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.

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