Website Longform Starts To Find Its Footing Online

How are we consuming long, in-depth pieces of journalism in the digital age? Audie Cornish asks Max Linsky, co-founder of the popular curated site of long reads, longform.org. He tracks just what's popular, and who's actually reading what.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Well, if you scroll down to the comments section at the bottom of any long news story, you're bound to see this: TLDR, Internet shorthand for too long, didn't read. In an era when people are doing their reading on a phone or at their office computer, that instinct's understandable. So how has the Web changed our reading habits when it comes to the bigger-than-bite-size stories we're used to? We turn to Max Linsky of the website Longform, which posts new and classic nonfiction articles curated from across the Web. Hi there, Max.

MAX LINSKY: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So for a few years now, there have been services that help you store articles that you find online for later reading - like Instapaper and Readability and Read It Later. So how, exactly, did you get the idea for Longform?

LINSKY: I've always been a huge fan of this stuff - I mean, huge fan of long-form journalism, that is. And what we were seeing when we started this site - which was almost three years ago, at this point - is like, there was all this great writing all over the Web; so much of it, in fact, that it was kind of hard to find the best of it. So the idea of the site has always been the same thing; which is, we want to go and find the best stuff, and make it super easy to read not just on the Web but on your phone or your Kindle or your iPad.

CORNISH: So in our introduction, I talked about this idea that certain articles are considered too long to read online. Why is that? What about the Web makes it a tough market for those longer works?

LINSKY: The first reason, I think, is just when we're - tend to be on the Web, right? So the vast majority of people spend the vast majority of their time, when they're on a Web browser, at work. So it's hard to read something that's 10,000 words when you're sitting at your desk, and you've got a bunch of other bells and whistles dinging and pinging, and people yelling at you all over the place.

The other part of it is sort of a design problem. So most content management systems are designed to get you off the page you're on. That's the way the economy of the Web works, right? That's why we have all these slideshows everywhere. People want you moving to the next page, and that's what they design their sites for. The goal with a long-form story is the exact opposite of that, right? You just want people to read to the end. That's the hope, is you want people to really sit and spend some time with what you're doing.

CORNISH: Now there's also this setting in the app that lets the reader default to almost just a text-only view - right? - to make it easier to read. And you're not bombarded with ads and banners. But without people seeing and clicking on these ads, I mean, how does this stuff get paid for? I mean, how is this good for publishers and writers?

LINSKY: We have really good relationships with all of the publishers that are in the app. And what we have found is that people are overwhelmingly happy to have their stuff featured in this site and on the app.

CORNISH: But - I mean, does this kind of perpetuate the problem of the no-pay model; that people are getting more and more used to getting journalism - even very expensive, long journalism - for free?

LINSKY: No. I think that's changing, at the moment. I mean, I think there's a bunch of experiments that people are running, where they're trying to figure out pay models. So I don't know that anyone has figured out a sort of perfect business model that relies solely on long-form journalism - although I'd also say that I don't know that anyone figured that out before the Internet. I'm not sure there was ever a super lucrative business model around this kind of work.

CORNISH: Not lucrative but, I mean, there are lots of magazines - The Atlantic, New Yorker, Wall Street Journal - also regional papers that used to do this kind of work.

LINSKY: Yeah, I mean, I got my start at an alt weekly in Tampa Bay, Fla. I think that as those papers and those magazines start to do less of it, one of the challenges is that there are fewer places for people to learn and get better. But again, even at that paper that I worked at, I don't think our - you know, 5,000-word cover story was what sold ads in the paper. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's not.

CORNISH: As our reporter, David Folkenflik, mentioned earlier, there are websites that made their name, originally, on short posts and viral snippets - say, a BuzzFeed or a Gawker - that are now posting longer and longer articles. Do you feel like the Internet generation is kind of rebelling against its upbringing here?

LINSKY: Well, I wouldn't say that like, Twitter is shaking in their boots, right? I think more what those sites are seeing is that there is not just an audience for this stuff, but there's a consumption pattern there that they haven't been meeting, right? So people do want that kind of content in these different moments. They want it at night, then they want it on the weekends. They're trying to see if this is what their audience wants. And I think they're seeing encouraging stuff so far, but it's pretty early.

CORNISH: Well, Max Linsky, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LINSKY: Thank you for having me, Audie.

CORNISH: Max Linsky is co-founder of the website Longform.

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