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May 17, 2011, 1:30 p.m.

How Conor Friedersdorf created a magazine-club experience through his “Best of Journalism” list

Several years ago, when Conor Friedersdorf was working at the startup (and soon-to-be-departed) web magazine Culture 11, he and a few friends would gather regularly at Kramerbooks near Dupont Circle in DC for what was, for lack of a better name, a magazine club. Someone would choose a new feature for the group to read and later discuss. Things went the way they sometimes can with reading clubs: Schedules, work and the urgency of other things disbanded the affair. But the the club, that joy in discovery of new writing and the group motivation to keep reading, may have been the genesis for Friedersdorf’s Best of Journalism list.

The list started as a collection of links in 2008. Since then, Friedersdorf, and the list along with him, have hopped around and found different journalistic homes. The list appeared in Culture 11, The American Scene, True/Slant, and The Atlantic (where Friedersdorf currently works as an associate editor). But beginning last year, Friedersdorf launched what you could call a spin-off of the list, the “Best of Journalism” newsletter — a weekly dose of writing from around the web, powered by Letter.ly and available at an app-esque price of $1.99 a month.

While he wouldn’t go into specifics on subscribers, Friedersdorf said the newsletter’s readers number in the hundreds — so he’s making at least $201 a month, and possibly into the triple digits, on the project. Considering that the list is not exactly a full-time gig, that’s a tidy sum on the side.

And the audience is growing, Friedersdorf says. That isn’t surprising if you look at similar projects like Longreads, SportsFeat, or Longform: There’s an explosion in curated reading and, with it, the discovery and preservation of long-form work. But what sets The Best of Journalism apart is that it uses these curatorial tools and ideas in the service of creating a guided, community-oriented reading experience. Not to mention a potential business model.

“I think one reason this sort of renaissance of longform is happening is [that] it’s a good length,” Friedersdorf told me. “I think a lot of people are craving something bigger than a tweet, a newspaper article, or a Gawker post, but don’t have time to read.”

It goes without saying that we’re in a great age for reading stories, but the discovery and delivery of those stories (as well as the ability to profit from them financially) remains a problem. But with each new method we create for winnowing the stories we want, whether it’s RSS, Twitter, Instapaper, or Read it Later, we’re also creating more pipes (albeit refined ones) for delivering information. If you’re anything like me, you’ve got an Instapaper queue longer than your leg, not to mention all those curated lists on Longreads. And Google Reader has taken on the look of an over-capacity house party. (And if, like me, you find yourself Instapapering The Atlantic Wire’s “What I Read” columns to read later, you’ve gone meta. Or just may just have a problem.) Even when we curate, we still create more stuff, and there’s always that nagging feeling you could be missing out on the next “important read.”

Friedersdorf started off his “Best of” list as an exercise in sharing good reads — not because he saw himself as an arbiter of great taste or as someone who possessed singular reading habits, but because the articles he highlighted were interesting stories. The project is in the tradition of passing along a Vanity Fair with sticky-note commentary, only it got bigger, and Friedersdorf began to approach the list the way the editor of a business-markets or healthcare newsletter would. After launching the list as a newsletter, Friedersdorf began experimenting with themed reading, with some weekly dispatches tied to events in the news (stories on tsunamis and Japanese culture, for example) and others drawing together disparate stories under a theme that may have gone otherwise unnoticed (a story on forensic investigators who study bite marks coupled with something on the use of DNA testing to solve cold cases).

“My niche is sending out stuff that is really good journalism and really good to read,” Friedersdorf said. “It’s a reader-driven list.”

But while the list takes from the idea of passing around a magazine article, it also has some shared DNA with link round-ups. A long-time student of the Andrew Sullivan school of blogging (he worked for him), Friedersdorf said that what makes link round-ups appealing isn’t just their condensed, “here’s what you need to read” quality, but also the personality that guides them. As Friedersdorf sees it, if you’re a follower of Sullivan or, say, Ta-Nehisi Coates, those links have an implied assurance that you’ll like what they lead to — because you’re being led there not just by the link, but by the person. So even if it’s a link to a 20,000-word Sunday take-out from The New York Times, what it’s ultimately saying is, “this is worth my time.”

In other words, the curated link list is about offering additional incentive, that extra hint that something is a “must-read.” Clicking a link is not the same as actually reading the story it leads to. A seal of personal approval can go towards helping that — but so can a little push from a group, or a little old-fashioned peer pressure. If we look back to the magazine club idea, that incentive can come from the notion that everyone around you is going to be reading a story too.

Friedersdorf wants to capture that kind of productive pressure in the newsletter by encouraging discussion among the list’s members, though that goal is somewhat hindered at the moment. (Letter.ly makes it a little tricky to reply to and comment on threads in the newsletter, he said.)

Though the “Best of” is a part-time gig at the moment, Friedersdorf will be doing similar work for Byliner, the new writer-focused publishing platform, cherry-picking some of the best pieces he can find in the platform’s archive and showcasing them for readers. In a strange way, he could be creating competition for himself, but no more than the other aggregators, newsletters, or curated reading lists out there. Friedersdorf said the growth of the newsletter shows that there’s an audience that wants to discover quality writing and is willing to pay for it. Arguably what they’re paying for is convenience, but Friedersdorf hopes it also has to do with the experience, as well. Price-wise, the newsletter is cheaper than many magazines and on par with an app, which, for consumers, could prove pretty enticing.

As Friedersdorf puts it, “At $1.99 for 24 great long-form reading recommendations, it’s a small amount for an insanely small risk to try.”

POSTED     May 17, 2011, 1:30 p.m.
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