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Do We Still Need Byliner?

Screen Shot 2014-06-17 at 9.26.16 AMEarlier this month, we learned that Byliner, the digital longform journalism platform launched in 2011, is looking for partners to continue sustaining its operation.

An email to contributors, published originally by PandoDaily, reads:

“We’ve struggled to reach the level of growth we’d been hoping for the business, and thus we’ve begun conversations with possible partners about the future of Byliner. We’re working to find a good home for our platform and your stories, and we’ll be in touch shortly with specifics about your titles.”

Not good news. Since then, co-founder Mark Bryant, executive editor Laura Hohnhold and now co-founder/CEO John Tayman have found the exit door at Byliner, a San Francisco startup. At this point, contributors are left wondering what Byliner’s fate will be, and the company — once lauded as a paradigm for longform journalism online — must rely on partners to boost Byliner.

But the more important question may be, ‘Do we still need Byliner?’ Perhaps Byliner’s troubles underscore a general sense of apathy toward longform, or highlight a lessening need for long publishers like this one.

On the other hand, outfits like The Big Roundtable and The New New South have popped up over the last year, BuzzFeed is taking longform more seriously and Longreads is still hanging on (and they don’t even require subscriptions like Byliner does). Aeon and Matter/Medium commission longform that performs well, and The Atavist relies in part on the licensing sales of its software platform The Creativist to be successful financially.

To me, Byliner still serves a worthwhile purpose. I had a subscription for a few months when I knew I’d have extra time to read, and having a bunch of great writers in one place to choose from was really nice (30,000 stories, actually). It was an easy bedtime go-to, plus the app looks fabulous on an iPad. The reason I quit Byliner had nothing to do with Byliner — I just lacked the time to justify the $5.99 bill each month.

Looking back, though, I realize that Byliner didn’t have an especially strong engagement strategy. Despite having been a subscriber for about six months, I received almost no communication from the site. No reminders that they were still there and that I needed to revisit their unique story trove. In this age of limited attention spans and constant distractions, we need to be reminded often about what we should be reading.

Just about a year ago, Bryant shared at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference that the plan was to turn Byliner into a “streaming reading service akin to a Spotify or Netflix” if the current model scaled. At the time, he and The Atavist’s Evan Ratliff spoke extensively about the explosive growth and interest they had seen in digital longreads. But it seems that at Byliner, something happened to change that.

Byliner was always a good idea. I’m not sure they should have started charging subscriptions at $5.99, though. Maybe they needed a partner from the beginning for both monetary and messaging support. Unfortunately the market is indicating that we may not need the kind of service Byliner is offering us, but there’s no question that we still need longform journalism. We just don’t have the business model down yet.

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