The most read article on The New Yorker online this week is a story of political assassination in Guatemala. It starts as such:
“Rodrigo Rosenberg knew that he was about to die. It wasn’t because he was approaching old age—he was only forty-eight. Nor had he been diagnosed with a fatal illness; an avid bike rider, he was in perfect health. Rather, Rosenberg, a highly respected corporate attorney in Guatemala, was certain that he was going to be assassinated.”
Over the next 14,000 words the article proceeds to lay out one man's journey in the larger context of corrupt Guatemalan politics. It's popular not because a majority of readership for The New Yorker is seriously interested in the intricacies of the Guatemalan government, but because it is a fascinating story. Still, the result is that this week thousands of people are 14,000 words more knowledgeable about the political situation in Guatemala.
Long-form journalism—literary, narrative-based fact—serves to both entertain and to educate. It often gets to the heart of long-term political situations that get skipped or simplified by the daily news cycle.
For those hazy on how word count translates to reading time, the story will probably take the average reader at least an hour from start to finish. Since online capacity is infinite and an article's length is only constricted by the span of the reader's attention, the web would seem to be the ideal home of such long-form journalism.
Ironically, the web is working to shorten the attention span of most readers. Journalism that is finding success on the web is short, pithy, and often mordant. It's Gawker and Huffington Post. Despite the unlimited space with which to work, the industry is shortening, tightening, and synthesizing its content.
But despite the growing influence of snappy sarcasm on the web, nuance is far from dead. Long-form journalism seems to be coming out of a period of growing pains on the Internet and finally making itself comfortable in the digital age.
At the South by Southwest's Interactive Conference in March, longform.org's Max Linsky made an entire presentation declaring the “Death of the Death of Longform Journalism.” The gist of his speech was that people love reading long stories, but thus far the delivery method on the web has been lacking. In truth long-form on the internet is just coming into its own.
This is not least because of the new gadgets that allow for a more interactive reading experience, combining the manual manipulation of a book with the infinite and interactive nature of the web. The iPad is the glossy magazine of the digital world.
One of the most talked about new ventures in the journalism world in the past few weeks is an app for e-readers called The Atavist. With The Atavist, it is easy to purchase literary nonfiction by the piece. Generally coming in between 10,000 and 20,000 words, Atavist stories are longer than the average magazine article but shorter than a book. Unlike most blog pieces, each pitch is seriously vetted by an editor, written by a credible professional writer, well-reported, fact-checked, and copy-edited.
Just two years ago, Nicholas Thompson, then an editor at Wired and a current senior editor at The New Yorker, and Evan Ratliff, who was also at Wired, came up with the idea of an entirely new presentation of journalism. They recruited Jefferson Rabb, who had designed a website for Nick, and the three created a platform to revolutionize the way we interact with text.
“There was a feeling that the way that the web was evolving wasn't good for long-form,” he said as he pulled out his iPad and showed me the hidden layers on each page, revealing maps, notes, and photos within the text. He noted how there was a sense that the web was moving in the direction of shorter and shorter pieces. He and Ratliff saw an opportunity to move in the other direction. Rather than a content farm, each story is an entire farm's worth of content.
The content of each piece is layered in the application to make each reading much more hands-on, easier to grasp and enjoyable. For example, anytime a geographical place is mentioned, the user can click on the text to reveal a map showing the location (particularly useful when talking about remote parts of Sweden). The names of people in the story usually hold extra biographical information or fun facts that illustrate the character more completely.
The Atavist gets to the heart of what is so special about long-form journalism. It's a communication form with layers of art. There is the layer of intrigue, the layer(s) of fact, and the layer of narrative. It is much more than just a detail-laden form of a shorter article. It is nonfiction storytelling – a level of difficulty above either reporting or fiction, because it encompasses both.
Ultimately, when you sit down with a long feature in The New Yorker or The New York Times Magazine you interact with it differently than when you sit down with the morning paper. The paper can be glanced over—the details you really need to know are found in the top three paragraphs. When you sit down with a long feature article, the meat of it is often buried deep within the thousands of words intricately woven together.
There is no instant gratification in this form. But it is more than rewarding for those who take the time to explore, comb through and revel in the literary nonfiction. Long-form has produced some of the greatest non-fiction writers of all time, from Upton Sinclair and Jacob Riis, to Seymour Hersh and John McPhee. Despite the proliferation of instant blogs, micro-blogs and social network-ers, the Twitterati are no match for the legacy of well-written nuance.