Longform's Function

Updated 4/9/13. The original editorial, posted on 4/1, follows below.

Since we posted this editorial last week, a number of comments and questions have come in regarding both our argument about the “longform ecosystem” and our presentation of longform.org’s data. New York also published an excellent feature on BuzzFeed yesterday that is perfectly illustrative of the “bad faith” they bring to journalism. With these things in mind, and with gratitude for the information received from Aaron Lammer of longform.org and Steve Kandell of BuzzFeed/BuzzReads, we’d like to update and clarify our position.

Our reliance on the tagging data visible on longform.org’s site had its shortcomings, most notably in the first figure, which only demonstrated the relative share of the top five publications on longform.org. This was an admittedly imprecise way of showing that the New York Times (Magazine included) and the New Yorker were overwhelming presences on the site. It’s worth noting (and we’ll get into this later) that this “top-heavy” distribution was not presented as a criticism of longform.org’s curatorial practices – rather, it’s evidence for the descriptive claim that “longform” as a journalistic genre “is resource-intensive and therefore most likely to be best executed by well-resourced publications.”

The backend data since provided by longform.org reinforces our claim regarding the density of their distribution by outlet. Nearly a third (29%) of longform.org’s 4728 articles come from six outlets: New Yorker (402), NYT Magazine (253), Vanity Fair (203), The Atlantic (186), New York (176), and New York Times (173). Beyond this, the mean number of articles per publication is 6.2, the mean per author is 1.7 (see the bar chart below). Though further analysis might be of interest, this is all we requested as it’s sufficient for our purposes – but Aaron and Max of longform.org were fully transparent and willing to provide further data.

Back to BuzzFeed and BuzzReads. A few things:

(1) That BuzzFeed, as a business, is obnoxious and stupid is self-evident to any thinking person (or, for that matter, to any reader of the New York profile). Yet many successful enterprises are far worse, and it’s not like BuzzFeed is in this for the approval of anyone but a certain type of advertiser. Our position has nothing to do with capitalist angst. 

(2) In the New York piece, the seriousness of BuzzFeed’s journalistic business model is dubiously defended by founder Jonah Peretti:

Peretti rejects the notion that the news operation he has built is, as he has put it, “a hood ornament to lend the site prestige.” It was a business calculation that, somewhat to his surprise, pushed BuzzFeed in the same old-media editorial direction he once chafed at during his time at the Huffington Post. Journalism has clickable appeal on Twitter and brings the kind of readers preferred by premium advertisers. He likes to say that journalism works best on social networks with “scoops and quality reporting,” not aggregation. But the head of BuzzFeed’s data-science department frankly told me that the company has found it to be extremely difficult to make a news item go viral.

Even assuming the reporting BuzzFeed does is rigorous (not the case), the data-scientist convincingly contradicts his boss’s narrative about the pursuit of “hood ornaments” like “journalism” and “longform.” The business model BuzzFeed has built is predicated not on a lowest-common-denominator understanding of its online readership, which would at least be consistent with a desire to edify, but on something baser than that. It monetizes the primordial twitch induced by certain unevolved emotional associations. A few factual sentences, subliterate as they may be, are by definition excluded from this model – no wonder they don’t “go viral.”

(3) In launching BuzzReads, BuzzFeed has displayed its typically savvy understanding of online audience behavior, recognizing that it needs to appeal to the outlets that routinely direct the greatest amount of traffic to this genre: the aggregators of longform writing. This manifested itself in the Poynter article we cited, the origin of the “longform ecosystem” term.

(4) We claimed that BuzzReads was a “workplace perk” occasionally opened up to “beleaguered freelancers.” The editor of BuzzReads, Steve Kandell, wrote in to explain that the bulk of the content comes from freelancers, and to state that the pieces are good, though it would be nice to pay freelancers more. To clarify, “beleaguered” did not refer to the quality of the pieces. Yes, the BuzzReads are capably written, and – as we point out originally – it’s great that people at BuzzFeed and elsewhere get to write them. Freelancers are “beleaguered” because the “longform ecosystem” is a mean place, made meaner by BuzzRead’s attempts to strip-mine it for readers.

