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From AJR,   October/November 2011  issue

Going Long in the Digital Age   

Longform journalism faces a stiff challenge: How do you hold the attention of an audience that is clicking rather than paging through a long article? A new group of content curators say it’s with mobile devices and apps, which are broadening longform’s appeal and creating sit-down readers once again. Mon., October 10, 2011


By Tim Ebner
Tim Ebner (tebner86@gmail.com) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

Mark Armstrong started reading longform journalism pieces as a way to pass the time during his 40-minute subway commute between Brooklyn and Manhattan. At the time, three years ago, he used his iPhone to read articles that he didn't have time for during his busy workday.

Now, he manages a Web site that focuses solely on these sit-down reads. In 2009, Armstrong founded a content curation site called Longreads. The site aggregates journalism content around the interests of an online community.

Community members share traditional print stories, like those found in The Atlantic, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, as well as articles found in online-only publications, like Atlantic Public Media's Transom.org or ESPN's Grantland. Each article can be shared or saved for later reading to a mobile device.

"This site is not just for New Yorkers who take the subway," he says. "This is a global audience of passionate readers."

Armstrong's commuter reads quickly turned into an obsession for seeking out new narrative-style forms of journalism. To find these stories, which he says range between 1,500 and 30,000 words, he turned to the succinct, 140-character world of Twitter.

Using the hashtag symbol #longreads, Armstrong crowdsourced the problem, asking Twitter users for recommended readings. Many of the hashtag picks come from Twitter users who are publishers, writers and consumers of the content.

Today, the Longreads site averages approximately 100,000 unique visitors per month and includes a running tab of readings on a variety of news topics. "Our goal is to expand the distribution and get stories to as many people as possible," he says.

Each article is classified by word length and reading time. "A lot of people will time the reading to their commute, or time it to their workout at the gym," Armsrong says. Longreads also has a social element–articles can be shared within the community or on social networks.

Content curation's growth has largely been a consequence of the development of mobile devices and applications that have made reading more accessible, says Max Linsky, founder and editor of the content curation site Longform.org.

"The story hasn't changed much," he says. "What's changed are the technology and devices."

He attributes the rise and popularity of his site to the spread of mobile devices, like the iPad and the Kindle, which can save content from a variety of sources, creating a return to sit-down reading.

Whereas readers might once have used a Web browser to skim through a 2,000-word article published online, Linsky says tablets and e-readers are being used as down-time devices, which give readers the capability to digest a complicated or drawn out story. And, he says it's the e-reader's ease-of-access that has broadened an otherwise established form of journalism. Rather than go to a single source for a story, readers can select from a wide variety of publications gathered by content curators.

The Longform.org site currently uses mobile apps, like Instapaper and Fipboard, to save readings for later review. The site also shares content on social media platforms and directly through its Web site and RSS feeds.

Longform.org co-founder and co-editor Aaron Lammer says his site is developing an app, to be released in the coming months, which will offer an automatic delivery system for curated stories.

And, with the announcement last month that Amazon will release its first tablet, the Kindle Fire, in mid-November, Lammer says he expects the audience of mobile readers to grow.

While content creators are still figuring out their footing as private entities–-right now the sites maintain partnerships with several news publishers and offer either ad space or subscription-based accounts--they say it's an exciting time for longform journalism.

"It's still shaking out as to what that model will look like," Armstrong says. "But I think it's a huge opportunity for publishers and writers to bring their storytelling onto these devices."

Armstrong says that publishing partnerships play a significant role in keeping Longreads viable as a business. And, with the expected growth of an e-reader audience, he says there's room for a variety of different content curators to compete.

"This a much bigger thing than simply a few curation sites. This is really about a community of people who are sharing stories that they are excited about."

In a time when publishers must compete to hold the attention of an online audience more likely to click rather than page through a story, Armstrong says it's the ability to save and share what you are reading that has helped to redefine the appeal of longform reading.