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By Ania Hull

David Wolf has been an editor of the Long Read since the UK-based Guardian launched the section 10 years ago, and its top editor for the last four. The Long Read world sounds like a dream for those of us who love longform stories, and Wolf the kind of editor we want to write for.

For him, of course, the job comes with all the stresses of high-level editing, and an added challenge: The Long Read was launched as more and more publications were pulling back on their commitment to in-depth, literary journalism. Wolf and his team have to prove the value of such journalism with every story they publish.

Stress be damned. Wolf loves what he does. As he speaks to me on Zoom from his office in London, he can’t stop smiling. He gets to spend his days commissioning stories from talented print journalists from across the globe, then immerse himself in the creative work they produce.

“Hiroshima” author John Hersey was one of the earliest journalists to use the narrative writing techniques of fiction for his journalism as a way to allow “readers to witness history.” But perhaps journalism — and longform journalism, in particular, just like photojournalism — can go further. A well written piece, like the Guardian’s “How child labour in India makes paving stones beneath our feet,” goes beyond bearing witness; it provokes the reader’s empathy for those in the story.

This is the heart of why Wolf’s work at The Long Read matters. Change, after all, begins with seeing and hearing the other, whose reality is often far removed from ours, and feeling a sliver of what they might feel.

The Guardian Long Read editor David Wolf

David Wolf

“I don’t tend to think about storytelling in terms of empathy,” Wolf says when I point that out. “But the human element of it rings true. I think empathy is a downstream effect of good writing. I think of it as the product of understanding and clarity. And that’s what’s at the forefront of my mind when I get a first draft and I’m editing it.

“If you write short pieces, you have to assume knowledge on the part of the reader,” he adds. “Whereas the foundation of everything we’re doing The Long Read is to assume the reader is an intelligent person who knows nothing about the subject, and we give them everything they need to know to fully understand the story. And a lot of this will be describing things in human terms. So, if you feel moved by it or understand the situation of people within the story, that’s the product of telling the story properly.”

The landscape of longform

Guardian is, of course, not the only publication to offer deep insights into the human experience. The New York Times Magazine, for example, or Harper’s, The Atlantic, Mother Jones, The Atavist, The New Yorker, Wired, Esquire and Politico, and in the UK, 1843 of The Economist, all publish longform journalism by some of the most sought-after journalists — even though the halcyon days of print magazine journalists like Hersey, Joan Didion and Gay Talese are long past. That’s because readers want human stories, Wolf tells me: “Stories that make sense of the world around us.”

Recent times in the print journalism industry has been dominated by downsizing, layoffs and closures in the English-speaking world alone. The climate is worse for journalism and journalists in Hungary, Hong Kong, Mexico, all over the Middle East, in the Philippines, Haiti, Zimbabwe and Russia.

And yet.

“We all have that thing,” Wolf says. “You’re casually doom scrolling on your phone and you’re seeing horrible thing after horrible thing, but the reality of it doesn’t come home to you. Good journalism — and it doesn’t have to be long — is about getting underneath the generic words that you’re used to seeing in the news.”

As an example, he cites endless news stories about corruption: “Everyone kind of knows what the word corruption means, but it’s also become meaningless. For most readers, including me, it’s a lot of half-understood stuff. I can give you an example of corruption, but I don’t necessarily feel it; I don’t necessarily have a really visceral sense of how devastating it can be — unless I’m engaging with it through a story. If you tell a story that says, ‘This is what corruption actually looks like,’ that’s different.”

Here, Wolf mentions a story from 2015 about a hospital in Ukraine. The story follows cancer patients who bribe doctors to get the cancer care they need. It also shows how, despite feeling compromised, doctors who accept these bribes don’t have much choice: They don’t make enough money to feed their families, or they have to pay their own bribes to teachers, tax officers and even plumbers. For the patient, the bribe means the hope of staying alive; for the doctor, it means putting food on the table. “That’s what corruption actually means,” Wolf says. “That’s when you start actually understanding.”

At its inception, The Long Read aimed to become the place for doing stories few other places in the UK were doing. Longform journalism is first and foremost an American phenomenon, and although it has’ existed in the UK for decades, not least in the pages of the Guardian, Wolf says, it was not as celebrated as on the other side of the ocean.

What it takes

Costs of such journalism is a real consideration.

First and foremost, there’s the cost to the writer. When I ask Wolf if a freelance journalist can survive on longform journalism alone, he shakes his head: “The question is, how big is your family trust fund? Because otherwise, it’s really, really hard.” The reality is that most freelance journalists who write longform need a second job. A few can supplement their income by writing nonfiction books, but the sometimes generous advances from publishers in the U.S. is rare in the UK.

And there’s the cost to the news organization to produce deeply reported longform journalism. “It takes a lot of time,” Wolf says. “It’s difficult to predict the results. You can have a great idea for a piece, you can have a great reporter looking into something, and maybe in the end it’s not going to be a good Long Read piece. Maybe it should be a 1,000-word piece, or maybe we shouldn’t do it at all. In a world where journalistic resources are scarce, I can understand why people would think, ‘Do I want to spend money on things that don’t have a set result?’” While The Long Read has the backing of the Guardian, Wolf and his team are careful about what they commission.

The Guardian Media Group has only one shareholder, The Scott Trust. The Trust’s goal is to ensure the Guardian’s financial and editorial independence in perpetuity. It invests its profits back into journalism, which is why the Guardian has been able to produce The Long Read section for 10 years now.

