Last summer, the editor-in-chief of technology magazine Wired wrote and ran a cover story declaring, "The Web is Dead". A year earlier, the then managing editor of Time.com had rung the death knell on long-form reportage journalism. Wired's Chris Anderson claimed that newer, better ways to use the internet – apps, say – were pushing the conventional web browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox et al) into terminal decline. Time's Josh Tyrangiel argued that 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.
Now, judging by an emerging online trend, both theories seem to have awkwardly mutated to produce a wobbly, exciting new truth: narrative journalism, the kind of expertly crafted piece that sprawls over thousands of words and swallows up a whole lunchtime to read, is far from dead. Thanks to nifty advances in technology (smartphones, tablets, ebook readers) it is undergoing a major revival on the internet. Classic writers of the genre – such as Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson – are now filtering through to a new, fast-growing audience.
In his 1972 New York magazine essay, "The Birth of the New Journalism" (available now at Instapaper), Tom Wolfe described the form as a "discovery, modest at first, humble, in fact, deferential, you might say, was that it just might be possible to write journalism that would... read like a novel". He, and Gay Talese (whose 15,000 word, 1966 Esquire piece, "Frank Sinatra has a cold", is considered one of the best long-form profile pieces ever written) "never guessed for a minute that the work they would do over the next ten years, as journalists, would wipe out the novel as literature's main event". Which, at its peak – particularly in the US, where the tradition really took hold – it almost certainly did. But this form of novelistic investigation has been in serious decline for the past decade. Long-form always takes considerable time and money – investments the print industry now finds it increasingly tricky to sustain. So, why the resurgent interest? Can it really all be down to more efficient ways of using the internet? Well, yes and no.
A significant chunk of credit rests with sites such as Arts & Letters Daily, The Browser, and Longreads, which meticulously curate archives of the longest and smartest features from across the press and have spawned a cottage industry of popular copycats. The Longreads site began life as a Twitter hashtag in 2009, set up by Mark Armstrong, a 35-year-old former digital content director based in New York. The site has now evolved into a full-time operation with a small team of developers and designers.
Instapaper is another oft-cited game-changer. Like Readability, it is a file-saving service that declutters articles from annoying ads and bad formatting, and save them as simple, single-column text. The genius came when founder Marco Arment developed it into a smartphone and tablet app. Just over three years old, Instapaper is now used by 1.6m people to read long features at their leisure, on or offline, and maintain a self-curated repository of interesting articles. So successful has it been that Apple has aped it with a new Reading List function.
As is reported by each company I speak to, these sites are multiplying their readership on a daily basis. As content aggregators, they drip-feed daily teasers of their newest picks on social networks to hundreds of thousands of followers, who share them with thousands more. Ironically it's the internet that is now helping preserve the very kind of elaborate, labour-intensive and prohibitively expensive journalism it once crushed. Gerry Marzorati, former magazine editor of The New York Times, recently revealed that a typical cover story of around 10,000 words would cost upwards of $40,000 to produce – "and if a war zone is involved, considerably more." And while he gritted his teeth at having to give that cover away for free online, he admitted surprise at finding that the most popular pieces the magazine put on the site were also the longest.
To paraphrase tech commentator Clive Thompson, it's the torrent of short-form thinking – the incessant texts, tweets, status updates and simplistic search engine optimisation-geared news stories – that seems to have speeded up audience desire for lengthier, more meditative pieces.
Time was, of course, when the average household had a single daily newspaper subscription and a weekly or monthly mag subscription or two. News, features and op-eds would be narrowly filleted from a few selected sources, with unread material still left over. Now, we've become digital magpies: trawling and clicking through multiple bookmarks, RSS feeds, Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr links to achieve the same goal.
