In January 2012, the University of Pittsburgh’s Writing Program began a collaboration with the curatorial website, Longform.org, a website devoted to collecting the best of long form journalism. To kick-off the new partnership, the university hosted the website’s founders, Max Linsky and Aaron Lammer. Over the course of three the days, Linsky and Lammer gave a presentation, toured Pittsburgh and sat down to an interview.
Before Linsky and Lammer dreamed up the concept of Longform.org, they were already dedicated readers of long form journalism. Linsky remarked, “…in my office, …[was] this thick manila folder of all the stories that I printed out for flights and things like that.” But a folder full of printouts wasn’t ideal, and they found a better way to read. Two technological developments contributed to them starting their website. In 2008 Instapaper was released. Instapaper strips a website’s formatting and side bar advertisements, and condenses a long article into a single screen reading experience. In addition to enabling a less cluttered reading experience, Instapaper also has cloud capabilities. That is, a reader using Instapaper also has the option of delivering an article to an Instapaper server where they can log in and access it later, or they can deliver the article to their smart phones or iPad.
Following the success of Instapaper, a web browser with similar capabilities was created, Readibility. According to Linsky, what Readibilty did was, “it took the mobile experience and pushed it back onto the web.” The way Readability.com specifically works with Longform.org, is that a user can click the Readability icon (a red couch) and have the article they are reading automatically sent to their Kindle or other kind of e-reader. This development, of first Instapaper and then Readability, gave rise to Linksky and Lammer, two men who humbly described themselves as “…just guys who were subway commuters who read a lot of long form journalism,” to start Longform.org.
Below is their interview with MFA student Nichole Faina (with additional questions by Laura Clark).
Hot Metal Bridge (Nichole Faina): One sentence. What is long form journalism? You each get a try.
Aaron Lammer: My interest in it—I take a sort of technical view of that. So, I think nonfiction over two thousand words is long form journalism. That’s how we treat it on the site. I think probably narrative nonfiction is maybe a little more accurate to what we’re covering.
HMB (NF): Okay. Max? What’s your one sentence?
Max Linsky: Real stories told well.
AL: Are you going to make a t-shirt that says that?
ML: I got a tattoo on my ass.
HMB (NF): So tell me the story of why you started Longform. Was there anything else out there like it when you started it?
ML: [There was nothing that] was meeting the need [we had]. We were both really heavy Instapaper users and we were running out of good stuff to read. And so we started [Longform] very simply to meet that need. We wanted to make sure we never got on the subway again and didn’t have something great to read [on our Kindles, iPhones etc.]. We figured that if we had that problem then some other people might have that problem.
AL: And there were other people doing things that had similarities, but I think with a lot of [projects on] the web there’s different degrees of seriousness and consistency in how often [resources] are updated. Since we’ve started Longform other people have also started similar [projects], and I think everyone’s actually taking it a bit more seriously now. But at the time we felt like there was a real contribution to make by starting a site like [Longform.org] and putting some energy and intention into it.
HMB (NF): So what year did you all launch?
ML: April 2010.
HMB (NF): And where did you get the startup money? Tell me about that part.
ML: The costs of starting up the site were about as much as people spend on the cab to the airport today. We got it from my pocket at that exact moment probably. It didn’t cost very much.
AL: I had a shared home-server account at that time that I was already running other websites on, so we added that website. We had to buy and register a domain. That was ten bucks. But other than that, that was pretty much our costs regarding the site.
HMB (NF): So what’s the first Longform story you truly fell in love with?
AL: I think that’s a bit hard to remember probably. But, the first thing I found that I was really, really excited to find—I mean, I get the most excited about stuff that I think would have been kind of forgotten if we hadn’t found it; you know, a new New Yorker story might have been great but everyone’s going to find it anyway. The story was from, I think, 1969 and 1970. It was a two-part story published for Rolling Stone about this cult called The Lyman Family in Boston that were sort of like contemporaries of the Manson family but didn’t actually kill anyone. But actually, it’s still persevered to this day and it was sort of about how they rose out of this student activist community in Boston and became this national cult. And I found it on some guy’s website and was able to convert it.
HMB (NF): So that’s the story that metaphorically blew your mind?
AL: Absolutely. And that was the first thing I found where I was like, oh, this isn’t just about posting links, we actually can find stuff and really actually change the trajectory of a story that’s been forgotten.
HMB (NF): What year was that?
AL: That was probably within the first three or four months of Longform.org.
HMB (NF): How about you, Max?
ML: I’ve loved this stuff since I was a little kid. I was subscribing to dozens of magazines when I was like 13. So, I think—I don’t know what the first story is that I fell in love with, but I was at a very young age opening Sports Illustrated and turning to the back feature first. You know, I would be reading it if it was still delivered, like on slate tablet.
HMB (NF): So what’s the last story you really fell in love with then?
ML: The last story I really fell in love with. I don’t know. I mean, I read some stories this week that were really good that I posted to the website.
HMB (NF): Yeah?
