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.