Developing a Longform platform for INC

What is longform?
Longform is a term used to describe articles with a large amount of content and which often take a narrative or journalistic form. Although longform is gaining popularity on the web, it is not a new genre of writing per se. Mark Horowitz, senior editor of Matter notes that longform is just a new name for feature stories and is a form that is not necessarily defined solely by its length but by style and voice. Longform has been described in various ways without any consensual definition. David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, describes longform as “lengthy, relaxed, deeply-reported, literary nonfiction”. Matthew Rickertson, an international expert on the form defines it as where “practitioners use journalistic methods to research and write independently about contemporary events and issues at length in a timely manner for a broad audience.”

Longform is a symbolically loaded term which has been critiqued as a “mere buzzword that allows digital outlets to go “long” rather than produce rigorously researched content that necessitates protracted treatment (Dowling and Vogan, 2015). David Dowling and Travis Voga argue that the emerging longform genre “represent how formerly separate storytelling media can be combined into new ways of providing information and is an important iteration of convergence in journalism.” These longreads are often enriched with multimedia content such as photography, video, timelines,biographies, an audiobook etc. Prominent examples of longform text include the following:

Snowfall of the New York Times. Snowfall is a multimedia project where readers can engage with text enriched with additional multimedia features like videos, links and photo’s.

A notable example in the Netherlands is De Correspondent an online journalism platform, which publishes longform articles. These articles are not associated with a specific magazine brand or newspaper but rather with a field of interest. Instead of following a magazine, readers can follow a writer. The business models for these emerging longform platforms currently do not depend upon advertising revenue.

Dowling and Vogan describe the emergence of the longform as ‘a race for the tablet market on both serious in-depth reporting and entertainment by uniting print longform narrative’s novelistic technique with cinematic data visualization’. Independent outlets like Activist (Creativist), Matter (Medium), Mediastorm and Exposure promote multimedia experience as being “the future” and they sell longform tools individually and via subscriptions. Longform articles tend to “operate as loss leaders for their parent companies […] they do not directly generate profits but build a branded sense of symbolic capital that leads to economic profits in less direct ways.”

For the purposes of launching a longform series at the Institute of Network Cultures, we researched an array of tools and plugin to integrate into the INC website and narrowed our options down to the following four:
Medium, Aesop Story Engine (WordPress plugin), Creatavist and Exposure.


Different kind of Tools
The Aesop Story Engine is a free WordPress plugin. Its a suite of open-sourced tools and components. The plugin is designed and inspired by stories like Snowfall of the New York Times. It is also structured, styled and edited in a similar manner. Aesop offers 13 components to design a story and enables users to build from a ‘popular’, standardised template. Users can then embed images, quotes, video and documents into the article template.

Medium is a publishing platform launched by Twitter co-founders, Evan Williams and Biz Stone, which is designed for professional and non-professional long-form blogging. Medium uses algorithmic curation primarily based on how long users spent reading certain articles rather than on a page views basis. Like Pandora did for music discovery, Medium aims to use intelligent algorithms to help users find content through collections, topics and themes over authorship.

Exposure has a similar minimalist design and interface to but its goal is to provide a platform devoted to narrative photography. Exposure amassed more than 10,000 invite requests in its beta period, many of whom are influential designers. Articles are published under a user profile and tagged with a set of categories based around photo genres. Elepath plans to add support for other features, like custom domain names, in the near future.

Creatavist is a platform for publishing non-fiction by The Atavist publishing App. The advantages of Creatavist include a responsive editor interface similar to WordPress, and the ability to customize directly though CSS. The main disadvantage of Creativist is that still in Beta phase so tutorials and technical assistance is limited.
Creativist allows readers to navigate with a sidebar that acts like a TOC. Additional information and references can easily be separated from the main article. This allows content to be read with minimal distraction.
The timeline feature is an interesting addition to stories. It allows readers to get a quick overview and provides visual cues for readers . Refer to the screenshot as an example of how the timeline tool worked.
Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 3.47.38 pm[1]

User Design
The Aesop Story Engine works better with a theme that is specifically developed from the plugin. User a standard theme allow posts and all components to be adjusted through the wordpress interface. Text can be labelled and Aesopformatted with different styles, font size, header titles, text boxes, etc. Quotes may be added and the positioning of images and videos can be easily adjusted.

