In 2009, Mark Armstrong launched a simple Twitter hashtag called #longreads, which was designed to “collect stories (nonfiction & fiction) for commuters who use @instapaper.” Even though the concept of the longread wasn’t new (we used to call them features!), the idea of handpicking the best narrative-driven journalism with a minimum 1,500 word count resonated with media types and voracious readers alike. In an endless ocean of takes and gif-driven listicles, being selected as a choice #longread became a badge of honor.
Today, Longreads-the-platform is a lot more than a Twitter feed. (Follower count: 142,000.) The service currently has 2,500 members, who pay $3 a month or $30 a year to help the four-person team behind Longreads find and share “outstanding storytelling from publishers and writers around the world.” Usually, that means reading and selecting the best stories from the New Yorkers and Atlantics of the publishing universe.
But more recently, it also meant commissioning and assigning original stories like an old-fashioned newspaper or magazine.
On Monday, Longreads announced that its new parent company, Automattic (which owns WordPress.com), will begin matching subscriber contributions, giving the platform-turned-publisher a larger editorial budget to work with as it looks to move deeper into original storytelling.
“Last year I noted in a blog post that 65% of the stories shared on Longreads started from a print magazine or newspaper website,” Armstrong tells Fast Company in an email. “To me, that was very revealing about the power of reader-financed, recurring subscriptions used to fund great storytelling. There is something about that model that is perfect for both ensuring accountability to readers and creating an easily forecastable budget that editors can count on every month.”
It’s a strategy that isn’t so different from BuzzFeed, one of the websites that helped Longreads stand out in the first place. Originally launched as a web aggregator in 2006 that “borrowed” content from other sources (namely Reddit), it wasn’t until 2012 that BuzzFeed started investing heavily in (expensive) original reporting and thoughtful longer-form content to call its own.
Longreads, somewhat ironically, is carving out a similar path forward. Curation is still the platform’s bread and butter, but it helps subsidize the expensive, difficult, and time-consuming journalism that Longreads was built to champion. WordPress.com’s financial matching certainly makes that easier.
What will that editorial process look like, exactly? “Some stories are coming together in a very traditional manner,” says Armstrong, “but we’re also working with other publishers, as well as editor-writer teams who are working, essentially, as mini-publications. The latter is very interesting to us as we explore models that ensure diversity of different voices, topics, and styles.”
Now, there are a few startups experimenting with reader-sponsored journalism formats. One worth mentioning is Beacon, which, among other things, uses Kickstarter-style crowd-funding to power journalism projects readers can sponsor directly. Last month, the startup grabbed headlines when it partnered with the Huffington Post for a $42,000, year-long “writing fellowship” for a journalist to report from Ferguson. (For what it’s worth, Longreads is also experimenting with a payment system. But Armstrong says it will be of the “eat what you kill variety.” He adds, “We’re not going to spend money we don’t have.”)
Since its acquisition by WordPress.com/Automattic (the financials of which weren’t disclosed), Longreads has been taking advantage of its new overlords’ infrastructure and resources. In June, Longreads scoured 22% of the Internet for its initial installment of “the Best of WordPress”–pieces that would have otherwise might not have been surfaced. (In addition to 60 million smaller blogs, WordPress.com also powers large publishers like Time and Quartz.)
Armstrong insists that becoming part of the web’s backbone will make Longreads better, aligning it more closely with his vision in 2009. “Now, being a part of such a huge platform allowed us to make good on our original intention with the Longreads Membership, which was to use it to fund stories, from writers and independent publishers we love,” Armstrong adds. “So this seemed like a natural next step.”