Two Years of Longform: What the Hell Did We Just Read?

Hey, Longform is two years old! Huzzah! After nearly 3,000 articles and 14,000,000 words, we thought we’d celebrate by looking back through the site’s most popular stories. We’ve put together a pair of Top 50 lists, one from our first year and one from our second, to see what exactly people most want to read. 

A quick caveat before we dive into the numbers: we’re not really math people. We’re readers. That’s what drove us to start Longform and it’s what keeps us interested. Whether we’re working on the site or our new iPad app, the goal is always to make something that we would obsessively use ourselves. To be essential, Longform only needs to do one thing—make it as easy as possible to find a great article and read it however you want. Numbers don’t factor much into that equation. 

But putting readers first has let us keep the site simple, which makes Longform a fairly level playing field for judging the relative popularity of stories. We recommend four articles per day—some old, some new, each with a succinct, non-linkbaity description. There’s no Most Popular box to keep the numbers churning for particular stories, we don’t SEO the hell out of posts, and every piece we recommend spends roughly the same amount of time at the top of the homepage. In deciding what to click, all readers have to go on is who wrote an article, where it was published, when it came out, and what it’s very basically about.

The Basics
Since Longform.org launched in April 2010, we’ve added 2,805 articles to the archive. Those articles were written by 1,782 authors for 453 different publishers. Every one was non-fiction, 2,000 words or more, freely available online, and recommended by at least one of our editors: Max Linsky, Aaron Lammer, Anne Garrett, Gretchen Gavett, Elon Green, Kate Silver or Jody Avirgan. Hundreds came via submissions. Almost 500 of the 2,805 are filed under crime, our deepest section. The oldest article was published in 1835, the newest one came out last night. Via links on Longform.org, those 2,085 stories have been read more than 3,000,000 times*.

But what made readers pick one story over another?

1. Sex! Murder! Or: this is still the internet.
So, turns out that it doesn’t really matter what kind of content you’re talking about—video, pics, 5,000-word features—sex on the internet is still sex on the internet. Stories in the sex category were nine times as likely to end up among the year’s most read. Looking for an even more sure-fire way to make the list? Write a story about porn. We’ve posted 18 of them in two years—twelve cracked a Top 50.

On the whole, crime stories aren’t much more popular than the average article on Longform—they make up 17% of the total database and 19% of the Top 50 lists. But if the crime is murder, the reads skyrocket. Pieces about a killing (or multiple killings or accidental killings or killers for hire) are three times as likely to be read. More than half of the crime pieces on the Top 50s involved a murder.

Knowing all that, it’s surprising that Michael Albo’s L.A. Weekly story from February 2011 was only the 15th most read story during Longform’s first year. The title: “Porn Machete Murder.”

2. In With the Old
Longform journalism is a unique beast. The best narrative non-fiction—unlike basically every other content type on the web—doesn’t lose appeal as it ages. A 1993 murder story from Texas Monthly, #9 on this year’s list, is just as gripping today as it was the day it was published. Same goes for this 2006 profile of Joe Francis (#20), or Orwell writing about motivation in 1946 (#15), or any of the other three dozen older stories that cracked the Top 50s. These pieces don’t get worse with time. And unless they’re about a political race or a long-forgotten celebrity, they don’t lose relevancy. Readers on Longform are more likely to send an older story to the most-read list than they are a new one—10% more likely, in fact. To be fair, readers are choosing from some truly incredible pieces—there isn’t much from the ’60s and ’70s available online, and much of what is available is absolutely classic stuff. Still, Longform’s most popular list has to be the only one on the web where more than a third of the content is over a year old.

3. Writer’s Name > Publication Name
Despite the fact that we’ve recommended stories from nearly 500 sources, a handful of publications dominate Longform. Through some alchemy of talent (and editorial budget), newsstand schedule, paywall fluidity, and investment in archive digitization, the top 20 publishers on Longform account for 52% of the total archive. (The New Yorker and The New York Times, both of which have deep archives and publish high quality work every week, are well ahead of the rest.) And yet those same 20 publishers are responsible for only 55% of the most read stories on Longform. A negligible increase.

Top authors fare a bit better than top publications. The 87 writers with at least five articles on Longform—Tom Junod and Michael Lewis are tied for top honors with 17 apiece—were almost 10% more likely to show up on a Top 50 list. Five writers, all from that group of 87, had stories crack the top 50 both years: Lewis, Skip Hollandsworth, David Kushner, Jessica Lussenhop and Matt Taibbi.

A handful of other insights:

  • SEO headlines do badly with humans: Almost none of the titles on the list included proper names, but many were short and bold without giving too much away.
  • People love to read about comedy: A fifth of the total comedy stories we’ve posted—which account for just 1% of the total archive—made the top 100.
  • People don’t love to read about politics (unless it’s the Tea Party): Of the 237 stories about politics in Longform’s archive, just three made a top 50 list. And, no joke, all of them were on the Tea Party. (Here’s our politics section, in case you want to catch up.)
  • People only read about sports when it’s sad: Every sports story on the list was a profile of a fallen star—Allen Iverson, Terrell Owens, Todd Marinovich—except for one, “How (and Why) Athletes Go Broke,” which was about several fallen stars at once.
  • The most read story in Longform’s history? This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for feature writing, “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” by Eli Sanders. We recommend it.

It’s been a fun, wordy two years. Thanks for reading.


*We’re sticking here to links on the site. There are enough other channels by which our picks can be accessed directly—Longform for iPad, Readability/Instapaper/Pocket, Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr, RSS, newsletters, and our weekly guides for Slate and Foreign Policy—that getting an exact overall number would be folly. Conservatively, that total network number is double or triple.

Notes

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