Medium uses a WYSIWYG editor (What You See Is What You Get) with basic formatting tools. While more formatting tools will be rolled out over time the emphasis is on simplicity and creating good defaults rather than user customization. Users can embed images, video and soundcloud into their articles and have the option of adding them to collections curated by themselves or others.

Exposure also uses a simple WYSIWYG post editor. Users can embed images, video and soundcloud. There is currently little customization with a fixed font size and default typeface. Exposure’s strength is in creating visual narrative with commentary and multimedia as secondary features.

Creatavist allows users to embed images, pdfs, characters, audio, video and timelines. Users can upload multiple cover images so it appears with the same formatting on all devices.  Users can add Twitter and Facebook links and can add ISBNs and customise the metadata. Audio insertion in Creatavist is minimal in the layout and doesn’t interrupt the reading experience or negatively effect the clean aesthetic.


Licensing and policy
The Aesop Story Engine is a suite of open-sourced tools and components.

Medium’s business model has come under criticism for resembling an upscale version of content farms. Medium license is perpetual, non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable and transferable. By uploading content users to Medium, users give Medium licence to fully exploit user content as it operates and evolves its business.

Creatavist’s “ideal user is sort of in the vein of what The Atavist was at the beginning: a small group of people getting together to launch something, and to do something independent.” There are several options that users can turn on or off to sell to readers or allow open access to publications and articles. Creatavist allows users to retain copyright and any other rights are already held in the content you submit. You can find the full Terms & Services for here.


Subscription cost
The Aesop Story Engine provides a very basic theme free. If you buy a theme and add-ons you receive one year of support and updates, after which time you can renew your license for 30% off. The templates range in price from $99-120. Your theme/add-on will continue to work indefinitely. The Engine itself is a free plugin.

Medium is free to use however when posting content Medium may store, reproduce and disseminate user content without limitation. Medium gains the benefit that comes from posted content (web traffic, attention etc) as specified in their Terms & Services.

Exposure is not a free content model, users can make 3 posts for free after that they must pay a monthly subscription fee of $9.

Creatavist allows you to post your first story on the platform for free. They use a subscription model of either US$10/month which allows unlimited articles and video hosting. Alternatively, the $250/month is an option that enables users to create their own App and may be better suited to small publishers looking to customise and sell their own magazine/App.


Overall Conclusion
Creatavist is a good option from a publishing perspective, it allows content to be published as an App (though this is the most expensive option) and across platforms, in mobi & epub format, which covers the widest range of readers. Currently Creatavist is still in Beta state. Because we are focused on online publishing and working within our own framework it is best for us to use a plugin that fits into the Publishing Lab/INC online ecosystem. INC/Publishing Lab an established site which feeds into our longform. The challenge with the Plugin and Creatavist is that it will still depend on the web developers to use css/javascript and our understanding of user interaction to really push the limits of what we can do with longform. But both these sites provide a great starting point for longform publications.

Due to Medium’s licensing policy and criticism of its business model as an upscale content farm many bloggers use Medium as a place to rework original content rather than giving Medium rights to the entire original work. For INC’s purposes Medium would, at best, function in a secondary role perhaps used in conjunction with the INC website as a place to post truncated or reworked versions of more extensive articles. Using Medium in this way allows bloggers to take advantage of Medium’s extensive readership and capture a broader audience than they may otherwise without giving up rights to the definitive version of a longform article.

Exposure is best suited to photojournalism, and because it is less versatile in its treatment of blocks of text we chose not to continue using it for longform purposes.

Aesop Story Engine and its accompanying template is the best fit for our longform platform, because it allows us to build the longform platform within our existing WordPress framework. We felt more sure about maintaining the rights to the published content with this option, and the INC lends it’s visual credibility to this new platform.