behind the news

Longform overload

New narrative journalism startups, like Latterly Magazine, launch as quickly as others fail in a crowded marketplace
December 2, 2014

Jill Abramson and Steven Brill’s upcoming longform outfit, a still-unnamed collaboration between the former New York Times executive editor and American Lawyer founder, may be the most exciting media startup of the moment, but it’s not the only new entrant to the longform market.

In mid-November, Ben Wolford, an American copy editor at The Bangkok Post in Thailand, launched the more modest Latterly Magazine with his wife, lawyer Christina Asencio, to publish narrative nonfiction with an international angle. Unlike the Abramson-Brill venture, Latterly won’t pay $100,000 per story. The budget is $2,500 per issue for four stories, funded by subscribers. The first issue’s expenses came out of Wolford’s own pocket, and they launched a Kickstarter simultaneously to produce the next three.

Both outlets are trying, in their own ways and at their own price-points (though for the same $3-a-month subscription), to crack the task of making a viable online outlet for in-depth, narrative journalism of several thousand words, paid for by readers.

They are the most recent, but far from the only, entrants into an overcrowded genre. Over the last six years, longform writing—born out of the fear that quality, in-depth reporting was being eroded by the rise of the digital media traffic race—has exploded to the point where the term “longform” has become a buzzword. At worst, the fetishization of story length is “a shortcut to respectability,” wrote James Bennet, editor in chief of The Atlantic, as the longform trend reached its apotheosis last year. As barriers to entry to participate in what was once the preserve of high profile career journalists have been obliterated, narratives several thousand words long hit the Web daily. The market is flooded with longform producers, even as the model for how to succeed is still yet to be cracked.

“There’s so much longform in the world now,” said Glenn Fleishman, editor of The Magazine, which publishes four features online per fortnight.

Launched by Instapaper founder Marco Arment in 2012, The Magazine was one of the first publications made for the iPad. It will publish its last issue this month, after its subscription base dropped from around 30,000 monthly at its peak to 7,000 today, Fleishman said.

“There’s so much to read that’s so good, and that’s essentially free with ads, that we are irrelevant. Why would anyone pay?” he said.

The Magazine has not been the only one to quietly depart. Byliner, one of the earliest entrants, struggled, and its CEO and co-founder left, before it was sold to digital publisher Vook this summer. The Atavist’s book publishing arm is also due to close at the end of the year.

Other longform startups have survived by playing with more creative revenue streams: Deca, a collective of 10 freelance writers, split revenue; Epic allows film and TV studios options to buy story rights, and The Atavist sells use of its software platform, among other revenue streams.

“In a way what you’re seeing now is as if all magazines were invented within a three-year period,” said Michael Shapiro, a professor at Columbia Journalism School. “And the fact is, into the market comes a whole bunch of things. And certain things fail and certain things succeed.”

Shapiro founded his own longform startup, The Big Roundtable, in June 2013. It provides free-to-read articles, and asks for a donation at the bottom of the story. BRT stories have earned between $100 and $1,400, with 90 percent going to the author, but, in an effort to make more money for the writers, Shapiro said the model is soon to be revised.

Indeed, many longform outlets pay its writers little—as CJR has explored before. Fleishman’s The Magazine paid an average $800 for 1,500-2,500 word features, he said recently on PBS. Meanwhile, the sheer number of longform niches being served makes it hard for any single outlet to prosper. Other digital longform outlets include The Atavist (multimedia-heavy stories, launched 2011), Narratively (local human interest, 2012), Compass Cultura (travelogues, August 2014), and Matter (originally science and technology but now general interest,* 2012). Also competing for eyeballs are aggregators of narrative nonfiction like Longreads and Longform, and an appetite for features from niche sites like food publication Eater and city blog Gothamist, as well as sites known for quick-reads like BuzzFeed. With the exception of Abramson and Brill’s project, most of these outlets have big ambitions and small budgets—online only, with a lean editorial staff.

The market may be packed, but at times the motivation for some startups to enter it nowadays seems to come out of service to the journalists who want a home for their features. Deca’s introduction page states their inspiration from photo cooperatives like Magnum who decided “to strike out on their own, covering the stories they felt were most important.” In a 2011 CJR article, Byliner co-founder John Tayman said about the publication’s genesis: “Selfishly, as a writer, I wanted something that fell between magazines and books.” Wolford, founder of Latterly, said he decided to launch after “watching what other publications were doing and squaring it with what I wanted to be doing.”

“The impetus for all of this was my own experience as a freelance journalist pitching. I realized that if you didn’t have a story to sell that was going to be part of the narrative, parts of the news of the day, it was really hard to get somebody’s attention on that,” he said. “I figured there are plenty of other journalists who must be having the same problem.”

Deep, contextual reporting paired with emotionally resonant writing will continue to be vital, but publications built to satiate the journalist’s desire to write, as opposed to a reader’s desire to learn, risk creating a vanity project without a clear audience. “If it’s not for the readers then it doesn’t matter,” said Shapiro. “If you’re not satisfying readers then there’s no point.”

Admirable as each new venture may be, the longform space is a packed arena to enter, whether you’re throwing around $100,000 advances, or a couple of hundred Kickstarter dollars.

“I don’t feel that we can provide anything unique at the moment, and the market may have spoken,” Fleishman said. “And at some point this may all collapse, there’ll be a longform bubble implosion, and there’ll be a lot less of it and then there’ll be room for something again.”


*An earlier version of this story stated that Matter still focused on science and technology.

Chris Ip is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisiptw.