A short history of long-form journalism

Article  by  Isabelle MEURET  •  Published 17.12.2013  •  Updated 17.12.2013
Pages du New Yorker
Does long-form journalism still have its place in the written press? A look at the forerunners and at the pioneers of recent times of the genre.


At a time of terse tweets that cannot exceed one hundred and forty characters, the success of long-form journalism is attracting attention. Slow journalism appears to be ousting binge journalism[+] NoteBill Kirtz cites Robert MacNeil, former presenter of the news programme on the American public channel PBS, who calls excessive, compulsive, very poor quality journalism “binge journalism”, the kind that was used, notably, during the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. See “Disgust within the Ranks”, The Quill, May 1998, 86:4, p. 8 X [1] to the delight of readers who appreciate its ethical and aesthetic values.

Variariations on form

Slow journalism has no reason to be jealous of either fast news that is picked at quickly on the Internet, or of the splurge of flows and links that we promise to take a look at later. This just feeds procrastination, and leaves us open to the risk of being unsatisfied. This slow journalism put the brake on this acceleration and overindulgence of the media, taking the time to tell a story. The magazine The New Yorker in the United States, the Granta magazine in England, and the now well-known XXI in France, are very good examples of this. Slow journalism takes an interest in “normal” people, in victims and those who have been marginalised, rather than in the great and powerful of this world. The micro-stories that are covered are those of everyday people thrust into the ranks of archetypes. The existential questions they are faced with apply to everybody. The deep humanity and the long narrative development of these stories touch us. They reveal the world to us and give meaning to its joys and tragedies.

 New Yorker covers
Slow journalismis a sort of traditional journalism, finely honed and carved out of human existence. It is the antithesis of churnalism denounced by Nick Davies, an investigative journalist who writes for the Guardian and author of Flat Earth News (2008). Churnalism – a portmanteau word created from churn out – or production line news lacking analysis, but which still appears to be considered a panacea in this over-mediatised world. Information has become a business just like the entertainment industry, with media empires competing with each other via strategies with purely financial ends - while the public still wants real stories that are well-written and documented, and which help them to understand the complexity and the diversity of the world. Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols had already identified this need on the part of readers in The Death and Life of American Journalism (2010).
The ever shrinking space dedicated to text in the majority of the daily newspapers stems from the need to produce more in less time. Fast news is written and flicked through quickly. But the fact that long-form news is running out of steam can be put down more to economic factors, than to a lack of interest by readers in quality journalism, which is the result of a long period of maturation, based on in-depth research, and careful writing. Are there any editorial offices that can pay reporters to look into subjects that require minute investigation and technical creativity - demanding as it is - for weeks, months or even years? This kind of journalism may wrongly be accused of being elitist, while in fact it claims to give pleasure to readers, and to be accessible for all.
The long-form is not disappearing; rather it is changing. It’s not just about the number of words; it is the multimedia character and the intensity of the experience offered to the readers that count. The recent hybrid formats of the New York Times, such as the now well-known “Snow Fall” story, published in December 2012 about an avalanche that had taken place several months earlier, or the story of an outpost of the Filipino army on a near-wreck of a ship in the South China Sea, carry readers away on a multi-sensorial adventure. It is no longer the journalists who find themselves embedded alone, but rather the readers, who, with a single click, can take over the controls of a story in which they assume the role of both observer and participant.

"Snow Fall" (New York Times )
One feature of these stories is that they go against the flow of the obsession for a scoop and instant gratification. They are part of a different temporality, inviting the reader to return to these stories, to pore over them to take full stock of their significance. It is the strength of the story, the humanity of the characters, the aesthetic of the text and the images that attract our attention. Readers, thrown into the experience of others, seeing the world through the eyes of the journalist, find themselves taking part. By producing content in sophisticated and varied formats, readers can linger over the story, go back to it, take a closer look, or even dodge around some part of the story. Other proposals leave an impression on us, because they teach us something: turning news into a story requires a surprising amount of staging, with those who are part of the news standing around like characters in a soap opera. We might, however, wonder that the aim of such experiences is: are they meant to inform us or to entertain us?
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History of a genre

