The Long and Short of Long-Form Journalism

Before I was a writer, I was a reader.

I wouldn’t call myself the voracious sort of reader as a youth, but I do recall having a particular interest in reading about sports and music, interests not at all atypical for a teenaged boy (although I suspect that not many teenaged boys first encountered Norman Mailer through his account of the 1971 Ali-Frazier fight). By the time I was a senior in high school, I’d let my subscription to The Sporting News lapse in favor of a new habit, Rolling Stone. Like many others through the years, I came for the music news and reviews, and eventually started wading into the longer, more challenging pieces.

Magazines like that era’s Rolling Stone and the late, great New Times opened my head to views of the world I wasn’t getting much from the mainstream news media of the day – which, in the late ‘70s, still meant (to me) two daily newspapers in most big cities, the three network evening newscasts, TV newsmagazines like the already-an-institution 60 Minutes and the younger, quirky Weekend, and the occasional news documentary. It seemed that only rich people had access to the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Computers back then were anything but personal.

So imagine my surprise when, on some Tuesday night in the basement of the Olive Kettering Library on the campus of Antioch College, I discovered the Village Voice.

Don’t ask me how that happened, or which issue I’d lucked into, or which research project for which class I was supposed to be working on at the time, or any of those Awakening Begins Here-type details. Suffice it to say that by that time, I’d become knowledgeable enough about alternative political, social and cultural trends to totally relate to the Voice writers’ perspectives, even if I wasn’t up on the skinny behind the more New York-centric pieces. Like with Rolling Stone, I started with the music pieces, and moved my way to the front of the book, especially as writers like Greg Tate, Pablo Guzman and Carol Cooper went into writerly, vivid detail about issues of color. Nowhere else in my media universe – not in the mainstream media, not even in black newspapers – did I see subjects I cared about treated with such insight and gravitas. And there was also the sheer exhilaration of reading writers at the top of the game, making language do things that didn’t seem remotely possible in a daily broadsheet of record.

I was hooked. That became what I wanted to read, and eventually what I wanted to write. I became alt-media all the way, a devotee of all things NPR, community and college radio. I didn’t stop reading the daily papers, but I went to the alternative papers for the information – and literary entertainment values – I truly craved. And when I scored my first byline (in 1987), it was for an alt-paper, the Cleveland Edition, largely in response to their public call for writers of color to show up and help it realize its alt-mission.

All of this – my development of a jones for thoughtful information, my ability to churn said info out, and the existence of myriad outlets for doing so – predated the rise of the Internet. It wasn’t until the early ‘00s when my media consumption migrated online. I didn’t summarily cease reading my regular diet of print newspapers and magazines, or picking up a newsstand title that caught my interest, but as more and more publications went online, my curiosity followed them there. I still love the insightful, deeply-reported, crafted and polished stuff. Searching it out online – and finding way more of it, from all over the place, than my local newsstand or even library was likely to offer – was, and is, fun for me.

As a reader, it was purely a blessing to be able to access so much quality reportage, commentary and writing at the click of a mouse. As a writer, I had no idea that all those mouse clicks would somehow constitute a dual-edged sword.

When the habits get to be a bit too much, some folks cut back on their intake. One less candy bar, fast food burger, scotch-and-soda, whatever. I cut back on my Romenesko viewing.

The actual website is Jim Romenesko’s blog on all things media, hosted by the Poynter Institute. It was the first go-to blog for media junkies, be they employed by the media or merely fascinated by the industry’s machinations. Romenesko assiduously posts links to stories about the news industry, chronicling everything from inside-baseball news from the mainstream media (MSM in blogosphere speak) to cutting-edge developments in incubators large and small. I loved reading it daily, checking it throughout the day for updates, but over the past year or so it’s just been too much to bear.

At some point in 2008 I felt myself OD’ing on endless consumption of death-of-the-newspaper-industry stories. Across the past few years there’s been a virtual canon’s worth of them, from the individual case studies of newspapers struggling in the wake of dwindling readership and ad dollars, to the broader missives on how the industry got in this mess and what it ought to do now. You’ve probably encountered some of those stories in your own media consumption recently, but I’ll summarize the basic point with apologies to the Buggles: The Internet (free content, unpaid bloggers, aggregators, etc.) Killed the Print Star.

Nothing less than the soul of democracy is at stake, according to the most breathless of these missives, if daily newspapers don’t exist to keep the populace informed, engaged, and sufficiently attuned to the varying degrees of malfeasance and mendacity being committed by our civic and corporate leaders at any given moment, and the Internets simply aren’t about to be up to that task, if even they could be.

