Last weekend New York Times editor Bill Keller spoke at Boston University’s 2010 narrative conference, and offered a rigorous defense of long-form stories. (As well as saying the Times wants to “kick the shit out of Rupert Murdoch.” Well then.)
As I’ve written before, I’m on Keller’s side in this one: I maintain that there will be renewed interest in long-form journalism, principally because it’s hard to copy or briefly summarize. Yet, for all that, I think Keller’s attempts to shoot down three “perceived existential threats” to narrative writing missed the mark a bit. (Caveats: I’d expect Keller to be in rally-the-troops mode at such a conference, and I’m not working off his actual remarks.)
Keller’s first threat: the decline of publishing and economic stresses that have shrunk newsrooms and dumbed down copy. His proof that this isn’t true is the Times’ collaboration with ProPublica on its Pulitzer-winning investigative story of death in post-Katrina New Orleans. I’m glad that wonderful story exists, and applaud ProPublica’s work not just to tell great stories but to create great tools for other news organizations. But if I’d told you 10 years ago that the Times would win a Pulitzer in partnership with a non-profit news organization, your reaction probably wouldn’t have been, “What a great new avenue for journalism!” Rather, I bet it would have been something along the lines of “What’s happened that the Times needs to partner with someone?” ProPublica exists because the Sandlers saw that accountability journalism was imperiled.
Keller’s second threat is the idea that people don’t read anymore, a statement made two years ago by Steve Jobs. Keller notes that the Times’ long-form stories are mainstays of the paper’s list of most emailed articles, and gets off a great line to that effect: “Not only has the Web not killed narrative, but it’s pushed it out to people who don’t have home delivery.” Now, laying this at Jobs’s feet is good for an ironic twist, given the hopes people have for the iPad, but it’s worth remembering that Jobs made those comments as part of an attack on the Kindle. Denigrating not just a product but an entire product category is pretty much SOP for Jobs when a new Apple product has reached the twinkle-in-his-eye phase. And while I stubbornly maintain people will read great stories in any medium — ink, pixels, skywriting, cuneiform — it is true that the Web has made people into ruthless readers, with fingers hovering over the back button. As Keller notes, the iPad, the Kindle and the Nook all encourage more intimate, leisurely reading, but they aren’t going to unwind that basic ruthlessness.
Keller’s third threat is that crowdsourcing and user-generated content is degrading newspapers’ authority. Here, I think Keller undermined his case by saying that “if I need my appendix out, I’m not going to go to a citizen surgeon.” That’s a lazy metaphor that Keller’s too smart for: A lot of journalism isn’t surgery. I wouldn’t go to a citizen surgeon, but I do rely on some very talented citizen journalists for my Brooklyn news, and while I like the Times’ Mets beat writer, citizen journalists are my first stop for Mets news. (Heck, I’m one of them.) Those are parts of the Times franchise where professional journalists have been superseded and must share authority, respectively. And saying Wikipedia and Digg can’t compare to a writer’s voice that “no algorithm can imitate” is pretty wide of the mark — people are the engine that drives Wikipedia and Digg.
I don’t mean to make too much of this: I agree with Keller in most respects. But long-form journalism isn’t easy, and only succeeds — regardless of the medium — in the hands of expert practitioners. Newsrooms are smaller, people read ruthlessly online, and plenty of terrific writing and even reporting is being created by people outside the traditional journalism ranks. In championing long-form narrative, we need to keep these things in mind.
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Speaking of long-form narrative, here’s something I wrote at Faith and Fear in Flushing about the untimely death of my neighbor’s brother, and what I discovered sorting through his baseball-card collection. Hope you like it.
The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten won a Pulitzer for his story about parents who accidentally leave their children shut inside hot cars. Weingarten’s “Fatal Distraction” is one of the most-haunting stories I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the best-told. And it’s a model for how journalism can work online.
When I first read it, I wrote a post here about why I think Web-first newsrooms will look beyond the overly broad advice that Web writing has to be short and be reminded of the value of long-form journalism. The quick version: It can’t be copied or have its full value extracted by an aggregator’s sentence. (And yes, I’m aware of the irony that Weingarten’s article likely wouldn’t have a home in the redesigned Post magazine.)
