Still lost in the ongoing discussion about long-form storytelling being “back” is one (of many!) important questions we should ask: What should long-form storytelling look like when it is native to the web?
For Longreads, the vast majority of stories shared within our community were first created for (and funded by) print publications—then, later, they’re posted online. So these stories are what they are because of rules and formats and budgets dictated by print magazines.
Now, we’re starting to see that mix change dramatically, as more online publishers embrace long-form content. What started with publishers like The Morning News, The Awl and The Rumpus has now expanded to Gawker Media, The Verge, SB Nation, BuzzFeed, Narratively, Grantland, Pitchfork, The Onion A.V. Club and the recently Kickstarted Matter.
Across both print and online-native publications, we’re seeing beautiful experimentation with layouts and multimedia—check out Pitchfork’s latest feature on Bat for Lashes, or The Verge’s story and documentary on “basement body hackers”—but I think the most underrated advantage to online storytelling is the ability to serialize.
Two of my favorite long-form franchises over the past few years could be described as serials: “Scandals of Classic Hollywood,” by Anne Helen Petersen for The Hairpin, and 2010’s “Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation?”, by Steven Hyden for The AV Club. They’re not classic long-form narratives—maybe they’re just columns?—but the effect is the same. Writers commit themselves to exploring a topic, then they construct the larger story over the course of many weeks and months, allowing time to build an audience. If you miss a chapter, or come in late, you can always go back. It’s great for marketing, because the installments give writers and publishers new reasons to promote their series across Twitter and Facebook over a longer period of time.
Maybe this approach is obvious to everybody else, but I think there’s a lot more to explore here.
This past week we’ve seen a few more serialized (print-first) stories grab readers’ attention: There was chapter one of Pamela Colloff’s crime story, “The Innocent Man, Part One,” in Texas Monthly; Austin Carr’s three-part series on the rise and fall of Hipstamatic in Fast Company; and Dan Barry’s 5-part New York Times series on Elyria, Ohio.
If I were a writer with a great idea for a 15,000-word ebook or an 8,000-word magazine feature, I would consider serializing them—one chapter and one cliffhanger at a time.
In my next installment, I’ll explore who’s going to pay for all this. Stay tuned!