For the last five or so years, starting in 2007, creators, editors, and publishers of longform journalism have been trying to navigate what storytelling can, should, and will look like online. Around the time that sites like Longform and Longreads launched in late 2007, early 2008, “long-form” dropped its hyphen. Of the transformation, Paige Williams of Nieman Storyboard said, “It’s clean and lean, like a good story.” In the intervening years, publications began using “longform” as a selling point. If a piece was over a couple thousand words—every publication defines the lower limits differently—the story was stamped “longform.” Interviews, like Playboy’s, counted, and curators included fiction stories.
Before 2007, longform had been dominated by magazines like the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and Esquire. But a start-up bubble began emerging when players like Byliner, The Atavist, Amazon Kindle Singles, Narratively, and Epic Magazine, among others launched. These publications will only last if they can each find a way to pay sustainable incomes not only to their employees but to their writers. Most writers for longform start-ups are freelance.
Self-identifying as “longform” has become hot. The start-ups posed an alternative to magazines, which still publish featurettes and front-of-the-book copy, not simply lengthy, in-depth features. The new publications were, by contrast, specialized, and not bound by tradition.
In 2011, Wired wrote about Amazon’s launch of Kindle Singles, calling the moment a sign of longform journalism’s revival. Kindle Singles is an autonomous editorial department within the empire to which people can pitch manuscripts or ideas. They are in turn handled by the experienced features editor David Blum. The editorial model was traditional, but the marriage of a journalism outfit with a marketplace was not. Amazon Kindle Singles’ journalism is made possible because of its parent company’s real mission: “to be Earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online, and endeavors to offer its customers the lowest possible prices.”
After Wired’s article, the term “revival” seemed to stick, and soon journalism was in the middle of a renaissance, which might have more accurately been called an evolutionary moment. Between the New Journalism revolution in the 1950s and 60s, when writers of the likes of Gay Talese and Joan Didion and Hunter Thompson graced magazine feature wells, and now, a lot of good longform writing has been published. To call 2008 to now a “revival” in longform would be to not give that work its due.
As was inevitable, in 2013, factions within the journalism world became embroiled in a debate over the veracity of longform—from the term itself to the form’s place in a healthy journalism ecosystem, and how these stories should look online. What had previously been a debate for the webpages of Medium was now spreading to the opinion pages of legacy publications.
The backlash reached a fevered pitch in December 2013 when James Bennett, Editor-in-Chief of the Atlantic, published a column railing against the term “longform” in which he asked: “Reader, do you feel enticed to plunge into a story by the distinction that it is long?” On January 24, 2014, the New York Times ran an op-ed called “When ‘Long-Form’ Is Bad Form” by Jonathan Mahler in response to Grantland’s piece about Dr. V, who was transgender and a con man, who killed herself citing the reporter’s invasion into her privacy. “There’s a lot of excellent magazine-length journalism being done now, and Grantland publishes plenty of it. The problem is that long-form stories are too often celebrated simply because they exist. And are long,” Mahler wrote.
In “Against ‘Long-Form,’” Bennett wrote, “Cynics would say that publishing a few big feature stories is a shortcut to respectability, and they’d be correct.” With all the space in the world in which to publish, are editors showing enough restraint? After being from the space constraints of print, the limitlessness the Internet offers is seductive. But some publications, like the Wall Street Journal, has actually been publishing far fewer longform pieces than it was the decade before, Dean Starkman reported for Columbia Journalism Review. The Internet’s limitlessness was not proving too tempting to resist—for some.
But what of the myriad other publications, like Huffington Post and Medium neither of which have had to deal with the space limitations of print publication? Did they show the same restraint as the Journal? The answer isn’t a simple yes, or no. Both of those publications, and others like them, have thrived because their gatekeepers, the editor whose job it was to tell you “no,” are either highly agreeable, or non-existent. They published, and asked the public to decide what it wanted to read and share, and what it didn’t.
In December 2013, Atlantic editor James Bennett’s takedown of “long-form journalism” marked a turning point in the “revival.” He argued that writing dubbed “longform” was not appropriately named, and that length for the sake of length was a crime. And he isn’t alone in making that case. A piece needs to earn its length, New Yorker editor David Remnick said in an interview with All Things Digital founder Kara Swisher. “There are pieces that don’t earn their length, and they’re called ‘boring.’” So maybe “narrative nonfiction” or “nonfiction short stories” works better? Whatever the term you choose matters little.
But a question that seems to continually evade pundits is, What do readers want? And are they benefitting? And though pundits have weighed in on how they think readers benefit, they don’t know and neither, for that matter, do editors, let alone the journalism world writ large. We can only partially answer the “reader question” in no small part because most companies, like Amazon, hold their reader data close to their chests, making it nearly impossible to come up with a full picture of who actually reads this stuff—and how they consume it.
