Here are my (very rough) live notes from ‘longform online: rewriting the rules’ 

Sarah Marshall, technology editor,

13 November 2012

I’ll be writing these notes up as a feature for

Q from @stephen_abbot on Twitter. What do people think of @TheLongGoodRead

Alexander Capes,  digital director, The Church of London gives contect, saying that Buzzfeed has announced it was looking for an online editor, iPad mini announced.


Explains that @readmatter is being launched tomorrow...

Background on @readmatter



BBC Future is the new technology, science, environment and health focused site from

Frantz explains that it’s not available in the UK



Hains set up Aeon with her husband


“It’s a process that’s evolved over time, the rules are being rewritten. Most publishing on the web have been based on the advertising model.”

With most sites are “you are playing a numbers game,” says Johnson. And the value of digital advertising has decreased.

Now reading is easier than ever before on a screen, Johnson adds. And that barrier - between online and offline reading - doesn’t really exist any more.


Various gamechangers, says Frantz, including developments such as Tumblr, WordPress, which lowered the cost of publishing. An people got sick of churnalism, he says.

“We are looking to do more ambitious pieces,” Frantz says. “We are going to go deeper, go longer.”


We don’t come from journalism, says Hains. The ecosystem is now bigger. There are more opportunities.

Hains originally from an academic background - so ‘long-form’ is often shorter than the usual book-length piece.

Frantz says there may be a tablet that is lighter in weight than the print edition of the New Yorker.

Johnson: “I want to form a community around the in-depth writing we are trying to produce.”

“We are producing it’s digitally as that’s where our potential readers are - and it’s what makes sense for us.”

News outlets producing hundreds of articles a day, many get scant attention. “you are throwing spaghetti at the wall”.

Matter started when Johnson wrote a long article on the power of the browser.

“I’m ambivalent to one form of media over the other,” Johnson says. “We shouldn’t set it up as a war between print and digital.” It’s all about the content.

Long-form is a massively confusing terms, says Johnson. It’s longer than short, says Capes.

Hains says the challenge is to get people to stay with in, reducing ‘snacking’ of content.

Story length of Matter is 5K-10K words. It’s an artificial length settings. And kind of dictated by Amazons rules on the length of Kindle Singles.

Johnson aiming for distraction-free. The length is determined by the story. Rejecting pitches as the length (min 5K words) can’t be sustained. Or those that are too long - and shouldn’t be!

Frantz makes the point that video / audio can be added. He uses the example of The Atavist.

Johnson says “we think about narrative journalism”. It’s almost like a movie script. Then it’s about getting the reporter out for the “deep reporting”.

Capes asks whether the panelists saw opportunities in new devices - or whether it is to make the world a better place.

Hains said she was aiming for filling in the gap that wasn’t available in culture. Digital seemed the obvious place. And it’s provided benefits, such as journeys through the site. And we leapfrogged the PR and marketing. Audience has come to it in a purely digital, organic way.

Johnson says all eds have long content they had no vehicle to publish

Capes asks ‘is the audience willing to pay?’

BBC Future example is traditional, ad based.

Aeon is free

Matter has Kickstarter funding - and launches tomorrow.

Frantz says audience was asking for something that wasn’t the daily news cycle.

Atavist’s most successful story had been rejected by Wired and New Yorker, says Frantz.

Frantz: “If you hit that sweet spot, it’s lucrative”

BBC Future is hitting its targets. 6 / 7 months old.

Johnson says the starting point was an economic situation where highly-skilled writers are affordable. They then did some number crunching and research and then tried to craft the project so it can be successful at the minimum level.

Johnson: “I don’t think there are millions and millions of people who will pay $0.99 for a single. But there are enough to make it viable.”

Kickstarter provided research. They were able to ask the community why they had backed it.

Matter doing audiobook versions of every story.

Jim Giles and Bobbie Johnson commissioning editors. Try to work out what the writer is bad at, what they are bad at, and try to match up with an editor to complement that.

It was an “extreme effort” to get it to the level. It’s a new discipline to get to the level where it can hold people’s attention.

⅔ of Kickstarter backers in US, mainly working with people in the US. If no one is commissioning long-form, how are people learning the craft?

Hains has found that many US writers have the skill / craft of holding the audience.

And not everyone is good at writing short-form pieces, such as blogging.

Frantz says Aeon’s stories have taught him things he didn’t know he was interested in. It’s about the immersion in the writing, says Hains.

Johnson says that bad US longform journalism is the worst in the world. But those who can do it are brilliant.

Capes ask how it is Googleable / searchable

Frantz says very little traffic is via search. Relies on the community, on Reddit, on promos.

Hains says the bloggers promote. And Reddit is also an important driver. It maybe low quality traffic. Hains does not write seo-friendly headlines.

Capes says search is just 4% ?for Aeon?

Johnson says it’s about taking the long view when it’s something of value. It’s not tomorrow’s chip wrapper. Johnson expects Matter articles to have long-tail.

“The half life of long stories is much, much longer,” says @bobbiejohnson

Panel says social sharing is about giving out signals. It doesn’t mean people are reading them. And buying Matter articles doesn’t mean people will read them. Matter trying to help readers avoid backlog guilt, where editions of the New Yorker (or for me the Economist) pile up (whether digitally or in print).

Matter initially publishing once a month. In future no more often than once a week.

Average contribution = $54 to Matter. Skewed by a couple of large ($3K) donations.

Johnson now talking about the various rewards they offered for Kickstarter funding. Postcards, mentioning the person on the website. c. 15 people paid $1K to sit in on a meeting!

Johnson says rewards mean little, but relationships important. People have an idea of what they want to spend. And you have to convince them you are worth it.

Hains says a key is to remove distractions. That was advice from Alex Capers. “Let people get on in peace.” Design of Aeon is very clean (see

Matter uses photos. Unlikely to use video anytime soon as it takes you out of the story. Interesting conversations about pull quotes. For now Matter has opted not to include. And short paragraphs really hard to read in the book format. “Every paragraph took me out of the story.”

Matter site is responsive so it delivers a clean reading experience on any device.

BBC Future wants to do some testing. Par spaces need work. Easier for sites starting from scratch.

Q for panel on where they read long-form. Hains goes for a tablet. Frantz is laptop + more and more tablet - Flipboard has proved a gamechanger. Johnson says he doesn’t use the iPad as much (perhaps due to demand for the device from the baby!). Johnson goes for phone (or v large computer screen at home).

Matter - poss syndications. Considering making articles free to access after they have been the site for a while.

Sense that long-form community is helping one another.

Hains started by thinking digital was ephemeral, print not. But realised it’s the reverse. Digital is around for the long haul.

Hains was skeptical about comments. But commenters are proving a vibrant community. Matter is not opting for comments. Wanting the finite experience, comments would change the dynamic, be a distraction. But people want to talk. That can happen on different platforms, in different spaces.

I’ll be writing these notes up as a feature for

A couple of @journalismnews links on long-form



Long-form video