Almost two years ago, Evan Ratliff embarked on a risky journey — perhaps even riskier than the time he agreed to let strangers hunt him across the United States in a crowd-sourced cat-and-mouse game for a Wired magazine article.
Ratliff put aside his burgeoning career as a magazine writer and, with two friends, founded the iPad magazine called the Atavist. It would go against long-standing leitmotifs of the Web: rather than 140 characters, the stories would hover around 8,000 words. Rather than free content, readers would pay $2.99 a story — not an issue, a story. Ratliff put his faith, and his money, into a venture that he sensed the Web audience was ready for. Despite all the bytes of free information, he believed, readers craved more complex narratives. There just weren’t many places to find them online.
Five months ago, the Atavist launched, and while it’s still not raking in enough money to pay Ratliff a salary, it has had two top-selling Amazon e-reads, tens of thousands of articles purchased and rave reviews from more than 40,000 people who have downloaded the app.
It’s projects like the Atavist, the success of Jon Krakauer's best-selling “Three Cups of Deceit” published by Byliner, another new “long reads” company, and the Kindle Singles offerings of nonfiction stories that have started to restore people’s faith in long-form writing.
Although the companies are not releasing sales numbers, a recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project supports the idea that people are comfortable reading long-form writing digitally. The study reported that from November 2010 to May 2011, ownership of e-reader devices doubled.
The digital experience is becoming an ally to long writing, rather than an impediment.
It’s not as if long writing never existed online. Newspaper and magazine sites have been full of them. But these projects are directing people into new environments that are dedicated solely to long professionally written and edited articles.
It’s not just e-readers that are fueling a renaissance in deeply reported work. Other groups are using Web tools to guide people to the type of writing long bemoaned as a dying art.
Longreads started out as a hash tag on Twitter, a signal that the link contained the type of article that needed to be consumed over an hour, rather than a few minutes. It works in conjunction with apps such as Instapaper, FlipBoard and Read it Later that allow people to save articles on their smartphones or tablets to enjoy when there is no wireless service.
Another project aims to use the Web as a reverse-publishing tool. The content is sourced from the Internet and winds up in a printed magazine. Longshot, the brainchild of three journalists in California, compiles the content in one 48-hour work fest. The editors get their material through call-outs online, then they piece together the best submissions from well-known writers and photographers and non-professionals.
The third issue will be created over the July 29th weekend. Already, it has raised almost $2,000 more than its goal of $7,500 on KickStarter, a crowd-sourced funding site.
The world of online long-form journalism is small and interconnected. Ratliff wrote a piece for Longshot’s first issue. In the story, about a 19th-century quack, Ratliff writes, “Paging through Dr. Pierce’s ads can make one yearn for a more literary time, when even a huckster’s wares had to compete on the playing field of words.”
It may be we’re rediscovering a more literary time right now.