Why Long-Form Journalism Is Still Relevant
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.