To that I’d like add a couple of things: Weingarten’s follow-up chat to the original story should be read as well, because it contains an extraordinary personal anecdote that explains what drove him to write the story, and is a perfect example of how disclosing something simply and directly to readers is much more powerful, and ultimately drives much more trust, than an attempted retreat to mealy-mouthed objectivity.
On Tuesday Weingarten discussed his win with Post readers. Amid the self-deprecation, he said something that ought to be front and center in every newsroom and displayed above every writer’s desk. I’ve altered it slightly so it would read better engraved in stone:
Dispassionately search for the truth, and then passionately tell the truth. I have no patience for stories that are quote dumps, obscuring the truth with bogus moral equivalencies, giving equal weight to unequally valid opinions, and doing it all in the name of objectivity.
Those are words to live by, whatever medium you work in.
The most interesting read on a pretty interesting day in Newspaperland? It’s this analysis from Cody Brown of the “trustee method” of media, exemplified by the New York Times, and how many supposed reinventions of journalism are really just working at the edges of that model, leaving its basic workings untouched. Brown imagines a more fundamental shift to what he calls the “direct method,” and his central insight is this: “Instead of telling a public what is news, the role of a direct news organization is to create a space where the people in that public can tell each other.”
Brown is always intriguing to read, with a curiosity about journalism and its history that keeps him from getting hung up on supposedly eternal journalistic truths that turn out to be a lot more ephemeral than we might think. (I definitely include myself on the list of those sometimes ensnared.) I need to think a bit more about his latest effort to give it the reaction it deserves, but I think I can bring one old-school journalistic convention to bear: He sure did bury the lead!
Some other interesting things to read today:
- It’s not news that the newspaper industry is in trouble, but look at these circulation figures gathered by E&P. If you could have shown these to newspaper execs 10 years ago, they would have started hoarding canned goods, convinced that the numbers meant 2009 was the year the United States collapsed into civil war or was ravaged by some kind of superflu. Not really surprising — and with all the interesting things bubbling under the surface of traditional journalism, it shouldn’t be the stuff of terror — but still stark and sobering to review.
- This Stephanie Clifford article in the New York Times looks at how Mercedes Benz used Web advertising on newspaper sites to tout an update of its E-class cars last summer, but is expected to sidestep newspapers when it rolls out Web ads for its more basic models early in 2010, turning instead to Web ad networks and exchanges. Clifford writes that “newspaper sites are the patent-leather stilettos of the online world: they get used for special occasions, but other shoes get much more daily wear.” Interesting evidence of the eclipse of newspapers as general-purpose vehicles for consumer communications, and the slow process of finding new niches.
- Sticking with talk of niches, Knight Digital Media Center’s Michele McLellan covers a talk by Slate editor David Plotz in which he discusses his site’s future as depending not on its seven million unique visitors, but on a subset of that — some 500,000 loyal users who want the kind of journalism in which Slate specializes. That took me back to my recent discussion with Greg Harmon about traffic numbers and how newspaper audiences may be a lot smaller than publishers think, but much more valuable.
- This is fairly amazing. Yes, Virginia, the Chicago Sun-Times still has six workers with lifetime guaranteed jobs who make around $45,000 a year to set some last-minute pages in hot type. And those six workers’ union had the ability to scuttle a deal to keep the paper from extinction. Beats me why this industry is in trouble.
Because I can’t end on that sour note, I came across a headline in the New York Times over the weekend that made me click because it just seemed so improbable: “Ignacio Ponseti, Hero to Many With Clubfoot, Dies at 95.” That sounded like an outtake from The Onion, but it turned out to be a beautifully written record of the remarkable life of an extraordinary man. I don’t know what the emerging ecosystem for news will look like, but I do know it needs a place for quietly amazing stories like this one.
On Friday I wrote about the Tallahassee Democrat’s experiment in making its investigative story about Wakulla County’s sheriff a print-only feature, supplemented by online areas where readers could get a summary of the story, discuss it and read supporting documents. (See the original post here.)
So how’d it go? I emailed Bob Gabordi, the Democrat’s executive editor, to find out.
