When Republishing Goes Really Wrong: The Random Longreads Generator

What happens when you take republishing apps to their full and logical extreme? This. posted on

You are looking at piece written by Maud Newton for The Awl. But you’re not seeing it on The Awl. This screencap is The Long Reader, a “Random #LongReads Generator!” It has fully duplicated the content of another website, stripped of it advertising and reformatted it. When you reach the end of this piece, you can press a button, and another randomly selected #longreads article appears in full.

We’re in an interesting time for reading. The enthusiasm for longform journalism borders on fetish, at least among a certain media-and-internet-savvy crowd on Twitter — no doubt a reaction to fears about the future of journalism, and the constant bombardment of empty Twitter soundbites and re-re-re-blogged blog posts. At the same time, apps like Instapaper and Readability have made it easier than ever to read these supersized, superdeep pieces by transporting them from their place of origin to our phones and tablets, liberated from the constraints of time and place and crummy webpage layouts. Just pure, clean text of an article, in full. On the subway, or standing in line for coffee, or in my bed. I will be the first to tell you that Instapaper on the iPad is a really fantastic way to read a 10,000-word essay (and I Instapaper a dozen things a day).

But the issue of “read later” apps is fairly contentious. Man-About-the-Internet Anil Dash lays out the contours of the issues fairly well. (Albeit in the context of a related argument about whether one service, Readability, is run by a bunch of “scumbags” in part because it attempts to collect money on behalf of publishers — though the publishers have to sign up to retrieve the money that Readability is collecting on their behalf. Otherwise Readability keeps the money.)

Essentially, reading on the web can be unpleasant and people want to read stuff any/everywhere, but a lot of websites publishing original content can’t afford to do so if nobody’s seeing ads. In response to the latter issue, Instapaper’s position is that people have to see ads before they download a piece (and it doesn’t try to remove ads, they’re simply a casualty), so advertising rates will fundamentally stay the same. Readability is proactively attempting to create a new revenue stream. On the publisher end of the argument, The Awl’s Choire Sicha argues straightforwardly that “republishing is theft” even if it does “make things read real nice.”

The Long Reader doesn’t make it super clear where it pulls content from, but it seems like it scrapes Longreads.com snags articles tweeted with the hashtag #longreads and a link. It applies Instapaper-style formatting to articles that it picks at random, stripping them of ads and distractions — carrying everything that can be intoned as wrong about “read later” or republishing apps to an extreme. It’s not helping you create personal archival copies of pieces you’ve read, or providing original curation; it’s scraping a curator and copying from the origin sites wholesale, republishing them on another website. This is clearly theft, and by taking the concept of republishing and reformatting #longreads to the utter extreme, it manages to highlight in a stark way the issues that publishers do have with read later apps, by making all of their worst fears come true. It’s their content, completely free-floating and untethered, scrubbed of the very things that many of those publishers need to survive and create original content, since not everybody can charge a subscription fee for content: their brands and their ads, their livelihood.

The Long Reader exists not just because creators Beshr Kayali and Mohammad Kayyali think it’s a clever idea — and it is — but because there is a newly awakened appetite for this kind of content. And it shows what could happen if the hunger grows so gnawing and ruthless that it ultimately devours the whole enterprise.

Update
A statement from the actual Longreads.com on the matter:

We’re in no way affiliated with this site, and we view it as an improper use of both publishers’ content and the Longreads trademark. We hope they will do the right thing and take the site down.

Update 2
Beshr Kayali, one of the creators, got in touch. And actually sort of illustrates the problem here! He insists that LongReader “is meant as a simple content discovery utility to make it easier for avid web-readers to find new content. It’s not meant as a content-stealing utility.” Yet, I don’t know a publisher on the planet that would like their articles “discovered” by being seen in their entirety on another website. What happens when you’re done “discovering” a piece and get to the bottom? You “discover” another article, from another place, by clicking “Read something else.” I doubt most people will see the tiny link to the source article on the left hand side to the original piece — it took me a few minutes to notice it, and I was looking for a source link.

What’s interesting is that Beshr even uses the phrase “the service is scraping content” in his email to me, but he’s very insistent that his intentions are innocent, that Long Reader is “not intended as a republishing utility, but just a discovery one.” I do believe that Beshr is well intentioned, and acting in good faith. (His email makes it clear he’s quite bewildered at the reaction to the Long Reader, whose name he intends to change to “avoid confusion.”) But that, in some ways, is maybe even more of a nightmare for publishers: the idea that scraping or republishing content, as long it’s in the name of “discovery,” isn’t wrong at all. It’s just a service.

Update 3
I asked Beshr about referral traffic sent from the Long Reader to other sites. He replies “unfortunately, we don’t have this data yet. The project is around 2 weeks old only.” He has, however, updated the layout so it more clearly states the source of the articles it is republishing in their entirety.

He also added:

I do agree with you that publishers might not like this, but we think that this is where the future lies. The web is open and it will continue to be open in the future. We think that disturbed content publishers should find another way of making money than advertising/number-of-hits/impressions. Others are probably moving towards the idea of creating a loyal following that is willing to pay premium for quality content.

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