A defense for long-form, pt. 1

First of all, there’s one point I’ve come to about the lambasting of long-form in modern journalism:

There is a time and place for everything. 

And as you can probably tell, I’m a big fan of long-form journalism. Look at any of my past posts.

Well, I’m actually a fan of long-form anything: books, seven-page magazine pieces, essays, long-winded sentences, analyses…etc. It’s actually so much an interest that it’s permeated through my own work (to the dismay of my editor…) and my speech. Being concise has become my battle du jour as I, on a daily basis, fight with unnecessary jargon and too many commas and lengthy prepositional phrases. It’s something that I think is pretty characteristic of me, but often plagues my reporting.

But, it has gotten better. And yes, I’ve considered before, why am I not doing magazine?  

I answer myself with the assuaging response of the fact that I like to be challenged. I’m doing reporting because I feel like you can get a solid set of skills that you may not in magazine. (That’s not to say you don’t gain skills in magazine. Sometimes I think I’m crazy for not letting my creative juices flow just a teensy bit more across the way at Vox.) I’m very creative-minded, and I think magazine is good for people like that. But I personally need to hamper down on the wandering ways of my mind and get (relatively) hard-lined mindset of news reporting. Getting the most important information and being concise continues to be my weakness and my goal, simultaneously, and as I actively am aware of myself as a reporter, I think I can continue to develop.

But that’s not what I really want to talk about in this post. I mean, in all honesty, who wants to read about me and my personal afflictions with my unruly creative expression? No one.

As I learn to balance creativity with being succinct, I want to stress that I’m not simply trying to suppress my creativity. I’m simply learning how to manage it. But I think there’s something to say for how the changing nature of journalism has essentially begun to ruthlessly suppress journalists’ creativity.

We talk about the future of journalism — using SEO lingo, scanner-style stories, making stories as short as possible — and in this talk, I think we’ve become the victims of self-flagellation because we think that people simply aren’t going to read long articles or click on “page 2” to continue reading. I’m not saying that I don’t agree with transforming how journalism is presented. I think there’s a lot of potential for using bullets and Twitter and news aggregation. But I think that the cost of entirely gutting the structure of journalism is very detrimental to both the journalists and the readers.

Does this sentence look more appealing now?

  • How about now?
  • Or even this? More emphasis? Am I really excited about this sentence? Do you care?

I think these new styles are successful in drawing in a reader’s attention. That’s pretty much understood. But what does it really mean? It may work short-term, but what about long-term? Where will these new ideas be in five years? Is it too hopeless-romantic of me to think that a really good long piece will leave more of a lasting impact than an online-oriented piece?

And there is a difference between the two. Long-form is supposed to make an impact. Breaking news, short scanner-style — they’re not. They’re simply there for the info. Which is fine…but I think this mentality may become dangerous as it begins to pervade through all of journalism. We shouldn’t be ashamed of writing lengthy pieces, and we also shouldn’t think that people will automatically say “No.”

A lot of the people pushing for journalism “reform” (is that too stuffy of a term?) say that it’s beneficial for future generations. They’ll say that as attention spans shorten and the internet becomes more user-specific, generations to come will see long-form and (hopefully consequently) well-researched stories as cumbersome and unappealing. Thus, in comes the argument for a new perspective on journalism, for new formats that essentially devalue the power of a long article or, at least, an article that takes longer to put together. I’m not saying that these new formats like scanner or even citizen journalism are bad. My opinion is that there’s simply a time and place for everything. But when we start to re-define ALL journalism — including the longer forms and less “I-want-to-read-it-right-now” pieces — we become irrevocable victims of influence.

(This is a scanner-style story.)

I think it’s naive and way too judgmental to say that my generation doesn’t have the capability to maintain the attention necessary for long-form. Yes, the internet has changed us. Yes, technology has drastically shortened our attention spans. Yes, we prefer to get quick news from Yahoo! rather than from a feature in the Times (sadly). But I don’t think our entire mentality has changed.

We read books. Take The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Harry Potter or most recently, The Hunger Games. We even read ghastly simple books like Twilight. But the level of intellect needed to read these books isn’t my point. My point is that we still read. We’ll go out and buy a book and read all 500 or so pages. Perhaps this is due to social pressure, and maybe the quality of these books aren’t great. But reading is still present in our society, and in these moments of literary fervor I can see that my generation still can really, truly enjoy long-form. And when journalists begin to debase this simple observation, I think the future for the craft of journalism is doomed. We can’t assume things when we write stories — that’s heresy. So why should we assume that long-form is dead? Because, honestly, it’s not.

I shamefully admit that I did, at one dark point in my life, read all 544 pages of this book.

(There’s also another issue with format that I’ve been debating. That’s the more creative style story. These stories break the boundaries of how an article should be written, how a lede is put together, how grafs are juxtaposed, how much you can break away from the inverted pyramid style. We talked about this in class the other day. We talked about a quite creatively reported story about a toilet bowl flushing contest and another about an errant, crazed rooster that attacked a child.

But I had a problem with these stories. You know, I talk about how I support creativity, and now you see me being hesitant about taking “creative liberties” with stories. I only hesitate during these examples because I think simply that these stories are unsuccessful for two reasons: 1, they seem to patronize the subject matter and 2, their creativity just seems out of place. They just didn’t seem newsworthy to me.

I understand the bizarre nature of events like toilet flushing contests and an AWOL rooster. But I think that when a reporter created the proverbial mountain of a molehill, I think that the journalism simply fails. Yes, it’s a good story. It’s funny, and people like it. But is it worth it?)

Roosters are kind of funny.

Again, I think there’s a time and place for everything. And I think reporters often have trouble figuring out not only what is worth covering and what isn’t, but also how creative we’re allowed to be.

I think that self-censoring of creativity is terrible, but sometimes it’s necessary. Journalists are subject to criticism, so we take it into our own hands to figure out what the people want and how we should give it to them. But in being so focused on the consumer, I think we can stray from what the point of journalism really is: to make news. Yes, citizens are important, and they should play a role in

But do we really want to have society dictate our every movement? Should we really have to change our profession just to ride through the current storm of cultural and technological upheaval and change? We shouldn’t underestimate ourselves, and we shouldn’t underestimate our readers. We are professionals, even though it’s hard to prove, without a license or framed diploma. But just because we essentially are caterers to the people and reliant on the people they want to know about, doesn’t mean we can’t have control over our own content.

Doctors are cool, but do they know the proper use of a comma? How to write an awesome lede?

SEO is important. So is bold lettering and scanner style journalism. But sometimes I think we’re getting away from the actual reporting, the actual writing. How can we remain a profession if we’re constantly willing to compromise ourselves for the next big thing? Aggregation won’t save journalism. Good reporters will.

I’m also not saying that every news article should become a 70-inch novella. I think, again, that there’s a time and place for everything. We need breaking news. We also need features. We need magazines and newspapers that people will buy and genuinely enjoy. But we don’t need to completely re-define the profession. We amend the constitution, we don’t rewrite it. We need the same perspective in journalism. But catering to the whims of culture instead of to the actual needs and potential of the people, we run the risk of de-legitimizing not only the profession and citizens, but ourselves as well.

NOTE: The photos I used are not mine.

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