For media traditionalists, recent events have proved rather disheartening. Demand Media, a five-year-old so-called content farm that churns out instructional videos such as "How to Save Money on a Date," went public in late January and is now worth $240 million more than the New York Times Co. (NYT) The Huffington Post, a six-year-old digest of quick hits and strong views, many by unpaid bloggers, was recently purchased by AOL (AOL) for $315 million. Meanwhile, circulation numbers for print publications are generally down, and the monthly audiences at websites such as the gossip blog Gawker are broadly up. It's more evidence, in case anyone needed it, that we're living in a media culture defined by appetizer-size articles and hastily assembled content, all tailored for discoverability by search engines.
But don't write the obituary for long-attention-span journalism quite yet. Go to instapaper.com and download the plug-in for your Web browser. Then install the accompanying Instapaper application to your iPhone, iPad, Kindle, or (soon) Android device. The next time the boss steps away and your midafternoon Web excavation unearths a well researched, brilliantly written article—such as the feature stories in this magazine, if we may be so bold—click "read later" in the browser toolbar. The service acts like a TiVo (TIVO) for words. It will save the story to your e-reader or your tablet so it can be read later on the train, the couch, or wherever you settle in to really read. "We let you save stories for a time when you can actually attentively read them," says Marco Arment, the creator and sole employee of Instapaper. "You can leave the world of clicks and page views to the Gawkers and HuffPosts." He charges $5 for a premium version of the app that lets users store up to 250 articles and share them with other users.
Instapaper, which has more than a million users and is growing rapidly, has competition. The biggest is Read It Later, with more than 3 million users. Longreads, a site that shares recommendations for in-depth articles, has a lively Twitter feed with more than 15,000 followers. Magazines such as Wired, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker have started to specify their stories as Longreads when they promote them on Twitter. "We are trying to help filter out the noise and junk content on the Web," says Mark Armstrong, who started Longreads a little over a year ago.
Nate Weiner, the 26-year-old Web designer in San Francisco who created Read It Later, thinks these services hold promise for old-school journalism. Young people who may have canceled a subscription to a magazine or newspaper—or never had one to begin with—tend to stumble onto serious writing while they're online at work. That's precisely when they're least likely to plow through a longer story. Weiner recently sifted Read It Later's usage data and found that most of his users read saved stories between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. If they're on mobile devices, reading time spikes during the commuting hours and again from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. "When I saw this data, it made me hopeful," says Wein-er. "The iPad and iPhone and other mobile devices are allowing us to move media to a time when we can actually consume it."
There may be one snag for traditional publishers. Services such as Instapaper and Read It Later let users view their saved stories in an uncluttered format stripped of the ads and other marginalia of the Web browser. That could cost media companies some advertising revenue. "The general sense I get from publishers is that they are more interested in getting people to read their articles and see their brand than getting the tiny bit of revenue they might be losing here," says Mike Vorhaus, president of media consulting firm Magid Advisors. It's possible that tools such as Instapaper and Read It Later simply aren't popular enough yet to pose a threat to publishers. Or maybe the folks at those old-time media companies finally see a place for long-form content in a short-form world.
The bottom line: Instapaper and other apps that save articles for later consumption are a hit with online readers—and with old-school publishers.