News

A Reckoning for Recommendations

To those who hoped ambitious narrative journalism would flourish on the open web, the end of Longform’s curation service feels like the closing of an era

When Longform announced it was shuttering its feature article recommendation service, there was a wave of dismay and bittersweet appreciation. Longform launched nearly 12 years ago, or several eons in media technology terms, with dreams of building a business out of curating the best 3,000-plus-word articles posted on the web. The feelings of loss evoked by the end of its recommendation branch — the Longform podcast spin-off, which joined Vox Media last summer, will continue — captured a broader mourning for a recent rash of closings for publications specializing in longer content — including Topic, Pacific Standard, Medium’s latest pivot, HuffPost’s Highline, California Sunday, and soon, The Believer — and concerns that the open web is no longer a viable space for publishing ambitious narrative journalism. “As a fan of longform journalism and essays myself, to have one less venue recommending these pieces is sad to me,” said Sari Botton, formerly the essays editor of Longreads (not to be confused with Longform) who departed the site, currently owned by Automattic, the software company behind WordPress, in 2020 in the wake of staff cutbacks and strategic shifts. “It points toward a dying part of our field. It’s just another sign of these times that there’s fewer venues in which to publish your longform, and now there’s one less serious site to recommend it, and to disseminate it and to get it into more eyeballs.”

As much as, if not more than, providing a reader service, the recommendation game has been about creating a halo of belonging. “My initial response, as a longtime reader and fan, was a bit of shock, to be honest,” said Jacob Feldman, a sports reporter at Sportico and co-founder of the newsletter The Sunday Long Read with ESPN senior writer Don Van Natta Jr. “Longform had been around as long as I’ve been a professional writer,” he said, adding that it “helped make a certain style of journalism (and journalist) seem like the coolest thing you could do (and be). I’m hopeful that that vibe will outlive Longform because of the impact it had on so many editors and writers, me included.”

Longform, which highlighted more than 10,000 nonfiction pieces and shared daily recommendations over almost a dozen years, published a statement on its homepage from its founders Max Linsky and Aaron Lammer announcing its shutdown on January 5. “We started the site in April 2010 on a whim,” the statement says. “It has been immensely gratifying to watch millions of readers enjoying the work of our favorite writers.” Lammer wrote in an email to Off the Record that he and Linsky decided not to comment further on their decision. “We’ve tried to make the site about the writers and their work,” he wrote, “therefore it seems better to not become media critics at the last second.” In a Longform podcast episode released the same day as the announcement, Linsky said the site lasted “many, many more years” than anticipated. “Part of this story here is that we lived through many eras of the internet and Longform.org is, I think, pretty clearly from a different internet than the one we are currently living on.”

As a reminder of just how different that internet era was, the original technological inspiration for Longform was the iPad, which Apple first released the same month Longform launched. At the time, Lammer told Slate’s Jack Shafer, “The early inspiration for the site was a passionate, slightly one-upmanship-based search for amazing longform stories that went on over the last couple years, since myself, Max, and a few others … got iPhones.” They said they decided to launch the site after a vacation to Nicaragua together that February when they had trouble finding things to read. The iPad launch, which was then seen as a potential savior for print magazines, looked like a ripe opportunity to start a new recommendation service.

It was not a revolutionary idea. Aggregation was one of the first kinds of web publishing. But as the digital media landscape has changed, so have the thoughts about how best to curate the best content found on it. Arts & Letters Daily was founded in 1998 by Dennis Dutton, a philosophy professor at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, as a curator of the best of intellectual titles. While the content was very different (the site continues in much the same format, now operated by the Chronicle of Higher Education), its columns of unadorned linked headlines strongly resembled one of the web’s oldest news aggregators, the Drudge Report, which launched the year before.

