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, “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 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 create a place where people could design their own experience around their favorite sources. We are starting with 25 sources. Ultimately, we would like it to be more global. So when you are in London, for example, you can get the Guardian and other great local sources.

X: How did you pick the initial 25 sources for the app? Have you reached out and negotiated a deal with each of these publishers?

AL: No, we don’t negotiate and we don’t look at it as a deal of any kind. Everything in the app is publicly available. We looked at the sources that we were constantly linking to on Longform.org. We said “These are the most consistent, high-quality sources,” and we started there.

We have a lot of ideas about places to go from here. But we didn’t want to overwhelm people when we launched with a huge catalog of stuff. It does require custom work to create the rich metadata you see in the app, where it identifies the author, the title, and gives a story description. That is stuff that’s more advanced than just RSS feeds. So we do a lot of custom back-end work to support each feed.

X: You’re supplying publishers with more page views, but not necessarily with more ad impressions, right?

AL: What we are doing is loading people’s Web pages in a reader window, the same way you would in an RSS reader or a Twitter client if you clicked on a link. We default to those Web pages. So that pings your Web server and it registers as a page view in your analytics. In that way, I think we are supplying value.

Once that page is loaded, the reader is free to toggle into a more parsed view to read—but that’s only once the page is loaded. The only time we default to a stripped-down page is when the reader is offline and therefore couldn’t load the Web page anyway. But far and away the majority of people’s iPad time is connected time. We think the occasional parsed page view is a worthwhile tradeoff for publishers.

X: Okay, but let’s take this a step further. There is a setting in the app that allows the reader to default to the parsed, stripped-down view for reading, even when they’re connected. And I’m of two minds about that. As a reader, I enjoy the simplified presentation. But as a journalist working for a for-profit publication, I’m a little horrified. If this form of reading really caught on, and if everyone opted for the parsed view, ad impressions would plummet. How is that good for publishers?

AL: Obviously, you are not the first person who has asked this question. It was probably the most active and contentious discussion we had in building this. What we ultimately believe in is designing for readers. We think the most important person in the equation is the reader. And if the reader has a great experience, the reader will read more, and the reader will be a better customer.

But where we are right now is not where I think we will be in a few years. I don’t think these clean, minimalist experiences are totally incongruous with ads or some form of monetization. I think publishers will follow the readers to where the readers want to be. The ultimate goal is not in any way to strip out ads. I think the ultimate goal is to give a great reading experience. And if enough people can express their support of that, it’s going to be a good thing for publishers.

Anecdotally, people love to read on the Kindle. The Kindle may be a better design example of where things are going than the Web. If I were a publisher, I would be looking at what people actually like about the Kindle experience. Anywhere a bunch of enthusiastic readers are going is a place publishers should go also. I don’t need to tell publishers what to do, but our app shows both the present and the possible future.

X: Curating Longform.org must be a big job all by itself. How do you manage that?

AL: We have five or six editors who work on Longform now, and that has freed us up to do things like work on the app. If curation was entirely my and Max’s responsibility, we would have trouble taking on new projects. We took people who were already submitting great stuff and were enthusiastic about what we were doing and asked them to be editors, and we divvied it up by days of the week. One person is on call every day, like a doctor with a pager, to make sure we have three or four great stories up there. We don’t try to post 20 stories a day. We want people to be confident, so that they’ll say “I am blindly going to read this story because Longform recommended it.”

X: Do you worry that by adding all these automated feeds to the app, you’re diluting the value of that curation, which is, after all, one of the reasons people like your site?

AL: I hear what you’re saying. But we are readers too, and we are always looking for stuff, and we found that having a tool to sort through, say, all of the long-form stories from Wired was really valuable to us. So the app is almost designed for us. And anecdotally, what we find is that people like the ability to scoot around and design their own experience.

There are also feeds that are doing really interesting stuff that don’t necessarily overlap with the kinds of stuff we feature on Longform. And if you stick with the app for the next six months to a year, you will start to see stuff that is even more surprising and offers a different take. Ultimately I would like there to be a “Longform Tech”—with three or four curated Longform stories every day, which would allow me to go down the nerd hole a little bit and geek out. We also see a lot of interest in a sports feed or a politics feed. On the back end, internally, we are running a feed of the long-form articles posted to Hacker News. I have all these secret feeds turned on, and I use them all the time. All of that stuff will be making its way back into the app.

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

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