I set out on this research trying to figure out if digital longform stories would become synonymous with “Snow Fall,” a digitally-immersive, longform story written by John Branch and published by the New York Times’ sports section about an avalanche that killed a handful of professional snowboarders in Washington state in February 2012. It became clear quickly that I wasn’t asking the right question. Because going forward, there won’t be a single way of producing a longform story. Templates are a thing of the past. Writing styles, as they’ve always been, are particular to a person and a publication.
For the purposes of this piece, we’ll use the term “longform,” as opposed to nonfiction short stories, nonfiction novellas, or any other such name. This is not a political decision. It is, simply, a decision. (This, here, is not the time to debate word choice.) In this piece, longform means narrative nonfiction between 5,000 and 40,000 words, although, Longform and Longreads, which are not to be left out, both consider pieces starting around 2,000 words to be longform.
The people who focus on length are the people who could argue semantics forever, and who will never see the web’s great potential. All the space in the world frees up journalists to write to whatever length they need (however short or long a story deserves); frees up designers to build pages previously unimaginable and richly interactive; frees up directors of photography and visuals to select however many (or few) images a story deserves, frees them up not to have to fight for inches, but to fight for the right photographs. To say this is about “longform” is to undermine this moment in our digital evolution. This is about creativity and blowing up templates and designing for the story, and helping the reader better understand harder to grasp stories. And it is my distinct pleasure to say, that’s what I see happening.
Design: Is form following function? Or is the medium cannibalizing the message?
For long pieces, the page design is as important as illustrations and photographs (the art), and design can make or break a piece. The greater the length, the more real estate the designer has, which means there’s a greater risk that, if the design process isn’t smooth and productive from ideation through publication, the package will suffer. “Snow Fall,” a longform piece published by the New York Times in December 2012, which marked the paper’s first real effort to design a digitally-immersive and highly designed piece of longform journalism, was a success in part because the team broke free of the New York Times’ web template, and designed a look and feel they deemed most appropriate for the story.
Shorter stories aren’t events in the same way that long pieces are, both for the organization publishing it and the users reading it. A longform piece, however, is a statement, a proclamation in and of itself, and it takes a much larger group with a wider range of expertise longer to produce than a print piece. Teams include the traditional players, of course, like the reporter, editors, and photographer, but project teams have expanded incredibly over the last five or so years. For some publications, like the Commercial Appeal, project managers act like editors for the web product, ensuring that web design, coding, and production are coming together. The production of a longform piece is much more like a dance routine, where editorial and web development have to be perfectly in sync.
Additionally, longform requires more of a commitment of resources, including time, money, and personnel than a shorter piece, which can easily be dashed off and posted within minutes of ideation. And, whether publications have embraced it as such, longform makes a statement about an outfit’s values.
Design today must start with the device. On what devices do you want your content consumed? Would you rather people read mostly on the iPad? You have to walk the fine line between trying to encourage readers to use a particular device you most want your story seen on, and designing the best possible experience each device can provide? What, for example, does the iPhone do better than the iPad? What does it do less well?
There are a similarities in design across the industry, including the widespread use of parallax scrolling (or the “curtain effect”), single-page stories, and the use of moving pictures to give the piece a bit of movement and a feeling of interactivity. But for the most part, publications are figuring out on their own what they want longform stories to look like, and how those stories should be flagged on the website. Not only is the design of the page important, but the placement within a webpage is too. For example, “Snow Fall” took the top carousel spot on the New York Times and then rotated around the homepage. From the perspective of someone less savvy about newsroom politics and resources, this is a bold statement. This decision gave the story a gravitas, signalling to readers that this was worth the time and energy it took to read. But the avalanche was definitely not the most important story of the year. What happens, then, when the NSA story, which is, arguably, the most important story of the year, gets the “Snow Fall” treatment? In November 2013, the Guardian posted “NSA Files Decoded: What the revelations mean to you” and Fast Company reported that hundreds of thousands of readers visited the page and, according to analytics, engaged with the text and interactive features.
Some outlets, like Pitchfork Media, have tried to replicate magazine design online. The Cover Story, as Pitchfork calls it, is a beautifully designed feature story about a single band, like Daft Punk or Bats for Lashes. Published once every few months, production for the Cover Story is time and resource intensive. In addition, from a reader perspective, the stories require both fast internet and a fast computer to view properly. As a result, the story is not as widely accessible. The whole experience is highly designed, and, for print purists whose focus is primarily the story, it can be distracting. Text is laid on top of full-page gifs from Pitchfork’s photoshoots and illustrated backgrounds. Each story improves upon the model. The stories work a little bit better each time. The text is a bit better integrated into the design. Cover Stories are experiencing the natural evolution of a form, but the result is still a piece that requires fast connectivity and fast devices.
