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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 03/11/2011

Story Pick: The future of long-form journalism in a hive?

By Brigid Schulte

My colleague at the Post, Beth Chang, sent out a link the other day to folks who write for and edit the Post's Sunday magazine that I can't stop thinking about. Those of us who love nothing more than to settle in with a long, delicious story, no matter the length, worry that in the ever-changing journalism world, that kind of writing is slowly disappearing or falling out of favor. It's expensive to send a reporter off for months and months and months for one story. The conventional wisdom holds that we're all too busy and information-soaked to want to spend more than a few minutes scanning headlines.

But this conversation, published on Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab site between former New York Times Magazine editor, Gerald Marzorati and former New Yorker Writer Mark Danner, is at once fascinating, depressing and hopeful.

The problem:

Mark Danner: Are we right in worrying about the survival of long-form journalism? Is it really threatened?

Gerry Marzorati: I do think it is threatened. I don’t think it’s a technological problem, I don’t think it’s an audience problem. I think the conventional wisdom about long-form journalism — that people’s attention spans have lessened to such a degree that they no longer have the time, or they’re too distracted to read long form, or the medium itself is non-conducive to that sort of longer read (the 45-minute, hour-long read) — I think all of those things are not true.

We have metrics at The New York Times that show that people absolutely click the 23 clicks through to the end of the story. When I was at the magazine, the longest pieces in the magazine were the best-read, the most-read, the most-emailed. The pieces also tended to be, at the end of the year, the pieces that got the most pageviews of anything the Times ran…. People figured out their own sorts of behavior. They printed out the story — on the subway, you would see a printed-out version. Or Instapaper. People are reading these things, and they still become conversation pieces. I don’t know how many of you read Larry Wright’s [New Yorker] piece on Scientology, but a lot of people have read that piece…. [That] you can comment on them, you can blog about them, actually brings more readers to these long-form pieces.

The problem is who’s going to pay to have these pieces reported. That’s the problem. That’s really the crisis. You have fewer and fewer news outlets, you have fewer and fewer magazines, willing to have a journalist report for five or six or eight months, or send them to the edge of the world — and then have the edifice in place to edit and fact-check these pieces. There is a feeling among these magazines that they don’t have to fund these pieces to create readership. It’s a really, really big problem.

And the solution?

One of the things that’s really taken off in the last 10-15 years: The public has a hunger to actually encounter the writers who are writing these pieces. One of the ways nonfiction writers are able to make money — not all nonfiction writers, but a fair number of them — is on the lecture tour. A kind of 19th century idea, the book as a loss leader for actually going out and encountering people.

[On the web] there are costs that you do eliminate, physical paper costs, which are considerable. You could imagine that someone could pull together a cadre of writers, fund them through foundation money, raise some kind of venture capital money, have some combination of lecturing and writing. If I were in that position, one of the things I would be very interested in experimenting with is: Is there a way to make more transparent the work-in-progress, which you have the possibility of doing online? We’re experimenting somewhat with this in the Times. If you have Nick Kristof in the main square in Cairo and he’s tweeting, can you get people interested in the story through that, and the story comes later? And part of what he’s doing through tweeting is explaining how he’s gathering the story. You’ve got some added value, which you don’t have in print.

Maybe that’s one of the things that will make this work. You subscribe to this place, and you know you’re going to get a story in six months, from some war correspondent, that’s really going to be a big narrative — but along the way, that reporter is tweeting and posting about what he or she is doing.

MD: It’s really an amazing “back to the future” thing. Tolstoy did War and Peace by subscription, and finally, with publication in full, the earlier volumes were substantially changed. You signed up for the beginning and you basically saw it in progress.

If you were going to set something like this up — you had a few million dollars in venture capital — given the obstacles now and the advantages, how would you go about doing it? If I handed you $10 million, $12 million.

GM: You’d have to start by attracting some big-name authors. One of the things the Internet has reinforced is the individual brand of a writer, and it’s to those writers that people go. I was having this discussion with Michael Lewis. He publishes his pieces in Vanity Fair, but most of his readers don’t read Vanity Fair — they just read it because he’s attached the link to a tweet and sent it out.

MD: Most of his readers are not paying readers —

GM: Those writers in some ways have transcended the publication. I think it’s going to be harder online to set up this kind of “publication” feel, this kind of magazine, front of the book/back of the book/feature well, that was there to serve advertisers — to some extent, anyway. That sort of thing will disappear.

You will have to at least start by building the brand around a handful of these writers, and then, how I would go about it, would be just: Surround, immerse each of these writers in social media tools. The writers would sort of be the hive, and the experience people would be coming for would be not only to read and encounter the writer, but also the community that this writer had created.

Interesting. Food, if not quite honey, for thought.

By Brigid Schulte  | March 11, 2011; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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