“Traffic was pretty strong and the conversation was very lively,” he told me. “We had just under 9,000 page views on the summary, primarily people going on for the conversation. Much of the focus was on the journalism: Did we go too far into his business, not far enough, even a few ‘just rights.’ “
Those 9,000 page views, Mr. Gabordi says, put the summary in tallahassee.com’s top 15 text pieces for the month in terms of traffic — and in the top five if football stories are excluded.
Meanwhile, on the print side, he says the Democrat saw its biggest Sunday single-copy sales day since the Sunday after Thanksgiving 2008, with a gain of nearly 16% over the previous week.
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At the risk of changing gears rather precipitously, here’s my latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center. It notes that access to players and games was once a huge competitive advantage for sportswriters, but regular telecasts and wall-to-wall sports coverage have eroded that advantage. Is access still useful? Yes — but I contend that few sportswriters are using it in ways that would help new media work for them.
On Sunday the Tallahassee Democrat will run a story by Jennifer Portman about Wakulla County Sheriff David Harvey, who’s been in office for more than 30 years. Portman’s story draws on months of investigative work, will run at around 120 inches, and be complemented by a number of documents available on tallahassee.com.
But Portman’s actual story won’t appear on the Web site. It will be print-only.
Bob Gabordi, the Democrat’s executive editor, calls that an experiment, one that came out of brainstorming with editors about how to keep the Sunday paper special.
It also takes traffic numbers into account. “We generate a tremendous amount of traffic for a market our size,” Gabordi says, but adds that traditional Sunday takeout stories like Portman’s “get minimal traffic.”
Gabordi may be in for a buffeting from Web-first circles, but he’s no Luddite: He chatted amiably about reactions he’s received in comments on his blog and via email and Facebook, and about the Democrat’s use of Facebook and Twitter. (Tweets from readers who use the #noles hashtag during Saturday’s FSU-USF game will be posted on the Web site’s front page.) And it’s not like tallahassee.com is ignoring Portman’s story: Besides those online documents, Web readers will get an executive summary and a place to discuss the story.
“We’re trying to take advantage of the strength of each of those mediums,” he says.
Gabordi says he’ll be very focused on how customers — both Web and print — react to the experiment, and will be digging into the numbers for Web traffic and single-copy sales. (Though the Seminoles’ game will make measurements difficult.) So far, he says, one Web reader has complained about being taken for granted, while a number of print readers have thanked the Democrat for rewarding them for paying for the newspaper.
“I didn’t realize it was going to get this much attention,” he says, adding that since long-form stories have had limited success, the risk isn’t that great and the experiment is worth trying.
I asked Gabordi if he was worried about Portman’s story not being able to spread online via links and email, and he called that “a fair question — it’s going to require us to do more thinking on that.” (In a follow-up email, he added that he thinks the Democrat is “a very local organization” both digitally and print in terms of news.) Asked if there were plans to put the story online after its appearance in print, he said “that has been the big question here — I’m not certain about that. If we get some calls or requests for it we’ll certainly do it. But I don’t think we will, quite frankly.”
His prediction isn’t just about the lack of traffic for long-form stories. Rather, it’s that he thinks Web readers have different expectations about what they’re going to get from a story, and will be satisfied by what tallahassee.com will offer.
“I believe that in some ways you’ll be as equipped to talk about that story as a print-only reader,” he says, adding that “I really firmly believe [Web and print] are still separate audiences. There’s some overlap, but they’re mainly separate audiences. We’re just trying to find new ways to satisfy each of those audiences’ demands.”
No, says Josh Tyrangiel, Time.com’s managing editor, telling Beet.tv in this short video interview that “long-form journalism online, much as I wish it were thriving, is not.”
Yes, says Gerald Marzorati, editor of the New York Times Magazine, telling Times readers that “contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s our longest pieces that attract the most online traffic.”
The two very different answers were noted by Jim Romenesko yesterday. So which is it?
I’m sure both men are correct. But then they’re serving very different audiences.
Tyrangiel says Time.com’s goal “is to make people smarter by saving them time,” and his portrait of a Web reader is someone at work between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., looking for the news with lunch on the desk, the boss at the door and the voice-mail light blinking on the phone.
