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.