[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.