Tyrangiel is obviously zeroed in on serving that reader, as he should be, which makes his statements sound a touch absolutist. For that kind of reader, of course longer-form stories like the ones in the print version of Time aren’t going to do well. But this isn’t the only kind of reader, and the same reader may act differently in the middle of the workday than he or she does at other times. Marzorati’s readers are more likely to be reading on Friday night or the weekend, and unlike Time.com, the Times magazine isn’t radically different online than it is in print. Marzorati’s readers are more likely to know what they’re getting, and to want and even expect stories they can engage with over a longer period of time.
So — as is so often the case on the Web — the answer is that different parts of the audience want different things, and a publisher may well wind up having to serve everybody.
This is a pretty brief post so far; were I to heed Tyrangiel’s warning, I’d quit right here. But having a weakness for goat-chokers myself, I’ll add a couple of caveats.
First off, I suspect the real question about long-form journalism isn’t whether it works online or not, but to ask how often it works at all. This isn’t to dismiss the form, but to note simply (if a bit cynically) that many more people will read a lousy 4oo-word story than a lousy 4,000-word one.
The best long-form journalism kills in any medium — witness this Tommy Craggs takedown of Luddite baseball announcer Joe Morgan, this Michael Lewis look back at the financial meltdown, or this Nick Kristof and Sarah WuDunn cri de coeur about women’s rights, from last week’s Times magazine. (I read it online, by the way.) But the best long-form journalism is very hard to do, and correspondingly rare.
On the other hand, it’s also very valuable. Good long-form journalism offers online publications a crucial competitive advantage: It’s very hard or impossible to copy. In a world awash in commoditized news, this is a big selling point, which is one reason I have faith that long-form journalism will be more important to Web publishers a couple of years from now than it is today.
But long-form journalism isn’t easy, and it will always be risky. Tyrangiel is absolutely right to observe that “online, you can be anywhere, anytime” — let the reader’s attention wander and they’re off somewhere else, never to return. And the reader has to know what he or she is getting into.
Therein lies a cautionary tale. Years ago (as the story was told to me), a reporter was sitting in the airport and realized a man sitting nearby had started reading the reporter’s very ambitious, in-depth front-page story. The reporter leaned in unobserved, and watched in fascination as the man took in each paragraph on the front page. The reader was enthralled, he realized — he sat bolt upright and even began saying things like “wow” under his breath. Turn to the jump, the reporter thought. Don’t read the rest of the front page. Turn to the jump.
To the reporter’s delight, the man did just that — only to be confronted by the rest of the story, which took up a full double-truck. He looked paralyzed for a moment, exclaimed “Oh, shit!” — and closed the paper. Want to see the same effect online? Watch what happens when an unwary reader scrolls to the bottom of a first screen and sees 2 3 4 5 6 7 all hyperlinked.
My latest Webside chat with my colleague David Baker is on EidosMedia’s site. David and I do these every month or so; they’re distillations and amplifications of the themes explored daily here on the blog. David always asks very good questions and I struggle to keep up.
ESPN.com’s Jim Caple asks what the loss of so many baseball beat writers will mean for fans. Caple’s writing about baseball, but his take will be of interest to anyone concerned about journalism and the changing ecosystem of mainstream press, blogs and other new forms of commentary and news coverage. As Steven Berlin Johnson put it in his talk at SXSW, sports is part of online news’ “old-growth forest,” so it’s an excellent place to look for clues about how things will play out elsewhere in the journalism world. Extra points to Caple for a discussion of mainstream press coverage and blogs that’s even-handed and fair-minded.
Lots of interesting thoughts about classifieds, display advertising and other things that could use a reinvention at Revenue 2.0.
Jay Rosen has a “flying seminar” on journalism’s future that’s an excellent overview of current thinking about where we might be going. And all this is just from March. It was really quite a month!
Finally, this take (in PDF form) on newspapers’ futures, from Mitchell Madison Group’s Arnon Mishkin. The late Harvard professor Theodore Levitt famously said that railroad companies died because “they thought they were in the railroad business, not the transportation business,” and that aphorism has become an article of faith in discussions of technological change. Mishkin argues that Leavitt was wrong, and railroads were lucky to avoid the airline business: “Transportation may have been a wonderful business on rails and sea, but it has proven a dreadful business in the air.”
The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten is a terrific writer and reporter, one with the ability to take a story and see around its corners to find a better story, or a unique take that not only gets you thinking but just might change how you think about something from that point forward.