Brave new online publishing houses such as Byliner.com and Atavist.net are looking to plug that gap. While Byliner also offers a source to discover new writers and reads (it launched with an archive of 3,000 articles), half of the business is concentrated on commissioning original, in-depth reads from world-class writers. Atavist does similar but with the full gamut of multimedia elements embedded in its titles. Both are selling their grand, ambitious epics (averaging at 35,000 words) at between $0.99 to $2.99 a pop via their own sites, iTunes, and Kindle Singles. The latter is Amazon's newly launched US storefront, dedicated solely to new, original, long-form pieces – further proof, if it were needed, that the market is booming.
Established online outlets have also clambered on the bandwagon: New York blog Gothamist put a call out last month for long-form writers to pitch ideas; Slate, meanwhile, has entered the second year of its "Fresca" series: an initiative which offers editorial staff 4-6 week semi-sabbaticals to turn around original pieces of long-form. Last week even the Grey Lady herself, The New York Times, announced its own in-house long-form curation area for non-subscribers (see box).
The real surprise, of course, is that it's all working. Given the cacophony of online noise, it's reassuring there's still brain space for heavyweight stuff. It's often said – most loudly and recently by writer Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows – that the manic effect of the web on our brains has eroded our long-term ability to concentrate. Read a 20,000 word first-hand account of the Arab Spring in Yemen online? Our attention spans are too short! The sentences are too long!
And yet, in late April, Byliner.com's first original, Three Cups of Deceit (Jon Krakauer's takedown of a phony, bestselling memoirist) was downloaded 70,000 times within two hours of its release. According to John Tayman, the 48-year-old founder of the San Franciscan start-up, it rocketed to the top of Amazon's sales charts because, in his view, well-written long pieces don't need the attendant glossy pages, expensive photography and layout design of magazine publishing. "If you have a compelling story written by a great writer, readers are going to want to read it," he tells me, confidently. "The only difference is that the method of delivery has moved, going from parchment to paper to tablet."
It's a view echoed even by traditional publishers. Jonathan Shainin, senior editor of "India's first narrative journalism magazine", The Caravan, believes the profile of his magazine has never been stronger. "It's remarkable for a relatively young magazine in Delhi to find its stories listed alongside pieces from the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, or the New York Times Magazine," he tells me. "The bottom line, in my mind, is that if you do a great piece, it has a far better chance of reaching a large number of readers."
Nicholas Spice, publisher of The London Review of Books, feels similarly upbeat. While 56,000 subscribers pay for print editions of the magazine, two million users access LRB's celebrated essays each month through its website. "A quarter of that traffic comes via social networks," he says. "Facebook and Twitter are our second and fourth most popular referring sites, and Arts and Letters Daily is number one." As a result, Spice says, around 500 people are signing up to new subscriptions every month. Impressive growth, given that the magazine has previously always been dependent on expensive junk mail to boost its readership.
Even so, I ask Tayman (who soft-launched Byliner.com in April with six staff and $1m investment backing), whether he was in the least bit worried that demand might dip, that fickle internet audiences might move on? "No. I started thinking about this site three years ago, but I was never worried about that. People have always loved reading. Narrative journalism has always been popular." The proof? Ebook sales are doubling every six months, he tells me, not to mention that each of Byliner and Atavist's titles so far have made it on Kindle Single's bestseller lists. "It's a good time for readers," says Tayman, warmly, "but it's a great time for writers."
The New York Times turns curator
Despite its new subscription model, The New York Times remains one of the best-read news sites on the web, due to allowing users 20 free pages a month and access to all of its articles for free, via referrals from social media such as Twitter. Adding to this malleability, The New York Times Magazine's blog, The 6th Floor, now has a site that collects the long, expansive reads from the supplement and adds journalism from the archives for readers to discover. This is then tied in with the Grey Lady'sLongreads.com which then allows readers to automatically transfer the long-form pieces to Instapaper, to read on iPhones, iPads and Kindles on the go.
Five long-read sites you need to follow:
Tagline: "Discover and discuss great reads." Selling point: A combination of original and curated non-fiction reads.
Tell me more: Byliner's earliest article was published in November 1816. Christopher Hitchens is its most bylined writer with 140 articles.
