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May 1, 2017, 7:14 a.m.
Business Models

Amid the wreckage of fallen startups, Longreads is increasing the original reporting it funds

A lot of startups have wanted to be “a great place for writers.” Longreads appears to actually be succeeding at this.

At eight, Longreads is a bit of a wizened survivor.

During its lifetime, startups trying to do similar things to it have come and gone. Byliner collapsed, Atavist shrunk, and Medium — a much larger company with way more funding than Longreads — is struggling as its billionaire founder grasps for a solution to “today’s media consumption ailments.”

When Automattic, the parent company of WordPress.com, acquired Longreads in 2014, Longreads was doing okay. It already had a membership program: Readers could pay $3 a month to help keep the site going. Once Longreads joined Automattic, though, its day-to-day existence began more stable. But with a solid base of paying members, it seemed silly to disband the membership program.

Instead, Longreads decided to keep the membership program going — but the money raised, rather than going to site upkeep, would go to fund original reporting. Over the past three years, Longreads has built up its story fund and is hiring staff to pursue its goal of becoming something that looks more like an online magazine — one that pays its writers fairly, is sustainable, and does quality reporting.

“The membership started out as this sort of basic thing that kept our small company alive,” said Mark Armstrong, the founder of Longreads. “That was a good start, but the bar has been raised, in terms of the quality of what’s out there on the Internet. We wanted to clarify our editorial mission in a way that emphasizes on-the-ground reporting.” That means, most recently, a series about migration and human trafficking in Mexico.

Longreads has raised about $250,000 from “thousands of members” since it added memberships in 2012. The suggested monthly amount is now $5 a month or $50 a year, though readers can choose to donate any amount, and Armstrong said that the company’s gotten some thousand-dollar donations. All of that money now goes to pay authors, and WordPress.com matches every $1 from a reader with an additional $3, which clearly makes it a lot easier for Longreads to do what it wants to do. “Our ultimate goal is 100 percent reader funding, but we’re not there yet,” said Armstrong. Longreads is overseen by Automattic’s seven-person editorial team, which is spread out geographically (Automattic has no offices). Mike Dang, who cofounded The Billfold (now part of The Awl), is editor-in-chief. Longreads is hiring more staff, including most recently Michelle Legro, who had been a culture editor at The New Republic, as an editor. Other editors live in Boston, Portland, Vancouver, San Francisco, and Winnipeg.

The site has now published more than 100 exclusives, which are a mixture of original reporting, partnerships with publishers, and pieces that were co-funded with publications like Atlas Obscura, The Awl, The Stranger, and The Marshall Project. “I’ve found publishing partnerships work really well, because it adds stakeholders to the story and helps get the word out a bit more, even if the story is being co-published across two different places,” Armstrong said. “If publishers are looking to do projects, they should get in touch with us.”

Longreads’ funding model isn’t like Patreon’s or Kickstarter’s; members don’t specifically fund one writer or project. Rather, the money goes into a general story fund that Longreads’ editors decide how to assign. The site has no plans to move away from that model. “I think it’s difficult to match reader interest, before a story is written or is even reported, with what comes out on the other end,” Armstrong said. “It can be hard to articulate to a reader in advance what you’re going to report, and, at least for the kinds of stories we want to pursue, it would put a lot of pressure on a specific writer or a specific story. The benefit of being a publisher is that we can do the fundraising work ourselves, on behalf of a larger group of writers.” Longreads’ pay rates are “competitive with national publications,” Armstrong said. (The rate paid is based on the kind of story. I heard from one writer who gets between $1 and $1.25 a word; three entries in Who Pays Writers show Longreads paying between $0.17 and $0.33 a word.) Right now, all of the reporting is free for everybody to read — it’s not exclusive to the members who pay for it — but some sort of metered paywall could be a possibility in the future.

“We’ve wanted to focus on making this a great place for the writers themselves,” Armstrong said. That means not just paying fair rates but also offering decent contracts and a home for stories that might be too long or too personal for mainstream publications. “There’s never been a really satisfying answer, for me, in terms of what stories work and what stories don’t work,” Armstrong said. “Overall, it’s about focusing on the stories themselves, the writer’s vision, working closely with editors. The only way to succeed with these pieces is to take the time and to be very thoughtful with them. You can take lessons from audience development, but you can’t have that guide your entire editorial mission.”

A lot of outlets say things like this. But “yes, I think it’s totally fair to say they are good to and for writers,” said Meaghan O’Connell, the author of the 2014 Longreads original “A Birth Story,” which ultimately landed her a book deal with Little, Brown.

Her essay started out as a four-part Tinyletter, and editor-in-chief Dang got in touch to ask her if Longreads could publish it — “which with anyone else I would have been more averse to, given the headline and how personal it was,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine having to edit it too much, give it more of a lede, have comments on it, have it get a weird reductive headline and an ‘angle.’ But I already had a working relationship with Mike, and he was clear they wouldn’t change much, and I knew Longreads wouldn’t slap a semi-demoralizing stock photo on it…There was none of the pressure to make anything more controversial or pegged.” She got paid $2,000 (the essay is 14,248 words long) promptly.

Armstrong doesn’t see the site’s model as being particularly innovative, and in some ways, it isn’t. But the fact that the company is now eight years old and surviving is noteworthy in and of itself. It’s lucky that (after surviving for five years) it found a parent company in Automattic — but as Medium’s struggles to find a business model have made clear, a wealthy founder is no guarantee of success and a lot of eyeballs don’t translate into a vision.

Armstrong didn’t want to make direct comparisons to Medium. “From the outside, it seems they also realize reader funding and subscriptions are critical for sustainable quality content,” he said. “The other critical piece is having a CEO who wants to pursue journalism, so we’ve been very lucky to have [Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg’s] support on that front.”

Longreads is in it for the long haul, he said, even if “we haven’t pulled it off yet…It’s been clear to me that having brand equity, a specific mission, and a clarity of purpose are the things that make it work. Our inspirations right now are places like Mother Jones and The New York Times. Places where readers know where their money is going and what they get for it.” Sure, having a rich parent company helps with that a lot. But if that were all it took, Longreads would have a lot more competitors.

POSTED     May 1, 2017, 7:14 a.m.
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