State of the #Longreads, 2014

Lately there has been some angst about the state of longform journalism on the Internet. So I thought I’d share some quick data on what we’ve seen within the Longreads community:

• The number of tweets with #longreads is up 130% over the past two years. There are more free stories being shared in this community than ever before.

• The number of different domains shared within the #longreads community has more than doubled since 2011. (3,000 domains in all.)

• We’re seeing a steady increase in the number of non-English-language tweets within #longreads, which means there is a global audience interested in reading great storytelling on their mobile devices.

Based on output alone, longform journalism is doing just fine in 2014

We are awash in great storytelling. And most of it is being given away for free.

This last part has made it difficult for hard-paywall subscription models, or ebook singles, to thrive for recreational reading in the way that some had imagined. When I first started Longreads in 2009, I thought national magazine publishers would start to recognize the “longform resurgence,” then paywall their feature stories. It never really happened. I asked a magazine editor about this, and he replied, “Why wouldn’t we give these stories away? We already monetized them in print.”

Since then, The New York Times has successfully embraced a metered paywall—which keeps the stories free while asking its loyal readers to help chip in—and The New Yorker just announced that it, too, will move from a hard paywall to a metered paywall—unlocking a massive archive of the world’s best narrative journalism. (Readers, get ready to binge.)

And now a slew of digital publishers have embraced #longreads, seeing an opportunity to expand their mix of content and offer more ambitious storytelling. Just look in the Longreads archive: Feature stories from BuzzFeed, Mashable, Medium, SB Nation, TechCrunch, Gawker, Eater, startups like Priceonomics, niche sites like Collectors Weekly… even Alinea restaurant in Chicago!

So here we are. In 2009, when I started this, the challenge was “find me something to read.” In 2014, the challenge is, “there’s so much to read.”

These stories are being commissioned a number of different ways: By VC-backed big media companies, billionaires creating their own publishing companies, academic institutions, nonprofit news organizations, Kickstarter-backed side projects, think tanks, and traditional print publishers who still have a sizable paid subscription base and a feature well to fill.

The World’s Largest Social Reading Club

Anyone concerned about the state of journalism needed only to scroll through Twitter the night that The Atlantic posted Ta-Nehisi Coates’s story, “The Case for Reparations.” My entire feed turned into a social media reading club, discussing (of all things) a 15,000-word feature story.

Longform storytelling, like books, still has a payoff, a reason for being, that goes beyond pure revenue: It’s about our innate desire to read (or create) great narratives, and to learn more about the world around us. The audience hunger for quality is real, and longform stories perform well, traffic-wise. They have an extended lifespan on social media—they usually have no expiration date, so they live multiple lives on Facebook over the course of months and years.

The stories come from anywhere. Thanks to the Longreads community, a writer can publish a story for a regional publication like This Land Press, or The Walrus, or the Riverfront Times, and reach a global audience. It’s an exciting time.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems. The Long Tail is still nowhere near as profitable as the Giant Blockbuster. There still seems to be only a small batch of national writers who can afford to be full-time freelancers. There’s still a lack of diversity with the writers and topics. Publishers still have an advantage over writers when it comes to story rights and payments. Everyone is wondering: Can it last?

And yet, it is still going. I am optimistic that as the global reading audience continues to grow, more tools will become available, more standards will be embraced, to help balance the ecosystem and keep it thriving.

We want to continue to do our part to help this community grow, for writers and independent publishers around the world. With Longreads now part of the WordPress.com Editorial Team, I see many opportunities for us to do just that.