ML: Yeah, this this amazing story, [The Girl Who Tried to Save the World by Janet Reitman] about an aid-worker in Baghdad, this incredible woman who basically willed herself to go to Baghdad—or actually she went to Afghanistan—right after college. She was like this tiny young woman and died in a roadside bomb in Baghdad. And it’s just that the story of her activism and her confusion and this incredible outpouring from all these journalists in Baghdad: “How did she die?” And she was like the most eulogized aid-worker ever because she hung out with all the reporters. Those were her people, you know? She kept finding ways to go back to Baghdad.
HMB (Laura Clark): She was an American?
ML: Yeah, she was an American. Her name was Marla. Yeah, that story, that story… stuck to my ribs.
HMB (NF): So what makes a good story? Why do you pick it for Longform?
AL: That’s definitely a dicey question. The question has actually come up recently because for a long time it was just the two of us, and now we have other editors. So, it’s one of those things like, “What’s porn when you see it?” It’s not definable but you know what is and what is not porn when you see it.
And I think between Aaron and I, we kind of know what we think is a good story. But now that we have other editors, we have to communicate what our vision of [a good story] is. I think on a very basic level we look for things that are either really [well written] or a really incredible can’t-miss-it story that’s being told, and ideally, both. So, without one of those ingredients it would be out of viability. And generally I hope it would be both, but we do occasionally post stories that I think are not particularly well written because they’re about something that I found incredible. And we also post stories that are, you know—there’s a certain part of nonfiction that’s maybe not that interesting of a story but it’s really interestingly written.
HMB (NF): So what are some trends in nonfiction that you think need to be retired? What are some story trends?
AL: [Laughs] We have a good list going.
ML: Yeah. I think that oral histories had a great 2011, have a shittier 2012, I think. It’s a strange thing to have gimmicks in work that takes that much to produce. And I think oral histories are reaching pretty consistent gimmick status at this point. So, I hope there are fewer of those in 2012.
AL: And I think that there’s a certain wave of headlines where people are taking good writing and putting a shitty headline on it to garner [internet exposure]. And then you’re starting to see people who are not only starting from the shitty headline and reverse engineering stories that are the kinds of things that generate clicks. I mean, that’s definitely a trend that I think needs to be sort of mended. No one wants to read a really long story that was designed around getting you to click into the story, and I see more of that.
HMB (NF): Tell me a shitty headline. I don’t quite know what you mean by the shitty headlines.
ML: Here’s what happens, right? You have all of these magazines and newspapers have a system by which they publish stories online and appear in print. So, the vast majority have different headlines in print than they do online, and online there’s all this like relatively straight forward, good internet practice stuff to do that moves that story up. The problem is when you take a 5,000-word story that has two major twists and then like a crazy spoiler alert kicker, and you put a 15-word title on top of it that ruins two of those twists, it’s out of whack with what you’re asking of the reader. There’s very little in long form journalism that’s vital to people’s lives. It’s like an entertainment medium, and when you start trying to make your long form headlines friendly, you’re voiding this thing that you’ve put all this work into.
AL: There’s the kind of stuff where it’s like: “Is Obama Better than JFK?” You know? Just things that you’re like, wait, what? You’re sort of induced to click because you’re like, what is this premise? But, it’s not accurate to the story. It’s also, I think, more emblematic of the short internet [life span of writing], but you see all those things starting to bleed into how people approach what they’re doing. Especially as websites become the more dominant presence of a magazine than the print version. Like the style that people have published on the web, especially like short work, informs how people publish longer work, too.
ML: [Something else I want to add:] I think this isn’t a trend as much as a totally entrenched, fucked up thing—but I think it’s a world that really needs to be more aggressive about supporting women writers and editors, and those numbers are fucked up, and they haven’t really gotten any better, I think. We just did a big best of 2011 site, and we’re quite conscious of the disparity, and it didn’t seem any better than it did in 2010, and it didn’t really seem any better than it did in 2009. And I think that’s something that I think people should be working harder on.
HMB (NF): Who should be working harder?
ML: All the women.
[Laughs all around.]
AL: “Try harder.”
ML: My message to the women is: “Do better.” No. I think the people who are running these magazines need to work harder to find those voices. They totally exist, and it might be harder to find, but it’s worth putting in that effort.
HMB (NF): But, what about all the other minorities? I mean, there’s people of color, there’s queer people…
AL: It’s harder to tell when you do an end of the year list whether you’ve underrepresented people of color or queer minorities than women. Because, we were even wrong on some of the women count stuff, like when we found out that Ashlee Vance is a man. But, they’re harder to track, you know? And I think that they’re probably also underrepresented, but it’s like we have a meta-data system that makes it very clear what the percentage of men and women are, so it’s very glaring when you look at the numbers.
HMB (NF): So what kind of publications do you read that do have more diverse writing? I mean, are you all digging to find those diverse writers when you’re curating your website? Or are you waiting for the recommendations to come in? I mean, because I see a lot of the stories you post are from Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone that are pretty mainstream. How much work are you all doing to support diverse writers?
HMB (LC): Can I tag a question onto that to clarify from the talk yesterday? How much did you actually do and how much just comes to you?