What’s so scary about publishing in 2014 is that creative control isn’t really in the hands of the press. It’s companies like Apple and Google, which build devices that consumers need in order to access content, that determine what the experience can look like, and this is typified by Steve Job’s decision to effectively ban Adobe Flash from Apple devices. This should have media outlets terrified. Control of their content is not in their hands, or their readers’, or even their advertisers. Control over how their content will be viewed is now in the hands of product companies like Apple and Google, which design the devices on which content will be seen.
Longform design is being pioneered and played with by a number of companies, including Pitchfork Media, the New York Times, Vox Media, and media conglomerates like E.W. Scripps. These are just three examples of publications experimenting:
The Atavist’s launch in early 2011 marked a milestone in longform’s recent renaissance. Not only did The Atavist publish longform stories aimed specifically at iPad users, but the stories themselves were digitally-enhanced events broken into chapters and infused with enhancements. The startup, a boutique publishing house for the 21st century which focuses on the story as a beautiful object, licenses its content management system to help pay the bills and sells its stories not just a la carte in its own app, but on Amazon too. Their app also allows you to turn off and on the digital enhancements, so you can read the fully linked piece, or the straight text.
The New York Times published “Snow Fall” on December 20, 2012, and the Internet went crazy. The Times was not, however, the first publication to use parallax scrolling to great effect, to blow up its normal story template, and to embed carefully designed interactive and graphic elements. In August 2012, ESPN published “The Long Strange Trip of Dock Ellis,” from which the Times team drew great inspiration. But, “Snow Fall” was a popularization of that look and feel, and the Times’ publication made a statement: With a little more time and some help from a design team, a product team, and some engineers, media organization can produce truly magnificent design.
Media outlets are beginning to embrace design and beginning to understand that not only can every story can have a different look and feel, but some really need it. Though designs vary across the board—some organizations have more money; others have more time; others just have a different aesthetic—a couple tenets are emerging:
Design responsively—Pages must adjust to the devices on which they’re being viewed. A single page can be coded to understand the device on which it’s being read, and adjust the layout appropriately. On a smartphone you’ll likely want the text column to fill the screen. On a desktop or tablet, that might be overwhelming, and you’d want either sidebars, or white space. This also means you don’t have to design and program an app, and then wait for Apple to approve it.
User test—Stories must be easy to navigate and intuitively designed. Make sure that your page looks good and works well on every browser (including Internet Explorer), on every device (smartphones, tablets, and laptops) by every manufacturer (Apple, Google, etc.). HealthCare.gov was not appropriately user-tested before it was launched. Don’t let that happen to your site.
Blow up templates—Design for the story you’re publishing, not for the one you haven’t yet commissioned. The Internet opens up a world of design possibilities. Templates restrict creativity. Remember that you’re not planning the future look and feel of the Internet. You’re designing for a single story. Consider all the media you want to use (audio, video, PDFs, images, text, etc.) and the experience you want your readers to have. When The Commercial Appeal designed “Six:01,” the team started from scratch. The paper’s normal web design looks a lot like websites from five years ago, but the longform piece about Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination was clean, like “Snow Fall,” lite.
How is anyone making money? An examination of the business models.
For longform journalism, the questions looms as it has over the journalism industry for a decade plus: How do we make money? There’s no definitive answer, but some tested methods have had some success. To what end though, we don’t know. Media companies typically don’t like to reveal their analytics or their profits.
In doing research for “All The Space In The World,” I found that there’s no one way to make money, and this is heartening. At least for the time being, it doesn’t appear that journalism will settle on a single revenue model. In this section we’ll examine Epic Magazine (movie studios), The Big Roundtable (donation), Narratively (ad agency), Amazon (a la carte), and Byliner (subscription).
Epic Magazine is an online publication founded by two magazine writers who both found success in their careers optioning their stories as scripts to Hollywood. One of them, Joshuah Bearman, wrote the magazine story that was optioned and turned into the movie Argo. Between the two of them they’ve optioned nearly 20 stories. It’s with this money that, Bearman says, he and his partner, Josh Davis, have been able to fund more journalism. In addition, Epic is working with Medium, a startup launched by Ev Williams, one of Twitter’s founders, to help produce more longform content for the beautifully-design publishing platform.
The Big Roundtable, a longform nonfiction startup of which I’m the publisher, borrowed its donation model from an idea tested by Nieman Storyboard’s Paige Williams on her story “Finding Dolly Freed.” She placed a donation button on the page, asked for readers to give, and was able to recoup the cost of reporting the story. To this point several hundred donors have collectively given several thousand dollars to The Big Roundtable authors. Of the donation, 10% goes to the company, PayPal takes its cut, and the author gets the rest.
Narratively is a Brooklyn-based feature publication which publishes one story a day five times a week. Though it can’t pay its contributors much, Narratively funnels advertising work to its more regular contributors. Over the past year, the startup has collected a fair number of clients, including General Electric, for which contributors produces ad copy and other creative products. Narratively was launched with Kickstarter funds.