The first literary journalists – from the end of the 19th century in the United States - were already concerned with bringing together subject, author, and reader. The desire to reduce the gap between a given reality and the consciousness of the readers was what sparked off this style of innovative writing. John Hartsock and Norman Sims, specialists in American literary journalism, identified this emerging style of journalism at the end the 19th century as a genre that intends not just to show the events to but to get the public to actually feel them. This style of humanist journalism was certainly linked with the positivist climate at the time when scientific truth held sway. Not satisfied with a model that lauded greater objectivity and an alienating dry tone, some journalists proudly and openly wrote stories imbibed with humanity, and openly declared subjectivity.
In the written press, the long-form covers investigative, immersion, narrative and literary journalism. The term “literary”, however, too often, alas, conjures up notions of fictional undertones and a staid atmosphere, while in fact this writing intends to be formal and aesthetic in tone. Great American novelists – Hemingway, Steinbeck – were first and foremost exceptional journalists, who turned to fiction because they were unable to deliver the texts that they wanted to the press, namely stories with human depth, based on a subjective experience of the event, running the risk of their moving dangerously away from the facts. The entire cultural history of the United States is reflected in this literary journalism, whether it be racial issues with Richard Wright, the impact of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima by John Hersey, or the Vietnam war recounted by Michael Herr. The story of the demonstrations in Washington against this war, by Norman Mailer in The Armies of the Night(1968), is a revolutionary anthology for journalism of the time, because the author writes himself into the story. Mailer the author tells us how Mailer the journalist experiences the event.
As for French big story journalism, which had its heyday in the 1930s, it was both the prerogative of writers and journalists who made good use of their writing talents to tell the exclusive tales of their journeys, backed up with considerable amounts of publicity. Albert Londres and Joseph Kessel are the best examples of this. The name of the reporters guaranteed the success of the newspapers, and story collections quickly appeared, notably “Les Cahiers Verts” (Grasset), “Les Documents Bleus” (Gallimard), and “Les Grands Reportages” (Albin Michel). But this genre suffered the competition of the media, and did not enjoy a level of success comparable with the American literary journalism of the 1960s and 1970s, decades during which New Journalism was one of the most spectacular developments of the counterculture, with writers such as Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, and Joan Didion. According to Tom Wolfe, journalism had stolen the limelight from literature, and novelistic writing was replaced with non-fiction writing.
The anthology of New Journalism (1973), co-edited by Tom Wolfe and E. W. Johnson, is a manifesto advocating a style of journalism that responded to the extraordinary societal changes taking place at the time. The inverted pyramid no longer had a raison d’être in a world where reality was outstripping fiction. Writers had to come up with brand new tools to render reality, and invent a “new” kind of journalism, which Tom Wolfe expressed by way of four principles: a story that is staged rather than one that narrates events in chronological order; entire dialogues instead of just quotes; a broad range of viewpoints; and an abundance of detail to get a better take on the characters and their social status. A system of this kind required journalists to undertake an in-depth investigation – known as saturation reporting– and an artistic approach. The takeoff of this genre was exceptional in the United States thanks to magazines such as The New Yorker, a veritable breeding ground for talent.
We can therefore see continuity in the history of American journalism: from Mark Twain, and even before him, journalists told stories from the point of view of a writer. Then came the progressivist era, with the advent of yellow journalism (journalism  that put sensationalism over the veracity of the information, and which goes back to the media battle between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer) and muckraking (investigative journalism, the aim of which is to reveal political and business scandals and consequently launch radical reforms), and the Great Depression during which stories revealed social tragedies, backed up by photography and the takeoff of documentaries. Since the advent of journalism, wars have always thrown journalists to the frontline, and they have in turn gathered testimonies reported with emotion.
New New Journalism (2005) presented by Robert S. Boynton proved that the genre had far from run out of steam in the 19th century. It was actually very successful and continued to be taught. In this other anthology, Robert Boynton, journalist and teacher at New York University, presented a series of practitioners of this new wave of literary journalists, among whom were Ted Conover, Susan Orlean, William Langewische, Eric Schlosser, and Jon Krakauer, to cite but a few. Boynton presents these authors first and foremost as journalists: their art is to report stories. First, they claim to be the heirs of Wolfe’s New Journalism, having taken advantage of the stylistic and rhetorical innovations that he proposed. But unlike their predecessors from the 1960s, the new generation took more interest in the journalistic approach than in its formal transcription. This is why they put so much time and effort into this aspect in their story, sometimes going as far as immersing themselves in the life of their subjects for months, even years. New New Journalism is not so much a manifesto as a presentation of good practice. The tradition may not have died out in the United States, but in France its destiny was somewhat different, even if the resurgence in interest is evident today. The precursors of storytelling about real life indeed come from Europe – Zola and naturalism in France, Dickens and Defoe in England.
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In praise of slowness

