Against 'Long-Form Journalism'

When it comes to great magazine writing, what’s in a name?
More
hobvias sudoneighm/Flickr

I have had it with long-form journalism. By which I mean—don’t get me wrong—I’m fed up with the term long-form itself, a label that the people who create and sell magazines now invariably, and rather solemnly, apply to their most ambitious work. Reader, do you feel enticed to plunge into a story by the distinction that it is long? Or does your heart sink just a little? Would you feel drawn to a movie or a book simply because it is long? (“Oooh—you should really read Moby-Dick—it’s super long.”) Journalists presumably care about words as much as anyone, so it is mysterious that they would choose to promote their stories by ballyhooing one of their less inherently appealing attributes. Do we call certain desserts “solid-fat-form food” or do we call them cakes and pies? Is baseball a long-form sport? Okay, sure—but would Major League Baseball ever promote it as that? So why make a ripping yarn or an eye-popping profile sound like something you have to file to the IRS?

This choice of words matters, I think, not only because of the false note it sounds about particular stories but also because of the message it sends to the world about magazines’ sense of purpose these days. The term long-form has come to stand for narrative and expository and deeply reported journalism during the same period—over the past 20 years, and particularly the past 10—that magazines have had, as the politicians say, some challenges. I think this wrong turn in our taxonomy is a sign of, and may even contribute to, the continuing commercial upheaval and crisis in confidence. The story of the transition from an industry that was within memory so exuberant and ambitious—so grandiose, really, in its conception of its cultural and societal role—that it could declare itself to be inventing a “New Journalism,” to an industry wringing its hands over preserving something called “long-form journalism,” does not sound like a long-form story with a happy ending. It certainly doesn’t sound like one I’d want read, much less live through. “New Journalism” is a stirring promise to the wider world; “long-form” is the mumbled incantation of a decaying priesthood.

And, in the digital age, making a virtue of mere length sends the wrong message to writers as well as readers. For when you don’t have to print words on pages and then bundle the pages together and stick postage stamps on the result, you slip some of the constraints that have enforced excellence (and provided polite excuses for editors to trim fat) since Johannes Gutenberg began printing books. You no longer have to make that agonizing choice of the best example from among three or four—you can freely use them all. More adjectives? Why not? As a writer, I used to complain that my editors would cut out all my great color, just to make the story fit; as an editor, I now realize that, yes, they had to make my stories fit, and, no, that color wasn’t so great. The editors were working to preserve the stuff that would make the story go, to make sure the story earned every incremental word, in service to the reader. Long-form, on the Web, is in danger of meaning “a lot of words.”

This is a particularly ripe moment to rethink our terminology (and I should own up to the fact that I still lapse into using the dreaded term myself) because deeply reported narrative and essayistic journalism is suddenly all the rage. Far from fading away, it shows signs of an energy and imagination not seen since the heyday of New Journalism. Last year, it was not any magazine but the sports department of The New York Times that pulled off the most digitally ambitious accomplishment in feature journalism, “Snow Fall,” a narrative of skiers buried in an avalanche that was told through the layering of words, video, and graphics. The story brought in countless readers and a Pulitzer Prize. (Actually, you can count the readers—the Times said “Snow Fall” generated 3.5 million page views in one week.) Digital upstarts like Buzzfeed and The Verge are relying on “long-form” editors to create big features.* Heralding “a coming renaissance of long-form journalism,” the twitchy news site Politico hired away the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine last summer to commission writerly, deeply reported stories. “High-impact, magazine-style journalism is not a throwback to the past,” Politico’s editors declared in a memo that should chasten the hand-wringers. “It is a genre that is even more essential in today’s hyperkinetic news environment. It is a style of reporting and a mindset about illuminating what matters most that has a brilliant future.”

Is this just a fad, maybe even a fraud? Cynics would say that publishing a few big feature stories is a shortcut to respectability, and they’d be correct. But realists, I’m happy to say, would comment further that such features work: They draw in a lot of readers. As networks of human beings displace search algorithms, editors are discovering that not just headlines but overall quality matters more and more, whether a story is short or long. If you hope to entice a real person to pass your story on to a friend, then reporting matters, writing matters, and design matters. As journalism and its distribution through the Web evolve, the most meaningful distinction is turning out to be not short versus long but good versus bad.

Consider Brian Mockenhaupt’s feature, “The Living and the Dead,” published last year by the digital platform Byliner (and chosen by the American Society of Magazine Editors as one of the year’s best examples of magazine writing). One of the first things you might notice as you begin to download it, and then keep on downloading it, is that,  for a feature story, it is really, really long. But I defy you to find a wasted word among the 22,000 that Mockenhaupt assembled. Length here is not a virtue in itself; it is, like a notebook or a computer or curiosity, a writer’s tool, one that Mockenhaupt deploys, as he does the others, to maximum effect. As we follow a marine platoon on its rounds in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, details accrete, characters deepen, drama builds. We witness, over time, the shocking and more subtle consequences of abrupt twists in the action. (This is why length is so important in baseball, too, by the way.)

