The Web Without the Muck: A Long Interview with Longform.org
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“How much more work would it be to do this publicly and let other people benefit?” The response was really strong, and almost immediately led to the thought that we should take this more seriously, because a bunch of people were watching it.
For us, the intended effect was always to move the reading of stories outside the browser. I have always felt like the browser is a crappy place to read a long story. When you look at the data on pagination, most people don’t click through all the pages of a story. It’s a lose-lose for the reader and the writer.
So we started with Instapaper buttons, and we added Read It Later and Readability, which supports the Kindle. We ended up covering what we think are most of the time-shifting bases. But then we noticed something interesting. A lot of our friends and our parents, even though they knew us, weren’t using the service in that way. It was too big of a leap to sign up for an Instapaper account or install a bookmarklet. I know that to the tech press this sounds ridiculous, but it’s a very real phenomenon: Instapaper is too complicated for some people to use. We wanted to create something that has a similar experience, but works more directly. So we are taking the stuff that was really working well in the Longform.org context and delivering it directly.
X: You just covered the whole history of Longform in one answer. Let’s back up and go through parts of it a bit slower. Were you always a big fan of long-form journalism?
AL: I was never a big reader, and Max was a huge one. This tells you about the transformative effect [of apps like Instapaper]. I have never been a big magazine subscriber, but I am a person who gets very obsessive about certain consumption patterns. In the course of a year, I went from reading nothing to reading two to three hours a day. I really liked reading on my iPhone. It was also exciting because there was a discovery aspect. I hadn’t read a lot, so there was a lot of classic, awesome stuff to find. It was sort of like when MP3s became prevalent. Before that maybe you had a binder with 40 or 100 CDs in it, and all of a sudden the clouds open and you realize how much stuff is out there.
Max has always been more of an aficionado. He has been doing journalism since he got out of college. He was editing an alternative weekly newspaper when he was 24. It’s been his life for a long time. So when we started, he had a 12-inch stack of printouts that he had been hoarding. And we hear that a lot from people, who have come to us with really incredible collections. They’re like, “I never knew what I was going to do with this, but I’ve been hoarding Delicious links for 10 years.” We have really benefited from that.
X: Long-form journalism seems to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance on the Internet, but do you think it ever really went out of style?
AL: You can’t really divorce how something is delivered from what it is. Did reading long stories on the Web go out of style? Absolutely. Did the general reading population shift to the Web? Unquestionably. So I think it’s the perfect storm of bad circumstances. But I don’t necessarily think that means long-form journalism went out of style. I feel like it got the short end of the stick, as part of a larger shift. And there is another shift happening now that’s swinging back in its favor.
X: How would you describe that shift?
AL: I think the idea that almost everyone in the country is going to have a mobile reader in their pocket within the next five years represents the biggest shift in reading since we started printing books. What I have seen anecdotally is that people are a little bit loath to wade into Moby-Dick on an iPhone. But … Next Page »