Embracing Longform

According to Mark Zusman, editor of Willamette Week in Portland, Ore., our goals as reporters and editors are pretty simple: we build community and speak truth to power.

He says this to a packed room during the longform panel at the 2014 AAN Convention, alongside Nashville Scene editor Jim Ridley and Voice Media Group executive associate editor Andy Van De Voorde.

And, says Zusman, speaking truth to power, building community—making that happen can be summarized in one basic, yet controversial, word: Longform.

“There is no better expression of those two values than longform journalism, that seeks to dig deep, that seeks to explain, that seeks to put things in a larger context, that seeks to connect the dots, and that seeks, after doing a good deal of reporting and thinking, God forbid, to even have a point of view,” he continues. “And so, in many respects, the entire enterprise symbolized by the 300 people that are here and the companies they represent, is to support and nurture longform journalism.”

And when you’re a journalist, that’s easy to forget. Especially considering the one-two punch that is the constant bombardment of trend blogs and colleagues’ insistence that people just aren’t that into words like they used to be, evidenced by the fact that our jobs regularly make business publications’ lists of the worst shit you can do with your life.

The 300 people at this conference, we know that’s not true. But for all the trendsetters and print cynics out there, the formula has changed. A well-put together narrative investigation isn’t all that coveted anymore, they say; it’s been replaced by memes, GIFs, aggregation, humiliating Facebook screenshots, nip-slips, One Weird Tricks.

Yeah, we’ve all heard it. But is it true? Probably not. At least not completely, and there’s evidence on our side, too. Plenty of content sites have begun complementing their “10 reasons the 1990s were [whatever]” with a dedication to long narratives and profiles—even Buzzfeed, of all places, has begun pushing a “Buzzreads” section.

And if you’re to use this panel’s attendance as a guide, basically all of us reporters and editors at AAN believe in longform. We want to be awesome at it. Even now, when we’re really hung over.

According to a recent piece in the New York Times exploring longform’s renaissance, “High-resolution screens make it much more pleasant to read a long piece online than it was even a few years ago”—which is true: your iPad is a better friend than your old, clunky desktop. But then there’s this: “the simple and honorable intention to preserve a particular kind of story, one that’s much different from even a long newspaper feature, with scenes and characters and a narrative arc.”

In the somewhat sarcastically-titled “Against Long-Form Journalism,” published in The Atlantic, similarly explored this, arguing we shouldn’t necessarily give a shit about a story’s wordi-ness, but, rather, the ability of those words to convey what we want and deserve in such a piece. Most notably: a clear narrative, well-put-together scenes, a story arc, characters. Longform isn’t worth its long form unless it can deliver.

“Lately I’ve noticed there’s a lot more being written about longform journalism. You have Longform.org, you have the #longreads Twitter hashtag,” says Van De Voorde, of the Voice Media Group, “but even as all this stuff is said and written I find myself going back to the fact that a lot that’s coming at me is stuff that I heard from my old friend and my old boss … in a bar in Phoenix 30 years ago. I’m not sure that fundamentals of storytelling have necessarily changed all that much.”

If you want to be part of the renaissance (which we, as alt-weeklies, have been part of since forever), you should also know what people on the web, using their iPad reader apps, don’t want.

“What do we not want to do in longform? We don’t want to do topic stories,” Van De Voorde adds. “What’s a topic story? People used to say to me, daily newspaper reporters come up with a topic and you write the best story you can about that particular topic. Problem is, they’re usually very boring. What we want writers to do is, don’t bring me a topic bring me a storyline, bring me characters, we want to tell a good story.”

And when you’re introducing that character, a good longform piece should tell us, the readers, what that character wants and why we want to read about them—the thing that “makes them different than anybody else on the planet.”

To illustrate this, Van De Voorde tells the audience about someone he overheard ordering breakfast this morning. This guy at a nearby table, he said, ordered extra-crispy bacon, chocolate milk, and a side of mayonnaise.

“He said [crispy bacon] about four times and his exact words to the waiter were, ‘This is very important’ … Anyway, if I was writing a story about that guy, I would include that detail.”

But the details don’t always come over breakfast, or even a series of lunches or dinners. Or ever.

“When you get the stories that really matter, they’re the stories that people spent weeks or months or, in some cases, maybe a year or so pursuing,” adds Ridley.

In other words, all that shit in your Facebook feed—the nip slips, the One Weird Tricks, the People of Walmart—people will click it, but does any of it actually matter? Probably not.

Think about your best work. Was it a 300-word blog post you wrote over a single cup of coffee, or that 5,000-word cover story you spent months on, and received anonymous threats over? Which one will you remember in 10 years?

Longform journalism is likely having its moment today because of the internet’s ability to lure us in without reward. Thinking Society’s reaction to the listicle has been to write a lot of good words, brand it, and provide some meaning in a world full of mosquito-sized attention spans. Alt-weeklies have always made this a part of our business model, and, like everything else we’ve done in this medium, speaking truth to power is catching on again.

Randy LoBasso is a staff writer at Philadelphia Weekly and a 2014 AAN Convention scholarship recipient.

Leave a Reply