Web proves an unlikely saviour for investigative journalism

  • @rhodri

We're often told that the digital age has curtailed our attention span. Our patience is sorely tested by anything that doesn't grab us instantly; lengthy blog posts are routinely suffixed with "TLTR" (too long to read) and if you're still with me now – some 50 words in – you should give yourself a pat on the back because conventional wisdom deems you to be one of a dying breed.

But a handful of online services are attempting to demonstrate that our impatience with the written word has been overstated and our appetite for long-form journalism is still healthy.

Byliner, the most recent, has just published its first digital offering, the 70-page Three Cups Of Deceit, an investigation by Jon Krakauer into Nobel Prize nominee Greg Mortenson's alleged misuse of donations and fabrication in his memoirs. A reported 50,000 downloads in the three days reveals a surprising enthusiasm for investigative journalism.

A similar service, The Atavist, will soon release its fourth title and has a number of award-winning writers signed up for further publications. With a multimedia approach that offers audiobooks, videos, soundtracks and maps alongside the writing, The Atavist sells each non-fiction story for $2.99 via its app, splitting the revenue 50-50 with the writer. While Byliner has initially offered Krakauer's book for free, it will also be moving to a paid download, 50-50 split model.

Astride these two services sits Amazon with its "Singles" for the Kindle e-reading device, which again offers titles that sit midway between a magazine piece and a book, designed to be read in a single two-hour sitting.

The industry is already aware of an enthusiasm for long-form journalism. Former New York Times magazine editor Gerry Marzorati recently observed that the longest pieces in the magazine were almost always the most read.

What is driving this development, according to Longreads founder Mark Armstrong, are apps such as Instapaper, which allow us to save stories for reading at our leisure on phones, tablets and e-readers. "In my opinion," he says, "it's this time shift that's going to make long-form journalism viable."

Armstrong's own interest stemmed from a question he posted on Twitter asking for things to read during his 40-minute commute. "People caught on very quickly," he says, "and the whole thing snowballed." A Longreads event in New York co-promoted with Rolling Stone magazine last week was hugely oversubscribed, and Mr Armstrong earnestly believes a golden age is dawning for storytelling on the web.

There's an irony in the 140-character medium having spawned a resurgent interest in weighty pieces that are allowed to reach their "natural length", as Amazon puts it. But the obvious question hovering over the declining fortunes of print media is where the money will come from to pay for these pieces, which take time to produce.

In his book Flat Earth News, Nick Davies bemoans the pressure on newspapers to produce stories that are quick to knock out, thus strangling investigative journalism. George Brock, head of journalism at City University London, agrees to an extent. "The resources are not around, and neither is some of the wish and determination to do it," he says. "But there's a fantastic amount of experimentation going on, and the more of that there is, the more likely that a sustainable business model will emerge."

Byliner and The Atavist are two such experiments, the latter already heralded as a rescue package for journalism. While 50,000 free downloads of a book does not in itself change the face of publishing, the team behind Byliner are clearly anticipating a willingness to pay for 25,000-word pieces that mirrors the anticipated growth of e-books into a $3bn industry by 2015.