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Mark Armstrong, like many people in New York City, was a commuter — he commuted to Time Inc.’s midtown Manhattan offices from Cobble HIll, Brooklyn, and it was the tedium of the commute that led him to seek ways to keep himself busy when he was without Wi-Fi. One day he found Instapaper, and before he knew it, there was a lot of stuff he could save and read when offline.
Soon he was asking the question: What if there were a service that aggregated the very best articles on the web for commuters like him to read on his iPhone? A single article a day would do. He asked the question to his Twitter freinds and asked them to share stories with him with the hashtag #longreads. Replies poured in, and so did links to other stories. And with that Longreads, a service that curates quality writing from across the web, was born.
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“In many ways, Twitter’s human curation — and the irony of 140 characters helping save long-form journalism — makes it a perfect forum for the great work of writers like Chris Jones, Joe Posnanski, Atul Gawande and others,” Mark writes on his blog.
At its inception in 2009, Longreads was purely a Twitter phenomenon — building followers and sharing links with them. A year later, it was on the web, and since then a lot has changed. It is integrated with services such as Instapaper. You can get Longreads on Kindle. There is an iPad app. And most of the major publishers work with Longreads and use the hashtag, to point to their best work.
Last week, he visited our office and we talked at length about everything from the state of publishing to the information overload we all feel, but soon enough our conversation turned to Longreads. He explained that Longreads shared about two or three articles everyday, and for the first three years he was the one who made all the article picks. These days he shares the load with Mike Dang (co-editor of theBillFold, a financial website published by The Awl.)
Longreads now is a tiny bootstrapped (albeit virtual) startup that gets enough subscription dollars to, as Mark says, “keep the lights on.” The company charges $3 a month or $30 a year for its subscription service. There are occasional sponsorships, and Armstrong pointed out they have an advertising deal with The Atlantic, but for now it is reader support that keeps everything going. At present there are five people — three editors, a designer, and a developer — who work part time on Longreads. And Armstrong himself has started working for Pocket (formerly Read It Later) as editorial director and recently moved to San Francisco.
“There is this assumption that people need more content,” said Armstrong. “In reality what they need is different things and better recommendations. And, no, readers don’t want to be swamped.” Armstrong believes that quality takes precedence over quantity. I certainly agree with Armstrong and apply the same principle when putting together my Om Says weekly newsletter (or making selections for the What I am reading posts).
“When I started Longreads four years ago, the accepted wisdom was that people did not have time for in-depth storytelling on the web—and very few online-only publishers could be bothered to invest in it,” Armstrong wrote later, when I emailed him to clarify some points he made during our conversation. “This has changed dramatically, and I think the Longreads community has shown that there is a huge appetite for these stories.”
Armstrong pointed out that in the age of BuzzFeed and Huffington Post, we are seeing the rise of online magazines that eschew quick-and-easy for slow content. For example, Aeon magazine and The New Inquiry are but two examples of new purveyors of online long-form journalism that came out of nowhere and took the web by a storm.
Mark thinks we are going to see many more of these experiments and that more of them will be successful, mostly because social networks are making discovery of their content easier. He says services like Longreads are reminding folks that while short blog posts might be fun, long-form is more satisfying.
“The experience of reading online is getting easier—thanks to phones, tablets and “save for later”—and social recommendation is making it easier to find stories from both large and small publishers,” Armstrong said. “The question now, of course, is who pays for them.” He says that the Longreads Membership is “also a way to pay writers and publishers for their work.” And we should expect to hear more about this in coming months.
In the interim, if you like good writing, sign-up for Longreads.