The New School and ProPublica co-hosted a panel on long-form journalism last night at The New School’s Tishman Auditorium in New York City. David Remnick of the The New Yorker, Ira Glass of “This American Life,” Raney Aronson-Rath of “Frontline,” and Steve Engelberg of ProPublica sat down with moderator Alison Stewart (of PBS’ “Need to Know”) to talk about “Long-Form Storytelling in a Short-Attention-Span World.”
The evening offered a mash-up of topics, from the iPad as “salvation, almost” to Moby-Dick, McPhee and Milton. Despite the differing needs of radio, television, digital and print entities, several panelists were quick to agree that it is, in fact, possible for long-form to be too long.
Engelberg recalled an argument he had with a reporter over story length, saying, “The Internet may be infinite, but my attention span isn’t.” Aronson-Rath noted that several times, “Frontline” had done a long (approximately 90-minute) and a short (approximately 52-minute) version of the same documentary for broadcast. Of those, she could recall only one in which she thought the long version had been better. Remnick described Lawrence Wright’s recent exploration of Scientology – which clocked in at more than 20,000 words – as an anomaly. “In the world we live in,” he said, “5,000 words is the norm.”
While some outlets have stopped running even 5,000-word pieces, “long-form is absolutely not dead,” noted ProPublica’s Engelberg. “What’s dead is bad long-form.” He sees the market as clearing out the pieces that shouldn’t have been long in the first place, while leaving room for the good.
The people formerly (still?) known as the audience
The panel spent a lot of time addressing the elusive goal of getting and holding audience attention. Talking about the virally successful “Giant Pool of Money” episode from “This American Life,” Glass explained that the piece was framed around a single question related to the economic crisis: “Who should we hate?”
Variety, too, has a role, said Remnick. “It can’t be all brown food; there needs to be different colors and moods and varieties and intellectual aspirations to it.” Otherwise, he suggested, “the reader, meaning me,” gets bored.
Pondering audience size for long-form, Engelberg asked, “Are we reaching a mass audience with all this material? I don’t think as much as we’d like.” Look at the collective audience of the editors and producers onstage, he suggested, and compare it to the broader swatch of America – “call it elite, call it select, call it small,” it would be just a fraction of the potential audience. Tools like the iPad and Kindle, Engelberg noted, offer organizations another chance to reach new groups of people.
In reference to the word “elite,” Remnick had a different take: “‘Moby-Dick’ sold 3,000 copies in Melville’s lifetime. It was an enterprise worth doing. … This word ‘elistim’ is used like a baseball bat. It’s used like a political weapon.”
The shifting storyscape
The group also discussed changes in technology and the news cycle. Glass offered an upbeat note, saying that the 24-hour cycle, with all its shouting, leaves people wanting substance and step-back and quirk. “It’s really been good for us as a business.”
Still, some kinds of storytelling are changing in response. Aronson-Rath said that documentary film used to be more focused on plot and tension. Filmmakers would save their best stuff – or at least some of it – to the end, to give viewers a payoff. Now, she said, “I really expect to know a little more sooner,” suggesting that a film has to be more aggressive from the start because the assumption that the audience is captive no longer holds. Still, Aronson-Rath believes that new possibilities of “things like the iPad and the tablet are a salvation, almost, for documentary film” and that new devices will allow for a 3-D documentary experience.
Remnick described himself as more resistant to the trend toward new graphic and interactive storytelling models. “Language is still the greatest invention we have,” he said. “It’s still the most complex and richest invention we can imagine.”
Money and long-form
Moderator Stewart reminded the audience that New York Times Magazine editor Gerry Marzorati has stated that a good piece of long-form nonfiction can cost $40,000 to produce. Engelberg seconded Marzorati, saying “$40,000 is cheap, cheap, cheap.” He added, “You can’t do the same work with half the number of people – particularly when you’re asking them to do twice as much.”
In terms of long-form funding sources, Glass referenced the recent debate over public broadcasting, saying, “Our situation is great! The United States Congress just loves us.” Aronson-Rath noted that “Frontline” receives 80% of its funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and that due to the subject matter of its documentaries, the show has a hard time getting corporate sponsorship.
So you want to be a rock and roll star?
Remnick talked about learning from John McPhee at Princeton and described how the experience transformed his understanding of nonfiction, likening the analysis of writing to dissecting a frog in order to examine muscle structure. In response, a despairing viewer wrote in to the webcast to ask, “How does one learn the craft of long-form journalism, short of teaming up with John McPhee?”
As luck would have it, the panel answered a similar question from another viewer. Asked whether he would recommend going to journalism school or getting an MFA to become a good writer, Remnick stressed the importance of reading voraciously, saying “I don’t understand people who want to be writers who don’t really read very much.”
Engelberg said that at one point, he got 1300 resumes and read every one of them without concern for whether the applicants had gone to journalism school. Similarly, Aronson-Rath said that film school was not a requirement for working with “Frontline,” that having an eye and being a keen reporter were the most crucial qualities. As for what makes for a good reporter, Remnick used the word hunger and said that “without that stuff-gathering, without that harvesting, without that dumb stubbornness – do something else.”
Glass suggested that when it comes down to it, the best way to begin in journalism is to “start making stuff. That’s the advantage of the media landscape we’re in.” On the disadvantages of that same landscape, Glass noted that the permanent news cycle lacks plot and characters and storytelling, as well as “a sense of discovery or sense of joy.”
Remnick suggested that the problem may lie less in the 24-hour news cycle than in “screaming & yelling at each other like idiots.” The world keeps moving, he said, so the job of a long-form journalist is to step out of the cycle of life – to some extent, to stop time.
For more, watch the video of the event or see comments and tweets made during the discussion. You can also check out our earlier post on a radio conversation with Raney Aronson-Rath and Steve Engelberg.
Thanks to Nieman Lab’s Megan Garber, who made significant reporting contributions to this post.