‘Believe the Autocrat’

Photo by gdbrekke

Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization. This will happen often: humans seem to have evolved to practice denial when confronted publicly with the unacceptable. Back in the 1930s, The New York Times assured its readers that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was all posture. More recently, the same newspaper made a telling choice between two statements made by Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov following a police crackdown on protesters in Moscow: “The police acted mildly—I would have liked them to act more harshly” rather than those protesters’ “liver should have been spread all over the pavement.” Perhaps the journalists could not believe their ears. But they should—both in the Russian case, and in the American one.

At New York Review of Books, a frightening must-read essay by Masha Gessen on what it’s like to live in an autocracy, having lived in and reported from Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

If You Must Snowfall, Please Snowfall in Moderation

The New York Times has just published its latest “Snowfall”—or as I like to call it, Massively Multimedia Epic Heave (MMEH)—and it’s a doozy. “The Jockey,” written by Barry Bearak, is a story about Russell Baze, who at 55 years old, is the winningest jockey in North American racing history.

What I love about the story itself is that it’s an education about someone’s life and career. There is no massive tragedy or plot twist—it’s about one person’s career decisions, and how they impacted his family and his life.

Why did the Times decide to Snowfall this piece in particular? I suspect it has to do with the fact that horses are beautiful animals, horse racing is a thrill to watch, and that afforded them an opportunity to create a visually immersive experience. 

Better still, the Times got a sponsor for the story, BMW, so that they could better integrate advertising into the experience. That’s a huge advancement from what they did with Snowfall, which was just drop in some banners.

So, that was what I liked about the story.

Here’s what I didn’t like about it: This story forced me into a multimedia experience that I did not want. I just wanted to read the story, but instead I was asked to go get headphones, be attached to an Internet connection, and then watch videos after short bursts of reading.

A lot of companies are trying to sell us on multimedia storytelling being “the future,” but I actually don’t want that. At all. I wasn’t into it the first time, back when they were sold as CD-ROMS, and I’m not into it now.

I love watching video, I love listening to podcasts, and I love reading. But most of the time, these are singular experiences. I am doing them separately, depending on whatever mood I’m in.

“The Jockey” also was broken up into short chapters, which seems to be a cute new way of paginating a story even though we all agreed that paginated stories on the web were a sub-par reading experience. If the Times added a “view all chapters” button (thanks, @erikmal) then we’d be set.

I’ve always argued that publishers can and should make their stories “an event.” But we still need to be mindful of not harming the actual reading experience—or overshadowing what is otherwise a great story by Barry Bearak.

Or maybe I’m just a Cranky Old. What do you think?

Longreads Is Joining Forces with The Atlantic



We have some big news to share today: Longreads is teaming up with The Atlantic, in a partnership that will allow us to expand our site and membership model—and continue to serve this community of readers, writers and publishers.

When I first started the #longreads hashtag four years…

Very excited about this. Thanks to everyone who has participated in this community over the past four years, and we’re looking forward to more. 

Longreads Is Joining Forces with The Atlantic

How Have You Devalued Professional Writing Today?

This week’s discussion about paying writers has led some to argue that publishers, by asking for free or cheap work, and writers, by accepting little to no wages, are devaluing the work of professional writers. 

What else is devaluing the work of professional writing on the web? 

1. By having this debate, for free, on Twitter.com, Branch.com and Tumblr.com, are we devaluing the work of professional writers who might write about it for a publisher that is paying them? 

2. If you wrote a print magazine story for a publisher, then asked that publisher to “unlock it on the web for free,” are you undercutting or devaluing the work of those who write exclusively for the web? 

3. If you only share free content on Twitter and Facebook, versus paywalled content or ebooks, are you undercutting or devaluing the work of publishers who paywall their content? 

4. If you publish free content on the web, are you killing the ancillary revenue that a writer could bring in from future reprint rights for those stories, or the ability to repurpose those stories into a book? 

5. If you pay freelancers, are you killing the opportunity to provide healthcare and stability to a full-time writer instead?

I’m not trying to be flip, but I think we, the Internet, are all somewhat responsible for the sorry state of freelance writing. I hope we can take steps to improve it. 

For what it’s worth, Longreads is trying to do its small part: We currently set aside ~30% of our Member dues to pay writers and publishers for reprint rights to our weekly Member Picks. 

And last night, Pocket‘s founder Nate Weiner spoke at the SF Hacks/Hackers journalism panel and asserted our commitment to publishers and how we can help solve the bigger problem of supporting high-quality content on the web. I’m excited for what’s to come on this front. 

What’s a Better Metric for the ‘Health’ of Longform?

