Long-Form Journalism, and Other Friday Reads
Yesterday the Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach explored narrative in the digital age, beginning with the great Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith and wending his way through the distractions of Facebook, Twitter and the rapidly changing newspaper business.
It’s a rather tortured, ambivalent read. (That’s not meant as a criticism — discomfort and ambivalence are part of figuring stuff out.) On the one hand, Achenbach has faith in the power of narrative to survive amid distractions and fads, writing that it’s not “merely a technique for communicating; it’s how we make sense of the world. The storytellers know this. They know that the story is the original killer app.” On the other, he frets that “narrative these days competes against incrementalized information — data, chatter, noise” and worries about newspapers’ embrace of charticles, content creation and aggregation — as well as readers’ love of blogs and Facebook. (“It’s hard to sustain a story on a page designed to put you in contact with your 1,374 close personal friends.”)
There are some overgeneralizations here — I could have done without Achenbach’s dismissal that “to a remarkable degree, bloggers aren’t storytellers.” (Read most anything by Joe Posnanski. Or, if I may be horribly self-promotional, one of my own attempts at blog storytelling.) And after firing somewhat random shots at Facebook and aggregators, he notes that the Internet can send good stories winging from user to user — which is one of the things I love most about social media and aggregation done right.
I think Achenbach nails it when he notes that “the Internet can be, for the very best stories, an accelerant, not a retardant, of great narrative. But mediocre stories need not apply.” That’s right — but it skips over the fact that long, mediocre stories never worked in print — or in any other medium. (Picture a bunch of ancient Greeks walking out of a tavern in the middle of a dull tale, leaving behind a blind storyteller you’ve never heard of.) If the Web has put more pressure on long-form narratives to pull their considerable weight and engage readers, that’s not a bad thing.
Yes, there’s a lot of noise in the digital world. But good storytelling is signal. Done skillfully, long-form narrative works online — just as it does anywhere else. Gary Smith works. And so does Joel Achenbach, ambivalence and all.
Ah, but there’s a rather important question worrying Achenbach that I’ve left out: Who’s going to pay for those long stories?
I don’t know that — nobody does. But I do stubbornly maintain that long-form journalism will be a big part of whatever answer emerges.
One of the engines of hopefully creative destruction for the newspaper industry is that the Web has destroyed papers’ old geographical protections, throwing them all into a common pool. That pool is full of commodity journalism, which is useless for enhancing a newspaper’s brand and impossible to charge for. On top of that, the lifespan of a scoop has dwindled from days to minutes. Too many newspapers have been revealed as a veneer of local news over a lot of me-too stories you can read done better elsewhere — and endless rounds of cost-cutting have just made papers thinner and poorer.
But slowly but surely, papers are waking up to the idea that they have to stop doing what everybody else is doing and find ways to be unique. (This is one factor driving the renewed interest in local news — the old geographical protections still apply.) And this is why I maintain long-form journalism — whether it’s investigative journalism or just superb storytelling — will not only survive but emerge as more important than it is today. Unlike a lot of other news stories, long-form journalism can’t be copied quickly or easily. That will make it valuable.
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From the MinnPost’s Joel Kramer, here’s more evidence of the trend for publishers to value the loyal few over the empty many. (See also Slate’s David Plotz on core readers vs. drive-bys, and my own conversation about traffic stats with Greg Harmon.)
After I tweeted about this, a friend of mine raised an objection: How you can sell the “loyal few” to advertisers, given agencies’ struggles with understanding digital as it is? My answer was that different advertisers want different things. Publishers are only now realizing that big traffic numbers piled up by non-local drive-by readers are useless to local advertisers — they need real numbers about local loyalists who might actually buy something. There are global/national advertisers for whom pure reach is important, but they’re not the only game in town — and probably not the most valuable one.
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