Five most popular stories
1.What are you, Barren? By Holly Finn (originally published at The Huffington Post, 13 July 2011)
2. JK Rowling's Ministry of Magic By Stephen King (Entertainment Weekly, 10 August 2007)
3. Scenes from My Life in Porn by Evan Wright (LA Weekly, 6 April 2000)
4. Mix War, Art and Dancing By Ernest Hemingway (Kansas City Star, 21 April 1918)
5. Descent to Mars By Jon Krakauer (Air & Space Magazine, November 1995)
Tagline: "A free, daily dose of timeless, community/editor-curated long-form journalism."
Selling points: Simple-to-browse articles of varying length (categories between 1,500 and 30,000 words); articles have time-taken-to-read tags on them; you can have the top five weekly articles emailed to you on the go.
What else? Longreads began as a Twitter profile with followers suggesting articles via a #Longreads hashtag.
Current top five Longreads
1. A Woman's Place By Ken Auletta (The New Yorker, 11 July 2011)
2. Where Have All the Girls Gone? By Mara Hvistendahl (Foreign Policy, 27 June 2011)
3. My Summer at an Indian Call Centre By Andrew Marantz (Mother Jones, July/August 2011)
4. The Lonesome Independence Day of Kobayashi, Eater in Exile By Luke O'Brien (Deadspin, 3 July 2011)
5. The Boy Who Lived Forever By Lev Grossman (Time, July 7, 2011)
Tagline: "Writing worth reading... Our daily selection of the most interesting features, opinion and analysis articles from around the web."
Selling point: Constantly updated interviews, articles and more.
What else? A picture of a manatee, the mammal "known for its tendency to browse" indicates editor's top picks.
Current "Best of the Moment" list
1. Rise and Fall of RIM By Jonathan Geller (BGR, 13 July 2011)
2. The Unselfish Gene By Yochai Benkler (Harvard Business Review, 4 July 2011)
3. Murdoch, Like Napoleon, Is A Great Bad Man By Conrad Black (Financial Times, 13 July 2011)
4. An Eye-Opening Adventure in Socialized Medicine By Steve Silberman, (NeuroTribes,12 July 2011)
5. Nelson Mandela's Legacy By John Carlin (The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, 10 July 2011)
Arts and Letters Daily
Tagline: "Veritas odit moras – truth hates delay"
Selling point: A huge resource of reads from around the world, laid out in a Drudge Report-like fashion.
Tell me more: The AL Daily motto "Veritas odit moras," is found in Seneca's version of Oedipus.
Top five "articles of note"
1. The Chinese Art of Elegant Bribery By Anthony Ou, (OpenDemocracy.net, 25 June 2011)
2. The Lions of Lagos, the Rotarians of Rawalpindi By John Gravois (The Washington Monthly, June/July 2011)
3. We Must Be Superstars By Nitsuh Abebe (New York, 10 July 2011)
4. Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops By Thomas Goetz (Wired, 19 June 2011)
5. My Summer at an Indian Call Centre By Andrew Marantz (Mother Jones, July/August 2011)
Tagline: "A simple tool to save web pages for reading later."
Selling point: Allows users to save long web pages to computer, iPhone, iPad, or Kindle. Also features a selection of editors picks old and new – Tom Wolfe's "Birth Of The New Journalism" is a perennial favourite.
What else? Creator Marco Arment, was also the lead developer of Tumblr.
Current top five "greatest hits"
1. Anybody There? Why The UK's Phone-Hacking Scandal Met Media Silence By Archie Bland, foreign editor of The Independent (Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 2011)
2. Agony and Ivory By Alex Shoumatoff, (Vanity Fair, August 2011)
3. My Summer at an Indian Call Centre By Andrew Marantz (Mother Jones, July/August 2011)
4. Where Have All the Girls Gone? By Mara Hvistendahl (Foreign Policy, July 2011)
5. The Birth of 'The New Journalism' by Tom Wolfe (New York, February 1972
Research by Freya Gibbs