Dean StarkmanMathew Ingram and Gangrey are all continuing the conversation about whether there is a “Longform Meltdown” at the major newspapers. 

Since I don’t think the data shows anything as dramatic as what Starkman and CJR’s headline suggests—and putting aside the question of whether “longform” means narrative or investigative or both—I thought I’d ask a new question: Is there a better way to gauge how longform stories and the people who publish them are faring in 2013? I’d personally love to track the following: 

1. Total # of publishers who produce more than 6 longform stories per year—and pay writers for them.

2. Total # of longform writers who have healthcare.

3. Total # of freelance longform writers whose number of assignments and revenue from those pieces is growing year over year.

4. Diversity of bylines

5. Total # of publishers who hire and train new reporters with a focus on narrative / investigative journalism.

Here Is What Happens When You Leave Lindsay Lohan Out of Your ‘Longform Meltdown’ Story

Dean Starkman’s piece feels oddly timed, especially when you think about the number of outstanding stories being shared in the Longreads community every day and the popularity of long-form content in Pocket.

1. Starkman is examining just four newspapers (The New York Times, Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times), leaving out papers like the Tampa Bay Times, who are dedicated to great storytelling.

2. It appears the number of long-form stories are actually on the upswing at the NYT and Washington Post since 2011—just as tablet and smartphone adoption was growing. That leaves the Los Angeles Times (which still does great work) and the Wall Street Journal. The latter has been quite clear about its desire to go shorter.

3. As a commenter noted on Romenesko, is there a correlation with the drop in overall space in the print edition of these newspapers?

4. Even if newspapers are cutting their long-form content, it’s a missed opportunity, because they’d be the only ones doing so. Online publishers like Deadspin, The Awl and The Verge and niche magazine publishers are only deepening their commitment to this storytelling.

Here Is What Happens When You Leave Lindsay Lohan Out of Your ‘Longform Meltdown’ Story

Longreads Member Exclusive: The Miracle Man


Our latest Exclusive comes from Andrew Rice, a contributing editor to New York magazine whose work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic and Bloomberg Businessweek. He’s been featured on Longreads many times in the past, and we’re excited to feature “The…

Super story from Andrew Rice about what happens when you’re a pastor accused of working for Satan.

As a side note, I could not be happier with how the Longreads Membership is shaping up. With Members’ support, we’re expanding our curation to include the best storytelling that’s not on the web—and we’re paying writers and publishers for their work. 

Longreads Member Exclusive: The Miracle Man

Serials: So Hot Right Now

Still lost in the ongoing discussion about long-form storytelling being “back” is one (of many!) important questions we should ask: What should long-form storytelling look like when it is native to the web?

For Longreads, the vast majority of stories shared within our community were first created for (and funded by) print publications—then, later, they’re posted online. So these stories are what they are because of rules and formats and budgets dictated by print magazines.

Now, we’re starting to see that mix change dramatically, as more online publishers embrace long-form content. What started with publishers like The Morning News, The Awl and The Rumpus has now expanded to Gawker Media, The Verge, SB Nation, BuzzFeed, Narratively, Grantland, Pitchfork, The Onion A.V. Club and the recently Kickstarted Matter

Across both print and online-native publications, we’re seeing beautiful experimentation with layouts and multimedia—check out Pitchfork’s latest feature on Bat for Lashes, or The Verge’s story and documentary on “basement body hackers”—but I think the most underrated advantage to online storytelling is the ability to serialize.

Two of my favorite long-form franchises over the past few years could be described as serials: “Scandals of Classic Hollywood,” by Anne Helen Petersen for The Hairpin, and 2010’s “Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation?”, by Steven Hyden for The AV Club. They’re not classic long-form narratives—maybe they’re just columns?—but the effect is the same. Writers commit themselves to exploring a topic, then they construct the larger story over the course of many weeks and months, allowing time to build an audience. If you miss a chapter, or come in late, you can always go back. It’s great for marketing, because the installments give writers and publishers new reasons to promote their series across Twitter and Facebook over a longer period of time. 

Maybe this approach is obvious to everybody else, but I think there’s a lot more to explore here.

This past week we’ve seen a few more serialized (print-first) stories grab readers’ attention: There was chapter one of Pamela Colloff’s crime story, “The Innocent Man, Part One,” in Texas Monthly; Austin Carr’s three-part series on the rise and fall of Hipstamatic in Fast Company; and Dan Barry’s 5-part New York Times series on Elyria, Ohio

If I were a writer with a great idea for a 15,000-word ebook or an 8,000-word magazine feature, I would consider serializing them—one chapter and one cliffhanger at a time.

In my next installment, I’ll explore who’s going to pay for all this. Stay tuned!