The Long-Form Renaissance

long-form journalism's 'resurgence' may be over-hyped, but technology is changing how people access it

Over the past year or so, a number of high-profile and prominent
journalists and technologists have launched new apps, sites and other
ventures dedicated to cultivating lengthy works of journalism. These
projects — like The Atavist, Byliner,,,
Readability and others — are being credited with reviving a dead or near-dead

But the obituary for long-form journalism was actually never written,
according to some alt-weekly editors.

“I welcome them to the club,” Village Voice Media executive associate
editor Andy Van De Voorde says of the newcomers. “It is a bit funny to
read stories on the web which imply that this is some sort of recent
phenomenon. I guess my only question to these guys would be ‘what took
you so long?'”

While Van De Voorde has a point, and many alts haven’t wavered in
their commitment to long-form storytelling, there’s also a
technological component to this story, which is indeed changing. As
tablets and e-readers become more prevalent, publishers — and readers
— are finding that the devices are incredibly well-suited to longer
works. With that in mind, it’s imperative to make your existing
long-form work more available to the new aggregators and other
platforms, says Will Mitchell, Washington City Paper‘s web programmer
and online strategist.

“Working to improve the design and presentation of long-form stories
on our website” is a priority for the paper, he says. “These kinds of
stories have been crammed into standardized CMS templates in the past,
so we’ve opened up the page a lot and are trying to take the layout of
these stories more seriously.”

By doing this, Mitchell says, the experience of reading long pieces on
a monitor — long considered to be unenjoyable — can at least be made
a little better. Just a few years ago, at an AAN conference devoted to
web publishing, the prevailing advice was to break long stories up
into multiple shorter pages. Not only was that better suited to
reading on a monitor, the thinking went, but it was also better for
revenue, since more pages equal (one would hope) more pageviews.

But Mitchell says that thinking may be misguided, particularly when it
comes to long pieces. Many new ventures are allowing users to pull
their favorite pieces into a queue they’ll read on an e-reader later,
and they often rely on a single-page view of a story as the mechanism
to do so.

“The number one thing is to provide some kind of ‘single page’ view of
the story,” he says when asked how papers can make sure their work is
available to the curator sites. “Almost everyone is paginating long
stories now, to maximize pageviews, and this interferes with getting
the story into reading apps. So, providing the option to view the
story all on one page is

While the long-form reading may improve, revenue remains a big
question mark, since there is such a wide variety of platforms,
curators, aggregators and publishers in this rapidly developing

“The view from (which I help out with) is that reading
long-form stories at a desk on a monitor has been a sucky experience.
So things can’t help but get better as more people start using
Kindles,” Mitchell says. “I don’t know what it’s going to look like in
terms of revenue, but I do think the experience of writing and
publishing long-form content is going to get better again as the
reading experience improves.”

Mitchell says one key for publishers is “to work out some ways that
advertising can travel with the content to the device,” pointing to
pre-roll advertising on embeddable video as a potential model.

“We’re still largely dependent on advertising, so it will help us to
have control (or even partial control) of some additional ad spaces,”
he says.

Van De Voorde says that while he continues to cast a skeptic’s eye
towards tablets and e-readers, he’s glad they are a part of the new
editorial mix.

“I think the jury is still out on whether tablets will indeed be the
salvation of long-form journalism, but they are at least a welcome
development,” he says. “The varying degrees of effort made on the iPad
by the nation’s largest magazine publishers reflect this uncertainty;
some have jumped in with both feet, others are taking a wait-and-see

Mitchell makes a similar point, saying publishers need to keep their
eyes on “the supply and demand aspect” of long-form journalism.

“There are, as always, tons of people who want to be published
writers. There’s also tons of demand for entertainment, of which this
kind of journalism is just one form,” he says. “It’s not a situation
that adds up to big money for the producers (it never really has
been). The people who tend to make money are the folks in the middle,
who build up a reliable audience and then sell the attention of that
audience to people who want attention.”

Who that might be is still up in the air, Mitchell adds.

“Established publishers? New curators? A mix? Partnerships between
both? Or huge audience networks like Facebook and Amazon? I think
publishers should keep an eye on this and keep angling for a good
long-term position.”


Whether you want more people to read your paper’s existing
long-form stories, or you want to improve the way you create and craft
narrative nonfiction, here are a few quick tips:

Examine how your stories can be sent to e-readers. “The
Readability ‘Send to Kindle’ button is the main way to do this right
now, but others may come along,” Mitchell says.

Test, test, test. Use all of the different products and
platforms available to read your own content and content from others.
You will likely find some problems and, hopefully, get some new ideas.

Improve your archiving system. Your archives are most likely
a mess, and probably not categorized and tagged in the same way your
current stories are. That means the killer mid-90s piece that
now-revered writer who went on to a high-profile magazine gig did for
your paper is too hard to find. “City Paper has covered a lot of
topics and published a lot of now-notable authors over the years,”
Mitchell says. “I think access to archived long-form content is going
to be a pretty big deal in the next few years. There’s a ton of great
content in the databases of similar papers.”

Embrace multimedia. At this summer’s AAN Convention, The
Atavist’s Evan Ratliff spoke of the challenge of designing quality
journalism around a new platform. He said one key moving forward is
for writers, editors and designers to stop treating multimedia
elements as “footnotes” to the written story. Instead, he suggested,
make them a “more foundational” part of the narrative. If you want
examples, check out the original work Ratliff has commissioned on The
Atavist’s app, which uses video, audio and other multimedia elements
as central parts of the stories, rather than auxiliary “extras.”