A ‘Yes, But’ for Bill Keller on Narrative
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.