I've been running The Long Good Read for about 4 months now, it's probably time I wrote about it. Trouble is, the longer it's taken the more I have to say about it. As I'm already tragically bad at keeping posts short I've split this one down into three parts, just jump to the bit you want.
- The (lost?) Art of Long-form reading
- Open vs Closed, Onsite vs Offside news is all very exciting at the moment
- Technology, the bits and bobs that make it all happen
I'm sure it's entirely possibly to make a distinction between "long form journalism" and "reading long articles" but this isn't the place for that, just wanted to get that out of the way at the start :) For this post I'm going to horribly mix up the two concepts.
There's been an amount of talk around the subject of long-form journalism recently with Long-form journalism starts a new chapter, the Media Blog: Size does matter: Can long-form journalism thrive online? and the Nieman Journalism Lab Post: Center for Public Integrity’s HTML5 product aims to make long-form journalism readable on any device all discussing the topic.
Sites such as longreads.com, longform.org and givemesomethingtoread.com and twitter accounts like @IfYouOnly & @longreads have all popped up to hunt out and supply the apparently growing demand for the reading of longer pieces.
The problem for reading long articles it seems that no-one buys newspaper anymore and no-one likes to read for long periods of time from the screen. Mobile phones, tablets and specific reading devices like the Kindle are bringing that back to the breakfast table, sofa and commute on the train. The demand for long, in-depth, interesting articles never really went away, the demand for attention on our time and the crapness of computer screens is wot did it g'vnor.
Putting long articles next to short ones works well in print, the eye can quickly scan over them and decide which to read based on headline, length, free time, mood and so on. It's hard to translate this over to the screen for several reasons. When arriving at or browsing the Guardian website it's difficult to judge where the long articles are going to be, if that's what you're in the mood for.
This is an attempt to chip away at that problem by gathering a number of "long good reads" together in one place.
As already mentioned reading on the screen can suck, so the blog isn't really trying to be the new-place-to-read-the-content but rather a hub that goes on to supply the content in a number of ways. The user can point their favourite RSS reading tool at it, such as The Early Edition, Reader or Pulse.
There are Instapaper buttons on each article ready to send them to whatever Instapaper reading setup the user has. Of course there's also the obligatory twitter account @thelonggoodread, which isn't really there for people to follow in the normal sense but rather so it can get pulled into tools that aggregate what your network is linking to.
As well as talk about long-form stuff, there's also a lot of chatter going on at this very second about Very Open Data vs Paywalls. Maybe that's just the people I'm hanging around with now though :)
There are so many discussions around already about why Open is good it's hard to know where to start, here's one of the Guardian's own from Mike Bracken: From Publisher to Platform: 14 ways to get benefits from social media that has a slideshow worth watching in full screen (even at 110 slides).
And talk about why Closed is bad too, for which we'll turn to Clay Shirky: The Times’ Paywall and Newsletter Economics
Either way, what the Long Good Read is doing is re-framing articles from the Guardian, placing them into a different context. From "We're a News Organisation" to "Here are some posts that are interesting and will take a while to read". It can do this because the Guardian offers it's content via the Open Platform and it's API.
Why is this good for the Guardian?
Well, first, who actually knows? But it's a good hunch.
Secondly it allows the Guardian's own content to move from it's website out into the internet, into apps, onto blogs and whatever else crops up.
If that were the end of it, then perhaps you could say "well it increases brand awareness" but there's [possibly] more going on that just that.
When these offsite blogs, tools and sites start to curate the content or present the news in different ways then they are delivering to a different more specific audience. The people who come to The Long Good Read, however they choose to consume it, are coming because they are interested in the type of content it's providing, articles that take time to read, that are more in-depth, that aren't necessarily time-critical, interviews and so on.
A very different site could concentrate on delivering the very latest American political articles. Yet another could be presenting all of the Iraq articles from the last 10 years in a timeline format, making connections and telling a story. A third all about music reviews, another about cooking, so on and so on and so on.
And along with these articles the Guardian is suppling an advert. Currently they appear to be fairly general.
To throw in some Weasel words, if I as an outside consumer of the API were to think about how adverts could be targeted toward users of sites that make successful use of the Guardian API to deliver content and gain a good targeted audience, then I may come to the conclusion that sometimes it could be worth it for the Guardian to direction users to their own content offsite. More so if you also reach the conclusion that open is to encourage your content to spread as far and wide as possible.
Disclaimer of Doom: I work for the Guardian and I think about these things (and others) quite a bit, although it's not specifically my job. The above views don't reflect any insider knowledge, or necessarily those of the Guardian. I have no idea what the plans for those adverts are although I could probably ask (but that takes the fun out of it). Etc. etc. etc.
Anyway, the Free/Open vs Paid/Close will rumble on and each case is different. In some cases free is a good model, in others paid works best ... and all points in-between depending on the situation. I happen to think a bit of both is good and on the Free/Open side I'm (obviously) all for pumping content out from an API :)
Ok, so all that up there is roughly, kinda of, a wrap-up of the Why, now some of the How.
First a very quick recap on the Zeitgeist.
The Zeitgeist is an experiment I'm involved with at the Guardian. It's monitoring what people are reading on the site, based on our own analytics and comparing that to normal expected behaviour for the various sections and content type. It also looks out into the internet to see what discussions are going on around Guardian content out there. There's a more detailed post over here: Behind the curtains of Zeitgeist, the Open Platform, APIs and Google App Engine
In the same way as the Zeitgeist keeps an eye on all the Guardian content, the Long Good Read is keeping an eye on the Zeitgeist.
In effect I'm essentially screen scraping my own data ;) (Zeitgeistyness will make its way into the API at some point).
The Long Good Read backend (running on Google App Engine) checks the Zeitgeist for new content, stuff that's being surfaced as popular, interesting or otherwise unusual.
It the calls the Guardian's API for each new item it sees to find out more about it. It rejects things like Galleries, Podcasts, Videos and such like right away. It also gets rid of the "Live Blogs" at this stage. Then does a word count rejecting anything under 1,000 words.
Anything that survives gets put into the review queue, which turns up on an admin panel like this ...
Computer rules can only get you so far, at this point I can click on any of the stories to review them and then choose to approve or reject them. I can also fiddle around with the order a bit. Approved stories move over to the "Queued stories" column ready to be posted.
At around 3am and 3pm each day the backend then posts the top story to the longgoodreads.com WordPress blog, which includes a Twitter PlugIn that in turn posts a "New Post" tweet to twitter.
And that, is pretty much that. It takes me about 3-4 minutes a day to quickly review the "Review Queue" and I always try and make sure the to-be-posted-queue has enough to keep going without me for a couple of days. The articles I try and pick are non-time-dependent ones, items that can be picked up and read for several days after the date of publication. Also not too UK centric, it isn't often you'll find a long post about the latest government policies on the site.
The last thing for the backend to do is re-download all the content once every 24 hours, this is to adhere to the Terms and conditions and to make sure any updates, retractions and so on get dealt with in a timely fashion. It's a bit of a pain, but doesn't take a prohibitive amount of time and I can't see it becoming a problem for quite a few years :)
A quick recap:
The Editors pick articles to commission and write, that reflect the voice of the Guardian. People and the internets find some more interesting than others. The Zeitgeist crunches the numbers. The Long Good Read crunches the Zeitgeist. I crunch the Long Good Read Review Queue.
The stories that get posted are the end result of:
Editors -> Readers -> Robots -> Curator
Which, if I had any sense I would have put at the start of the blogpost and left it at that :)