As far as we can tell, advertising has never fully subsidized serious reporting, let alone serious longform reporting, and it’s never been worse than in today’s environment. The density of longform.org’s distribution demonstrates that “longform,” more than an aesthetic category defined by length or style, is a journalistic genre enjoyed overwhelmingly at the economic peril of the outlets that best produce it. And the thinking behind BuzzReads represents a solipsistic and pageview-addled misunderstanding of how “longform” has been affected by aggregators. In their world, the type of serious, long-term reporting that is the pillar of the genre quietly gives way to milquetoast features and profiles. It’s hard to fault anyone personally for putting up with such an obscene vision, but to consider BuzzFeed’s new tentacles constitutive of an “ecosystem” is a mistake.

* * * 

Late last week, BuzzFeed's new "longform editor," Steven Kandell, announced the launch of "BuzzFeed for people who are afraid of BuzzFeed." Yes, "BuzzReads" is upon us, the last best hope for the magazine-feature business model. Expect the expected: celebrity profiles, something about Mitt Romney, and zany thrillers on such subjects as school shootings and other tropes. It's a time-honored mix, and indicting the intrinsic worthlessness of this A&E-style journalism isn't entirely fair -- it's not like BuzzFeed's commitment to journalism is any worse than, say, Yankee Magazine. What is troubling is the bankrupt online "ecosystem" BuzzFeed's decision ratifies, an abusive understanding of how online aggregators have redefined audience behavior.

As Kandell explained to Poynter's Andrew Beaujon, the new section responds to a problem they encountered in the last few months of experimenting with "TL;DR" stories: after the pieces hit the main site, they would vanish under a bilious froth of GIFs and other such Buzz-fare within a couple days. The solution, naturally, was to shake the serif-logo box (a technique we heartily endorse) until this popped out. The comedy of such a bolted-on editorial identity is obvious, but underlying the decision is a more problematic concession to the idea that stories, encountered atomistically "through sharing and serendipity," are somehow a part of a viable future for journalistic publishing.

The belief in this view of the Internet, that "fans of long form journalism have benefited from the 'huge equalizer'" and thus no longer lean on "trusted brands like magazines" is one flatly contradicted by the success of the aggregators BuzzReads wants to court. It's no secret that Longform.org and Longreads.com are basically archives of ungated New York Times and New Yorker articles. After all, one would expect the aggregators' distribution of stories to be so top-heavy -- lacking editorial authority of their own, they pursue credibility via such "trusted brands." And this isn't blind favoritism, journalistic feature writing is resource-intensive and therefore most likely to be best executed by well-resourced publications.

By functioning as the default discovery vehicles for a relatively sizable "generation" of readers, Longform and Longreads have certainly played a positive role in directing interest in upstart outlets, including this one, as well as bringing to light an archival corpus that may have been otherwise neglected. But if we consider the pressure on future output, is the incremental readership even desirable? Does anyone other than the aggregators themselves have anything to gain from this arrangement? The collapse in digital advertising revenues leads to the conclusion that there's no way this lush content environment is sustainable outside of fringe outlets and other not-for-profit endeavors.

The New York Times and its peers worldwide are tightening the belt, the addled generosity that stocked the web with expensive reported writing is running out. BuzzFeed's profitability is built upon churning out high-pageview, low-cost content, but they're not so heartless as to deprive GIF galley slaves of the right to produce something real every once in a while. BuzzReads affords BuzzFeed's staff writers (and the occasional beleaguered freelancer) this opportunity, and that's something to be applauded. But BuzzReads is nothing other than a workplace perk -- even the laziest procrastinator flitting through #longreads can grasp the underlying economics. Graphic design (the stories are nicely laid out) and writer-hours are quite cheap; most kinds of actual reporting are not.

So when Beaujon reports that "[Kandell] hopes to bring in RSS widgets from other longform sources like Longform, he said, positioning BuzzReads as a good citizen of the longform ecosystem," one should reject such asinine verbiage and its bad faith in aggregation's credibility-by-proximity ("Oh, here's the New Yorker! And here's BuzzReads!"). It's a notion as laughable as the title of "longform editor" -- forget expertise, form is the only function. There is no community of interacting organisms here, only hooked beaks over carrion.




Note that the above graphs are based on manual tag data as it appears on Longform; it may be incomplete.