March 1, 2012

A Kickstarter project run by two journalists raised $50,000 in just 38 hours last week and has raised a total of $87,297 so far. The goal of the project, called “Matter,” is to “publish a single piece of top-tier long-form journalism about big issues in technology and science. That means no cheap reviews, no snarky opinion pieces, no top ten lists. Just one unmissable story.”

The project raises interesting questions about what constitutes longform journalism. We know that technology has renewed attention to longform journalism in recent years. But it’s also changed how we think about it.

Do we define longform by the quality of the writing? By the amount of time it took to write? By the research it entailed? Or do we define it by length? The longform journalism site Longreads, for instance, asks people to “post their favorite stories over 1,500 words.”

These conceptual differences matter, says New York Times science reporter Natalie Angier. When I asked her about the “Matter” Kickstarter project, Angier said she’s been wondering what people mean when they say “longform” journalism. She tends to equate it less with length and more with depth of reporting.

“Even as the editors have cut back on the column inches they’ll allot to my work (or anybody else’s), I continue to treat every piece I write as though it were an in-depth feature,” Angier said. “I can’t imagine writing about science any other way.”

A writer or site that continuously produces quality content drives people come back. But given how fast news comes at us these days, and how many choices we have on the Web, quality longform stories can easily get lost.

Mark Armstrong, founder of Longreads and editorial adviser of Read it Later, says that when it comes to content on the Web, “it feels like we’re living in a Hot Dog-Shooting Terrordome.”

In a story published earlier today, Armstrong said publishers are faced with a “seemingly unsolveable problem” — how to embrace the increasing demands for content without losing sight of their commitment to quality.

“But there’s a bigger challenge for the media business,” Armstrong wrote. “How can we change the ecosystem and evolve to a model that puts renewed attention on quality over quantity?”

Crowdfunded projects like “Matter” are one possible solution. But beyond that, Armstrong says, news sites need to find more ways to make content portable.

“Let people take content with them, and they will soon value it more highly than if it is shot at them,” Armstrong said. “Content creators will be rewarded with a longer social lifespan for the stories and videos they work so hard to create. And that ultimately lifts the value of a media brand.”

It seems, then, that the definition of longform can’t be limited to length or even quality. Increasingly, longform stories need to have staying power, and we need more tools to give them a greater lifespan. In keeping with the hot dog analogy, we need more “take-out” bags for content, Armstrong said.

Read it Later, which has more than 4 million users, enables people to save stories from their computer, smart phone or iPad, and makes them available for offline use. Read it Later data shows that, on average, users keep a video or article in their queue for 96 hours before marking it viewed. As this study shows, that’s a pretty long time compared to the life span of stories shared on Twitter.

The more we can give readers tools to control how and when they engage with content, the easier it will be for them to read content that may require more careful attention — either because it’s long, in-depth, or both.

Readers have a hunger for visionary thinkers and big ideas, Angier said. Whether or not people will pay for this content is a little less clear.

“People want substance, and insight, and optimism with a forebrain, and again where can you turn for any of that but to science? But will people pay to read long, provocative, beautifully crafted science stories? And will ‘Matter’ pay writers a living wage to meet that desire? Consider me a hopeful skeptic.”

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As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the…
Mallary Jean Tenore

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