Keywords: “Longform,” “Print,” “Journalism,” “Thayer” “Pay”, “Whither?”

[UPDATE: In my next post, I respond to some of the excellent comments below.]

The writer Michael Washburn put together a good panel the other night, at CUNY Graduate Center, on the future — or not — of what’s now called longform journalism. The idea being that in the age of the tweet, we have to call it something (we used to just call it journalism).

“People don’t read on the Web, they scan” — that dictum prevailed in the Web’s early days, with the corollary notion that the rise of digital, interactive technology might signal doom for longish, fully developed, fully reported and researched pieces like those famously published by “The New Yorker,” “The Atlantic,” “Rolling Stone,” “Esquire,” etc., in fast-fading good times for writers, editors, and readers. Now, however, we know that people do read “on the Web,” or read on whatever we want to call anything involving a screen digitally displaying written content. Indeed, people ramble on at interminable length online (on blogs like this!), with no evident sense of structure. Sometimes other people even read those ramblings. And comment at length.

The CUNY panelists — writers David Samuels of “Harper’s” and David Grann of “The New Yorker,” digital publishers Evan Ratliff of “The Atavist” and Alana Newhouse of “Tablet,” moderated by Max Linksy of the organization Longform — seemed to be suggesting that sheer length isn’t really the thing endangered by digital. Which seems right. As a copywriter in online marketing (my day job, back in what were the good old days to a David Samuels, when I couldn’t get arrested as a writer), I figured out a long time ago that the scanning-vs-reading thing doesn’t really map to the digital-vs-print thing. People always scanned brochures in print, and they now read long essays online, and vice versa. Varying content gets varying engagement. [UPDATE: A commenter below takes issue with the use of “scan” here, since the word originally meant “read closely.” It’s developed to mean something like “glance and quickly gather,” or, as the commenter suggests, “skim,” which is how “scan” is used in assessing online marketing copy; such text is supposed to have have “scannability,” achieved via headlines, subheads, bullet points, etc.]

(Deploying text for good interactive usabilty is a separate issue. In the early Web days, I think we sometimes confused it with this one.)

The CUNY panelists gravitated naturally toward considering whether quality is endangered, and if so, whether that’s because the financial models for delivering quality journalism to readers are — not endangered — demolished! — by the rise of new technologies. On the one hand, the good long stuff, in the oldest, best modes, does exist online — often but by no means always on the websites of the old-school magazines — and it’s even lionized (given the name “longform,” for example), fostered and promoted by efforts like Longform and Longreads. As print magazines collapse financially in the face of digital, there are ways in which digital is actually preserving the longer form.

The overall tone of the panel seemed to suggest that the ultimate questions may therefore be business ones. Magazines sold ads and thereby financed writers on reasonable budgets for reporting stories and putting in the time to write them well. That was good for some writers and, it is presumed, for a lot of readers. But that situation is rarer and rarer, as budgets get cut and editors want more for less. So the long form might exist online, and it might even be good, in its way — but who’s going to foot the bill to send David Grann to New Zealand or David Samuels to the Super Bowl? And if nobody can do that, what cultural impoverishment may result? Has resulted already?

So the panel offered a perfect setup, to me, for the flap that broke out online the next day over the correspondence of the writer Nate Thayer and “The Atlantic.” (Not dealing here with sudden plagiarism accusations against Thayer.) Thayer’s complaint has to do with the tendency of online editorial not to want to pay, or pay much. Instead, online offers a writer exposure, often to enormous numbers of readers, and to Thayer, exposure doesn’t fry bacon; he’s a professional, who at one time was offered a $125K/year staff job at “The Atlantic” — and now the mag is offering him readers instead of pay? Thayer’s pissily aggrieved “how dare you” tone enabled “The Atlantic” to dismiss the issue with a “we apologize for offending Thayer” response. But actually turbulent issues do arise here.

Forget about the writers for a minute. (Many, even veterans, sometimes do write more for exposure than pay.) Do “Atlantic” readers know or sense they’re being offered up to a writer in lieu of money — that a big, committed readership is the payment, that the writer is expected to publish not to earn a living by offering them something to read, but to promote himself to a vast market, organized via the cachet of “The Atlantic” brand? (Do they know that Soylent Green is people?) The brand cachet seems predicated, at least in part, on a feeling among readers that “Atlantic” writers are “quality,” which heretofore has often been associated with “paid.” So a dissonance may be emerging in the expectations that readers have of “The Atlantic” and the uses that “The Atlantic” has for the readers. [UPDATE: I note, however, that long before the advent of online, sheer scale of readership — that commanded by “The New York Times,” e.g. — enabled certain editors to pay less and demand more. The online situation is not pure novelty, more like the final tipping of some always precarious balance.]

