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May 26, 2011, 1 p.m.

Longreads is becoming more social (and making a play at sustainability)

Last month, Rolling Stone brought three of its reporters to a Manhattan bookstore for a standing-room-only conversation about long-form journalism. The event was co-hosted by a hashtag.

At the time, #longreads, along with its associated Twitter feed, had just reached its second birthday. Founder Mark Armstrong had made the tag ubiquitous as a source for great nonfiction, helping to prompt the media business’ startled realization that people will actually read long stuff on the Internet. But could Longreads’ crowd of nonfiction fans, nearly 25,000 strong on the web, be mobilized to help support the creation of the stories they loved?

It’s a question that Armstrong is still working on as he continues Longreads’ development from media-geek favorite to industry standard. (NYT Magazine editor Hugo Lindgren used the tag Wednesday morning to announce the magazine’s latest cover story.)

Longreads’ beginnings were simple: Back in 2009, Armstrong had a 40-minute commute each morning, and he was looking for more stories to Instapaper. (As Oscar Wilde noted, “One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”) Since then, the number of Longreaders has continued to grow. Roughly 80 percent of the articles posted on the feed each day come from user recommendations, Armstrong said. And the hashtag is starting to be used in new ways, including to recommend short fiction.

Armstrong and his three-person design/programmer team recently introduced “Longreads Pages,” which allow readers to browse longform recommendations according to the Twitter handles of the recommenders. (Armstrong compared this to the voyeuristic pleasure of going to someone’s house and checking out his or her bookshelves.) The pages automatically aggregate #longreads tweets from individual users — @michellelegro or @alexanderchee, for instance. “There are a lot of very diverse takes and personalities, and we wanted to find new ways to highlight that,” Armstrong said.

Under the Pages framework, publications that use the hashtag, including The Atlantic, the New York Review of BooksSlate, Time, and the Boston Review, also get their own pages. According to proper Twittiquette, these magazine feeds usually include some recommendations from fellow publications, as well as their own #longreads offerings. (And at least one publisher — Farrar, Straus and Giroux — is using its Longreads page quite deliberately to tout its authors.)

Armstrong said Longreads’ new social-sharing focus will continue in real life, as well.  He has a few more events with other publishers in the works, he says, and aims to make social gatherings a regular part of the Longreads experience. Having assembled a group of enthusiasts, Armstrong wants to explore different ways of bringing them together.

The big goal of this kind of community-building would be to use Longreads to help with longform’s supply-side woes. “Up to this point, the way we’ve viewed support is simply eyeballs and attention,” he said. So “the question on everyone’s minds is how to financially support the continued creation of that form of storytelling.”

We’ve talked about the long-form conundrum at the Lab before. Long stories often top publications’ most-read lists, but they are also some of the most expensive, time-consuming kinds of journalism to produce. And the number of magazine pages available for long-form has shrunk along with ad revenue.

“Long-term, without getting into specifics, we want to make this more sustainable,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong is enthusiastic about the new, online-only purveyors of longform, including The Awl. At the same time, though, as he told The Atlantic Wire earlier this year, “Traditional publications are still the main source of the most ambitious nonfiction storytelling you’ll find online.”

Still, he’s optimistic. “From what I’ve heard anecdotally, publishers are seeing value in producing longform,” Armstrong said. “They’re seeing traffic.” And that’s in part because “these are stories that are timeless. They are still enjoyable weeks, months, even years after they’re created. You’re creating something with a lot more durability over the long term.”

Longreads itself has a “long tail” of engagement on Twitter, with tweets and retweets still going out months after a story is initially posted. There’s also not very much  difference, he noted, in the enthusiasm and readership for very old #longreads as opposed to very new ones.

But the supply-side problem will not be an easy one to fix, at least for the highest end of longform. Former NYT Magazine editor Gerry Marzorati once noted that the magazine’s cover stories regularly cost upwards of $40,000. At that rate, per my speculative math, even if every single @Longreads follower donated $10 a year to pay for new stories, their joint purchasing power would only fund about six longform projects. That would be great, of course, but on a typical day, the feed posts at least four or five.

Armstrong’s first financial experiment is more basic: finding out whether #longreads aficionados might be willing to voluntarily shell out some cash for the support of @Longreads itself. He is asking for voluntary members at $3 a month, or $30 for a year (plus a Longreads mug). Since the membership push is new, Armstrong wasn’t willing to talk numbers yet (or to provide a size-related adjective). Same deal with the particular perks of membership. “The perks are fairly minimal right now,” he noted. “We hope to add more perks over time, but we don’t want people to come in with that expectation.”

That “no expectations” attitude could transfer to longform more broadly. Despite the heightened media attention to the future of lengthy nonfiction, questions about the fate of the form can be as common as answers. At last month’s Rolling Stone event, managing editor Will Dana said he believed that longform has a crucial place in today’s 24/7 media culture. And yet, as Yahoo’s Joe Pompeo reported, “Asked how he could be so sure of that, Dana hedged. ‘I just think we have to have a basic faith that quality will win out in the end.'”

POSTED     May 26, 2011, 1 p.m.
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