Being both a “media consumer” and “content producer’ (i.e., a reader and a writer), I took a serious interest in the first few dozen of these articles I came across. But after a point, the drumbeat of gloom and doom started getting on my nerves. It became less about the problem and possible solutions, and more about trying not to drown, or slit my wrists, in the midst of it all. But there is one secondary storyline to this evolving grand drama that has struck close enough to home that I can’t just tune it out.

Somewhere along the line, the very articles I used to enjoy writing and reading seemed to fall from grace.

The long-winded articles, digging deeply into some complicated personality, cause or incident, became less and less abundant. They were the staples of the alternative newspaper world in the ‘80s and ‘90s, an outgrowth of the New Journalism that emerged in the ‘60s. Sometimes irreverent, sometimes more about the author than the advertised subject, but always with attitude and personality, perhaps pompous and irritating but never, ever dull: they started fading from prominence with barely a warning. Deeply reported, in the service of promoting awareness, not concerned with the journalism canard of objectivity (but able to see all sides of a story in their proper balance, when done properly): at some point not too long ago, those stories became harder and harder to run across even by happy accident.

A couple of reasons were offered. One, those stories took time to produce, and time is money, and money is what print outlets no longer have lots of to dole out to “content producers” (unless they could add a visual or audio component to it to maximize its Webbiness). Two, somebody somewhere advanced the notion that people don’t like to spend a long time staring at a computer screen, so writing for the web needs to be shorter, tighter, and briefer, so all that reporterly nuance and writerly style needed to get boiled down into a paragraph of two. It used to be that a 500-word article was a glorfied blurb. According to these new rules for online writing, those 500 words were now a tax on people’s time.

But here’s the funny thing: long-form journalism didn’t really die. You can still find it in places like Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and even in Rolling Stone from time to time. Those high-quality pieces are still out there, and actually, thanks to the Internet, they can potentially reach more people than they ever could before. The Internet, whose users are supposedly now rewired to prefer the quick and easily skimmable piece, is where I discovered all 21 pages of Rich Cohen’s funny, poignant essay on automobile salesmen – on the website of The Believer magazine. Alexander Zaitchik wrote approximately 15,000 words on the making of Glenn Beck for Salon, an online-only magazine. And sometime soon I’ll dig into the 30,000 words the New York Times Magazine ran on medical care in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Take that, o ye of the short attention spans! So much for short and punchy ruling the roost exclusively. If those kinds of stories can be discovered online, you can’t tell me there isn’t an audience for people who want to dig deep into a reporter’s work on a subject, or a talented writer’s way with storytelling. If they don’t want to read it while staring at their desktop monitors, the Kindle is evolving, and if that doesn’t float one’s boat they still make printers.

Clearly, people still like reading long-winded essays, smart cultural criticism, and deeply reported tours de force. If they didn’t, places like the aforementioned magazines, the journal Creative Nonfiction, and this website and oodles of others would not exist. But prevailing wisdom is a funny thing, and the sense that people don’t have the time or patience to work through a complicated work of journalism has taken hold among many of the people and institutions that used to win awards for it. They, like everyone else trying to make sense of the state of the print media industry, are grasping at straws, trying to figure out what will work (i.e.; what an audience will pay for). Of course, they need to try new models for production and distribution, and try to mold some sort of vessel to carry their mission into this new, uncertain era. But the risk is to do so at the expense of what they do best, to throw out their baby with the e-bathwater: to try to beat the competition at its own game. That’s a recipe for disaster in any business.

I’ve come to appreciate and marvel at the many ways people are finding to make old-school journalism and criticism relevant and fresh in our current times. I’m marveling at how many new, strong voices are getting about their grind (not that said grind was ever easy for any except the superstar reporters and writers). And since I know all too well what a challenge it is to figure out how to stand out amidst the din, I tip my cap to those who are making a way for themselves and their work, one short and punchy blast at a time. But because I believe in the kind of writing I’ve pursued all these years, because I believe work of that depth and heft is important to help us make sense of this crazy, bountiful world, I will stick to my long-form guns.

Maybe your average review or news brief can be boiled down to 80 words and still be of value to a segment of the information-consuming marketplace. But not every story can or should be so easily reduced. If it takes 800 or 8,000 words to lay out the truth of a thing so that others can build from there, and my editor is willing to give me that room, then so be it. If my readers think it’s worth it, they’ll make the time to read it.

Long, smart and thoughtful writing is what I’ve always liked to read and wanted to produce. So standing up for it, against some misguidedly narrow concept of what the Internet means and/or what information consumers will tolerate these days, is more than just an occupational choice, a business decision. As both a reader and a writer, it’s personal.