We do not, however, talk enough about the literary nature of this type of reportage, and this is perhaps where the difference lies between American and French traditions. The programme on literary reportage by Arthur L. Carter of the Journalism Institute of New York University sings the praises of his teaching programme thus: “Journalism schools produce good reporters, while creative writing courses produce good writers; literary reporting combines the best of both”. The challenge of long-form journalism lies in the training of future journalists. In many American universities, narrative and literary journalism courses are offered. At Harvard, the prestigious Nieman Foundation has its own narrative journalism laboratory, set up in 2001 thanks to the increasing interest in this genre. Series of texts are published and renowned writer-journalists hold conferences and seminars there.
There are media storytelling laboratories in Europe too, and journalism schools provide starter courses in narrative writing and investigative reporting. The adjective literary applied to journalism seems somewhat too pretentious, or confuses it with fiction or literary criticism. This difference appears to come from a tradition that is free of complexes in the English-speaking world where it is possible to be taught creative writing from working with experts. Great authors such as David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Safran Foer do not hide the fact that they attended writing workshops to perfect their art, which would be something hard to admit in the French-speaking world, maybe because of a tradition whereby it is considered that literary genius is innate. It is therefore high time that the respectability of journalism studies be recognised, and to come up with courses on creative writing and not just courses geared towards multimedia; these two practices are, moreover, far from being incompatible.
Journals that offer long-form journalism place the art of storytelling at the heart of their preoccupations, while claiming primarily to provide quality journalism. Literary journalism, like any other kind of journalism, requires that the stories recount real events and that all the facts be correct and thoroughly checked. The use of writing tools does not means that the information is made-up and that reality has been fictionalised.  The New Yorker is the paragon of this genre, while Vanity Fair, GQ and Esquire dedicate a large part of their content to the quality long-form, without counting online magazines  that have flourished, such as Slate, Salon, Byliner or Longform. The role of the latter website is rather to serve as a relay to other reading platforms. Tim Holmes and Liz Nice point out that there is a plethora of magazines, and that their omnipresence, paradoxically, means that we don’t even notice them any longer. They are even optimistic about their future, because magazines have a strong identity, constantly innovate, and give their readership a special experience that is incomparable with that of a newspaper.
In France, the avalanche of “mooks” started with the magazine XXI in 2005. This was a visionary project at the time, because Patrick de Saint-Exupéry and Laurent Beccaria were the only ones - and therefore pioneers – pinning their hopes on the long-form and on paper. The editing world came to the rescue of journalism, and not the other way round. Their daring paid off and the model was copied by others – but they did not achieve the same level of success. These magazines, which look like books, and which are indeed sold in bookshops and not in magazine stands, in fact offer long-form journalism. Their aim is to talk about real facts, but from an original point of view, whether it be in their choice of subject (everyday stories, war reporting, travel stories), the kind of writing (text, photo, comic, illustrations), or the selection of authors.

XXI (Winter 2013)
The writers of XXI have chosen to address readers rather than advertisers and have taken the opposite stand to all the clichés found in the media industry, which they lay down in a manifesto, which certainly gave rise to some debate. Long-form is clearly not new in France. Magazines such as Actuel and L’Autre journal were set up in the 1970s and 1980s, but they disappeared a few years later. The aim of these magazines was to fight against the tendency to go for the lowest common denominator and instead to offer quality press as a remedy to infobesity. Nelly Kaprièlian, talking about the appeal of real stories, identified this return to an interest in actual events as a defence against a “chaotic world”, where everything is virtual. Several French writers – not journalists this time – are very keen to use real events as their raw material.
The long-form makes good use of technological advances, and yet there remains a paradox: the return to paper, and a certain level of success by the magazine press. The two main reasons for the relative good economic health of magazines in paper format are the importance that readers still attach to aesthetic qualities and the permanence of the object, and the fact that magazines, and especially journals, open up new possibilities by breaking out of the restrictive and ephemeral field of news. According to The Economist, magazines have had to prove to be more intelligent that newspapers, and have been able to transform the threat from the Internet into a springboard for creativity. The success of journals and magazines resides mainly in their strong identity and the resulting loyalty that their readership provides.
The long form is diversifying and is reinventing itself thanks to new technologies and to the success of magazines and journals. By creating distance from the field of instant and quick information, the long form takes on another rhythm and places at the centre the quality of the text, respect for the subject, and heeds the wishes of the readers. This appreciation of slowness, length, and talent should encourage trainee journalists fearing a career as a fact-checker, stuck behind a screen, to the detriment of a job of telling stories and meeting people. Digital technology now offers new tools to raise the prestige of literary journalism, to promote its human aspect and to cultivate its “traditional” quality.
Translated from the French by Peter Moss
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Robert BOYNTON, The New New Journalism, Vintage, 2005
Nick DAVIES, Flat Earth News, Vintage, 2009
John HARTSOCK, A History of American Literary Journalism, University of Massachusetts Press, 2000
Tim HOLMES et Liz NICE, Magazine Journalism, Sage, 2012
Marc MARTIN, Les Grands reporters. Les Débuts du journalisme moderne, Éditions Louis Audibert, 2005
Robert W. McCHESNEY et John NICHOLS, The Death and Life of American Journalism, Nation Books, 2010
Norman SIMS, True Stories, Northwestern University Press, 2008
Tom WOLFE et E. W. JOHNSON, The New Journalism, Harper and Row, 1973
Photo Credits:
New Yorker pages (Sylvie Lartigue with Paper Artist)
Albert Londres in 1923 (public domain)
Jonathan Safran Foer (Elena Torre / Flickr)
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  • 1. Bill Kirtz cites Robert MacNeil, former presenter of the news programme on the American public channel PBS, who calls excessive, compulsive, very poor quality journalism “binge journalism”, the kind that was used, notably, during the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. See “Disgust within the Ranks”, The Quill, May 1998, 86:4, p. 8
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