Long-Form Journalism Finds a Home
By DAVID CARR
Published: March 27, 2011
It was a hit. But it was also the kind of deeply reported journalism that was going the way of the fax machine.
“In the digital realm, there is infinite space, but somehow this hasn’t resulted in a flowering of long-form content,” Mr. Ratliff said. He had long considered building a Web site that would be more hospitable to long articles, but had also been spending a fair amount of time on his subway commute reading those pieces on his iPhone.
The men called Jefferson Rabb, a programmer and Web designer known for building remarkable sites for books. In bars up and down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, the three talked about whether there was a way to use these devices to make the Web a friend, not an enemy, of the articles they liked to work on and read.
And, in what may be the first tangible result of journalists gathered in a bar to complain about the state of reading, they did something beyond ordering another round.
The result is The Atavist, a tiny curio of a business that looks for new ways to present long-form content for the digital age. All the richness of the Web — links to more information, videos, casts of characters — is right there in an app displaying an article, but with a swipe of the finger, the presentation reverts to clean text that can be scrolled by merely tilting the device.
“We wanted to build something that people would pay for,” said Mr. Thompson, who has since switched to being a senior editor of The New Yorker and has had to pull back to consulting for the project.
“The Web is good at creating short and snappy bits of information, but not so much when it comes to long-form, edited, fact-and-spell-checked work.”
Readers who buy an article from The Atavist and read it on an iPad — there are also less media-rich versions for the Kindle and the Nook — could begin reading the piece at home and then when driving to work, toggle to an audio version. In each item, there is a timeline navigation that seems natural and simple, and a place for comments that mimics the notes that people put in the margins of complicated, interesting pieces.
Since opening for business at the end of January, The Atavist has published three long pieces that are native to the tablet in concept and execution, and it has had over 40,000 downloads of its app. Writers are paid a fee to cover reporting expenses and then split revenue with The Atavist. For the time being, an article costs $2.99 for the iPad and $1.99 for the Kindle or Nook.
“Lifted,” by Mr. Ratliff, one of the debut pieces, is about an immense heist at a Swedish cash repository, weighed in at 13,000 words. But instead of opening with a long explanation of how it was done, the reader is dropped into the actual video taken by the security cameras. A helicopter comes into view; dark-clad men in ski masks send a ladder down through a skylight and then are seen carrying guns, and later, heavy bags of cash through the interior. The video ends, cue text, and the story is rolling.
In another article of similar length, by Brendan Koerner, called “Piano Demon” about Teddy Weatherford, the Chicago jazzman who stormed Asia, there are many extra audio obscurities that deepen the reader experience. And “Before the Swarm,” a 9,000-word dive into, you guessed it, a man who lived among the ants, gorgeous, highly detailed photography — and really funny, gross videos — pull the reader along.
The most remarkable thing about these can’t-look-away pieces of multimedia journalism is that Mr. Rabb devised a content-management system that allows a writer to build it alone. Before taking on The Atavist, Mr. Rabb had never before worked in Objective-C, the code used to build most apps for Apple devices, but he bought a book about the code and developed a prototype within a month.
The Atavist approach should easily scale to nonfiction books, and a number of discussions are under way with publishers. There have also been talks about licensing the content management software. One executive from a major publisher, who declined to speak for attribution because the company is in the midst of negotiations with The Atavist, all but wolf-whistled when I called.
“It’s almost unbelievable that these three guys came up with something so spectacular,” he said. “This is something we are all working on, and the solution that they came up with both in terms of the reader experience and the production is really remarkable.”
Because of the reading experience provided by the iPad and other devices, there is a bit of a renaissance for longer articles in realms beyond apps like The Atavist.
David Grann’s 16,000-word piece in The New Yorker about a possible wrongful execution in Texas generated almost 4.5 million page views, while a Twitter feed called LongReads has about 20,000 followers and a fast-growing Web site. A recent study by the folks at Read It Later, a service that helps a reader bookmark and save an article, demonstrated that many owners of the iPad are time-shifting longer articles for evening reading.
Among other businesses, education companies have expressed immediate interest in The Atavist’s layered, multimedia approach to complicated content.
“I am fascinated by what they are doing,” said Carl Hixson, chief technology officer of Pearson Education. “By bringing content to life by embedding rich media and doing it with a content-management system that works, it’s a very compelling solution.”
All of this from a project that cost around $20,000 in sunk costs and hundreds of unpaid hours.
If this had happened in Silicon Valley, there would be a garage involved. But in Brooklyn, it’s three guys sneaking out for drinks on Atlantic Avenue.