Journalism for the undamaged attention span

Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez, center, in "Argo," a rescue thriller about the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.
AP Photo/Warner Bros., Claire Folger

"Argo," the incredible story of the 1979 seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran and how six Americans managed to escape, won the this year's Academy Award for Best Picture. It also won Best Adapted Screenplay, but what was it adapted from?

Well, true life of course — it follows Tony Mendez' scheme to trick the Iranians that the six embassy workers were part of a Canadian film crew scouting movie locations. But it was adapted from a long-form magazine story written by Joshua Berman.

Berman and fellow journalist Joshua Davis have just launched Epic, a platform for long-form journalists to publish their stories with an eye toward turning those stories into screenplays for Hollywood (and a bigger payday).

In the age of 140-character breaking news updates and the "crawl" that scrolls under 24-hour TV news shows, you might think that our appetite for long form journalism has disappeared. Instead, the audience is growing.

Sites like Longform, Longreads and Byliner sift through and curate such pieces, and sometimes even give an estimated reading time. Then there are stories like "Snow Fall," which the New York Times published last year December to wild acclaim. The story, about an avalanche and the people involved in it, filled pages with not only the written word but with beautiful pictures, video, maps and charts. Millions of people flocked to the site to read the story, which earned the paper a Pulitzer Prize. "Snow Fall" became so popular it "is now a verb," according to New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson.

With the advent of Kindle Singles, which Amazon calls "compelling ideas expressed at their natural length," and sites like the Atavist, which was "snow-falling" stories before the New York Times, long-form journalism is gaining readers by trying to stimulate multiple senses — something your old black and white newspaper could never do (unless you count stimulating your sense of anger at having to wash the ink off your hands). But flashy content can only go so far, so it helps that the stories tout thorough research.

ProPublica and The Texas Tribune have similar non-partisan, civic missions to publish a mix of long- and short-form investigative journalism. Both are surviving with the help of a mix of individual donors and philanthropic organizations, but neither has really cracked the nut of how to keep itself publishing for the long term. That's the question for all these sites: How will they survive in the long term?

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