Among the paradoxes of this era, when commercial travails are menacing the most costly forms of reporting, is that we have coincidentally produced maybe the greatest generation of war correspondents in the country’s history. It’s instructive to read Mockenhaupt’s piece against another of the most celebrated features of last year, Dexter Filkins’s haunting memoir of war, “Atonement,” for insights into storytelling technique and into the depth of experience these reporters have gained from so many years covering war. Mockenhaupt, an Iraq War veteran, vanishes into his story. His reporting is so precise, so knowing, that he never uses the first person to describe what he’s witnessed. Filkins, on the other hand, is central to his tale. Ten years ago he was there, in Baghdad, after Fox Company, Second Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment accidentally opened fire on a family fleeing a scene of fighting. Filkins chanced to meet the survivors, and he wrote about the family back then for The New York Times. So it was to Filkins, years later, that one of the guilt-wracked marines turned in hopes of finding the family, to explain himself and seek understanding, maybe forgiveness. Filkins ultimately helped arrange a meeting, and then, in The New Yorker, summed up the costs of war by telling this story of one veterans, and one familys, braided pain.

Here’s a taxonomic riddle for you: How is it that a piece of fiction comparable in length to either of these long-form features is known as a short” story? Stephen King’s “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation,” which won the National Magazine Award last year for fiction, justifies its label’s emphasis on relative brevityand further underscores the obtuseness of that other labelby delivering many of the satisfactions of a novel in a fraction of the length. It is a marvel of compression. We meet an ordinary, sad man on an ordinary, sad errandtaking his father out of his nursing home for lunch. With just a few brush strokes, King portrays a son feeling abandoned as his father slips away into dementia. And then this seemingly quiet tale takes a shocking turn that affirms the resilience of the father’s love for his child. Too many short stories these days, I think, read like writing exercises. You can admire the craftsmanship without feeling moved; you can respect the psychological insight while wondering why nothing ever seems to happen. King’s storycomic, dramatic, poignant, revelatoryis a reminder of the potential power of this form to entertain and provoke.

Length is hardly the quality that most meaningfully classifies these stories. Yet there’s a real conundrum here: If long-form doesnt fit, what term is elastic enough to encompass the varied journalism it has come to represent, from narrative to essay, profile to criticism? And how do you account for the blurring of boundaries as work from the digital realm energizes and reshapes traditional forms of journalism? For the first time this year, a purely digital magazine, Slate, won a National Magazine Award in head-to-head competition with print magazines, for the crisp authority of Dahlia Lithwicks commentary on the Supreme Court. Consider, also, The Atlantics Ta-Nehisi Coates, who won the award for one of the oldest forms of magazine writing, the essay. That may have looked like a straightforward old-school triumph, but it wasnt. The morning after he won, Coates wrote a blog post thanking his commenters for their help over the years as, on TheAtlantic.com, he worked through the ideas that ultimately cohered to form the essay. Noting that The Atlantic had also won the National Magazine Award for best website, Coates wrote, In my mind, these awards are linked. Writing for the Web site has fundamentally changed how I write in print.

The magazine industry is moving past lazy dichotomies of print versus digital to a fusion of old values, ambitions, and techniques with new ways and means of reporting and storytelling. This is a hard transition, obviously, but, equally obviously, there’s no going back. As journalistspeople whose job it has always been to go out and learn something new every daywe shouldn’t be in a defensive crouch; we should be on the attack. We should be talking about what we do in terms that help us look forward as well as back. So what can we call this emerging fusion? It seems to me that one might quite reasonably take a page from the last period of great creative ferment in our business and call it, simply, new journalism. What journalism could be newer? But there’s another perfectly good, honorable name for this kind of work—the one on the cover of the anthology that gathers together all the great pieces I’ve mentioned. You might just call it magazine writing. And get on with it.


This post is adapted from Bennet’s introduction to Best American Magazine Writing 2013.

*This post originally implied that both Buzzfeed and The Verge started using long-form editors only recently. The Verge launched in 2011 with feature editors and writers. Buzzfeed, which launched in 2006, hired its first "long-form editor" in 2012.

Jump to comments
Presented by

James Bennet has been the editor in chief of The Atlantic since 2006. Prior to joining The Atlantic, he was the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. More

"I wanted a profound and extreme talent who led quietly, was generous to others, and comported himself with collegial respect," remarked Atlantic Media chairman David Bradley when announcing his selection of James Bennet as the magazine's fourteenth editor in chief in early 2006. "On all scores, but surely these, I have conviction on James' appointment." Before joining the Atlantic staff, Bennet was the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. During his three years in Israel, his coverage of the Middle East conflict was widely acclaimed for its balance and sensitivity. His much-lauded long-form writing for The New York Times Magazine was responsible for catching the eye of David Bradley during his year-long search for a new editor. Upon accepting the position, Bennet told a Times reporter that he saw the Atlantic job as "a chance to help, encourage and preserve the practice of serious, long-form journalism." Bennet is a graduate of Yale University who began his journalism career at The Washington Monthly. Prior to his work in Jerusalem, he served as the Times' White House correspondent and was preparing to join its Beijing bureau when he was offered the Atlantic editorship.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What's the Number One Thing We Could Do to Improve City Life?

A group of journalists, professors, and non-profit leaders predict the future of livable, walkable cities


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Business

Just In