Gothamist Begins Experiment In Long-Form — And Well-Paying — Journalism

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Who says no one wants to read long-form articles on the web? The flagship of local news and culture blog network Gothamist hopes to torpedo the view that freelancers can no longer command real money for real writing. The site, admittedly new to the idea of magazine-style reportage, is starting with only one long piece a month, but it’s hardly starting small: it’s asking journalists to submit any idea for an article ranging from 5,000 to 15,000 words and will pay $5,000 to the author.

Eventually, Gothamist hopes to have four or five features each week to compliment the 250+ shorter posts that site runs, Jake Dobkin, Gothamist’s co-founder and publisher, said in an e-mail exchange with paidContent.

“My hope is that we can come up with a features model that works, and then start doing this regularly,” Dobkin said. “I love long form journalism and I’ve always been envious of outlets like NYMag and The New Yorker that have a features budget.”

Many online-only sites have struggled with the idea of long-form journalism. For years, it was considered impossible, as sites like Salon embraced and abandoned extensive, narrative pieces. For the most part, readers tended to avoid articles longer than 1,500 words on the web (and many would have considered anything above 800 words as too much to digest). But over the past year, e-readers and tablets have really caught on, suggesting that readers are willing to turn virtual pages.

As such, Reuters (NYSE: TRI) has turned to doing several-thousand words-long “enterprise pieces.” And over a year ago, Capital New York emerged as a literary news and culture site with the bet that sponsorships would support well-written, well-thought out content.

Still, the ability of most sites to support the kind of money that a professionally reported piece is difficult, one Dobkin, who co-founded Gothamist in 2003, acknowledged.

“The challenge for us is that our advertising model works best for short form pieces,” he said. “The display CPMs and number of ads on the page won’t support the economics of long form pieces — so I’m looking for a different way of adding this content to our sites. The ‘singles’ model [for Amazon’s Kindle] seems promising. We have a large number of readers here in New York, and if we pick the right story and set the price right, I think it might work. If it doesn’t, I’ve got a few more models I’d like to try!”

So far, Dobkin doesn’t plan to use the longer pieces as part of a larger syndication offering to mainstream magazine or newspaper sites. And he’s a more than a little leery of expanding into other areas of paid or “premium” content beyond this experiment in long form journalism. “I think things like this will be the only ‘premium’ content we offer — I think readers prefer the vast majority of their content be free. Even if paywalls make sense for some newspapers, I don’t think they’ll ever make sense for sites like ours. But ‘one-off’ and ‘singles’ programs seem like they could be expanded beyond reading content- imagine a secret performance by a good band recorded on video- it seems like some sites might be able to get people to pay for content like that.”

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