How Technology Is Renewing Attention to Long-form Journalism

When we’re constantly inundated with information via e-mail, text messages, push alerts, tweets and Facebook updates, it’s hard to make time for that 5,000-word New Yorker essay we bookmarked or the serial narrative we keep telling ourselves we’ll read but never do.

For as much as technology can distract us from long-form journalism, though, it can also be a gateway into it.

Five guys — Nate Weiner of Read It Later, Marco Arment of Instapaper, Max Linsky and Aaron Lammer of Longform.org, and Mark Armstrong of @LongReads — have found ways to use Web tools to renew attention to long-form journalism, increase its shelf life and make it easier for people to consume and share it.

The tools they’re using to create an immersive, focused environment for reading are the same ones that challenge our ability to avoid distractions at work and when we’re out with friends: mobile apps, websites and Twitter.

Tools, mobile apps that let you read with fewer distractions

Nate Weiner calls himself a “dude with a lot to read, but not a lot of time.” He knows what it’s like to get caught in a “conundrum of connectedness” — a pattern in which you’re so overwhelmed with information that you rarely have time to pause and make sense of it.

In the past, he said, he would come across magazine-length stories that he wanted to read, but never had a good way to save them for later. To remedy that he created Read It Later, a tool that enables people to save stories from their computer, smart phone or iPad, and makes them available for offline use. The tool, which just turned 3 years old, has more than 3 million users.

Read It Later is different from social bookmarking sites such as Digg and Delicious, which are tools that save, share and organize URLs. Read It Later saves the entire article page, making it available when you’re offline and have spare time. Users who want a less distracting experience can select the “text view” option, which strips out just the text.

Weiner said he’s talked recently with journalists and publishers about the importance of making it easy for readers to save stories — particularly longer-form ones that take awhile to produce and can get easily lost among other content on a news org’s website.

The biggest question he gets from publishers is, “Why would we want to allow the reader to read off our site, away from our advertising and other articles?” 

“Read It Later is essentially the article’s second chance. It actually improves the likelihood that the article will be seen,” Weiner said via e-mail. “If any article is there, the user put it there. And in order for a user to have put it there, they would have to have visited the publisher’s site.”

Marco Arment, who developed Instapaper, told me, “The best thing authors and publishers can do is give the world great content to read. Without that, all of this technology is pointless.”

Similar to Read It Later, Instapaper is a tool for saving Web pages to read later — a “DVR for Web content,” as Arment said in an e-mail interview. It also lets you create a customized RSS of the stories you save on Instapaper and it features “Editor’s Picks” that showcase the most popular bookmarked content.

Arment, who is also the lead developer behind Tumblr, said Instapaper.com gets about 3 million page views per month and that the service has a few hundred thousand active users altogether.

Arment is working with publishers to integrate Instapaper buttons and links directly to their sites, similar to other sharing tools that most sites already have. And he’s made mobile accessibility to long-form stories a priority, saying that Instapaper’s iPhone and iPad apps “play a critical role” in its success.

Some may find it strange that a cell phone — a source of distraction for many of us, with its texts, e-mails and alerts — could be conducive to reading narratives. But compared to a laptop, Arment says, a cell phone is the better option.

“The modern computer is packed with distractions. Your hands are always on the controls, waiting to click around and find the next bit of information. Every few minutes, something beeps or pops up a balloon or displays a big red number,” Arment said. “Long-form content requires attentive reading, and attentive reading requires a distraction-free environment. You need to pull people away from their computers.”

A website that builds community around long stories

After discovering Instapaper, Max Linsky and Aaron Lammer created Longform.org, a site that aggregates long-form journalism dating back as far as 1899. The goal of the site, they say, is to give people a go-to place for this type of content — and to give it a second chance on the Web.

“We wanted to have a bunch of awesome stuff to read all the time and we assumed people would too, ” said Linsky, a freelance journalist.

Lammer, a book editor who never used to make time for magazine-length content, says Instapaper and his work at Longform.org have made it easier to share and keep track of longer stories. The site has also helped him develop, and become part of, a community of people who love narratives.

Visitors of the site, who Linsky and Lammer describe as “long-form journalism addicts,” regularly send them suggestions of stories to feature.

“We have a bunch of people get in touch with us who have kept their own archives,” Linsky said. “The coolest sources have kept their own personal archives on Delicious or a manila folder in their house.”

The number of people who turn to the site to share stories rather than storing them in a folder is proof that technology is breathing new life into long-form content, Linsky said. He’s such a big believer in this that he proposed a South by Southwest Interactive panel called “The Death of the Death of Longform Journalism.”

A Twitter account that makes it easy to share long reads

Similar to Linksy and Lammer, Mark Armstrong was inspired by Instapaper to start his own collection of long-form stories. In April 2009, he created a Twitter account called @LongReads and has since tweeted about 1,200 stories.

Each day, Armstrong tweets links to about five recent long reads, some of which he finds through the #longreads hashtag he created. The @LongReads account has about 4,500 followers — which spiked after the iPad was released — and continues to increase by about 15 percent each month. (Longform.org also has a Twitter account with about 1,700 followers.)

Armstrong, director of content for Bundle, said Twitter is a good place to post longer-form content because people can easily retweet links to the stories and advance their exposure. He explained the goal of @LongReads in a phone interview.

“I think that ultimately, 1) we want to drive more traffic to publishers who do this kind of work, and 2) encourage people to help organize the Web in a way that makes it easier to find this stuff,” said Armstrong, who uses Instapaper and encourages his followers to do so.

All of these tools are connected; as a reader, you can follow @LongReads, save the story to Instapaper or Read It Later, and send it to Lammer and Linsky to post on Longform.org.

Armstrong said he’d ultimately like to see websites start to use a “long reads” tag to aggregate all of the longer content they publish. Inspired by @LongReads, The Awl made its site searchable by “long reads” this week.

“I’m pretty excited about this development,” Armstrong said, “and I think we’ll start to see more publishers follow The Awl’s lead in organizing their sites to help surface substantive, longer content.”

As more people drive traffic to long-form journalism via the Web, Twitter and mobile apps, they may give publishers more reasons to produce it.

“We’re hitting a point where hopefully the traffic will justify the level of effort that goes into writing and reporting these stories,” Armstrong said. “They’re not disposable.”

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