News on the Internet is instant. That has always been the best and worst part of the medium for journalists. The Internet gets straight to the point and tells readers what happened as soon as it happened — which is great. Then those readers do not feel the need to read an analysis on the front page of the local newspaper the next day — which hasn’t been so great.
The reactions to this noticeable shift were varied, but the dominant theme was that journalism needed to feature fewer finely crafted descriptive sentences and more punchy summaries with bullet points or graphics. Or, as Michael Kinsley argued in The Atlantic, stories just needed to be shorter. And for the subject matter he referred to — your basic “this happened today” news story — I don’t think there is much of an argument against him. However, while the Internet has virtually always been characterized as a place focused on getting the news in short form or in a light-hearted manner (thus the rise of Gawker and company), the most powerful movement in the past year or so has been that of longform journalism.
And this movement is apparent in the most unlikely of places — Twitter. A universe seemingly defined by 140-character bursts has become a buzzing distribution center for “longreads,” which are sought after by a swarm of zealous readers. While many users attempt to recommend great stories to followers, there are several notable shepherds collecting notable works and directing readers toward them.
Longreads (and its eponymous hashtag), Longform and the more ambitious Byliner all draw readers seeking the best long form journalism — serious journalism — on the Internet. Many consistent readers contribute to the sites by posting their favorite reads to a personal page or posting them with the hashtag. The aforementioned Byliner collects and distributes great writing, but it also serves as an independent publishing house for long form reports, which it sells. Its first release was a big one, with very well-known writer Jon Krakauer blasting “Three Cups of Tea” author and philanthropist Greg Mortenson.
Another group of ambitious thinkers is hoping to take this idea one step further. Several writers came together to create The Atavist — a way to present long form multimedia journalism on e-readers, iPads and just about anything else.
The Byliner and The Atavist are almost certainly betting on the long form movement joining forces with the rush to charge readers for “premium content.”
More and more newspapers and (to a lesser extent) magazines are looking for Internet pay models, and “premium content” has a nice way of making things sound like they are worth the money. It is the reason people will pay extra for HBO. But while this language comes relatively easy to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal (their brands make everything premium content), that isn’t the case for less prestigious papers. Magazines seem to have a similar issue. While The New Yorker can handpick which stories are behind its subscriber wall, most publications don’t have the reputation to set such limits and expect readers to open their wallet out of sheer curiousity.
But a more formal system where these longer, more serious pieces of journalism require payment or subscription to read is very feasible, for any publication. Obviously the New York Times already has its system figured out for the most part, but it showed the ease of pandering to this type of reader earlier this week by creating a page that collects the paper’s best longreads of the week.
Making a classification for this type of story is an easy way to ask for payment. It is the definition of premium journalism content. Furthermore, many sites may soon find that this type of content is actually more enticing on the Web because of multimedia features and photos — the main idea behind The Atavist.
The future of long reads may actually be online-only. It may feature self-published pieces that gain notoriety and make the author money in the same manner a book does when published for Kindle or the Nook (two devices that are already being used to consume long form journalism on the go).
Stories by Chris Jones, David Grann and even long investigative pieces by the Associated Press draw masses, many of whom are likely willing to pay for the clearly excellent content. And it doesn’t take a national name to draw interest. Mother Jones, a non-profit magazine based in San Francisco, published a hit this week with “My Summer at an Indian Call Center,” even though a majority of the people who read it probably don’t read the magazine regularly. Texas Monthly, a decidedly regional journalism operation, has landed national attention with several of its longer pieces.
This tendency for the best stories to get massive attention is a positive force in the journalism world that pushes us toward better stories and — in an unforeseen development — a logical way to fund those better stories.
Five years ago, most would have predicted the successful Web journalist would be a connoisseur of short, punchy stories that gave little information and a lot of entertainment. Going forward, it appears the “new journalism” of 40 and 50 years ago is likely the new way to make money in journalism.