Journalism: the long and the short of it
Monday 27 May 2013
There is worry at the wall of long form journalism, especially amongst those whose lives centered on it for years, either as readers or producers. What is justifiable? What isn’t? What is happening?
The digital revolution is now long in the tooth, but its transmogrification continues at breakneck speed, making it seem endless and current, much like the weather. Winds move waves on the ocean. Some set against each other, at times rising in great ridges. Below are larger extended waveforms driving into similar conflict, either with each other or shorelines. Deeper still are currents, themselves layered and often at odds.
The power of each element is spectacular: overwhelming, destructive, creative and ultimately, spent. In all of it, life thrives, transforms, ends and begins.
So it is with storytelling.
Many decades ago I started my journalistic career in broadcasting, later to become a long form print writer. But some 50 years ago for me it was all about writing a story in roughly 250 words. A broadcaster would “rip and read” my output - tearing the script from a teletype and reading it on air in short, often five-minute, summaries. This short form was not only well established but stretched back decades before.
Was that the tightest writing? No. At the Associated Press headquarters in New York where the broadcast writing desk was located, there was a position each journalist rotated through called “the bulbs”. That was our name for the headline-writing produced for the famous moving news strip viewed high above Times Square. The word count there was eight per story. Take that Twitter!
Of course each of these short forms was specialized - not competing for millions of eyeballs as information does today. Nonetheless, short form actually has been around for quite awhile, even as most journalists felt the dominant long form was the best way to get stories told properly.
Now there is much concern that long form is being crushed, losing out to short, sharp blogs, Twitter and shorthand text with emoticons. All of this getting the front runner’s position because of the Internet and its collaborative technology - mobiles and tablets.
“You know it’s great that you want to do long form stuff,” an Atlantic magazine editor tells Lois Parshley, a 2011 graduate of Middlebury College - one of America’s top liberal arts and writing schools. “You might be able to do that for part of your job. But we don’t live in an era when anyone gets to do that full time.”
That is the supporting story to the doom-seers. Most journalists are well aware they need a package of skills to put out separate strands of information today. But does this mean long form is headed for the grave?
there is much concern that long form is being crushed, losing out to short, sharp blogs, Twitter and shorthand text with emoticons
From the Financial Times comes the view of FT managing director Rob Grimshaw. The Guardian recently quoted him as saying the explosion of tablets for reading has set a stake in the ground for a resurgence of long form journalism.
Reading long form on a mobile phone is virtually out of the question. At a desktop computer or even a laptop it is simply not as enjoyable as curling up in the easy chair with a tablet. That comfort changes the experience from what Grimshaw characterized as “rubbish” to as pleasant an interlude as one may cherish holding a magazine.
“As devices have grown in sophistication, people come back to long form journalism,” says Grimshaw, adding however: “The bar is higher though, because there is so much more competition for people’s time. They can equally sit and watch a video, network with their friends…”
This seems to get to the heart of the debate. To old school longformers, the interest is clearly dwindling, especially as they see their children and most others busily peering into mobile devices. For the audiences however, it is simply about competition. There is more choice.
That makes Grimshaw’s point about a higher bar the real focus. To me, that means better writing. It may well be that long form journalism becomes better than ever because it has to. Competition in any business means every consumer gains. You can buy steel cut oats that take half an hour to bring your porridge to the table, or you can buy the three-minute form and get out the door fast. It’s up to you and your tastes.
Parshley, who quoted the Atlantic editor, was among several young alumni interviewed by Middlebury magazine for a spring 2013 feature entitled “The New Storytellers”. Ryan Kellett, deputy editor for audience engagement at the Washington Post, was among them. He provided some additional perspective. “Don’t stop writing those long form pieces,” Kellett said. But he added, “don’t be surprised when that reporting gets repurposed into nuggets.”
Alongside the Tweets and texts there is a lot of long form writing being consumed. Look at fellow commuters or airplane passengers and you will spot a proliferating number of tablets taking their place alongside mobile phones.
Indeed, publishing industry numbers out this spring show that in 2012 more books were available in more formats than ever before, according to The New York Times. And, while print formats were flat or decreasing, e-books and downloadable audio books grew explosively.
“People are reading more,” declares Stanford University Professor Elaine Treharne.
The discussion about long and short gets confused by the hype and attention given to constantly emerging (and changing) media forms. One of the hot names today, along with Tumblr and Instagram which have been bought at amazing multiples despite no or low revenues, is Buzz Feed.
The FT’s Grimshaw cautions that these operations are not to be ignored and in particular singles out Buzz Feed. “People talk a lot about the fluffy kittens with Buzz Feed, but the thing they should be looking at is the science behind it,” says Grimshaw. “These are MIT graduates; they’re not just randomly putting up pictures of fluffy kittens. There’s a whole framework behind it which is absolutely fascinating, and most publishers could learn from it.”
Buzz Feed executive editor Doree Shafrir describes what it does as “social storytelling”. Her view, as recounted on journalism.co.uk, is that audiences are finding news more and more via social networks, rather than search engines or portals. This has opened the door to more types of presentation including long form.
During a panel session at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy in late April, Shafrir was quoted as saying the assumption that people don’t want to read long form online “is totally false”. Buzz Feed is now targeting long form for development and just hired an editor to head up a long form initiative, she said.
Shafrir underlined the science behind Buzz Feed saying its monitoring of social media sharing revealed long form should get attention. “First you had the corgis and the memes and the baby pictures that people were sharing” she said, “and people are still sharing those.” But the company is now seeing that “breaking news, original reporting and long-form journalism have been added to the equation”.
Perhaps then, cracks are appearing in the wall. Not the sort that will bring it down, but the ones which allow emergence – like a small vine – of what came before. Rather than worry, put your concerns on a bit of paper to stick onto the wall. There is hope for long form.
SOME CAPITULATE, SOME BREAK NEW GROUND
The Atlantic, a venerable and highly respected writer’s outlet with a history stretching back over 150 years, has prided itself on changing for the times. A look at the latest edition speaks volumes. Where once a dozen or more long stories dwelt, now score of articles are fewer than 700 words, punctuated with pictures and callouts to allow fast scanning.
There are “infographics” - stories told in images. There are referrals to Internet extensions of the topics, although these are far fewer than The New Yorker - another long form bastion, which is trying to cross into digital mindsets.
Meanwhile, as these old-schoolers work to be relevant, a brushfire of start-ups has appeared whose sole focus is long form writing. Matter, started by writers Jim Giles and Bobbie Johnson, formerly with New Scientist and The Guardian respectively, less than two years ago, was recently snapped up by a larger outfit because its in-depth writing on science and technology is a runaway success. Others include Longform.org, Longreads.com and Byliner. The latter’s collaboration with another ancient - The New York Times - actually snagged a Pulitzer Prize, recognition from a very old school awards group that multimedia can couple with long form to create a winning product. In this case, a piece called “Snow Fall”.
Buzz Feed’s editor Doree Shafrir, commenting on her focus to grow long form based on social media sharing patterns, noted that in addition to people liking the content, there is feedback about how new presentation tools are boosting interest.
“We noticed reaction to the story was both ‘hey, that was a great story’ and ‘wow, that looked really cool’,” journalism.co.uk quoted her as saying. “We have all these tools at our disposal with online media. Why not try and use them to their fullest?”
Michael Reilly is a writing and media training consultant who was formerly a Reuters reporter, editor, manager, and chief spokesman. He is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of The Baron. ■