Long, in-depth blog posts and articles have increasingly been replaced by short, 140-character-style communication online. But a new crop of startups are attempting to bring back long-form journalism with their online communities and publications. U.K. startup PostDesk is launching in private beta to provide long-form editorial content, publishing in-depth news, reviews, critique and opinion pieces, surrounding the topics of tech, gaming, culture and politics. “PostDesk is designed to give absolutely anyone with a desire to write – whatever their background – a platform in order for them to get the exposure they deserve,” founder Sam England said in an interview.
PostDesk has an in-house editorial staff, as well as a network of 20 curated content contributors, and they handle promotion and marketing of all pieces. The community also encourages readers to comment on and debate articles – they earn points and badges through their comments, and the ones with the best insight or strongest followings will be invited to become a contributor. England plans to pay all contributors through a revenue-sharing model. He said the company is already profitable and it has a “solid revenue model,” and isn’t looking for additional funding. They have secured launch partners and sponsors for each section, as well as the site as a whole.
“Debate, discussion and communities has always been something myself and my fellow team members have been passionate about,” England said in an interview. “Online – any feeling of ‘community’ has largely been lost in favour of the pre-existing connections we have with those on Twitter, Facebook or similar services. Outside of niche link-sharing sites like Reddit and Hacker News (generally targeted toward a tech-savvy audience) we have lost true communities that are built around common interests and around content. There is no single platform for long form discussion and debate.”
England believes that social networks like Twitter and Facebook have all but killed long-form writing online, and he says that while blogs allow people to write long-form content, it’s not conducive to creating an engaged audience. “Aside from setup and maintenance, there’s a huge amount of legwork involved in promoting the content and building an interested and returning audience,” he said. “If anything, achieving that is a more difficult task than creating the great content in itself.”
Successful Kickstarter project Matter is also tackling the idea of long-form online journalism. The project exceeded its $50,000 goal on March 24 with a total of $140,000 from over 2,500 backers. As they state in their project outline, “the web has become a byword for fast and cheap,” and they’re attempting to change that by providing one piece of long-form journalism per week about science and technology, at a cost of around $1 per article. The founders state they’re building Matter for readers, not advertisers, and they call it an experiment to see “if independent journalism, done right, can fill the gap left by mainstream journalism.” Matter was started by two reporters, Jim Giles and Bobbie Johnson, and since they hit their funding goal they’ve been building the site, and commissioning writers and editors. They expect to publish their first piece this summer.
“We think there’s a need for a publication like Matter because there are great stories going untold that fit into a gap between print and web that hasn’t been explored very much,” Johnson said in an interview. “There’s a lot of power in the web that we think hasn’t been put to the best possible use.” He says that while he believes community-based services like PostDesk can work really well, their version of long-form differs, and would be about 5,000 words on average whereas PostDesk content will likely be under that. “To get high quality material – the sort of material that needs five thousand words to work – you need to spend a lot of time researching, writing and editing. For that people have to get paid, because it’s a full-time occupation,” Johnson said.
Matter takes a different approach than PostDesk by charging readers rather than finding corporate sponsors to offset the costs of creating content. “Matter is an amazing project,” PostDesk’s England said. “Whilst in many ways Matter and PostDesk are entirely different – there are many parallels between the two projects – specifically our core values and motives.” PostDesk’s launch edition includes an interview with Matter co-founder Jim Giles.
There has been much debate about the quality of online content, both long-form and otherwise. Viral aggregator Buzzfeed raised $15 million in funding in January and has seen their traffic continually rise (25 million monthly unique visitors), while critics debate the value of their short, meme-based content. Publications like Business Insider are often criticized for their slideshows, which are seen as a tactic to increase pageviews. And while long-form content is available on the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, it’s often protected by a paywall, and is the exclusive province of professional journalists in terms of its creation.
“Current websites are simply not catering for the needs of those who want to write independent, long-form content,” PostDesk’s England said. “We’ve seen, due to flawed advertising models relying on page views as the sole metric of success, a decline in long-form, high quality content – and in increase in short, poorly produced content which lacks any depth and fails to dig deeper.” Matter’s Johnson also believes that online advertising isn’t something that ends up improving the experience for readers. “It’s what drives people to increase the number of stories they produce, while trying to decrease the amount of time they spend producing them. And the margins there are falling all the time, so there’s a terrible spiral that just ends up with readers being treated like chaff instead of being first in mind.”
While England believes that PostDesk will be a better way for content creators to get exposure, there’s no denying that traditional media outlets already have the distribution required to get attention and readership. And though Matter’s successful funding shows that there’s a need for intelligent long-form reporting, it remains to be seen whether the model is sustainable long-term, and whether the backers will turn into an ongoing base of subscribers. With articles getting shorter and shorter, and aggregators and viral reporters gaining more traction every month, it will be interesting for publishers and advertisers alike to see if the long-form journalism experiment takes off.