Wolf cited three pieces published between 2014 and 2017 that helped define The Long Read and grow its readership to a global one.

The first one was a 2014 story by Martin Chulov about the origins of ISIS. “It was just an amazing piece,” Wolf says. “He (Chulov) had incredible sources and was telling this urgent story in a way no one else had at that time. Then, seeing Jonathan Shainin, who was editor at the time, working on the story and bring it to its absolute best form was amazing, because I had recently arrived and I was learning a lot from him. The piece worked on all fronts: It was breaking news, it was globally read, but it was done in this unique way. It felt to me that the piece was kind of like ‘proof of concept’ — as in, it showed that The Long read  had been a good idea after all.”

Then, there was the 2015 story about “The Great British Bake Off” by Charlotte Higgins. A profile of a TV sensation, the piece set standards for culture writing in The Long Read.

Then there’s the 2017 piece by Sam Knight probing the cascade of security responses in the event of Queen Elizabeth’s death. It’s that piece, Wolf says, that established The Long Read on the global scene.

“That was by far our biggest one,” says Wolf. “I think it’s had 7 million hits in its lifetime, and after that, anyone who was interested in journalism in the UK and even globally, maybe, went, ‘Okay, the Guardian has this Long Read section.’”

Long Read’s reputation is defined by the quality of reporting, but also of writing. The latter starts in part with the relationship between journalist and editor. By the time they’ve done a couple of pieces together, Wolf likes to push his writers to go beyond their comfort zone. “If you’re a music journalist, and you’re good at that, you’re going to be good at writing about other things too,” he says. “And I always think, ‘Oh, I wonder how that person would do if they write about this other subject.’”

Defining great storytelling

The question remains, though: What characterizes good writing in longform journalism?

“I always struggle with defining what good storytelling is,” Wolf says. “There are so many components to it, and there’s not just one way. There are probably universals in good storytelling. But I can think of people who write so differently, and yet they are all brilliant storytellers.”

He cites a story he listened to rather than read, because Wolf loves audio versions of longform journalism, too. He and I take a moment to reminisce on the joys of the now defunct Audm, a longform-to-audio app that for years published audio versions of stories from dozens of publications, and where Wolf would sometimes discover journalists whose work he had never read before. (Full disclosure: The Audio Long Read podcast, a narrated version of The Long Read, is now my daily go-to. RIP, Audm.)

This particular story, though, Wolf listened to on NYT Audio, an app The New York Times established after it bought and cancelled Audm. The story, originally published in The New York Times Magazine, is a profile of sorts of Michael Stipe, the R.E.M. frontman and singer, and speaks of Stipe’s journey as he tries to put a solo album together. Written by Jon Mooallem, it reads like a dream.

“I’m not interested in Michael Stipe or R.E.M.,” Wolf says. “But this is a great example of a story that you love even if you’re not interested in the subject: It’s such a mixture of specificity about this very particular guy who’s had a totally unique life. But it’s also about good writing, in the sense that the more true you are to the specificity of his experience, the more universal it becomes. Stipe’s doubts and misgivings about the whole idea of creating art, the way he references a book about pretentiousness that he didn’t even read — all of these details.”

Wolf marvels at how much time Mooallem spent with Stipe: “For profiles for The Long Read, for instance, I’ll say to the writer, ‘Sure, let’s do this, but only if the subject is genuinely up for it.’ If the subject is reluctant and says, ‘Yeah, I can meet you for coffee,’ but they don’t seem to want to do more than that, and you will be pushing, pushing, pushing, then there’s just no point — it’s not going to be possible for the writer to do the kind of piece we’re aiming for. Obviously, it’d be different if you were writing about a politician or a powerful businessman. But when we’re writing about cultural figures like Paul Gilroy or Nina Gold, you want it to be a unique piece. It is very difficult to get people to agree to letting you spend meaningful time with them, and if they don’t, then we don’t write that profile.”

Along with profiles and original issues stories, The Long Read offers its platform to extracts of nonfiction book extracts and to stories that from smaller and less well-known publications, like n+1, or non-English-language newspapers, like NZZ. “It’s just a way of putting more good journalism in front of more people,” Wolf says.

Not on his radar: story ideas about America. “The U.S. is the most covered country in terms of longform journalism in the world,” Wolf says. “It’s not that it’s oversaturated — there are news deserts in America — but it’s by a factor of 100 the most covered country by journalists. Second, The Guardian US is a big operation now, and they have their own features strand. So, for most U.S.-based stories, if it seems like a good idea, I’d suggest the writer to get in touch with an editor at the Guardian US.”

This doesn’t mean Wolf doesn’t accept story ideas from U.S. journalists. “I always tell writers that we’re not really looking for stories about the U.S., but we’re happy to run stories from the U.S.,” he says. “We just published a story (about the science of death) by Alex Blasdel, an American writer, which is now one of our most widely read pieces ever. And we did another story that I love, by Jordan Kisner, about humanity’s long struggle with rats. Jordan is based in the U.S., and her reporting mainly took place in New York. But humanity’s struggle with rats is a global story.

“The key to all of this is the specific and the universal at the same time,” Wolf says. “It’s all about clarity, and making it engaging and telling the human story right. Every reader likes that.”

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David Wolf is the editor of the Guardian Long Read. You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @davidedgarwolf. Follow The Long Read at @gdnlongread.

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Ania Hull is a multilingual editor, writer and journalist who writes about immigration, poverty, conservation and environmental justice. She is currently based in New Mexico.

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