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

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people really like a 20- or 40-minute experience. That maps well to when people are trying to kill time, or when they have a commute. For long-form journalists, it’s an ideal pairing. The phone and the tablet are great for presenting these 5,000-word or 10,000-word stories.

X: Why do you think the Web is such a poor environment for long stories?

AL: It starts with design. Design is about human choices, and those choices evolve, and as I see it the evolution of those choices is just getting worse. Websites that publish long non-fiction are not improving in their clarity. You see more and more pop-ups, more pagination. This is not a value judgment in any way; I understand why a lot of these things are necessary. People need to pay bills, and I respect that. But if you just look at habits, I think that sort of design turns people off from having a 20- or 30-minute experience with a story. There are just too many distractions. You are constantly being asked to go off somewhere else, and if that happens enough times over 30 minutes, you are probably going to leave. So, there are a lot of things that the Web does really well, but I don’t think it serves narrative journalism particularly well. That’s just how the Web has evolved.

X: Is Longform.org a full-time business for you and Max?

AL: It is, but it wasn’t from the start. There was a long period where both of us were doing a lot of freelance work. About the time we started working on the app, a year ago, was when we kind of said let’s give this a go and take it seriously as a full-time thing for a while and see what we can do with it. That involved a certain amount of blowing through savings and not living very lavishly. But we do make a modest amount of money on our ads. We get other income from partnerships and sponsorships. Apps cost money to develop, so one of the reasons we need to raise money is to pay for future development.

X: Ads? What ads? I don’t remember seeing a single ad on Longform.org.

AL: Almost everyone says that to me, but they’re right there in the sidebar. If anything, that suggests to me that people are no longer seeing sidebar ads. Our brains have managed to block them out. But that helps cover our costs. It pays for our servers and a lot of the upkeep, and we have been able to reinvest. When we did our Best of 2011 special section, the Pitt Writers program sponsored it very generously. [Editor's note: Longform.org selected a January 2011 Xconomy article, "Inside Google's Age of Augmented Humanity," as one of the 10 top long-form technology stories of 2011.]

X: Okay, walk me through the creation of the iPad app. What were your goals with it?

AL: We had this idea for something that took advantage of what we liked about the Readability and Instapaper experiences and did that in a way that doesn’t involve going to the Web and shifting stuff back, but instead putting stuff in a central place where you could always find good stuff to read. Obviously, at the core of that experience, we wanted to put Longform’s own selections. But it’s kind of weird: the way we find stories is by hunting around on these websites and looking for these long stories and reading them, and anyone else doing that has to go through the same hassles. So we came up with this idea of creating Longform feeds from magazines and curators, so that you could just receive a feed of all of the New Yorker feature stories, or all of the curation that Arts & Letters Daily does, and have them waiting for you. It’s all of the good things about what is being published on the Web, without having to descend into the muck of the Web.

I don’t want my mother to take offense, but it’s very much designed for my mother, who got an iPad for Christmas and would love to read this stuff, but isn’t necessarily going to do so using time-shifting and the existing techniques.

Ultimately, we would like it to be bigger. There is so much good stuff being published on the Web; in some ways Longform itself is a bit narrow. Max and I are big fans of true crime and politics stories, for example. And we only post three to four things a day. So we wanted to … Next Page »

Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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