It’s a long story: long-form journalism offers a balance to bite-sized content

Opinion: The Future of Journalism, Part 5. Short does not necessarily equate to dumb; but 4,000 words can help you explore life’s competing complexities

Kate Middleton at Wimbledon’s Centre Court yesterday. Novelist Hilary Mantel’s sympathetic 2013 critique of Middleton’s press-cultivated “shop-window mannequin” persona was wilfully misinterpreted in the press. Photograph: Reuters/Sang Tan

Kate Middleton at Wimbledon’s Centre Court yesterday. Novelist Hilary Mantel’s sympathetic 2013 critique of Middleton’s press-cultivated “shop-window mannequin” persona was wilfully misinterpreted in the press. Photograph: Reuters/Sang Tan

Mon, Jul 7, 2014, 01:00

It is not usual to read a feature article and come away thinking: “I just wish it could have been longer.” Surely even the good stuff – the real pleasures – should do hyperbusy people a favour and skip to the end. And within most news media organisations the view that what readers want is “snackable”, “bite-sized” content largely holds sway.

Yet amid every trend there is a counter-trend. When served a stream of staccato tweets, picture captions and live-blog entries, consumers of journalism hunger for solid reads that can anchor shrill headlines in some context. It is not that “short” inherently means “dumb”. But if you wish to explore life’s competing truths and inconvenient complexities, it will help to have a word count of 4,000, not 400.

Readers rewarded for their commitment tend to be vocal in their appreciation, deploying Twitter hashtags such as #longreads when they extend product shelf-life by sharing pieces online, often days later. But there is another, less appreciative, abbreviation knocking about to make journalists weep. It is “TL; DR”, or “too long; didn’t read”. Even when used against flabby writing it is an obnoxious, revealing phrase, symptomatic of a trigger-happy media culture.

Wilful misinterpretation

In February 2013, novelist Hilary Mantel delivered “Royal Bodies”, one of the London Review of Books’s trademark essay-slash-lectures. Sympathetically, she touched upon the media invention of Kate Middleton, the press-cultivated “shop-window mannequin” persona created by a society in which monarchy is entertainment. It was wilfully misinterpreted as a bitchy attack by that same press. Booker-winning Mantel was “TL; DR” for people either too lazy for 5,600 words, or too professionally interested in fake outrage to care about rational debate. But notwithstanding the media-perpetuated narrative that the public is collectively suffering from an attention-deficit disorder, demand remains for the highest of highbrow content.

The LRB’s circulation is rising, as the Observer journalist Elizabeth Day pointed out in a recent long read. “I think there’s an awful lot of short opinion around,” LRB editor Mary-Kay Wilmers told Day. “It’s quite nice to find an argument in a piece that isn’t just stated.” It is nice, and on this side of the Atlantic it is rare.

In the United States, market scale gives purveyors of long-form, intellectual content the chance to be profitable, and it is here that the news media has traditionally supported “serious”, relatively well-paid magazine journalism. Far from being killed off by the web-accelerated 24-hour news cycle, it lives on, assisted by the arrival of “lean-back” tablet devices and the availability of infinite “space” online.

Evangelists of web journalism argue it is multimedia hybrids such as the New York Times’s Pulitzer-winning “Snow Fall: the Avalanche at Tunnel Creek”, published in 2012, that point the way forward to the next pick-and-mix wave of text, video, graphics and data-visualisation “storytelling”. Perhaps because it was too obviously doubling up as an e-book experiment, or because it felt padded out, “Snow Fall” left me cold. Its real significance is as a template for what can be done, if you have the right tools. Nor are new bells and whistles always necessary.

In 2013, US magazine the Atlantic, which is paywall-free and is due to reach its 157th birthday in November, cemented a turnaround in its financial fortunes with its fourth consecutive annual profit. A year earlier, its faith in making long-form journalism accessible had been rewarded with its highest views for a piece: Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 12,600-word thesis, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, an old theme that still resonated. It was a hit in two mediums, with sales of the Slaughter-covered print issue swelling.

Decaying priesthood

The Atlantic’s success has come about because of, not despite, editor James Bennet’s awareness of the dangers of overprivileging length. He has “had it with long-form journalism”, he wrote last year, arguing this solemn, pompous label strikes a false, heart-sinking note. Making a virtue of length “sends the wrong message to writers as well as readers” and, worse, was “the mumbled incantation of a decaying priesthood”.

In this part of the world, it is too soon for a backlash, confined to misguided terminology or otherwise, as the “decaying priesthood” of US long-form journalism has never been the one preaching from the newspaper pulpit. Long reads are not financially palatable for most news organisations. (“Snow Fall” was “labour-intensive”, a leaked internal NYT report sniffed.) Many are book extracts or, in the case of Andrew O’Hagan’s 25,000-word LRB must-read on Julian Assange, the remnants of an abandoned book. The LRB itself is not financially sustaining even with upward nudges in circulation.

It is not just the economics that leaves national news titles resistant to long-form journalism, however. While some newspapers, such as the New York Times, have embraced long-form, others are still run by newshounds for whom the joy of language is secondary to the triumph of a scoop. It is the facts that thrill them, and the sentences on the page are merely a delivery mechanism. Of course, lovers of language and lovers of “news” are not mutually exclusive, and the relationship between these two tribes is more nuanced than finite print column inches allow. I only know that I crave what has become known, perhaps dubiously, as long-form journalism. It may be 2014, but I still like, and value, reading for reading’s sake; and increasingly, it seems, others do too. Laura Slattery is an Irish Times business reporter who writes a weekly column on media and marketing Series continues next Monday

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