What The Longform Backlash Is All About
Taking the best of the magazine craft online. And leaving the rest on paper.
BuzzFeed executive editor Doree Shafrir and I started talking about hiring a “longform” editor in the spring of 2012, at the urging of our most experienced writer, Michael Hastings. Michael had just filed a 3,800-word profile of the writer Jose Antonio Vargas, and I gave it the sort of edit that I had learned in a decade of political reporting: I sharpened the top; took out a couple of really egregious barbs; made a tweak here and there, and put it on the page.
Michael was appalled. Half of the things he’d written, he explained to me, didn’t belong in the story — he’d put one passage in so the editor would cut it, rather than a more cherished section; others were tentative and preliminary and he wasn’t sure where they were supposed to fit. The story, as he’d filed it, was the beginning of a conversation with his editor, not something that he expected to see on the internet.
I come out of the dual streams of newspapers and blogs, the first with editing that’s focused on clarity and space, the latter with no editing at all. My eye has always been on how to adjust an incremental story to its place in a rolling conversation. Michael, by contrast, had been at Rolling Stone, working with one of the great magazine editors, Eric Bates, on high-stakes stories that needed to hit exceptionally hard if they were to break out from among the music reviews. He persuaded me we needed an editor dedicated to what has traditionally been the province of magazine journalism, and since we weren’t about to launch a magazine we picked up the term of the moment and called the job “longform editor.”
“Longform,” two years ago, described two different things: Meticulously crafted magazine articles that had been slapped onto the internet, sometimes weeks after they ran, often made almost unreadable by aggressive pagination and indifferent design; and long, often scarcely edited articles into which a writer had written more for love than for scant pay, and which an online outlet rarely had the resources to edit. Indeed, some of them were long only because they hadn’t been edited.
Our goal has been to take the best of the first tradition, and to apply it in the new medium. That means paying freelance writers better than digital outlets are often able to afford and encouraging our staff to stretch out. It means employing a pair of experienced editors whose sole aim is making those stories better. We also saw an opportunity to discard all the elements of the magazine tradition that have prevented so much great journalism from reaching most of the people who would love it: The long wait for there to be space in the feature well; the worries that a given issue had the right “mix”; the space constraints dictated by a shortage or sudden glut of advertising; and the traditional order of operations that regularly meant that a piece that took two months to report and write wouldn’t appear for six. Above all, we are able to discard the central fact of any great magazine: That the editor must keep in mind a crystal-clear vision of who the reader is, and that every story must be aimed squarely at that reader. The same piece will be pitched one way to Esquire, another to Self, and a third to the New Yorker, an editorial filter that has little to do with the story itself.
Online, each story is at best its own magazine, sent out to find its own temporary audience. One article may absorb people who subscribe, or would once have subscribed, to Foreign Affairs; another might absorb devotees of Wired or Men’s Health or Glamour. The author and the story choose their audience, and the editor’s role is to begin the conversation over who will read and share the piece — not to rework it for the group of people who happen to subscribe to your magazine.
Steve Kandell never much liked his initial title, “longform editor,” though he didn’t mention that in the job interview. He had been editor-in-chief of the print edition of Spin, and he was the sort of story editor who grew up in that magazine tradition: Patient and careful, part wordsmith, part architect, and a large part psychologist. He had helped make the case to Doree and me that we needed this role. And his project was to take the best of the former tradition, and bring it to the new medium. That meant a kind of patience that has never been my strong suit; it meant magazine-style fact-checking, which is really another round of reporting; it meant a copy desk; it meant loving attention to design. Steve wrote recently about his discomfort with the new jargon: “It is clumsily retrofitted from an adjective into a noun, that tends to attract attention to the wrong syllable so that length becomes a selling point regardless of content or context—this soup tastes awful, but hey, at least there’s a lot of it! Mass is fetishized, as if that alone should be a selling point because other things we like are short.” Steve (who got us to change his title to “features director”) knew all along that people don’t read stories for their length, but in spite of it. One mark of his success is that the average reader spends 10 minutes and 23 seconds on one of our BuzzReads pieces, twice the site’s average.
