NEW YORK — You and just about everyone else think the past, present and future of the Web lies in brevity, in ever-shorter bursts of expression, if not coherence and meaning. Texts and tweets and Facebook postings? The digital world is sinking in pithiness.
Mark Armstrong is going in the other direction.
As the founder, proprietor and chief “curator” (the digerati’s up-market word for “editor”) of
Longreads.com, Armstrong is invested in the lengthy, the luxuriant, the thoughtful and the contemplative. Armstrong hunts up the best magazine and newspaper articles of more than 1,500 words he can find and highlights three to five of them a day on his site, offering an eclectic collection of writing that stands as a kind of daily rebuke to the 140-
Want to read 11,000 words on sex trafficking in America? Longreads synopsizes (and links to) Vanity Fair’s epic from its June issue. How about Mother Jones’s 1984 profile of a rising young politician named Newt Gingrich or Esquire’s classic Gay Talese profile, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”? Got those. Missed a great piece of fiction from the New Yorker? From 2010? Got that, too.
And just so you know what you’re getting yourself into, the site offers an estimated reading time for each piece (42 minutes on the sex-
“This isn’t stuff that most people are going to find naturally on Google on their own,” says Armstrong. “There’s so much great work out there, so many interesting voices, but it’s impossible for anyone to know about all of it.”
Armstrong, a boyish-looking 35-year-old, wasn’t sure the concept would resonate beyond young, literate types like himself when he launched Longreads as a Twitter hashtag in April 2009. He’d run out of things to read on his subway commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan, he says, so he decided to invite others to find the best work.
A year later, Aaron Lammer, a Brooklyn-based editor and designer, started up a full-fledged Web site, Longform.org, that posts four to five articles a day. Armstrong converted his project from Twitter to a Web site in October.
Longreads and Longform are friendly competitors, but there seems to be a small market for both. Armstrong reports that his site topped 100,000 unique visitors last month; Longform drew about the same, according to Lammer. Both are busily adding new features, like a weekly Longreads newsletter and a Longform spinoff called SportsFeat.com, which does for sportswriting what the other two sites do for general-interest writing.
Armstrong says desktop screens have never really been conducive to digging into 7,000-word pieces in the New Yorker or the Atlantic. But he thinks mobile devices — the Kindle, smartphones and the iPad — have changed the game. They allow people to read at their leisure and where they choose, savoring long pieces at the beach, at breakfast or on long flights.
“Imagine if you could only buy a newspaper in the middle of the day, and you could only read it at the office during work hours,” he says. “That’s kind of the world we used to live in until fairly recently. How successful do you think newspapers would be?”
What’s more, such tools as Instapaper, Read It Later and Readability, which save Web pages for later viewing, allow mobile users to browse without WiFi or cell connections, he points out.
Longreads and Longform use similar methods to churn through the oceans of text available on the Web. “Curators” like Lammer and Armstrong do their own searching, abetted by tips and recommendations from like-minded readers on Twitter and via e-mail. And publishers and writers often push their own work.
While growing up in Southern California, Armstrong says, he was “obsessed with journalism.” He has been a newspaper reporter, the online news director for People magazine, an ad agency creative director and a content director for a personal-finance Web site, Bundle.com.
Longreads is still a sideline — Armstrong is a consultant and Web designer by trade — but it’s a labor of love.
“Curation is valuable in a world of so much information,” he says. “People need filters. We’re the filter. We’re pointing them to the good stuff.”