In the early 2000s, after his media reporting startup Inside.com fell victim to the dot-com bust, author Kurt Andersen began exploring “the idea of a fairly short newsletter” with curated recommendations of books, music, articles, films, or other cultural forms at a time when few publications were delivering such content digitally. The free email service Andersen helped create, Very Short List, launched in 2006 with the backing of IAC and was eventually purchased by New York Observer owner Jared Kushner in 2009. “There was a sort of glorious glut of stuff without any kind of the trustworthy, curatorial recommendation place,” Andersen said. However, the prevalence of social media “changed the whole nature of that game,” with an influx of users suddenly sharing their own reading materials, opinions, and endorsements.

But that outpouring of sharing on burgeoning social media created its own problem for readers: how to filter out the signal from the noise on cacophonous platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Mark Armstrong, a writer and editor working at the time in content strategy, created the #longreads hashtag as a way to curate longer reading material. He turned the hashtag into the website Longreads in 2009, initially as a place for sharing links but eventually, after launching a paid premium membership, began exploring commissioning original pieces. In 2014, when Automattic acquired the site, Armstrong wrote that it was “a huge opportunity to go deeper with our mission… and bring even more of the best storytelling onto the Internet.”

“It was most rewarding to expose readers to something new that deserved more attention,” said Armstrong, who stepped away from Longreads in 2020 and is now producing podcasts including Everything I’ve Learned. “That’s one hard part about maintaining a service like this over a long period of time — being consistent and still taking the extra time to find something surprising, versus the obvious stuff that’s already getting widely shared on Twitter.”

Competing with Twitter wasn’t the only challenge that recommendation services now face. In response to a question on Twitter, Lammer cited the proliferation of subscription paywalls and the obstacle they pose for readers as a factor in the decision to shut down Longform. When she was selecting weekly picks at Longreads, Botton said, she typically skipped over pieces that were behind a paywall unless “something was really staggeringly incredible.” She now edits a weekly Substack newsletter called Memoir Monday, which curates first-person writing from literary publications and, for now, said she tries to avoid choosing paywalled stories.

Seyward Darby, editor-in-chief of The Atavist, which once shared office space with Longform before it was itself acquired by Automattic and is now a sister site of Longreads, pointed out that part of the audience who cared the most about Longform are writers. Being picked for Longform “was something that meant a lot to writers, and especially freelancers,” she said. “It meant something for them in terms of what they were accruing reputationally, and could make a difference for them in pitching in the future.”

Darby said she was relieved that the Longform podcast isn’t going anywhere. “I have so many freelancers tell me, ‘I learned so much from the Longform podcasts about the craft of longform, and how to approach different types of stories,’” she said. “A lot of these folks didn’t go to journalism school, didn’t have interest in going to journalism school, couldn’t afford to go to journalism school. And the podcast continued to be almost like mini-classes for them.”

And, of course, the rise of the email newsletter, with an increasing number of journalists disseminating their reporting and essays via Substack along with their own recommendations, also poses fresh competition for any recommendation service. “For better or worse, a lot of journalism is moving towards more direct writer-reader connections,” Feldman said. “I think people will develop very strong relationships with their favorite news providers, but I also think they’ll want somewhere to provide a curated and accessible list of the best stories that they wouldn’t see as part of their daily news diet.”

Botton is less optimistic about the newsletter boom’s potential to replace sites like Longform. “So many journalists and essay writers that I know, they’re really discouraged,” she said. “Many of them are turning to newsletters. And on the one hand, they’re building their own personal brand of communication, their own brand of longform. And some of them are attracting nice audiences and may retain audiences. But most are not. Most are struggling to find readers.”

The place of longform recommendations services has not become obsolete, but the nature of what it means to support deeply reported journalism, essays, and nonfiction has shifted. “The act of sharing links to other people’s work that you love is part of supporting a larger community — whether it’s journalism, or writing, or art,” Armstrong said. “We need to keep supporting each other’s work and sharing it because social media algorithms won’t automatically make the same thoughtful decisions about what’s worth your time.”

“Now, with Longform being gone,” said Darby, “we kind of almost have to cast our net even wider to catch some of those fish that Longform could be relied on to catch.”