Seven years ago this month I started Longreads. To say the word “longread” has taken hold beyond my wildest expectations would be an understatement. It was a Twitter hashtag experiment — which I started because I wanted story recommendations for my subway commute — that turned into a company, a meme, an original publisher, and, of course, an endless cycle of writers debating whether longform storytelling is good or bad for the internet. (Well, thank god for that.)
I’m quite proud of what this community has accomplished: We helped reverse the conventional wisdom that people had no attention span on the internet. More publishers began prioritizing and funding feature stories. Data continues to show that people love to read on the web — audiences on the internet will embrace longer pieces just as much as shorter pieces. Longreads in particular also helped popularize reading times for stories (sorry about that), weekend reading newsletters, and we lobbied successfully for the death of paginated articles.
There have been setbacks, too. A number of startups raised venture capital money to create marketplaces for longform storytelling. Many of them are now gone. Then the influx of digital publications producing this work meant that some long stories were… actually not worth reading. Or worse, irredeemably flawed.
Longform is dead!
I had always hoped that audience hunger for these stories would spur publishers to spend more money on reporting, and focus on fewer, higher-impact stories. I believe that’s happened to some extent. But the reality is that these stories are still expensive to produce. Audience desire, no matter how strong, doesn’t change the difficult economics of spending weeks or months on a story, traveling, staying in hotels, meeting with sources IRL.
But then: you click on their stories, and as a reader, you are rewarded. Maybe it’s that Texas Monthly link in your Twitter feed, or Atlas Obscura, or the Tampa Bay Times. And then Pamela Colloff makes you believe again. Or Nikole Hannah-Jones. Or Erika Hayasaki.
There has never been another time in our history where we’ve had instant, free (or nearly free) access to the world’s greatest nonfiction writers and reporters. You can read hundreds of thousands of words a day, from bylines you recognize or new voices you’ve discovered for the first time. There is still nothing better than finding a writer or publication that exposes you to worlds and lives that are not your own.
If a publisher asks for your financial support, give it to them. Don’t assume they will just make it work. You will be the force that helps ensure they continue to do the stories that you love.
As for us, in 2014 we were incredibly lucky to join a larger company, WordPress.com / Automattic, that believes in what we do and encourages us to continue doing it. We’ve begun to work with freelancers and produce original stories, funded by members who support all the work we do, with matching contributions from WordPress.com. Our global community continues to grow — we’ve hosted live events in New York, San Francisco, Portland, Washington, D.C., and more cities to come this year. We will keep working to bring outstanding stories to readers.
We couldn’t have done any of it without you: the members, the readers, the writers, the editors and publishers, who share the stories that you love. Thank you.
**To celebrate our anniversary, tell me your favorite story of all time, in the comments below.