In the age of 140-character tweets, aggregated blog posts and throwaway slide shows, common sense says you can’t expect the Web generation’s ADD-addled minds to spend more than a few minutes with any sort of content. (They’ve even created their own acronym—“tl;dr,” or “too long; didn’t read”—to justify their disdain for anything longer than three paragraphs.) Yet somehow we’ve found ourselves in a golden age of longform journalism, with everyone from old-school print magazines to digital outlets producing extended articles. And people are actually reading them. So what gives?
One answer: social recommendation. “There’s been a massive shift from an Internet organized around portals to search engines to social, and social favors great content,” said BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith, whose own support of longform has helped turn a site known for cat photos into a go-to source for pieces like McKay Coppins’ nearly 2,000-word essay on the “race wars” of the right-wing media, which got around 120,000 pageviews in the first five days after it was published.
The highbrow connotation of longform journalism has contributed to its popularity on the social Web. “People like sharing things that reflect well on them, and there’s a prestige attached to the longform hashtag,” said Smith. “It’s a little bit like boasting to your friends, ‘Hey look, I read this!’”
The rise of the tablet and smartphone and apps like Instapaper and Pocket (formerly known as Read It Later) have also made it easier for people to find and save articles for later reading. In turn, websites like Longform.org and the #longreads hashtag sprang up to help people fill their reading apps. “The stories haven’t gotten better; the delivery is what’s changed,” said Longform co-founder Max Linsky. Added Mark Armstrong, a founder of Longreads, “We’re creating these opportunities for down time in which in-depth storytelling is more welcome and accessible.”
Thanks to Web-enabled sharing, longer stories are also enjoying a longer shelf life. On Longform, 30 percent of the most popular articles were published over a year ago, according to Linsky. The Atlantic editor in chief James Bennet has seen one particular 30-year-old article, “Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?,” regularly appear at the top of TheAtlantic.com’s traffic reports. “[Longform] has had a very powerful effect on our overall audience in the last year,” Bennet said.
No matter how popular (or highbrow) a 10,000-word story might be, at the end of the day, these pieces can be expensive, so those irresistible cat photos may be a necessary evil. But Bennet believes that the longform can be justified from a business standpoint too. “The more immersive a storytelling experience you can provide, the better chance you have of holding onto that person for the long haul, and therefore the better the business case you can make for it,” he said.
While many magazines are still looking for ways to pay for their longform content, one company, Atavist, seems to have found a successful formula. Atavist makes money from selling stories but also licenses its software to outlets like The Paris Review and TED. Since launching in 2011, it’s raised over $1 million of an expected $1.5 million from high-profile investors like Eric Schmidt and Marc Andreessen. “Licensing software gives us more freedom, so we don’t have to rely on story sales to bring in money,” said co-founder Evan Ratliff. “But there are lots of ways that people can figure out how to subsidize stories. It’s a great time to experiment.”