For a relatively new website, Longform is steeped in tradition.
TakePart: A lot of Internet gurus say that no one reads anything on the Internet. What do you know that they don’t?
Max Linsky: Well, I’m not so sure a lot of Internet gurus say that; a Google search pulls up all of 10 results. But I do think the prevailing assumption—both in newsrooms and, um, gururooms—has been that nobody will read anything long on the Internet. We just don’t have the attention spans to handle anything beyond bite-size, 140-character bits of information. Or so the thinking goes.
But the problem isn't an ADD-ridden audience, which is the most convenient excuse for publishers. The problem is the web browser is a terrible place to read something long. You can’t save your place, can’t easily adjust the font, you're inundated with ads and links, the story has 14 pages—no wonder nobody wanted to read 5,000 words on most magazine and newspaper websites.
The resurgence in long-form online isn’t about increased attention spans. It’s about better tools. Instapaper, the Kindle, Readability—these services were built to serve readers, not publishers. Same goes for Longform.org. Also of note: none of those tools were built in newsrooms. Instapaper has been the number one news app on the iPad for months—ahead of the biggest journalistic brands in America—and it was built by one guy.
TakePart: What is the value of long-form journalism?
Max Linsky: To readers? It’s a chance to hear an actual story told in full. Long-form pieces are an antidote to the plague of modern jackassery. They make you feel like an expert. And they offer a break from the noise of the web. To publishers? It’s a chance to get audiences to truly engage with your brand—the opposite of the janky, drive-by traffic that I think (/hope/pray) is on its way out. A visit that lasts less than five seconds shouldn’t be worth as much as one that lasts 20 minutes. Once that inefficiency in web advertising works itself out, publishers who have invested in long-form content will be in a great position.
TakePart: What obstacles is long-form facing, both online and in print?
Max Linsky: The obstacle in both mediums, of course, is money. Long-form content, at least the kind that requires getting off the couch and actually doing some reporting, isn’t cheap to produce. But while the print model has no chance of returning to its former glory—those budgets and page counts aren’t coming back—online presents a real opportunity. This is a golden age for readers. More content is available than ever before, it’s easier to find, and it’s easier to read when and how you want to. The eyeballs are there—it’s on publishers to figure out how to make money off them.
TakePart: How will long-form be funded and presented five years from now?
Max Linsky: I’d bet on a combination of several models. Boutique publishers like the Atavist and Byliner will continue to pop up. The major magazines will still be doing their thing—New Yorker, Texas Monthly, Vanity Fair, etc. They’re not going anywhere. Authors will be self-publishing all over the place via whatever the Kindle Single store evolves into. Nonprofit operations like ProPublica and the Texas Tribune will be producing the stuff too. Delivery is less clear to me, but I’m sure of this: five years from now, you’ll get exactly what you want in the exact format you want it.
TakePart: As a consumer, where do you get your news?
Max Linsky: TakePart! Also, Twitter. Mostly Twitter. Which means that some stories feel much bigger than they really are and others I miss altogether. But it’s increasingly rare that the latter happens; if news breaks about something I care about, I find out very, very quickly.
I also read the New York Times obsessively and cannot imagine a world in which I don’t. A new service that I’ve really enjoyed: Percolate’s daily email.
To further conversations raised in Participant Media's new documentary "Page One: Inside the New York Times," TakePart is presenting "Consider the Source," a multi-part original series featuring award-winning reporters, photojournalists and voices in digital media.
Participant Media—TakePart's parent company—acquired "Page One: Inside The New York Times" at the Sundance Film Festival and is releasing the film theatrically with Magnolia Pictures.