This is what’s often now being called disruption. Relationships are careening. Things will shake down in new ways, and I stay tuned with great professional interest, because for me, these issues can’t seriously come down to whether a Nate Thayer or a David Samuels or a David Grann does or doesn’t get supported in relative editorial luxury (relative to anything that I, just bitterly saying, have ever enjoyed!) to work his journo magic on cool subjects. It is axiomatic with every writer, me leading the pack, that if his or her work can’t get readership, cultural degradation is manifestly underway. But it’s pretty clear that the culture doesn’t agree. It’s far from improbable that the kind of journalism where brainy talents parachute into weird places to bring them to life, at length, for mildly intrigued middlebrows wasn’t much more than a byproduct of a temporary advertising model, which came into existence sometime in the twentieth century and is no more. The form may amount to a compelling moment with no overwhelmingly essential purpose.

I might not look at it that way if the model had ever supported me in the style to which David Samuels became accustomed — I just mean reasonable pay and a nice audience — but since it didn’t, my consolation prize is the opportunity to question it. I’m not saying Grann, Samuels, and Thayer aren’t good, that’s not the point. Everybody knows that regardless of who you think is good, a ton of too-long writing of highly questionable value (pick your favorite) was published in those glory years of magazine journalism. And that the “business models” were not strong — isn’t “The New Yorker” often basically a loss leader? Isn’t “Harper’s” financed out of one man’s deep pockets? What are we really talking about here? The good times weren’t so good.

On the panel, Newhouse at some point objected to one or another of the short-term, one-off ways writers might benefit from digital: “It supposed to be an industry!” she said. Well, who says it’s supposed to be one? Editors say so — careers do require hierarchies and curation and playing fields where more or less ignorant armies clash by night — but I think most writers are more like Gulley Jimson, as played by Alec Guinness in the film adaptation of The Horse’s Mouth. Homeless, wandering, drunk, sly, just looking for a wall to paint on. Don’t really care about too much else. If one thing doesn’t work, find something else. If you’re a writer, you’re not really in the publishing industry: from the writer’s point of view, publishing, as we once knew it, was only a modern means to an ancient end. We’re talking about art here, not the news. [UPDATE: To me, the shrinking of actual news bureaus, where day-to-day reporting, often hastily and even badly written, gets filed, may be more worrying than the future of the long form.] Industry comes and goes, and the odds are overwhelming that back in the glory days, somebody other than you would have had the “Harper’s” gig. The future looks … interesting.

15 thoughts on “Keywords: “Longform,” “Print,” “Journalism,” “Thayer” “Pay”, “Whither?”

  1. There is more to this problem than a failed business model, in my opinion.

    When a state Supreme Court justice can hire a top graduate to work as an unpaid intern in exchange for the opportunity to burnish his resume, the problem is in the operating principles of the economic system.

    That opportunity may be of value to a starry-eyed untested quantity coming into a profession. It’s quite a different situation when one is required to negotiate repeatedly from that same position, and on the same basis as that novice.

  2. TL;DR

    (Just kidding. Sort of.)

    Readers, or consumers, have always always always been quantifiable/given monetary value. That’s how the advertising industry works. In this sense, writers are advertisers–only instead of a product, they’re promoting ideas; and instead of paying for space, they get a platform for free if they’re good enough.

    I see no problem with this, really. Not if a writer is allowed to write about what he or she wants. BUT: Being on an assignment is a different story. That’s a direct service being offered. So too is driving advertising revenue to a website with no payout. If your content being good enough to drive readers to the site–and keep them there–then the reality is, that puts money in someone’s pocket if the site has ads. And yes, writers should get a cut.

    With online papers and collectives like HuffPost and the Atlantic, it would be ideal and honest to pay writers…IF those writers are making you money. IF people read an article, and your site is making advertising cash, then the writer should get a payout. This system is popular in the music industry. Every time a person listens to a song on Spotify, for example, a small percentage of the service’s advertising/membership revenue goes to the artist/record company/etc that created the song.

    Whew. Longest comment ever. Sorry about that. Nice post.

  3. So as a student attending the University of Missouri in pursuit of a journalism degree, what’s my “angle” to this business? Clearly the industry is changing, and will continue to change. How am I to get ahead of the curve?

