The Web Without the Muck: A Long Interview with Longform.org

2/2/12Follow @wroush

The Web, as we’ve known it, is all about velocity. It wants you to move along. Click here! Go there! Watch this! As a result, it’s never been a great place to settle down and focus for the 30 minutes it might take you to read an 8,000-word article—the sort of long, in-depth non-fiction that made magazines like The Atlantic, Esquire, and The New Yorker famous.

But the Web is still a great medium for circulating such content, especially to readers who might never shell out for a newsstand, subscription, or digital copy of a magazine. And with the emergence of a new class of mobile and browser-based reading apps, there’s finally a more comfortable way for Internet users to enjoy this long-form writing. I’m talking about services like Instapaper, Readability, and Read It Later, which parse Web pages, zeroing in on just the article text and zapping all the ads and other clutter.

In a column tomorrow I’ll look at these apps one at a time and share some pointers about fun ways to use them. But today I want give you a deep-dive look at the newest addition to this category: an iPad app from Longform.org. If you’re an Instapaper user, you’ve no doubt heard of Longform. Brooklynites Aaron Lammer and Max Linsky originally founded the service to help commuters like themselves who wanted to fill up their Instapaper queues with good long reads—2,000 words and above—before hopping on the 2 train into Manhattan. (The company later added support for Readability and Read It Later.) Well, this Wednesday the company released a dedicated Longform app, which iPad owners can use to access not only the usual feed of articles chosen by Longform’s editors, but a more complete panoply of long-form articles pulled from the websites of 25 top-flight publications, such as The Awl, The Believer, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Foreign Policy, The New York Review of Books, and Wired.

The $4.99 app is simple, elegant, and attractive—all prerequisites, if you’re promising readers a more serene reading experience. What sets it apart from the other reading apps is the way it fetches a supply of long-form articles from the chosen publications, so users don’t have to. With apps like Instapaper, by contrast, you do the curating yourself: if you find an article on the Web that you want to read later, you click on a special Instapaper bookmarklet in your browser, and it shows up in the app. But before you can do that, of course, you have to get the bookmarklet from Instapaper’s website. That’s two steps too many for most readers, according to Lammer. “I know that to the tech press this sounds ridiculous,” Lammer says, “but Instapaper is too complicated for some people to use. We wanted to create something that … works more directly.”

I talked with Lammer yesterday to get the Longform.org origin story and to find out more about the genesis and mechanics of the new app. An edited version of our interview follows.

For me, the critical question in our conversation was about how quickly the reading habits of Web and mobile users are changing, and what the rising popularity of the de-cluttering apps will mean for the business of publishing on the Web. The easier it gets to obtain ad-free renditions of Web content, after all, the more carefully publishers are going to have to think about whether to put that content on the Web at all—meaning the reading apps could inadvertently help to kill the very industry they feed on. But Lammer argues that the Longform app and its cousin are currently adding to overall page views, not subtracting—and that in any case, where readers want to go, publishers must follow. Read on for the nitty-gritty.

Xconomy: What possessed you and Max Linsky to get into the curation business?

Aaron Lammer: We were both Instapaper users. For both of us, getting the iPhone and starting to read on it was a pretty formative experience. I have a background in publishing and Web stuff, and Max has a background in journalism. We realized that you can burn through an Instapaper queue pretty quickly if you are commuting 45 minutes each way every day. I think it’s really a New York story, because New York is one of the few places where people spend over an hour a day underground, without a connection.

Both of us were hoarding stories, and passing them around internally in a small group. And we eventually said, … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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