Steve’s article was perhaps the clearest voice in what’s now a full-fledged backlash against “longform.” The Atlantic’s James Bennet, in a thoughtful piece that can’t quite decide whether it’s raging against the term or against the internet, suggests that any outlet founded after 1950 is likely only publishing great narrative features as a gimmick, and that “you might just call it magazine writing. And get on with it.” But “magazine” seems an odd word to settle on: With the experiment of dumping print magazines in full onto tablets apparently stalled out, it seems unlikely that the bulk of great narrative work will be published in magazines much longer. Meanwhile, places from Medium to First Look are hiring the editors whose experience was once the magazines’ competitive advantage.
The writer Jonathan Mahler got a bit closer in the New York Times Saturday, writing that the quality that we’re trying to put our finger on is not length but “empathy, the real hallmark of great immersive journalism.” Mahler, a longtime writer for the under-construction Times Magazine, suggests the idea of length combined with some “breathless re-tweets” may drive traffic. There is, though, an alternate measure to clicks, one that publishers like BuzzFeed are thinking about more and more: What Sam Parker described in the Guardian as “dwell time.” We want people to linger, and there’s no technical trick to that.
Anyone who has spent much time reading long online features in the last few years could sense this backlash coming. Some technical experiments have suffered from too much enthusiasm. Many stories suffer from too little editing. The sites that popularized the term — longform.org and longreads.com — should be exempted from blame: They have always kept lists of wonderful, deeply edited stories, regardless of who published them. They’ve done great work in bringing to the web stories that you’d swear clunky magazine websites were actually trying to hide. Similarly the other new outlets associated with bringing great long stories online—Atavist and Narrative.ly and Byliner — in fact spend most of their time doing hard editorial work.
Bennet and others have celebrated technical aspects of digital journalism — images and gifs and audio — as a reason to be excited about the web. These tools can be beautiful and useful, though they can also sometimes evoke worst of Flash-dominated, distracting early ’00s web design. (Rolling Stone recently published an article on animal rights that actually moos.) We are careful to get out of the stories’ way: Images and gifs and videos must look great on the iPhone screen, which may already be the most common way readers experience long narratives.
And the new technical overlays are secondary to two other advantages. One is the data: Steve and his deputy, Sandra Allen, learn a great deal from how much time readers spend on a story, and where they exit it. It offers a deep satisfaction when a high percentage of people make it to the end, and a clear reminder that a clunky transition can simply lose a reader. The second is the freedom of that endless scroll, which the Atlantic recently explored. The scroll is a wonderful way to read that forces writers and editors alike to make more purposeful choices. The editor loses the excuse of a word limit or the geometry of columns to make choices easier: He or she must instead be able to convincingly explain what belongs in the story and what doesn’t. Writers lose the same crutch. The story should be as long as it should be. This is more like book-writing, less like the compromises of magazines and newspapers where Mahler found himself Saturday, for instance, being mocked for his piece’s dopey art and apologizing on Twitter for a more substantive flaw: that he “didn’t have space to address the econ side of this.” Not enough space — what kind of a reason is that to leave something out in 2014?
There are other factors that make a great article burn down the internet. Some are the same as we think about with anything we do at BuzzFeed: That a story has the emotional core and sense of value that inspires a reader to share it. Other factors are more particular to longer features: We’ve found that stories that brilliantly answer a latent question, and meet a curiosity reader didn’t know they had, often find massive audiences — and those topics can range from the cult movie Clue to the exile of a 85-year-old Chinese AIDS activist. And how does a painstakingly written and edited 6,242-word story find a 1.4 million readers, as Drew Philp’s piece about buying a $500 house in Detroit recently did? It has all of those things: the craft of Bennet’s Atlantic; the empathy Mahler invokes; and the kind of incandescent writing that forces you to stop whatever it is you’re doing and keep scrolling.