I store my very favorite works of long-form journalism in a hard-drive folder titled “Keepers.” There’s Jonathan Rauch’s 1995 defense of prejudice from Harper’s, Gary Wolf’s stunning 1995 profile of Ted Nelson in Wired, John Tierney’s 1996 piece on recycling in the New York Times Magazine, Gary Greenberg’s 2001 brain-death exposé in The New Yorker; and Sean Wilentz’s 2007 masterpiece about Blonde on Blonde from the Oxford American, just to name a few.
What all of them share is that they’re extremely good and very long—each exceeds 4,000 words. And even though each of my personal favorites is but a click away on the Web, I like keeping closer tabs on them than that. I sync this folder on all of my computers, so that when my connection goes down or I’m stuck on a runway awaiting takeoff, I can easily slip back into reading them.
I’m not the only long-form journalism hound. My pal Max Linsky, who has contributed to Slate, and his friend and Wesleyan classmate Aaron Lammer feel the same way. But instead of hoarding their favorite examples of long-form journalism, they’re Johnny Appleseed-ing the Web with links to dozens of them on their new site, Longform.org.
“The early inspiration for the site was a passionate, slightly one-upmanship-based search for amazing long-form stories that went on over the last couple years, since myself, Max, and a few others … got iPhones,” says Lammer, a writer and Web developer, who is 28. “Everyone has that one standout piece that gets seared into their skull, so it was exciting, when someone mentioned one, to actually be able to track it down and pass it around. For me, the process echoed the early days of MP3s, when out of print and ultra-rare recordings that had been stuck in record industry purgatory all started making the rounds. Except with long-form stories, the whole thing is amplified, because most of these pieces have totally dropped off the map.”
The more immediate inspiration for the site was the Nicaragua vacation the two took with their girlfriends in February. During the trip, they ran out of things to read on their iPhones. They seized on the impending release of the iPad to launch a site that would fill that need, guaranteeing a never-ending supply of superb long-form pieces that readers could access on any device with an Internet connection.
Linsky, who is 29, says that well-told long-form stories were what made him want to become a journalist.
“The best job I’ll ever have was getting paid next-to-nothing to write long stuff for an alt-weekly in Florida,” he says.
Curating journalistic keepers is only part of the Longform.org mission. Linsky laments the way publishers serve long-form pieces in 450-word increments, forcing a reader to click a dozen times to read a whole article.
“It’s a terrible way to read a story, and unless you’re an absolute long-form diehard or the piece is about someone in your immediate family, you’re not going to put up with it,” he says.
To increase readability, Longform.org has added an Instapaper button to each story in its collection. Readers who set up a free Instapaper account can 1) bookmark to the Web stories selected by Longform.org and 2) render them as a single ad- and navigation-free page for when the user finally gets around to reading them online or offline. Instapaper pages look great on desktops and netbooks; and apps, both paid and free, make Instapaper work nicely on iPhones and iPods. (Linsky and Lammer have no business connection with Instapaper, which curates its own worthy-reading site, Give Me Something to Read. Other free sites that also make Web pages easier to read include Readability and Readable.)
Linsky and Lammer have been posting from a backlog of personal favorites, but they’re also adding newly published pieces on a daily basis and are accepting suggestions from readers. The Longform.org archives now contain links to 49 stories, and the site posts about four new ones daily. Writers represented in the latest Longform.org lineup are the usual suspects—Susan Orlean, Mark Leibovich, Mark Bowden, James Fallows, Simon Winchester, David Grann, Michael Lewis, Jeanne Marie Laskas, John Sack, Jeffrey Goldberg—and a few writers you may not have heard of, such as Marco Vernaschi, Gendy Alimurung, and John Geluardi. *New posts are announced via a Twitter feed.
“For a piece to make it onto Longform, it either has to be a stellar piece of writing based on exceptional reporting or such a great topic it doesn’t matter if the writing is a little weak,” Linsky says.
The Brooklyn-based duo’s plans for the site are not huge.
“It’s something we’d use if we weren’t doing it,” says Linsky. “Not forcing some half-cocked business model has allowed us to make every decision with the reader in mind.”
If Longform.org convinces more people to read long-form stories, Linsky and Lammer will be happy. But if their project convinces publishers to move great long-form pieces from behind the pay wall or to jailbreak classics that have never appeared on the Web, they’ll be ecstatic.
I won’t over-praise Longform.org for the same reason I would never over-praise a newborn: Just because it’s new and smells good is no reason to go effusive. But Longform.org, like a newborn, could go someplace grand. I’ll be following.
Other gems from my Keepers folder: Renata Adler on Pauline Kael (New York Review of Books, 1980, behind the paywall); Katherine Boo on “invisible deaths” (Washington Post,1999); Nicholas Lemann on David Halberstam ( New Republic, 1979); Washington Post ombudsman Bill Green’s investigation of the Janet Cook affair (1981); and Marjorie Williams on Richard Darman. (Most but not all of this 1990 Washington Post Magazine feature can be found on Google Books and Amazon. Her husband, Slate’s Timothy Noah, who controls the rights, should be shot for not posting the entire feature to the Web.) Don’t send your favorites to firstname.lastname@example.org. Send it to Longform.org. Send me the regular hate mail. For timeless Twitter, see my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in Slate’s readers’ forums; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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Correction, April 27, 2010: The original version of this article misspelled journalist Mark Bowden’s name. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)