In late 2010, rumors started to emerge that popular ESPN.com sports columnist Bill Simmons was planning a “top secret editorial project.” The initiative, shrouded in secrecy, was limited to rumors for several months, until talented writers suddenly started disappearing from popular blogs and websites. Star writers at Vulture, Deadspin, and This Recording wrote goodbyes to their established readerships, claiming they were leaving to work for The Sports Guy. The sports and pop culture-focused site, to be named Grantland (after legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice), would be backed by ESPN, and attracted top sponsors in Subway, Lexus and Klondike. It would feature Simmons as editor-in-chief, and feature A-List writers Chuck Klosterman, Malcolm Gladwell, and Dave Eggers as contributing editors. The site’s central concept would be to produce intelligent, entertaining takes on sports and pop-culture. It would do so by publishing almost exclusively long-form content, come to be known as “longreads.”
Bill Simmons had been a major draw for ESPN’s web presence for the better part of a decade, and is the author of two New York Times best-selling sports books. ComScore reported that his column attracts upwards of 740,000 unique monthly visitors, resulting in millions of monthly pageviews on ESPN.com. Simmons, no stranger to new media, has over 1.45 million followers on Twitter (@sportsguy33) and is generally considered to have partially paved the way for the sports blogosphere. However, The Sports Guy is best known for his columns of extreme length, often reaching several thousand words. A.J. Daulerio, editor-in-chief of leading sports blog Deadspin (and a frequent critic of ESPN), noted in a feature in New York Times Magazine, “I printed out those 6,000-word columns and took them to the bathroom just like everybody else. [Simmons] changed the way I looked at everyone else’s writing.”
People have long been decrying the internet and the blogosphere’s effect on quality journalism. The Independent UK points to a quote from Time’s Josh Tyrangiel, who argued, “the culture of rapid-fire news on the internet meant that Time magazine's distinctive essays were just ‘too long’ to work on its website. In his view, the web had rendered the entire form obsolete.” However, the scale has begun to tip in the other direction, thanks to people like Mark Armstrong, founder of Longreads, who began tagging his favorite articles with the hashtag #longreads on Twitter, and Marco Arment, founder of Instapaper, a website and mobile application devoted to saving long articles for later consumption.
Ironically, long-form content has begun to thrive in the era of the microblog. Longreads are on the opposite end of the spectrum as the Twitter movement, where users exercise brevity and share thoughts and information in 140-character pieces, or the Tumblr movement, where blogging is boiled down to photos and videos without commentary or context. Yet, longreads go hand-in-hand with the viral nature of microblogging platforms. People who used to spend their days primarily reading dozens of short, 250-word blog posts now act as content curators for long articles, searching and sharing the best lengthy magazine features and newspaper columns. (You can find people sharing links to interesting articles and features on Twitter practically at any time under the #longreads hashtag.)
New technologies have played an integral role in the newfound popularity of the longread. Likely fueled by the guilt of devouring an 8,000 word article during the workday, avid readers are now frequently choosing to timeshift their consumption of long-form content. For television fans, timeshifting is a familiar concept; the television industry was revolutionized by the DVR, a device that is now valued as one of the most essential everyday gadgets, second only to the mobile phone.
Like TV and the DVR, the resurgence of the longread is closely tied to the emergence of the hyper-competitive tablet market, led by Apple’s iPad and Amazon’s Kindle. Before the iPad, a link to a lengthy article was often met with a cruel “TL;DR” (too long, didn’t read) and ignored. Now, like coupons, people simply clip and save for later, using tools like Arment’s Instapaper. More people are saving their online media consumption until the evenings, where they can read undisturbed at home. Below, from a study in the Read It Later blog, observe the consumption patterns of the iPad owner:
The Niemen Journalism Lab notes that, “Publishers privately report that tablet readers read the tablet much more like the newspaper than the way they read news websites. Longer session times. Longer stories. Early morning and evening reading. Pre-tablet, publishers had no potential replacement. Now they’ve been given a gift by the technology gods.”
Companies have begun to embrace the idea. Amazon has been inspired to make the idea profitable, selling low-cost articles (sometimes called Kindle Singles for pieces from 10,000 – 30,000 words), with the most prominent example coming from Fortune, who declined to put an exclusive feature on Apple online, only offering it in the Fortune print publication or on the Kindle for 99 cents. Startup Byliner has devoted itself to producing and charging for original longreads, most notably an article by author Jon Krakauer entitled “Three Cups of Deceit.” Twitter itself has even promoted the concept of the longread, with a blog post earlier this month urging users to follow @longreads, @somethingtoread, @ifyouonly, @longformorg, and @sportsfeat.
If you’re ready to hop on the bandwagon, you don’t need an iPad. Start with bookmarking Longreads.com and following them on Twitter at @longreads. And if you do have an iPad, start with Grantland. It’s no coincidence that’s where Grantland looks best.
My top 5 longreads of the moment:
- “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Couldn’t Lose: An Oral History of Friday Night Lights” – Robert Mays for Grantland
- “Can Sheryl Sandberg Upend Silicon Valley's Male-Dominated Culture?” – Ken Auletta for The New Yorker
- “Warning: Someone, Somewhere, Might Be Faking Something” – Nitsuh Abebe for Pitchfork
- “Song And Vision No. 2: ‘The Power of Love’ and Back To The Future” – Steven Hyden for The A.V. Club
- “The Rise and Inglorious Fall of Myspace” – Felix Gillette for Bloomberg Businessweek