AL: We do a lot of digging. A lot of stuff comes to us, and we have developed some systems where we have some trusted people [that send us recommendations]. But, in terms of the mainstream-ness of the publications, I mean, I think you’d be surprised how few publications are consistently publishing above that 2,000-word threshold. It requires a lot of work. I know I was surprised at it. I was like, oh, there has to be like 50,000 different sources on the Internet for this kind of stuff, and actually it’s more like a universe of 100 publications, and a good portion of them on some level [are] mainstream. I mean, you do need some mainstream backing to consistently churn out high quality long nonfiction.
HMB (NF): Can you talk a little bit more about that? About the money to support a long form journalist?
AL: I’ve never done this professionally. Max knows more about it than I do.
ML: I think there’s one other point about how the site works with this stuff. Which is that diversity both in size of publication and in writers and in topics is really important, but it’s number two on the death chart of what our goals are. And the first one is to post four things a day that are amazing and serve the audience. We’ve hit a weird point with like…GQ. GQ has put out, for the last six months, six incredible magazines and six incredible features. And all of those stories are really, really good. They’re all worth reading; they’re all really excellent. And so we could not post them because of a theory that the site shouldn’t have that much GQ stuff on it. But, people come to the site to find stuff to read, not to do a breakdown of the publications. So, that’s the first thing—that the obligation is to the reader not to goals about diversity. And the second thing about the money is that it’s really expensive to do one of these stories. But the other main difference that large magazines have is large magazines are also where the best editors are. So, it’s not just the best writers getting paid the most, it’s also the best editors in the country, and if you talk to people at the top, top of this game, top narrative journalists in the country, they’ll all talk about their editors. And I think that’s a really big difference. So if you look at these small journals and smaller magazines and stuff like that, it’s not that the writing is always not on the same level, it’s not that the money to report the story isn’t there—it’s also often that the stories read like first drafts.
AL: I don’t want to go out and say, “Oh, only people who have money are doing interesting stuff.” I think that The Awl publishes great stuff. n+1, The Believer—these are all people who are paying under a thousand dollars, I would guess, for a story. So there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening. I guess what I would say though is, among the top sources I just named, The Believer only comes out every two months and they have one feature online. I mean—we’re putting up four stories a day, so a lot of these other sources, they don’t have the consistent volume. The Awl is like 500 blog posts, and then a long story. n+1 is a quarterly. They are doing really amazing stuff on a much, much lower budget and have great writers and great editors, but they’re people who have other jobs. And most people who have jobs in addition to turning this stuff out are not going to be able to keep up with that kind of a pace. And I think Max is right about the sort of quality stuff. We don’t have a mission to support any particular anything, and I think if we got involved in it, there are so many different things we could be called on to support that it would sort of obscure the other mission. It’s like, wouldn’t it be great if there was more student journalism on there? Well, it would be great for student journalists, but not really great for people coming to the site, even including students, I feel like.
ML: Yeah. Just one caveat to that. When we find something amazing on a site that we don’t often feature, that’s great. We’re really excited when that happens. It’s not not important, it’s just not as important as making sure there’s really good stuff.
HMB (NF): So, who are your favorite editors to read stories from? Who do you think are the top editors right now?
ML: The guy who is running Business Week I think is doing a pretty good job. I’m pretty enamored with Jim Nelson in GQ and what they’ve been putting out. There’s a new executive editor at GOOD magazine named Ann Friedman, a friend of ours, who I think is going to do really good stuff. The two guys who edit The Awl, Choire Sicha and Alex Balk are the editors of the future, and they are doing really amazing stuff.
AL: I don’t follow editors as much as Max, on a sort of insider baseball level, because it’s not a big interest of mine. So, I very rarely even know probably who’s editing pieces. I mean, there’s been different pockets that I’ve been really into reading, and then fallen off in my interest. I felt like last year I read a lot of This Recording, but then I read it a little bit less now. Just different stuff becomes interesting to me but all the magazines are great. I think a lot of people are learning how to do this stuff themselves and will be able to run kind of lean, small ships that do pretty interesting work.
HMB (NF): What’s the newest publication that you’re most hopeful about?
ML: I think we’re pretty excited about The Atavist. We know those guys and I think they’re doing really fantastic work, and also even though they’re all from pretty big time, big screen magazine publishing, do not seem to feel very beholden to the conventions of that industry. So it’s cool. I think they’re applying top, top shelf talent in a really new way. That’s been really fun to watch.
AL: I don’t know. There’s a lot of experiments that I think—I mean, I think Grantland is a really interesting experiment, and they took a lot of people who were writing on a pretty high level from across the web in different sort of disciplines and brought them together under this sort of banner of pop culture and sports. I think it’s too soon to know whether it’s a success or not, but I know that they found basically all these people that I was personally following who were writing in all these different places and went kind of green team on it. That’s a really exciting idea. And I think it’ll maybe take a year or two to really totally catch fire, but the writers they have, Jay Caspian Kang, Tom Bissell, are all people that I would read their stuff wherever they are. It’s pretty amazing. ESPN must be putting a lot of money into it. They really got everyone; everyone I was interested in now works for Grantland.
HMB (NF): Thank you all so much.
Transcribed by Amanda Giracca
A transcript of the full presentation given the previous day by Aaron Lammer and Max Linsky is here.