  4. It’s interesting to see so many people making such a big deal of the death of something that was always in flux and always changing. Scanning a newspaper from the nineteenth century shows you how much they have changed. While it is certainly an interesting time for communications technologies and broadly for public discourse in general, it is hardly a time of uncharacteristic change or reason for panic vis-a-vis the death of newspapers per se. Bear in mind that newspapers in the twentieth century were often exploitative and untruthful to get the best story, often to the point of doing serious harm. Unless you are currently in the process of losing your job at a dying paper, I think this is unequivocally a time of opportunity.

    Your “final tipping/balance” comment is entirely on point, both in the context of more recent history and a longer history into which it nested.

  5. When we face ovewhelming new trends, we can moan and pontificate, or we can adapt. Journalism has survived many changes in quality, quantity, format, medium, technology, culture, finance, influence, etc. for a long time. I remain a giant fan of traditional quality print journalism. I subscribe to the NYT on paper and on line, and see very little vaue in the entire enterprise of TV ‘journalism,’ largely parastic on print work and adding nothing but fluff and flash and noise. I use interent sources as well, and blog myself. Quality work will always find a venue, and much of current journalism will soon die and not be missed. Such is life. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, right? Adapt or become a fossilr, and rather soon in this age of rapid change and innovation. What writers and analysts think everyone SHOULD do for them matters only to the few that pay attention to such things, and in of themselves offer the field no substantive benefit. Reality matters to everyone, and is far more interesting.

  6. The profiteers have a saturated market and are exploiting labor, same as they done so many times in the past. The ad-revenue argument is a myth like “immigrants take our jobs.”

    It’s not really a hard stretch to reach the most, important point – without writers, there’s nothing to read.

    Writers currently work for publishers. It should be the other way around.

    Great article.

  7. long form is for and from an era when consciousness had a certain level of development .. that time is over, the mind is capable of absorbing far more meaning per unit of time than in earlier eras.

  8. I think most writers are more like Gully Jimson, as played by Alec Guiness in the film adaptation of The Horse’s Mouth. Homeless, wandering, drunk, sly, just looking for a wall to paint on. Don’t really care about too much else. If one thing doesn’t work, find something else. If you’re a writer, you’re not really in the publishing industry: from the writer’s point of view, publishing, as we once knew it, was only a modern means to an ancient end.”

    As someone who’s been writing for a living — NF books and journalism — since 1978, I disagree with this romantic notion that writers just wanna write — $$$ be damned. No. There is a subset of writers, perhaps you among us, who expect to be compensated for the skill, experience, insights, analysis and our own growing audiences that WE bring to these publishers. When my stories end up (as they do) being the best read of the entire Sunday NYT online, I’m adding value that needs to be financially compensated — just as they pay their staff. But the “model” doesn’t work that way. Funny thing!

    The fantasy that we’re willing to eat ramen in perpetual gratitude for being handed an established name-brand audience is nuts. The Atlantic’s misguided greed only made that clearer because Nate had the guts to challenge it publicly.

  9. We need to look, too, at the changing nature of advertising itself in the business model of publishing. As big-box stories and national chains took over the local department stores, banks, pharmacies, hardware stores, and so on, they shifted from ROP ads, in the newspaper itself, and turned to more colorful inserts, which were less lucrative. Or they shifted from print altogether.
    Having advertisers foot the bulk of the bill was never very healthy, and decades ago I realized if we could somehow deliver the news without having to print it, the amount people currently paid to subscribe or buy individual copies would cover a kick-ass newsroom, one free from any advertiser influence.
    Of course, the problem now is getting readers to pay.
    Magazines have been facing a similar situation, except that their potential advertisers lack even the local retail connection that drives newspapers. (Just think of the grocery ads, auto dealers, and classified.)
    At the same time, the big-box retailers are running the risk of becoming dinosaurs as the Internet-based rivals breathe down upon them.
    But we might also look to the fortunes being made by the online content deliverers at the same time the content providers are going bankrupt, and then find ways to redirect some of the income.

  10. “People don’t read on the Web, they scan” – Don’t hate the pedant in me, but this quote is a nonsense because to scan means to “read closely”. The word that should have been used is “skim”. Just sayin’ 😉

  11. Great post. Of course it extends beyond journalism to music, art, poetry, etc. Has for a long time. Patronage system? Also, impacting education, engineering… It seems no one really wants to pay for anything anymore. What is the way out?

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