Long-Form Saviors

New technology to encourage the reading of long articles, online and off
January 8, 2011

Reading long articles online invites a thicket of distraction—ads, teasers for slideshows, videos, links hawking penny stocks and personal injury lawyers—all aimed at squeezing another click, another page view, another ad impression, out of the reader. When we print out stories, cut-and-paste into Word documents, or simply click “single page,” this is what we are trying to avoid.

To our rescue comes a pair of technologies designed to provide a better digital reading experience. Instapaper and Readability turn cluttered web pages into clean, ad-free presentations. And along with a handful of services dedicated to promoting long-form journalism, they aim to make the Web once again safe for narrative lovers. Whether or not they are safe for media organizations’ bottom lines is an open question.

Though they function similarly, Instapaper is the more popular of the two, in part because it allows you to save articles for offline reading on iPhones, iPads, and e-readers. Users establish a free account, install the program’s “read later” bookmarklet in their browser, and when they find something they’d like to, well, read later, they click the bookmark. The article saves to their account, accessible later by mobile device on a clean white background, in an easy-to-read font—without ads.

Readability transforms Web pages in the same way—scrubbing the clutter—but you can’t take its stories offline. Still, both have attracted millions of fans and users: Instapaper was recently tagged as a “best app” by The New York Times and Salon; Readability’s bookmarklet gets “millions of clicks each month,” says developer Richard Ziade.

The technology has even given rise to a new class of curators. In April 2009, Mark Armstrong, a New York-based digital editor (and, full disclosure, a former colleague and current friend of mine), started @longreads, a Twitter feed with more than 11,000 followers that encourages Instapaper devotees to share their long-form favorites. A year later, a pair of freelance editors in Brooklyn launched, a website with a similar concept, and Instapaper also curates an “Editor’s Picks” feed.

For now, these services are breathing life into something the Web was supposed to have slain long ago: the long narrative. But they may also undermine its long-term viability. By stripping out the ads and anything that might induce another revenue-juicing click for the publisher of the story, these services are, essentially, damming the only trickle of revenue free-to-read online media currently has. Ziade, unrepentant, says that business model is already broken, with or without Readability. “Articles are now just a means to an end [ad impressions],” he says. “That’s tough to defend.” Meanwhile, some outlets have started to embrace this growing group of Instapaper users and Longreads followers. The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Esquire, and others have begun tagging their stories with the longreads hashtag. Not every follower of the curated feeds is avoiding ads, Armstrong notes—some are following them to their original unscrubbed Web pages—and ultimately, anything that helps good stories live and find readers ought to be good for the bottom line.

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Janet Paskin is a freelance writer.