[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. Continue reading