Serious Reporting Thriving on the Internet, Despite Predictions

09_19_Longform
Longform

For a while there, it looked like the bad guys were going to win, the ones who practiced the dark arts of aggregation, who search-engine-optimized headlines as if splicing genes, who turned human catastrophes into GIFs, who inundated the Internet with cat memes and Joe Biden-Duck Dynasty mashups and 36 maps that explain the whole bloody arc of human history and also tell you where to buy your doughnuts.

In the early Aughts, it seemed as if click-bait — alluring headlines or pictures behind which lie either a dearth of content (itself a dreary synonym for writing/reporting) or content largely taken from elsewhere and altered just enough to lay claim to “originality” — was going to devour what remained of journalism. The Huffington Post scored a coup with a post titled “What Time Is the Super Bowl,” serving up nothing more than what that headline promised, a masterful ploy Deadspin called “the most legendary act of SEO trolling ever.” Jonah Peretti’s brainchild Buzzfeed, meanwhile, was perfecting the virality that has made it famous, with posts like the humbly titled “21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity,” which was seen by everyone on Earth at least 37 times. Later, that famous life-affirming post was revealed by Slate’s Farhad Manjoo to have been largely pilfered from Reddit, thus dampening that recently restored faith ever so slightly.

Where, between the slideshows of hot babes and cute cats, was there space for the searing 3,500-words on the demise of a factory town in Iowa or the plight of journalists in Syria? Nowhere, the thinking went. We were always on the Internet, but we were never on the Internet for very long or very satisfying periods of time, so while we could click through 15 GIFS that illuminated the complexities of Obamacare, we had neither the patience nor the predilection to sit through long stretches of demanding writing (you know, whole paragraphs of it without a single picture), undisturbed by emails, pop-up ads or anxious middle managers curious about tasks yet uncompleted.

Into this fire, a young man named Max Linsky eagerly strode. While a student at Wesleyan University, he and another undergraduate, Aaron Lammer, decided they would create a website that would be nothing more than a collection of “arcana of long-form journalism, full of “stories originally published in the ’60s and ’70s” according to a New York Observer profile that called them two of journalism’s “subterranean saviors.” That same article suggested that Longform and similar sites were leading a “mini-renaissance” of journalism that was serious, journalism that was long, journalism that never pandered with click-bait. They were not creating longform journalism, but they were championing it, staking their livelihoods and reputations on the supposedly dying form.

Five years later, the renaissance looks less “mini” than ever. Longform is thriving, a profitable company with five employees. It is releasing a new app in concert with Apple’s introduction of the iPhone 6, whose larger screen will make easier the kind of reading that sustains (and is sustained by) Longform. Linsky told me that the new app will be sponsored by corporate advertisers like Warby Parker.

Longform is based in a loft in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn, in the kind of open-floor plan currently en vogue in Silicon peaks, plains and valleys across the land. It shares the space with The Atavist, another site/app that aims to make longform journalism palatable to the digital generation. Down the hall are the offices of n+1, the supremely serious magazine that is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this fall. Along with sites like Longform, The Browser and Byliner, with the help of streamline-and-save services like Instapaper and Pocket (once known as Read It Later), these upstart start-ups have challenged popular notions of what people will read on the Internet.

The digital decade has proven surprisingly amenable to the kind of sustained reading that many thought was on the cusp of extinction a decade ago. Last year, in an op-ed for USA Today titled “Long-form journalism makes comeback,” Rem Rieder, the editor of the American Journalism Review, argued that the shift from desktop computers to smartphones and tablets has largely been responsible for this auspicious return. The stationary computer was, for many, tethered to a workplace cubicle, or else situated in a home den where several parties fought over its usage with unremitting zeal. But your Samsung Galaxy is your Samsung Galaxy; many families have more than one iPad, too. “Maybe the PC was the problem," a media critic told Reider.

“Tablets are perfect vehicles to read long-form journalism,” the tech journalist Kara Swisher told Marketplace around the same time, “so it’s not as if everything has to be short and stupid.”

That’s a striking change of mood from several years ago, when it seemed like short and stupid were the only means of survival. Yes, sites like Longform and Longreads engage in what may be called aggregation. But they do not leech news and pass it off as their own; by directing readers to a Boston Globe essay about the Freedom Summer, or Bertrand Russell’s feuilleton in Harper’s celebrating idleness, they collect and highlight, instead of scrambling and reselling. Everybody wins, except maybe the hyenas.

“There's still a payoff for originality,” says Mark Armstrong, who started Longreads in 2009. “People crave a good narrative, they crave original storytelling, and if you are a publisher and spend the time and resources to tell a truly original story, it will pay off.” Armstrong tells me that usage of the #longreads hashtag, which helps determine which stories his site features, is up 130% in the last two years. In 2013, the site entered a partnership with The Atlantic, giving it a coveted imprimatur of respectability. The rise in popularity has not come with an attendant dumbing-down of the content: Armstrong says that his most popular post last year linked to an essay from Rose George’s book on the shipping industry.  

Moreover, while “multimedia” can often devolve in a jumble of text, video and sound, if done correctly, it can be a masterful tool for enhanced storytelling. To wit, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing went to “Snowfall,” a lengthy New York Times story about an avalanche in Washington State written by John Branch but produced by a team of more than a dozen video and multimedia specialists who fashioned a wondrous interactive package perfect for the iPad screen.

This isn’t to say that journalism is saved, only that it isn’t quite as doomed as we thought several years ago. The Internet has made life more hectic, but it hasn’t drained the human desire to be transported elsewhere by a capable raconteur: David Grann in the depths of the Amazon, Caitlin Flanagan in the depths of a fraternity basement. No feature of iOS devices is as valuable to long-form reading than “airplane mode,” allowing you to disconnect from the beeps and dings of the outside word and simply read.  

Not everyone, it must be said, is sharing in the success of Longform and Longreads. Earlier this summer, it looked like the high-end aggregator Byliner, which also creates original content and charges for access, was facing extinction (it appears to have survived). Moreover, curation isn’t the same as creation. Longform won’t have much to do unless editors at major magazines are giving writers the time, money and freedom to write long stories.

I briefly worked at The Atlantic Wire (now, The Wire), where each editor was responsible for about a dozen stories a day. After the site’s original editor, Gabriel Snyder, left, The Wire fell into the lap of Andrew Golis. While Golis apparently remains in charge of The Wire, his newest project is called This.cm, a “digital shelf” that will link to only one article daily.

That shift is mirrored elsewhere. In 2013, the much-maligned BuzzFeed started a long-form section, edited by Spin veteran Steve Kandell. The site, run by the respected journalist Ben Smith, clearly has ambitions beyond its feline slideshows. Shortly after starting the long-form vertical, Smith also inaugurated an investigative unit headed by Mark Schoofs, a Pulitzer Prize winner he poached from ProPublica.

Narrative.ly founder Noah Rosenberg says his site — which features only original longform journalism — is intended to help people “unplug from the daily grind,” which is a remarkable statement, since one would have to be plugged in to read Narrative.ly in the first place. But there’s a difference between plugged in and burned out. Rosenberg admits to occasionally watching an Upworthy video, but says he generally resists journalism of the “Seven Things You Need to Know About Ukraine, Explained Through Keanu Reeves Movies” variety. “There’s so much more out there that I’d rather spend my time with." 

Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized leadership changes at The Wire.