Contents Magazine: reading #longform

(Post copied from Danegeld blog, 7 Feb 2015.)

Contents Magazines‘s latest issue ‘began’ on 16 January, and is due to roll out during the next six to eight weeks. As part of my exploration of long form I’m blogging its development here.

This is the fifth issue of the magazine. I’ve skated over previous ones on the basis of tl;dr, but also because articles look a little over-written for my taste. According to the Contents Tumblr collections of previous editions are forthcoming as epubs – I’ll use that opportunity to revisit them.

The theme of this issue is the archive, which chimes in with the need to get away from the constant stress on the now and the new. Read the editor’s note for their take.

A second article sees the launch of the Contents Book Club. I have doubts about ‘social reading’ but the concept of a book club still appeals in theory. The book under discussion is Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night – new to me, but I’ve ordered it from the library (of course!), and there are various ways of participating (is this a theme for 2013? see #oldsmooc) – in Readmill, via a Kindle, Twitter (hashtag #contentsbc), on your own site or by leaving a comment on the page.

Update, 27 January: interview with the team behind The Appendix, “a new online journal collecting documents, stories, and analyses that might otherwise slip away…the sort of stuff that gets cut from academic history writing”. Articles in The Appendix, on narrative and experimental history topics, are long, but there is also a blog and presences on Twitter, Tumblr (pics), Facebook and Pinterest. All very quirky.

The interview was in need of some heavy cutting and/or re-writing in my view – I found it hard not to scan and felt I wasn’t really getting to find out what it was all about. Paragraphs rather long on my default screen set up. A word count/estimated reading time might help.

Update, 29 Jan: not much book club action so far, but links to interviews with Alberto Manguel have been added on the Contents Tumblr. I’ve picked up the book from the library.

Update, 1 Feb: a couple more articles have popped up, The library as a map, on the Prelinger Library (arranged for serendipity) and its digital archive, and On the virtues of preexisiting material, a reprint of a 1897 2007 essay by one of the Prelingers.

It’s didn’t go well with your actual reading. Not sure how much this is to do with my screen set up and how much with the content. The articles just don’t feel appealing, rather library library oriented so far, and to be frank, not very fresh. I’m also not convinced by the interview as a device. Plus the design looks like it needs a dust. Maybe they are taking the library and archive metaphor a bit too far – it doesn’t have to be new, but it should be interesting.

Another issue is the fact that articles just pop up if and when. I’d like some idea of how many are forthcoming, broad subject area, etc, and perhaps periodical wrap-ups, a newsletter? Stream presentation for #longform isn’t working for me – can we have some tags and a decent browse interface please? All rather odd from a magazine aimed at “readers who create, edit, publish, analyze, and care for the contents of the internet”.

The elephant in the room is cultural difference – everything feels very American.

Update, 9 Feb: oh dear, rather like the early days of podcasts I’m beginning to realise the skill that goes into writing a long article which you want to read for leisure. This week we have Notes from the Participatory Digital Archives Conference – just how exciting does that sound? Turns out it’s about archiving social media, if at a rather abstract level. The conference site is pretty opaque too.

Another thing I’m missing is any sense of community around the articles: “We aren’t doing comments on most articles, but we love to hear from you, and we’ll be publishing selected emails at the end of each issue.” So that’s something to look forward to.

Over on Tumblr there’s an article about the design concept for this issue, which I described above as dusty.

And re the book club, The library at night looks over-written to the max. I’ll give it one more chance before it goes back to its spiritual home.

Bookclub update, 11 Feb:  it’s gone back. Quite an impressive round-up of activity though.

Update, 22 Feb: two more articles I’m never going to read: Reading between the texts and The Windhill Bequest.

Update, 29 Feb: is this the last week? If so, finishing with a bang – in The archive is a campsite the co-author of Longform looks at the news vs the archive. If the news item is now the basic unit of communication a better interface to the past is needed, a serendipity machine based on the taste of others. A second article looks at how content strategy can help. Great stuff.

Updates, March: and there’s more…another round-up of book club activity plus an interview with Alberto Manguel, then articles on Dark archives we no longer have access to and Giving fiction a home, looking at the offerings on bookseller websites. When will it end? Not in April – 41 Ferry Street, This City, on “the archive of secrets, aliases, and traces we try to hide”  popped up on the 11th, and apparently there’s one more week to go.

Update, 18 April: “Issue № 5 ran 16 January 2013 to 17 April 2013”. Phew.


Loving long form

(Post copied from Danegeld blog, 7 Feb 2015.)

Update, 10 Jan: signed off feeds pretty quickly. Found (but didn’t read) a couple of interesting articles in Aeon’s weekly newsletter. WLTC word count/time estimates. Have to take zoom down to 67% for size to feel comfortable.

I find reading on a screen (and increasingly at all) hard in that I’m programmed to scan, but what with ebooks and tablets gaining traction and more quality ‘lean back’ content on offer it’s time to review my snacking and grazing habits. What gives in long form (or should that be longform) corner?

Long form journalism:

  • The Atavist  – “We’re publishers, and we’re also tool-makers. Our mission is to tell richly reported, original nonfiction stories—and help other people and organizations tell their own.”
  • Matter – aims to publish one piece of long form journalism a month
  • newspaper efforts…Guardian Shorts (ebooks; originals and curated collections) | Berlingske Longreads | Politiken Magasinet

Some digital (first) magazines:

  • Aeon – an essay every weekday on ideas and culture, eek
  • Brain Pickings – “brain child of Maria Popova, an interestingness hunter-gatherer and curious mind at large”  (a phenomenon rather than a magazine); waaay too much
  • The Junket – literary!
  • The Magazine – “four articles every two weeks on a wide variety of subjects, generally for geeks and curious people”
  • Narratively – a “multimedia magazine devoted to original, true and in-depth stories about New York”
  • Triple Canopy – dedicated to slowing down the Internet, with design centred on “prolonged focused engagement”
  • Contents – “online magazine for readers who create, edit, publish, analyse and care for the contents of the Internet”


I’ve signed up for feeds from some of these – we’ll see if that offers more value than those “your Twitter follow links” tools. It’s not as if I’m looking for stuff to read.

Key features of long form:

  • how long? longer than short, 2K+ words, but it’s not just about length…
  • immersive, quality content, a ‘clean’ design; structured storytelling
  • rewriting writing for the Web rules (short paras and bite sized chunks, headings) and SEO – aims for a book like layout and distraction free read
  • design and layout ‘innovations’ from print design, to help navigate long bands of text and engage without overwhelming, for example narrower paragraph spacing, line length and spacing, font size, use of dropped capitals and pull quotes (see Designing for the reading experience)
  • recycle and resurface old content – longer half life of stories
  • users come via community and social (eg Reddit), not search
  • financial models – Kickstarter and micropayments
  • see also Craig Mod’s Subcompact Publishing manifesto
  • what’s missing – decent tagging

#longreads and links:

What does this mean on the professional front? As bullet point queen I’ve banged on about chunking and traditional writing for the web rules with the best of them, but this approach was always a poor fit with law academics, who favour rhetorical flourishes and print oriented publishing models. As for the third member of the holy trinity, a recent project broke all the rules re task driven ‘copy’ slotted into a content strategy workflow. It just didn’t fit.

It feels quite a relief to have long form sanctioned, both in higher education and government. Maybe in ebook or magazine format, rather more attractive and flexible than a PDF shouting “print me”.