The longreads phenomenon

Death of the Newspaper
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Today I want to explore a trend I’ve noticed, and many people smarter than me have noticed: long-form reading is making a strong comeback online, even as writing online gets shorter and simpler.

This New York Times article highlights how one service, Longreads, is trying to change that. What it seems to suggest is that, at least for a certain group of readers, quality long-form articles are still important even though writing appears to be changing.

How we read

Every Friday, I get two e-mails for my weekend reading fix: the “Top 5 Longreads of the Week” and a kindle-formatted collection of all the articles I saved to a program called Instapaper. On weekends when I don’t have a lot of work or home-related tasks taking up my time, I use these two services to create a self-curated e-magazine for my non-book reading.

For me, this is the natural next step for reading the best quality writing online. Instapaper, in particular, has saved me a lot of time: instead of reading an article on the spot, or losing the article in a list of bookmarks on my browser, I hit the instapaper “read later” button, and a text-based copy of the article is saved on instapaper. At the end of the week, Instapaper sends a kindle-formatted file of the last 20 articles directly to my kindle. The file works like a kindle magazine, not a long list of text. Instapaper creates a great reading experience; it doesn’t just collect articles.

Instapaper has radically changed the way I read. Recently, I’ve added Longreads to my repertoire of digital reading. The site is so easy to use, and the articles chosen by the editors are top-notch. If an article interests me, I just hit the instapaper button next to the article and it sends a pre-formatted version to my instapaper queue. It’s ready for me to read next time I sync up my kindle.

I’ve been reading online regularly for about ten years now. I’ve gone paperless with my news and culture reading ever since Google News and RSS readers came online. Now, with e-readers and tablets, it’s a lot easier for me to create a magazine-like reading experience with the articles and blog posts found via social media and sites/apps like Longreads, Instapaper, Readability, and Findings.

I don’t fret over my RSS reader anymore. I used to spend too much time finding the best sites, then slogging through feeds to find the best articles. I still use RSS for a quick glance at the news, but even then, I’ve moved on. Twitter provides a better summary of what’s going on than RSS readers, in my opinion.

What interests me most about these services is that, for years, pundits have claimed the internet is killing off long-form reading. I think it’s too early to make that claim, and the popularity of these services seem to confirm that people still want to read quality journalism and essays.

No more magazines?

Does this mean magazines and newspapers are no longer the best cultural curators? This might be a bold claim: after all, a lot of the articles on Longreads come from The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and other traditional publishers. However, we all know that most of the time, we read these articles on a browser or a mobile device, not in print. Or, at least that’s the trend.

For serious readers, thinkers, and writers who also own e-readers or read online, this is a glorious time. Since I started using Instapaper on my Kindle, I’ve read more of the stuff I want to read. I use social media to discover articles, then I use Instapaper to organize and send them to me when I’m ready to read. Longreads makes it even easier to find quality articles because their editors pick some of the best, based on subjects and quality of publication.

This is only the beginning, however. The success of services like Kindle Singles show that readers are willing to pay for individual articles. The options are vast, and the individual reader has more control over the reading experience than ever before.

There are criticisms of these models, for sure. Some have pointed out that by using a service like Instapaper, we become narrow-minded readers, only reading the things that match our interests. I do think that’s possible, but then again, how many people buy a newspaper to only read the sports or business sections? We have always been selective as readers and consumers. If anything, a lot of these sites filter out the noise and let us focus on the things that matter.

It all comes down to how you use these services. If you are selective, but not narrow-minded, these services can help enhance discovery of new writers and ideas.

Kevin Eagan (@KevEagan) is a freelance editor and writer living in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. Critical Margins is his place to share his interests. You can also check out his professional website,