To make a long story ... long? Remnick, Glass and friends see a big future in long-form journalism
“It might be a different color or form or a different kind of fish,” Remnick said, before stopping himself. “Are we sick of this metaphor yet?”
Neither editor answered Glass’ original “kill-number” question. They dodged it in a “sketchy way,” he joked.
“Come on,” Glass said with a rumble in his throat. “Two-thirds of the stuff that we commission just dies. Half of the interviews I do, we don’t put on the air. For stuff to be good, you have to kind of run at a bunch of stuff.”
Perhaps because text-driven journalism production costs less, long-form television and video journalism is tighter.
“We’re saying, what is that story that’s going to capture America? They’ve got to be an A,” Aronson said, because once "Frontline" cameras are given the green light, cash becomes an issue—and their budgets can only be stretched so thin. “We tend to punt on things that are not good enough, we tend to lower our budgets if they’re not good enough, which is a problem that we have, but we do it."
Either way, the expenses of long-form would seem to require some pretty significant monetization to work.
Not too long ago, Gerry Marzorati, the former editor of The New York Times Magazine, was talking about the economics of long-form in his shop. The typical cover story, he'd said, cost north of $40,000, a figure Stewart put before the panel.
“I think anybody would tell you $40,000 is cheap, cheap, cheap” to produce a serious piece of investigative journalism, Engelberg said. “You are setting out on a road that may take you many months and to pay someone a living wage and then pay someone to edit it so on, and a lawyer and whatnot, it costs a lot more than that to do quality investigative reporting. What we are seeing as the industry rearranges itself is people are pulling back from that. There’s no question about that.”
But the panelists were focused mostly on how the need for this kind of journalism is only growing as the public is better and more immediately informed, even as the venues for producing it shrink. In other words, there's a market, the argument would go. It's just that the work has to be really good. Those deep-sea fishing trips are riskier.
Engelberg said that in the past newspapers ran dry investigative stories, essentially, “facts stacked on top of each other, and it would be endlessly dense and unreadable.”
“Long-form is absolutely not dead, what is dead is bad long-form,” he said. “If we at ProPublica tried to present complicated stories in that way, nobody would read them, and we would have no impact and we’re about impact. So, I mean, in that sense, I think the new era of all these choices, I think tends to crowd out badly done, poorly executed journalism. But that’s not so bad.”
SEVERAL TIMES DURING THE DISCUSSION, THE PANELISTS allowed that their audiences were not really "mass" audiences (although Remnick remarked on his impression at a baseball stadium recently that many ten times more people would likely read the New Yorker that week than watch a single game in person from the stands).
And so in describing the audience they want for their material, certain buzzwords kept coming up, which prompted Stewart to pursue the old chestnut of “elitism”: All this wonderful work, is it not meant to appeal to a small slice of the population with disposable income to lure advertisers or donations, with deep educations and the time and leisure to consume the products the panelists are making?
“Moby Dick sold 3,000 copies in Melville’s lifetime, it was an enterprise worth doing,” Remnick said as an answer. “I’m not saying the New Yorker or Ira’s show or even ‘Frontline’ is Moby Dick. But I think we overthink about every cultural enterprise and every journalistic enterprise is to consign everything to being the same...This word elite is used like a baseball bat, like a baseball bat!” he repeated, as if confirming his own metaphor in the moment. “It’s used as a political weapon.”
“The New York Times, with all its difficulties, and all of us have things to argue with it about, is to me a great institution because it tries to do the best thing possible,” he continued. “The New York Times, and it kills me to say this, as a Washington Post person, but it is the greatest newspaper of its time because it has, I don’t know, a dozen people in Libya right now? It tries to do the right thing. I don’t think that’s elitism. It’s trying to be great as well as profitable as well as all the things a product business has to be. But, shooting for the moon, I don’t see why that is innately elitist.”
But of course not all long-form journalism involves endless trips and large numbers of civilian sources. And there, too, the time and space you need to report something significant—not to catch up with the day's news but to break the cycle by breaking news—is no less labor-intensive. It's not always about Big Writing and Ideas; sometimes it's about bareknuckle reporting, time and patience.
“Reporting is the least romantic thing," Remnick said. He recalled a story from Watergate: “Seymour Hersh, comes to the New York Times… in the '70s, there were dial telephones, [he'd] get to the office at 8:30 and he would dial [Nixon's counsel] Chuck Colson’s number every 10 minutes until 6:30. Only a mental case does this.
"That’s what reporting is," he said. "He got him on the phone. It’s this kind of willingness to go at it and at it and at it and fill your bucket with apples in one form or another. It’s not like Barbara Walters and you get the big get and there’s, you know, a star, Angelina Jolie. That’s not anything that we’re talking about. It’s missing three flights and then getting the minor character that you must have, that nobody in the world cares about, but you. There’s a lot of kind of sheer labor to it. But without that stuff-gathering, without that harvesting, without that kind of dumb stubbornness? Do something else."
Much of this conversation had come up as a result of a question from the audience about how to get started in journalism, and how find a place where one could develop as a long-form writer, with so few venues offering it.
“Can I add one thing to my resume list?” Remnick said. “Hunger.”
All of the panelists chimed in agreement, ah yes, “passion.”
“That’s a little different,” Remnick corrected. “Passion, yes. But hunger, and it comes in 24-year-olds who are just learning, it comes in 75-year-olds; and the opposite is the most dispiriting thing, sometimes, for an editor. The only likemindedness that I’m looking for is that. That they can’t wait to do the thing.”
Even, presumably, if these guys are the only ones around to ensure they don't go hungry doing it.