On New Year’s Eve, The Big Roundtable published a piece that you might have missed. Steve Kandell, the features director at BuzzFeed, wrote about the freedoms and challenges of working in digital narrative. The “50 or so” BuzzFeed features he had edited in the past year were, he wrote, “part of a first generation of attempts to bring the depth and rigor of great narrative journalism to a new medium and distribution system that has to figure out its capabilities and possibilities in real time.”
The fuss surrounding the future of lengthy stories, and the “longform” branding, seemed to mystify him. “It’s fascinating, and thrilling, and a little weird, to see something so conventional and familiar be treated like the first steps on the moon.” He went on:
Fortunately, there’s a handy solution: Don’t use that word (longform) if you don’t want to. Don’t lump outstanding, thoroughly explored, and expertly written stories together just because they contain a certain number of words. Stop talking about the size of the box. Read about things you’re interested in, or didn’t know you’d be interested in, and delight in the differences and variations rather than dwell (on) an incidental yardstick as dull as a word count.
Then he made a prediction that, in part, has turned out not to be true:
So here’s the real thing to look forward to in 2014: None of this really being a particular topic of conversation at all, or at least not in such a gobsmacked way. A form of journalism that was considered by some moribund and endangered just a few short years ago is now a breeding ground for experimentation in form and function and new technology and just re-think, or simply appreciate, what people read and how and when and why. Digital journalism can’t be tactile the way print can, but it can be tactile in ways print can’t—it can still feel warm and fussed-over. Meanwhile, the playing field between upstarts like Medium and Narrative.ly and grizzled institutions like the New York Times is largely leveled; anyone with a good idea about how to get people to immerse themselves in interesting things to read is not only welcome, but free to find ways to make this fiscally feasible.
He summed it up with what now reads like a plea for everybody to just calm down:
There doesn’t have to be one answer or one way forward for publishing these stories, nor one coverall term. All they need to be is good.
The piece served as a good setup for the conversation that has been swirling since Saturday, when the New York Times’ Jonathan Mahler irritated and confounded and perhaps pleased a lot of readers by using the existence of the controversial Grantland story “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” as an argument against the “fetishization” of longform:
… even high-metabolism sites like BuzzFeed and Politico are producing their own long-form content. The term confers respectability and connotes something special, something literary. And sometimes, with the right headline and some breathless re-tweets, long-form can even drive traffic. (See the magazine Pacific Standard’s recent and wildly popular 4,000-word feature on San Francisco’s craze for high-end toast.)
BuzzFeed’s editor in chief, Ben Smith, jumped in, with a 1,725-word piece on Medium, in which he said “longform,” as a signifier, “feels like a word conjured by an industry fumbling to define something that maybe doesn’t need definition.” Explaining his vision for longform at BuzzFeed, he writes:
Our goal has been to take the best of the (magazine) tradition, and to apply it in the new medium. That means paying freelance writers better than digital outlets are often able to afford and encouraging our staff to stretch out. It means employing a pair of experienced editors whose sole aim is making those stories better. We also saw an opportunity to discard all the elements of the magazine tradition that have prevented so much great journalism from reaching most of the people who would love it: The long wait for there to be space in the feature well; the worries that a given issue had the right “mix”; the space constraints dictated by a shortage or sudden glut of advertising; and the traditional order of operations that regularly meant that a piece that took two months to report and write wouldn’t appear for six. Above all, we are able to discard the central fact of any great magazine: That the editor must keep in mind a crystal-clear vision of who the reader is, and that every story must be aimed squarely at that reader.
Readership, in other words, matters less than story:
Online, each story is at best its own magazine, sent out to find its own temporary audience. One article may absorb people who subscribe, or would once have subscribed, to Foreign Affairs; another might absorb devotees of Wired or Men’s Health or Glamour. The author and the story choose their audience, and the editor’s role is to begin the conversation over who will read and share the piece — not to rework it for the group of people who happen to subscribe to your magazine.
The Chicago Tribune’s Kevin Pang, meanwhile, argued (and we couldn’t agree more) for more, and better trained, narrative editors: