1:58 pm Mar. 18, 2011
Recently, New Yorker editor David Remnick was talking to one of his writers about "this three-dimensional notion" of the magazine story enabled by the iPad—a promise very much on the minds of his fellow editors in the Condé Nast tower in Times Square these days.
The writer was Roger Angell, the 90-year-old fixture at the magazine who for years had served as its fiction editor and who is now widely known for his essays on baseball (and whose institutional connection to the magazine stretches back to his mother, an editor for the magazine, and his stepfather, the writer E.B. White).
Remnick was reconstructing his memory of Angell's reaction.
“'I work very hard to describe metaphorically or directly how a screw-ball, which is a highly complex piece of mechanical business, works,’” Remnick said, channeling his writer. “'I don’t want the reader to press a hyperlink on the word screwball and all of a sudden showing you how, as in an instructional video.'"
Remnick elaborated: “I feel his anxiety about the immediate, reactive need to sprint out of a piece of writing. Because language, I insist, with all due respect to movies and lots of other inventions, language is still greatest invention we have ... I’m not quite sure that I’m sure that I want you, the reader, to leap out of language and into film or something else just because there’s the transistors and bits available for you to do it.”
It was March 16th, and Remnick, in a midnight-purple shirt, slate-colored socks, looking like he might smell slightly of cologne, was sharing the stage of the New School's Tischman Auditorium on West 12th street with "This American Life" radio impresario Ira Glass; Stephen Engelberg, managing editor of ProPublica, the relatively new nonprofit long-form investigative journalism shop; Raney Aronson-Rath, a senior producer at PBS newsmagazine program "Frontline"; and Alison Stewart, co-anchor of PBS' news program "Need to Know," who was serving as the moderator of a panel discussion on technology and long-form journalism.
The first several rows of the audience were reserved for reporters and friends of the panelists, many still in suits from the office (ProPublica) or in jeans taking notes and tweeting out quotes (bloggers). The rest of the audience in the carpeted auditorium were young—20s to early 30s, some looking like students in their hoodies and Nikes, some career girls in Diane von Furstenburg dresses and career boys in sportcoats with laptops just unsheathed from leather carry-cases. It seemed like at least half of the audience was thumbing iPhones before “Long-Form Storytelling in a Short Attention Span World” began, and many continued. (The hashtag for tweeting out little moments of the evening was “#LFSA”: “Long Form Short Attention.”)
But the panelists were from different media, and not everyone's craft has the sort of identity crisis faced by the writers of words, now that any "article" can theoretically combine any and all currently known forms of media, and every sentence must answer the question "why text?"
“I think things like the tablet and the iPad are an amazing salvation almost for documentary filmmaking," "Frontline"'s Aronson-Rath said. "I think you’re going to be able to watch it in a way that you just wouldn’t be able to on your television set. I think people really expect to interact with the film in a way that I don’t think we really allow.”
It's not that authorship in other forms of media don't also have a certain connection to control over the finished product.
“Our storytelling: we’re going to keep it narrative," she said, as opposed to a sort-of choose-your-own-adventure construction. "We’re just going to play with it a bit. It needs to live and breathe a little more aggressively at the beginning.”
Aside from these formatting details, most of the panelists agreed that long-form journalism is potentially on the verge of a renaissance.
"I think we’re about to reach a golden age with this," ProPublica's Engelberg said. "With Kindle and iPad and so on, it's about to make long-form journalism incredibly accessible, so I think we actually have another chance to reach people who are not watching it right now.”
MASS AUDIENCES FOR THIS WORK, IT WAS GENERALLY agreed, might not be as achievable than they were before, with so many ways to get information; and in fact, the new technology, while enabling some innovation in long-form storytelling, likely does not make long-form or investigative writing cheaper to make or easier to make money from.
And that could certainly be a problem, since the costs of producing material in the digital age have gone down precipitously enough to make the costs that can't ever go down—like several trips to New Orleans to interview witnesses to how patients were handled in a hospital immediately after Hurricane Katrina struck, for instance, stand out on a P&L sheet pretty prominently against, say, unpaid writers and aggregation software.
What's more, a fair amount of the long-form and investigative journalism that's commissioned must be paired down to some cost before a decision can even be made whether to actually produce the story. More expense, and this time without a product to show off at the end. “I have to acknowledge that investigative long-form is almost entirely a bungee jump,” Engelberg said. “You’re throwing, flinging yourself off this bridge and you don’t know where you’re going to end up. And in fact the best possible outcome is you end up in a place you absolutely couldn’t have imagined.”
“And the cord can snap and you fail,” Remnick said.
Glass leaned in toward Remnick and Engelberg. “What’s your failure rate, how much of the stuff doesn’t get published?”
“Our experience has been that if a truly great reporter goes after something great, you’ll end up with something,” Engelberg said. “You’ll catch a fish. If you go out there in the deep ocean with, you know, a truly great fisherman, something will come back.”
“But the fish might not be very big,” Glass reasoned.
“It might not be as big as you had hoped,” Engelberg said. “But it might be bigger.”
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