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November 15, 2012

Against expectations long-form journalism finds a home on the web

By Jon Bernstein

There’s a book to be written about received wisdom, false assumptions and unintended consequences during the last twenty years of communications technology.

Take text messaging as an example. Who – save those wise after the event – could have told us that short message service (aka SMS) would become, for a period from the late 1990s, a cash cow for mobile phone operators? After all, it was a mere afterthought, an add-on in a time when the core function of a mobile phone was making voice calls (and how quaint that latter notion feels today).

Or, for that matter, who would have predicted that a text-only service, 20 characters shorter than SMS, would become a social media sensation? Twitter owes its success to the simplicity of the platform and the creativity of its users. It sounds so obvious in retrospect but which of the Web 2.0 soothsayers foresaw it? It was the antithesis of feature-rich when feature-rich was the order of the day.

Or how about long-form journalism and the internet? The two were never meant to go together. At least that’s what we thought in the late 1990s and throughout much of the Noughties. People weren’t going sit in front of their screens and read an eighteen hundred, let alone a 4,000- word essay.

Keep it short, sharp and to the point. That was Writing for the Web 101, advice I dished out on more than one occasion.

Indeed blogs, much like this one, appeared to be the perfect antidote to the lengthy, providing a the vehicle for a writer to relay a single thought, a snappy anecdote, an instant opinion – even an original, bite-sized chunk of insight if you were lucky. A brilliant form and, unlike the essay, it was perfect for the web.

But it turns out that long-form and the internet are a perfect match too. “I love a short blog read as much as the next guy but the things that really make an impression on me tend to have a lot of length and weight and heft,” says Cory Doctorow, co-founder of Boing Boing, an archetypal quick hit blog.

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Doctorow provided his thoughts for a video announcing Matter, a publication that celebrates long-form journalism and that went live this week. According to the site, Matter “commissions, crafts and publishes unmissable journalism about science, technology and the ideas shaping our future.” It charges a nominal fee for its journalism – $0.99 for its debut piece – and articles can be viewed as an ebook or via a “distraction-free” website (for distraction-free read no adverts)

Matter is not alone. The likes of curate the best essays from around the web while (in another move that challenges received wisdom) BuzzFeed is seeking a long-form editor.

The growing market for smart devices is undoubtedly fuelling the demand for publications like Matter and giving post-print hope to weekly and monthly magazine publishers.

Twenty three per cent of visits to this site, for instance, come from people using Android-based phones and tablets, iPhones and iPads. That's 150 per cent growth year-on-year. The weekday, office-hour peaks that used to define the patterns of internet consumption have been flattened by weekend and evening browsing as people lean back and, increasingly, luxuriate in longer forms of journalism. Among other things.

Yet this is not just about the tablet. Long-form works on the desktop too.

The single most read piece during my time running was Hugh Grant’s undercover interview with former News of the World hack Paul McMullan. It has 14,000 Facebook likes, just short of 12,000 retweets and has been read around a million times. And it runs to 3,000 words.

In the two months since we relaunched the Press Gazette website, the most read piece has been Andrew Pugh’s fascinating interview with David Walsh, the journalist who did most to undercover the wrongdoings of Lance Armstrong.

The piece benefited from timing, coinciding with Armstrong's lifetime ban from cycling. But there was plenty else out there about Armstrong, lots of it short, sharp and to the point. However, readers in large numbers were willing to invest their time in something that was had “length” and “heft”. Both the Hugh Grant and David Walsh pieces began life in print. 

Matter is a digital publication down to its last pixel – from its commissioning model, to its micropayments and even its funding via Kickstarter – but it offers encouragement and a potential direction of travel for traditional publishers. Good luck to all involved.


**Finally, and largely off topic, a quick plug. Press Gazette is now available on Google Currents. Currents is a social reading app that allows you to subscribe to a variety of publications and read a selection of their output online or offline. If you’re accessing this on an iPhone, iPad or Android phone or tablet, you can get Press Gazette on Currents here. Give it a try and let us know what you think.

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