Long form’s digital trailblazers
Not long ago, Mark Danner and Gerry Marzorati had an exciting conversation at the Berkeley School of Journalism, in which they tossed around the idea of creating a “hive” for long-form journalists. Now, a short time later, that call is being taken up by digital-publishing innovators, both in the U.S. and in Canada, who are aiming to change the way people read — and buy — long-form stories.
Down south, Byliner, set to officially launch this month, offers long-form nonfiction stories for sale on a piece-by-piece basis. It’s not the first site to do so. But Byliner adds something new to the mix: curation. A Pandora-type function will suggest stories to readers, based on their individual preferences and habits.
The site got off on the right foot with a very popular story by author Jon Krakauer. His essay, “Three Cups of Deceit,” questions the veracity of humanitarian Greg Mortenson’s written work, including the best-selling book Three Cups of Tea, which is presented as fact. More than 70,000 people downloaded Krakauer’s essay in the first week after it was posted (it’s also been at the top of Kindle Singles’ bestsellers list).
Mark Bryant, the site’s editor, has been in talks with the likes of Amazon, Apple, and Google, who are looking for a steady and trustworthy stream of long-form non-fiction they can sell. The company has partnered with Read It Later, an app that lets users save articles to read later on mobile devices, which has about 4 million registered users. Not a bad way to jump-start the site.
Byliner will have two branches: “Byliner Originals” will edit and publish 8,000- to 35,000-word stories for the tablet platform, giving writers their own pages so they can interact with the community of readers (as well as an advance to write the stories, and half of the profits they generate); the other branch is the site’s recommendation function, which will draw on an archive of 25,000 stories, both current and canonical. The “archive” will not host full stories, but it will provide readers with headlines, decks, and bylines and will link out to other sites. At least until it reaches a certain threshold of users, Byliner won’t feature advertising and so, in the short-term, it will make its profits solely from sales of its Originals.
Another example of this push to revive long-form journalism in the U.S. is Evan Ratliff and his app, The Atavist (video demonstration above) , which he says gives long-form a platform “designed for the digital world.” Creating an app for mobile devices rather than a site targeting desktop surfers, Ratliff says in this interview, gives readers a “lean back” experience — a more comfortable way to read long-form pieces. Also setting it apart from Byliner is The Atavist’s emphasis on creating fully interactive long-form stories that integrate soundtracks and videos and link out to other online sources. Instead of presenting print stories in a mobile format, the app ambitiously sets out to create narrative experiences that engage readers with a variety of media.
Up to now, no similar services have popped up north of the border. But Derek Finkle of the Canadian Writers Group is setting out to change that, as early as this fall. As an agency connected to a hundred or so accomplished Canadian freelancers, CWG already has many of the resources and relationships it needs to establish a long-form resource similar to Byliner. “I think there’s a really interesting opportunity for an agency like this to start something similar,” Finkle says. “Because I have all these writers with really great [long-form] ideas, but sometimes there’s nowhere to pitch them.”
Similar to Byliner, Finkle envisions creating a way for writers to reach out to their readers directly, using social media like Twitter. He also sees an opportunity to draw from the archive of work that CWG’s pool of writers have already created. “That’s part of the Byliner initiative that works really well with the way CWG is set up. I don’t have to find 200 writers, I’ve already got a lot of them,” says Finkle.
There would be differences from Byliner’s model, though. In addition to producing original long-form pieces, Finkle foresees partnerships with existing publishers, a “cooperative arrangement” with various publications who could also benefit from such a site, he says. “I think there’s also an opportunity for writers to have extended versions of things that were published — in print, there can be limitations and restrictions.” Finkle says he would also consider adding some fictional work to a mostly non-fiction collection, an avenue Byliner and The Atavist are not currently pursuing.
“I think from an agency perspective, if you can show that kind of initiative, that’s something that a lot of writers are looking for right now,” he says. “Being the first to do it in a professional way will be interesting.”