Welcome to the Golden Tablet Age of long-form journalism
Just when it seemed that journalism had been reduced to pithy two-paragraph blog posts and three-minute TV news or website video snippets, with 15-minute “in depth” reports on 60 Minutes being the height of investigative insight, a shining light has appeared through the clouds!
Fueled largely by the emergence of the Kindle as a place to read during down-time without staring into a glowing screen, and further encouraged by the more recreational media browsing that’s become popular on the iPad, “long-form journalism” is making a dramatic comeback in this age of bite-sized news. Thanks to several excellent editorial aggregators, lovers of the well-crafted essay, compelling profile, and in-depth on-the-ground reporting from around the globe now have easy access to the best work of the world’s best journalistic writers. Drawing from current print and online publications, as well as the archives of such stalwarts of the form as The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The London Review, Vanity Fair, Foreign Affairs, and many more, these sites offer a treasure-trove of writing that’s well worth settling down with for a half hour or hour.
From these sites (links below), you can check out the opening sections of their latest recommended items and load the full pieces in your browser, then send them to your Kindle (with readily-available plug-ins), add them to your Read It Later or Instapaper reading list, perhaps to be accessed from your iPad or laptop some evening or weekend, or, of course, read right on your computer.
Just as a taste, today’s top selections include a Foreign Policy piece by a recent visitor to Iraq, a new Atlantic piece on Vladimir Putin’s risky game of bending history in Russia, a Grantland look on concussions in high school football, a piece from Businessweek on the inventor of a revolutionary new sneaker that never made it to market, and an Adbusters look at “peak nature.” Oh, and an old 1952 tour of trailer parks and a new Sports Illustrated profile of Michael Jordan’s high school coach. Longform’s Best of 2011 included an incredible 3-part cautionary tale about Derek Boogaard, an NHL “enforcer,” a heart-wrenching story about Vaughn, Georgia, one of the towns wiped from the map by last year’s tornado swarms, one on a blind man who learned to navigate his world by echolocation, and a visit to a crazy Russian movie set, home to thousands. While no one will be interested in all of this, a weekly perusal of these sites is sure to reward every reader with a few gems.
I encourage you to check a few of these editorial sites out, and see which ones strike your fancy over time. I get something from them all. Byliner is the most reliably
full of great stuff, though they’re less focused on “all for free”: some require subscriptions to the source magazines. In addition, Byliner created a new format to take advantage of the “Amazon singles” format: they encourage journalists to publish extra-long pieces as $2 to $4 Byliner Originals, available for purchase on their site and Amazon, for reading on your computer or Kindle, and often with multimedia content for iPad. They’ve done sixteen of these so far, covering topics ranging from Japan after the quake to extended versions of the Atlantic expose on NCAA sports use/abuse of student athletes and John Krakauer’s take-down of Greg Mortenson’s nonprofit work in Afghanistan. I love this new outlet for journalists to sell directly to readers, and I’ve supported this emerging format with several purchases over the course of the year.
Indeed, the “getting the best stuff for free” factor is the only downside to these sites; these articles are the ones that the magazines spent big chunks of their content budget to produce, flying journalists around the world and supporting them to spend the weeks it takes to put together a killer long-form piece. I really would be willing to pay a buck or two for lots of these, and would easily buy into a micro-payment system (a single article for a quarter?) that helps the magazines to keep producing quality work. Another way to “pay your dues” would be to continue to carry one or two subscriptions to these kinds of magazines; that’s my habit, though I tend to cycle through the core few, a year or two at a time for each, switching it up over time to keep some variety circulating through my magazine pile.
Moving past these ethical dilemmas, the fact is that almost all these pieces are being offered for free by their original publishers, so there’s no particular reason to feel guilty about enjoying them! Here are my favorite sites for discovering such gems:
The aforementioned Byliner is a solid place to start; another unique feature there is an easily-browsed collection of stories from favorite authors, like this one for Michael Lewis, known for his economics pieces as well as the pieces that inspired the movies Moneyball and The Blind Side). Also impressive, with a steady stream of new recommendations, are both Longreads and Longform; the latter tends more toward quirky profiles and off-the-radar social issues (bike theft, hard-to-adopt kids), and the arts, compared to the others, which are at least half current affairs and global issues. The Browser is a recent discovery that seems to have solid promise, featuring great current events pieces not found on the others. Finally, I can’t recommend Conor Friedersdorf’s The Best of Journalism highly enough! He zeroes in on three or so articles per week, and delivers the links by email; for $2 a month, he send another one per week to subscribers (his fave, we might well assume!).
And, check out Longform’s home page for links to tools that make all of these sites work with Instapaper, Readability, and Read it Later. I’m loving Readability’s Chrome extension, which sends articles to my Kindle with one click, and also allows me to preload multi-page articles from sites that don’t offer the “Single Page” option, then send these on to my Kindle (which, by the way, at $79 is a no-brainer for anyone who wishes they could read longer pieces without staring at the same glowing screen they look at all day! Kindle screens really are as gentle on the eyes as a “real” book….).