The news business looked way different when Max Linsky and Aaron Lammer, two college buddies from Wesleyan University, started Longform.org.
The site, whose 2010 launch was timed to the release of the iPad, was conceived as a kind of conservatory for ambitious journalism, a space free from ugly display ads and cluttered reading experiences where narrative junkies could find and savor 4,000-word features.
Six years later, publishing has undergone a revolution. The debut of Facebook Instant Articles has given news organizations a lightning-quick, cleanly formatted venue for their work — albeit one they do not control. The rise of “read-later” apps (think Pocket and Instapaper) have empowered readers to become their own curators, collecting a library of stories for their perusal. And many newsrooms have invested in mobile-friendly reading experiences, freeing their audiences from the pinch-and-zoom hell that Longform offered an early escape from.
So what’s Longform to do amid these changes? Lammer said the company’s mission is to stay interesting in relation to everything else that’s happening in publishing, which has at times seemed like a roller coaster ride.
“We’ve been doing Longform for more than five years now, and I think at various times in our journey, we’ve seen ourselves as a different kind of company,” Lammer said. “At one point, we thought, ‘we’ll raise some money, we’ll try to have an app and get millions of people to use it, and this will become a big thing.’ And ultimately, we’ve settled into a pretty stable, really enthusiastic audience that has a pretty static size and has a pretty clear desire for what they want from us.”
That audience — tens of thousands of daily readers — basically wants one thing, Lammer said: A simple experience with limited options that puts them in contact with a great story in the shortest possible time span. That’s been the driving force behind the site’s latest redesign, which the Longform team hopes will remain relevant for years even as reading trends continue to change.
New at the redesigned website, which is still in beta, is a “popular” section that uses an algorithm concocted by the Longform team to surface articles people actually want to read. The algorithm uses “a couple of hundred” different factors to determine which articles should be ranked higher in the popular section, but among the most important values it considers is the completion rate of the article under consideration.
This popular section was conceived by Lammer and Linsky as a tool to eliminate the gap between articles people share on Twitter (often in a boastful way) and the articles that Longform’s site data shows people actually finish.
“We find is there’s a pretty significant discrepancy between the articles that are most shared and the articles that people actually read,” Linsky said. “So we’re trying to weight pretty heavily the stuff that people actually stick with until the end rather than the stuff they brag about having read.”
The algorithim also uses other must-read lists from across the internet as one of its many reference points. If, for example, a story indexed by the site appears on The New York Times most-read list, that story is more likely to surface higher in the ranking. Lammer said the algorithim gives preference to lists that are curated by humans — such as Longform’s own “staff picks” — because humans are capable of making subtle distinctions about editorial quality and interestingness that are very difficult to teach computers.
“We also look at how much they were shared on Facebook, how much they were shared on Twitter, how recent they were,” Lammer said. “In addition to those two places, did they appear anywhere else? Did they appear as one of our staff picks? Did they appear in some other context we indexed? Each of those things would bump it a little bit.”
Lammer said Longform isn’t interested in ranking stories by quality, of turning longform nonfiction into a “who’s the best?”-type contest. But he’d be happy if the popular list accidentally turned out to be a reliable barometer for compelling storytelling.
The debut of Longform’s new site comes at a transitional time for Lammer and Linsky, both of whom are embarking upon new projects. Linsky is taking the lessons he’s learned from launching Longform’s weekly podcast featuring marquee journalists to found his own podcasting company. Lammer said he’s also starting another venture that will take him away from Longform full-time, which means creating something that doesn’t require consistent upkeep to “chase every trend in the reading world.”
“Never in our wildest dreams did we think it was going to be something where we wouldn’t need jobs for years,” Linsky said. “It wasn’t done with the idea of being some massive growth business. I think in a lot of ways, that’s about the medium. I don’t think there are billions of people across the world who are desperate for the next great feature article.”
Lammer concurred, noting that Longform will never have the kind of scale that apps like Facebook or Twitter have. But that realization is an indicator of the company’s success, he said. Trying to be growth-hungry founders of a company with a limited but dedicated following would mean privileging the experience of the CEO over that of the users.
“We’ve always tried to put the writers, the stories and the publishers ahead of ourselves,” Lammer said. “And I think we’ve found a place now with the company where we can do that for the long term.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story left a word out of Aaron Lammer’s final quote. Thanks to Lammer for pointing it out — we apologize for the error.