As attention spans grow shorter, one type of news coverage is looking really long in the tooth: the multipart newspaper series, the bloated beast that lumbers onto the front page every so often and tries to persuade us to spend a few days, sometimes a whole week, in its company.
It's not a very enticing invitation. Few readers go to newspapers in search of long-form storytelling -- that's what magazines are for. And too often these projects have a sweaty-palmed, trying-too-hard quality that leaves you feeling that you're reading not a newspaper but a Pulitzer entry form.
Even when one comes along that really makes a splash and has everyone-in-the-know buzzing, it can be hard to find people who have actually read the thing. For chattering purposes, it's enough to know about that "incredible" series in The New York Times or The Washington Post, and to reference a few choice particulars.
Which is a shame, because some topics are especially well suited to the form, none more so than the high-profile political career. The pursuit of political power, and the naked groping it entails, jibes perfectly with the bald, rat-a-tat narrative style of the broadsheet serial.
Earlier this week, I spent half a day plowing through two recent gargantuan investigations, the much-ballyhooed Washington Post series about the vice presidency of Dick Cheney, and the less-ballyhooed but also excellent Boston Globe series about the life and career of Mitt Romney. I had read bits and pieces of each previously, but nothing close to the complete product.
These two series are about two very different men, at completely different points in their careers. The Globe reports Romney's story from his 19th-century Mormon ancestors through his gubernatorial term in Massachusetts. The Post focuses tightly on Cheney as vice president.
Yet structurally and stylistically, the two approach their subjects in strikingly similar ways. Each works from the outset to establish a nonpartisan, almost scientific stance of disinterested inquiry. The message: We have taken a step back and looked at this man in a new way, and have discovered surprising things.
"Cheney is not, by nearly every inside account, the shadow president of popular lore," write Barton Gellman and Jo Becker, somewhat startlingly, at the outset of The Post's series. Early on in its series, The Globe devotes a lot of space to a 1968 car accident in which Romney, then a Mormon missionary in France, was driving and one of his passengers was killed. In one of the Web sidebars to the story, Globe writer Michael Paulson calls this "one of his rare dark moments," thus cutting against Romney's emphatically sunny life story and persona.
By itself, neither of these claims is all that remarkable. Reporting against conventional wisdom is the surest way to make a story feel newsy. What's different about a multipart series is that it offers time and space to cut back and forth many more times, and thereby go deeper. The best of these efforts, and the Post and Globe series are both in that category, are all about turning the simplistic, somewhat cartoonish figure of a leading political figure into something truly complex and nuanced -- that is, something closer to reality.
These two investigations are so textured, it's impossible for me to convey here the fullness of what I learned. Early on, The Post promises to show us that Cheney "has approached the levers of power obliquely, skirting orderly lines of debate he once enforced as chief of staff to President Gerald R. Ford"; and that "he found pressure points" in the bureaucracy "and changed the course of events by 'reaching down.' " Through rich, breathtakingly detailed reportage, The Post justifies both claims, revealing Cheney as he has never been seen before, and clearing up some nagging mysteries about how precisely the Bush administration went so wrong.
The Globe, meanwhile, delivers fully on its promise to reveal a Romney who is more complicated than he seems. The bushy-tailed young idealist of the early installations becomes, by Part Seven, a much more ambiguous character, hugely talented yet also a cold-blooded, Clintonesque shape-shifter.
I'm just scratching the surface here, but then, that's the point. Read both series and you'll see: Sometimes it's worth going the distance.