community have just penned.

Readers can search by tags, coming across blogs that they may otherwise have missed altogether. In that respect, Longreads makes perfect sense as an acquisition for Automattic, another avenue for them to promote the content written by WordPress users, one of the most popular and prolific blogging platforms in the world. In fact, some of the more regular sites that crop up on Longreads as recommendations, are run on WordPress: The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Awl are a few examples.

Armstrong has said that nothing will change when it comes to what Longreads recommends, and we believe him – for now.

What fascinates me is what this means for the future of longform. That a platform solely dedicated to the more niche and intellectual world of in-depth stories, is considered a valuable asset (exactly how valuable, remains undisclosed). Longreads certainly cannot have made much money in their five years – they launched an optional subscription of just $3 a month, or $30 for the year, to become a member. I can imagine that those $30 hardly mount up to more than their running costs, if that.

So what’s the attraction for Automattic?

I would say that it is the niche that Longreads falls into. Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, published back in 2006, has proved itself truer and truer. He laid out three forces that are leading the change from a mass-media consumer to a niche, ‘mini-conoisseur’ one

  1. Democratising of the tools of production – everyone is now a producer, if they choose to be
  2. Cutting costs of consumption by the democratisation of distribution – think social media and the power of going viral.
  3. Connecting supply and demand – helping customers reduce the amount of time ‘wasted’ by fruitless searches.

WordPress takes care of the first, their tagging system the second and now Freshly Pressed and their newest acquisition, Longreads, the third.

Where Longreads adds value is that they have created a community who hang on to every recommendation of their team and who are also active participants, creating a positive feedback loop making the experience even better.

Longform: the hot debate

In the past few months, there has been fierce debate as to whether the longform medium itself has any merits, or if it is simply writing long articles for the sake of them being long; that the internet with its endless space and ability to scroll ad-infinitum has drawn out stories that could be summed up in a couple of hundred words.

We saw diatribes against the form from the likes of James Bennet from The Atlantic in Against ‘Long-Form Journalism’ and Jonathan Mahler at The New York Times’  When “Long Form” is Bad Form.

We also saw rebuffs from the champions of online longform: Bobbie Johnson from MATTER and the editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed, Ben Smith, who both weighed in to the debate and defended the form as something more than pretension.

We’ve all seen the warnings from experts that the internet is dumbing everything down and the outrageous assertions that teenagers are now incapable of writing more than 140 characters at a time. The fact that communities such as Longreads exist just goes to show that these experts are wrong, and that instead the internet can be used for incredible discoveries, challenging assumptions and learning about subjects we never even knew existed five minutes ago.

Armstrong states in his post, “Together, we helped create a thriving ecosystem for longform storytelling and helped reverse the myth that the Internet has shortened attention spans or diminished our appetite for reading.”

That is certainly true, but Longreads is far from the only player on the scene.

The limitations of the longform scene

Longform.org is a direct competitor of Longreads, in that it too is a longform aggregator, works with a team who finds compelling longform articles on the net, and also accepts suggestions from its community.

Both of these aggregators have been analysed by Anna Hiatt as part of a project on the Future of Digital Longform. A research fellow for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, she differentiates the two by their aims:

Longform’s goal is to function as an archive of great longform stories that are categorised by subject, whilst Longreads’ goal is to surface new content for immediate (or almost immediate) consumption. What the two do not do is write their own original content, as that would break the unspoken pact they have with their loyal readers.

However, whilst both of these platforms have done an admirable job of helping readers interested in longform to discover new content, using #longreads and #longform, as well as email newsletters and apps, Hiatt points out that there are limitations to the communities.

She likens them and social media to the modern-day newspaper boy: “Today, if you’re a publication not getting your stories out on at least a few social media networks, or on distribution engines like Longreads or Longform, then your stories probably aren’t being read.”

And whether your stories get published largely depends on whether your story ticks the boxes of the select few who get to pick which articles are featured – and which are not. That they are both largely run by white caucasian males will inevitably influence what gets published, regardless of how much bias they try to avoid.

In an interview I came across between a student from the University of Pittsburgh’s Writing Programme, Nichole Faina, and the founders of Longform.org, Max Linsky and Aaron Lammer in 2012, Max Linsky makes a great point about this:

“[..] I think it’s a world that really needs to be more aggressive about supporting women writers and editors, and those numbers are fucked up, and they haven’t really gotten any better, I think. We just did a big best of 2011 site, and we’re quite conscious of the disparity, and it didn’t seem any better than it did in 2010, and it didn’t really seem any better than it did in 2009. And I think that’s something that I think people should be working harder on.”

Why the thinking drone exists

That’s where the thinking drone comes in. I think a place is missing online for those women who want to read longform pieces about career, life and women – from a female perspective. That’s not to say that men aren’t welcome, contribute and read away!

I and my co-editors, Becky Clayton and Mariko Kato, wanted to create a place that would allow whoever wants to contribute in-depth, well researched pieces on a myriad of topics, to do so. To build up a community of smart women who want to read smart things, start smart conversations and challenge themselves and their audience to learn something new.

At the same time, I know that the thinking drone is but a drop in the vast ocean of longform on the internet – there is just no one definitive place for us all to meet – yet.

The acquisition of Longreads by Automattic only signals that the longform community is going to go from strength to strength, and the news generated by it, which is bringing Longreads into the limelight of the mainstream media, has already created new longform fans who just never knew it existed (take a look at the comments below the WordPress announcement here).

Where to find longform on the web

So here I give you the places to find longform in the online sphere that I’ve come across so far, in no particular order – limited, I know.

So I urge each reader to add their favourite places to find longform, whether they are aggregators, major publications or one-man (or woman) shows to the list in the comments below so we can grow the community even further.

Aggregators

Longreads
Longform.org
The Feature
Byliner
The Browser (via @sarahmenkedick from @velamag)

Publications

Vela Magazine
The Atlantic
London New Journal
The Awl
The Big Roundtable
Buzzfeed
Narratively
The Atavist
Rolling Stone
The New New South
The Magazine (via @JoshLachkovic)
n+1 (via @legalnomads)
Granta Mag (via @legalnomads)
Electric Literature (via @legalnomads)
The Caravan (via @legalnomads)
Guernica Magazine (via @legalnomads)
Amy Gigi Alexander
Sports Illustrated (via @iBlend)
The Believer (via @sarahmenkedick from @velamag)
Oxford American (via @sarahmenkedick from @velamag)
Aeon (via @sarahmenkedick from @velamag)
London Review of Books (via @sarahmenkedick from @velamag)
Virginia Quarterly Review (via @sarahmenkedick from @velamag)
The Rumpus (via @sarahmenkedick from @velamag)
The New Inquiry (via @sarahmenkedick from @velamag)
Pithead Chapel


Platforms

Medium
Svtle