Today we continue an occasional series of guest spots by Readability friends and neighbors. We believe the new Readability, alongside efforts elsewhere aimed at innovating the reading experience, is part of a broader conversation: the possibilities of fresh thinking around digital content, publishing, and—especially—the future of reading. They are some of the brightest folks we know: help us all take the conversation further.
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Q. How do you distinguish between what you are doing from fellow curators like brainpickings.org and Longform.org, or even outfits like The Atavist? There’s a shared affinity for delivering great reading—but what sets you apart?
A.I think the biggest thing we should note here is that Longreads, and all of the outstanding people you’ve mentioned above, are simply a new generation of media brand.
I think we’re all coming from a place where we’re committed to ensuring outstanding creative work gets noticed and rewarded. Then, beyond that, we’re each finding ways to make contributions to the ecosystem through technology and content.
With daily curation, everyone has individual tastes that vary. But there’s a lot to read, and I think we’re just scraping the surface in terms of those who help people navigate the chaos of the open web. (Sports Illustrated‘s Joe Posnanski also recently declared that we’ve entered a golden age for writing, and based on what I’ve seen over the past two years, I’d agree.)
[W]e’re all coming from a place where we’re committed to ensuring outstanding creative work gets noticed and rewarded.
As for Longreads: I started it in April 2009 as a hashtag and a service on Twitter, in order to experiment with community-powered curation, so my daily picks are largely driven by the suggestions of readers who post their favorite stories using the #longreads hashtag. It’s been fascinating to see the varied tastes and interests of everyone who posts. I’ve also enjoyed seeing publishers get involved: The New Yorker, Rolling Stone (with whom we hosted our first live event) New York Review of Books, The Awl, The Atlantic, Mother Jones, and others all post their feature-length stories to #longreads, as well as recommending their favorite stories from other sources.
Q. Instapaper was created to make its creators’ commute more pleasurable. Readability has just announced an API contest. Where else can enterprising developers help innovate on a platform like ours?
A.I tend to nerd out over things like data organization and structure, so I’m fascinated by Readability’s embrace of the hNews standard as a way to help make better sense of the content that’s being created across the open web.
I’d love to see developers and publishers continue to play with that structure.
One of my favorite recent inventions was from Al Shaw at ProPublica. He and I were chatting about the fact that Longreads features word counts and reading times for all of the stories we feature, so he built a neat thing called TrippyApp, which lets you sync your reading list with your precise subway commute time according to HopStop.
Q. We’ve seen it with Netflix and elsewhere: the realities of “timeshifted” consumption are taking hold. Beyond juicing traffic, what is the economically meaningful business case that can emerge alongside the rise of the “read later” reader?
A.I’ve said this many times before, but here’s my thinking: For the last 15 years, digital content companies have been focused on just one screen: The desktop computer at work. That means the best someone could ever hope for in terms of online engagement was 5 minutes of their attention, in between email and work, Monday through Friday, 9 am to 5 pm.
Now, we have a lot more screens (tablets, Kindles and smartphones), we have access to them everywhere—on the couch, the bed, the commute, the gym, the doctor’s waiting room, the bathroom—and we have a chance to engage with them for 10, 30, 60 minutes in one sitting.
We also now have the “Read Later” button, which allows people to pre-program this downtime entertainment. In many cases people spend their work hours in hunter-gatherer mode, picking through Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr (and Longreads) collecting material to enjoy when they have more time—and even read offline, if they so choose.
This depth of engagement creates a huge business opportunity.
For magazines, this is what’s been missing from the digital experience. You used to go to a newsstand, buy a magazine, and then take it with you to read whenever you have a spare moment. “Read Later” finally solves that problem. You can now read the web, on your own terms.
Back to your “is this a business question”: From my own data, I see that reader interest is there. And I think publishers are seeing value in producing storytelling that has a longer shelf life: Besides the credibility-building aspects of it, a great story can keep grabbing people’s attention on Twitter for weeks, months and even years after it’s first published. There’s also a lot of experimentation right now: ESPN has a separate “Reader” Twitter feed for its longer pieces, you’ve got New York Review of Books sporting Readability buttons, and blogs like Deadspin turning into a publisher of excellent in-depth stories. (See last week’s “How These Two White Guys Wound Up In This Kendrick Perkins Family Photo.”)
This depth of engagement creates a huge business opportunity. But it also raises the stakes for the quality of content: If you want someone’s attention for that long, you’ll have to produce great work.
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