In era of ‘snackable content’, long-form journalism has its place
Economic pressures encourage snappier writing but some subjects need space and time
Enda O’Doherty and Maurice Earls, founding editors of The Dublin Review of Books. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
A time arrives in most people’s lives when the past becomes invested with a rosy glow. The golden age might have been the 1960s, or the 1970s, even the 1980s.
Whenever it was, it is remembered as a simpler time, when political leaders were respected and respectable, music had proper tunes (like the Beatles’ Revolution 9), boys were boys, girls were girls and gender just something to be learned for French class. It was a time when the printed word could be trusted too and “fake news” was unheard of: if the man said Freddie Starr ate his hamster then Freddie Starr surely ate his hamster.
The belief that newspapers are not what they used to be is fairly widespread, perhaps most fervently subscribed to by people who once worked in the industry when the press was idealistic, probing, trustworthy and often written with great style and panache.
The decline – if there is a decline – is often attributed to changes brought about by digital media, both in terms of the pressure exerted by companies such as Google on newspapers’ economic model (loss of advertising revenue forcing staff reductions) and in a general lowering effect on our culture, based on a belief that our attention spans are not what they once were.
And so, instead of long, comprehensive articles, we get lots more “snackable content”: charts, graphs, panels, lists, “breakout” quotes and multiple major and minor headings.
Certainly some of these changes were evident in newspapers before the challenge from the digital revolution became urgent. Commissioning editors always tended to prefer short, sharp articles. A 1,400-word piece outlining the background of a German or Italian political crisis would inevitably be described as “worthy”. This was not meant as praise.
The argument that digital is shaping, rather than just reflecting, our culture, cannot be easily dismissed. On the one hand it has hugely increased the offer in terms of available news and views. Thirty years ago few Irish people read anything other than an Irish newspaper. Now you can within seconds – and for free if you’re selective – read online a selection of American news and opinion on the Trump presidency or consult as many reviews as you want of a new literary novel.
But of course the internet is not just for the high-minded – and even the high-minded aren’t always so. Just as it is sometimes easier to eat a box of chocolate truffles than a bulgur salad, so too it can be easier to watch kittens falling off tables on YouTube than to read an explanation of how exactly a post-Brexit customs partnership might work. The question is: does the ready availability of unlimited quantities of easily consumed, even clever and funny material – it’s not all kittens – tend to make us less likely to broach subjects that require a commitment of time and some mildly strenuous intellectual effort? Does snacking ruin our appetite? Can we live off truffles, or trifles?
It would be difficult to argue that the changes newspapers have implemented over the last decade or so in response to perceived changes in reader profile and expectations have not had some negative effects. Two once distinguished British broadsheets – The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph – now seem to concentrate largely on offering their different readerships, one left-wing, one right-wing, more and more of what is thought likely to please them, to the virtual exclusion of anything that might invite them to question their assumptions. These policies, one assumes, are facilitated by increasing use of metrics to reveal online reading patterns and a reliance on the “if you liked that, you’ll also like this” formula.
Of course newspaper managements are not setting out to cheapen their products. Why would they? But they perceive their readers to be busy people and realise that they are vying with many competitors for attention. In this context “long” often seems to be considered a synonym for “long-winded”. There is nothing remarkably new about this. A few decades ago this newspaper ran an advertising campaign with the slogan “If you miss The Irish Times you miss part of the day”. To which one journalist, conscious of the number of extra pages and new supplements the paper was adding, retorted “And if you read The Irish Times you’ll miss all of the day”. We only have so much time at our disposal.
If the online revolution has had some cultural downsides, one of its positive aspects is that it significantly cuts the entry costs of intellectual production
While the general tendency of the digital revolution has been to encourage shorter and snappier news stories and features there is a way in which movement in the opposite direction can also be facilitated: as the newspaper moves away from the printed page, restrictions on article length prompted by aesthetic considerations (“too much grey type”) carry less weight. And thus we see the rise online of what is sometimes called “long-form journalism”, pieces, both narrative and analytical, that can be several thousand words long.
Is long necessarily good? As joint-editor of Space to Think, a 2016 anthology of substantial analytical articles taken from the first 10 years of the Dublin Review of Books, I would be expected to argue that it is. Put perhaps the truth is that the possibility of treating a subject at length is desirable in certain circumstances. Certainly an exposition of a complex political situation which pays attention to the historical factors that came together to create it will benefit from being able to fully list those factors. An analysis of a powerful contemporary current such as populism will be better if it can put flesh on its arguments by not just dealing in concepts but citing the words of actual people. An assessment of a new work by a novelist or cineaste may be greatly strengthened by considering the oeuvre as a whole.
All of these increasingly common article types require space. Significantly they are also beginning to appear in publications known for shorter treatments, an acknowledgment that not every reader is looking for the same thing, or not all the time. If the online revolution has had some cultural downsides, one of its positive aspects is that it significantly cuts the entry costs of intellectual production through virtually eliminating paper, manufacturing and distribution expenses.
True, articles from other countries can now much more easily be read here than a generation ago. This sharpens competition and could have the effect of loosening the tie between the Irish citizen and this particular res publica. On the other hand, a minority-interest article originated in Ireland and published in a journal with no full-time employees can be, as Séamus O’Mahony’s Dublin Review of Books essay on scientific method was, read by 15,000 people worldwide, the determinant of success being simply “is it good enough?”.
If the first years of digital media saw a rush towards the brief, the bright and the constantly updated, we may now be ready for a more varied menu. The snacks are still there, for we lead busy lives, but there seems to be an increasing awareness that we might also need – even enjoy – something more nutritious. In some respects at least, the media glass is approaching half-full.
Enda O’Doherty edits the Dublin Review of Books jointly with Maurice Earls.
Long and short – four essays to read now
Long-form journalism can be informative, challenging, or just simply pleasurable as writing. It is well adapted to popularisation. Popularisation, a quite different thing from “dumbing down”, is what happens when the writer does the heavy lifting for you. “Long” is relative: none of the pieces below should keep you for more than 40 minutes.
Novelist James Meek, in the London Review of Books, gets under the skin of the Brexiteers in Thanet, Nigel Farage territory, where Ukip wants to encourage the white unemployed back to work “with a big stick”.
In the Dublin Review of Books, Pádraig Murphy, a retired Irish diplomat, explains with obvious expertise and great assurance what has been happening in Russia since Gorbachev. You’ll have read a lot about Putin, but this is an account that is informed, balanced and trustworthy.
Also in the Dublin Review of Books, Catherine Marshall asks why so few Irish artists responded to the cataclysmic events of the 1840s, and why the painter Daniel McDonald was an exception to that rule.