Amazon Kindle Singles—Compelling ideas expressed at their natural length—is a marketplace for stories between 5,000 and 30,000 words where each piece is sold a la carte. The model is structured like the rest of Amazon’s bookstore. You can read a sample, and then make the choice to buy. The Atavist also uses an a la carte model.
Byliner is an online service that collects and recommends longform nonfiction to its users based on their described preferences—similar to Pandora for longform. While freemium users have access to some of the site’s content and some of the reprinted stories, it’s the premium subscription that makes Byliner stand out. Briefly, MATTER, a longform science and technology site, had a subscription model, but after it was acquired by Medium, the paywall was dropped.
Beacon Reader is a new start-up, which does not focus on longform, but which does have an interesting revenue model. Users subscribe to individual writers and the profits are split between the writer, the collective of writers, and the company. The model rewards the efforts and celebrity of writers who draw a big subscriber base while also rewarding the writers writ large who are taking a chance and publishing their field dispatches on Beacon Reader instead of a personal blog or the Huffington Post or Medium.
Here are the ways media outlets exclusively publishing longform are making money:
A la carte—Stories are sold individually; you have to pay each time.
A mix of a la carte and subscription.
Subscription—You pay once a month, or once annually.
Donation—Readers decide what to pay.
Funded by movie studios—In exchange for first refusal rights to option a story as a script, a movie studio pays a media outlet.
Sponsored content (eg. Warby Parker and Longform)—Content providers partner with companies to sponsor a certain type of content, like a list of longform stories, a subject matter.
Ads—classic advertising, those these make less than they did in print, and nowhere near what they need to in order to keep the lights on.
Longform’s longtail—the longer life of nonfiction
The old-school notion of an archive is changing too. Stories that ten years ago might not have been read again after their time on the news stands are now finding second and third lives online, thanks to curators like Longform and Longreads. It’s easier than ever to carry an entire offline library with you in your pocket using applications like Pocket. This section will examine the actors helping to extend the lives of longform stories, the ones you can’t necessarily read when you come across them at work, but want to save for later.
In October 2004, Wired published “The Long Tail” in which Chris Anderson explored what the digital revolution meant for content, which could now have unlimited life cycles, not just a week, maybe two, or a month on the newsstands. “The main problem, if that’s the word, is that we live in the physical world and, until recently, most of our entertainment media did, too. But that world puts two dramatic limitations on our entertainment,” Anderson wrote.
Companies like Byliner are banking on writers who have devout reader followings. Longform and Longreads, both of which are startup curators, are recommendation engines, which help to surface what the founders think is the best longform content. And Pocket, an app for your devices, helps you save something you’re interested in for later, without having to worry about losing or lugging the physical object (like a newspaper clipping, a magazine, or a book).
Longform and Longreads curate longform journalism, which they both define as narrative pieces (both fiction and nonfiction) longer than 1,500 words. When a story is highlighted by either curator, its traffic spikes. Avid readers of longform journalism, use these as discovery tools. Longform is more of an archive, whereas Longreads is a recommendation engine.
Pocket is a save-for-later application available on Android and Apple devices, with a web portal too. The application started as a Firefox extension in 2007 when the founder grew tired of emailing himself links and then forgetting about them. By allowing readers to save a piece for later and helping them feel less pressure to read a piece when they run across a link, Pocket is giving stories a second and third life, particularly longer ones you can’t drop everything to read.
Byliner is also helping extend the longtail by developing relationships with well-known writers and building out profiles for them, encouraging them to repost old stories and excerpts of books on the site. For example, Simon Winchester has a well-populated portfolio of 67 stories from publications like Smithsonian Magazine and Condé Nast Traveler and the New York Times Magazine. Reading time is also listed on each story.
This is an exciting moment for longform journalism not because the form of writing is new, but because the Internet opens up new possibilities for presentation and prolonged distribution.
Over the course of reporting this, I’ve learned a few basic (obvious) lessons: Long pieces need to earn their length. Every word must be needed. (A la E.B. White’s “Omit needless words.”) Longform must be deeply reported. Interactive elements should be included only if they help readers better understand the story. The story as a whole—the design, the art, the interactives, the text—are one whole, and should be treated as such.
Until media outlets have a more comprehensive understanding of how readers consume their content, journalists, editors, and developers will have to design from feel and anecdotal feedback. That’s not such a bad thing, but it’d be nice to know when a story works for the readership, and when it doesn’t. Hopefully, in 2014, that’ll be a question that companies like Chartbeat help answer. The question du jour is one of engagement. Do readers invest in the story design? And how about investing intellectually in the text? If a reader doesn’t finish the story with any greater insight about the world, should it have been written? Publications can’t yet answer these questions, but it’s heartening to know they want to.