I first encountered Weingarten through his Washington Post chats, in which he came across as a real personality, sounding completely natural and at ease online. (He wasn’t the only one — in my WSJ.com days I was always envious of how the Post just seemed to get the style and tone of the Web. And yes, I’m aware that apparent ease was undoubtedly the product of a lot of hard work.) Then there was Weingarten’s terrific recounting of a social experiment in which he parked Joshua Bell in the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station to see what kind of reaction one of the world’s greatest classical musicians would draw from harried, hurried commuters, a story that won a well-deserved Pulitzer. (Don’t miss the follow-up discussion on washingtonpost.com.)
Yesterday Weingarten wrote a very different story, one about parents who accidentally leave their infants to die in hot cars. It’s a seemingly impossible mistake that happens a lot more than you might think — every year, 15 to 25 children die in the U.S. this way. Sometimes their parents are charged with murder or manslaughter; sometimes authorities recognize that it’s nothing more than a horrible mistake. Either way, it leaves parents broken by unfathomable grief and guilt.
Weingarten tells the story unsparingly and beautifully. He zooms in to the smallest details of accidents and out to statistics, each of them devastating in their own way. He weaves family stories together with explanations for how such a tragedy can occur to anybody. He’s present in the story, but very quietly. For example, hearing the audio of a 911 call at a critical turn in the story, his reaction is authoritative, human and spare to the point of being stark: “The tape is unendurable.” And the story ends with a twist that you don’t see coming, and that will knock you flat.
It’s a masterpiece, the kind of story you very quickly realize you’ll never forget. (Seriously — it’s that good. If you haven’t read it already, go do so and come back when you’re done.) But while I was reading it, an unwelcome thought kept nagging at me: Does this story have a place in digital-age journalism? Will anyone run something like this in five years?
To be clear, Weingarten’s story isn’t just print ported to Web. There’s a slideshow, an audio interview with a family to whom this happened, hundreds of comments and a chat with readers. But the power of the story is the words — it’s a long-form story told slowly and with exquisite care, the product of extensive intervewing and research. For today’s news organizations such a story is an expensive undertaking, and the way it’s delivered flies in the face of a lot of digital-age advice: write shorter, break stories into easily-digested chunks, give readers something to interact with. I could be wrong, but I don’t think the Weingarten story would work that way — its power comes from holding you and keeping you and making you think about the unimaginable one way and then another way. Breaking it into pieces would dilute that power.
But storytelling mechanics aside, the question remains: Will stories like this still get told in five years?
I think they will. In fact, I think they’ll be more important.
The reason is that long-form journalism like this is very, very hard to copy. The Web has wrecked papers’ print-era advantages by putting them in competition with every other paper and news sources that didn’t exist just a few years ago. A lot of news has become commoditized, with more and more outlets offering essentially the same stories. Moreover, the competitive advantage of the beloved scoop is rapidly disappearing — with papers publishing online, the life of a scoop is now measured in hours or even minutes. As I’ve written before, it’s no longer the Or World but the And World, and standing out is increasingly difficult.
For the most part, papers have to adjust to the And World and live by its rules. But there are opportunities to push back against it, and they boil down to offering content that other news providers can’t copy quickly or easily. There are a number of potential ways to do that. You can go very local, offering readers information other new sources don’t have. You can focus on your best writers as brands, emphasizing that their personalities and voices make them unique. Another way is tried-and-true investigative reporting.
Weingarten’s story can’t be copied quickly enough to erode its competitive advantage — any me-too stories that appear in the next couple of days will be hurriedly written affairs that won’t come anywhere close to the original. (I’m not picking on the poor reporters who’ll get that assignment, having drawn this particular short straw myself — they just won’t have time.) Couple that with Weingarten’s gifts as a writer (the reporter as brand), and you have a story that will remain the Post’s in a way that few stories can today.
Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I think that after the news industry emerges from its current crisis, long-form investigative pieces like Weingarten’s will be more valued, even in an era of smaller newsrooms that have moved away from the print product and the storytelling forms that grew up with it. Not every paper will be able to support such work, and it will no longer be the goal that every young reporter wants to reach. But I think it will be valued, and aspired to not just as a journalistic goal, but as a business goal as well. And that’s a comforting thought.