At long-form J panel, hunger is the only future

David Remnick and Ira Glass at the New School

What was supposed to be a discussion of the role of long-form journalism in the world of Twitter and Tumblr turned more into a wistful and vibrant defense of “elitism” in media. Throughout the entire two hour panel at the New School featuring an all-star panel of long form journalists — David Remnick, Ira Glass, Raney Aronson-Rath of Frontline and Stephen Engelberg of ProPublica and Alison Stewart (formerly of MTV News!), the host — the word “Twitter” was only mentioned but twice, while the discussion of the demographics of the audience for long-form journalism received loads of attention.

Among the more interesting revelations made during the Longform Storytelling in a Short-Attention-Span World panel organized by ProPublica on Wednesday, was the sheer amount of excess necessary to pursue in-depth journalism.

Ira Glass, host of This American Life (and an increasingly incisive media critic in his own right), said that half the interviews he conducts never make it on the air. Even when the first 48 episodes of the show were in production years ago, the $240,000 budget still allowed enough wiggle room to spike interviews, Glass said.

Raney Aronson-Rath, series senior producer for Frontline, said even though killing stories is much more expensive for TV, the PBS program spikes about two-thirds of the stories it has in development, and will kill one entirely produced segment per season.

David Remnick, the contemplative and often philosophical editor of the New Yorker, who still looks at the industry with a newspaper reporter’s shrewdness,  admitted the need to burn through bad content.

“You sometimes have to publish a writer’s B piece to get their A piece,” he said.

The forum was held to discuss the future of lengthy, meaty journalistic pursuits in an era where Twitter, Tumblr and the like fracture our attention spans down to splintery fibers. But the panel questioned the very premise of the program. Are we actually in a world of perpetual ADD-addled consumers?

Ira and Alison Stewart

Not really, at least not for the audiences of the New Yorker, NPR and the like. Their audiences, of course, are largely pulled from the same demographic pool, the panel members concurred.

“Long-form is absolutely not dead,” said Engelberg said. “What is dead is bad long form.”

The overarching thought seemed to be that long-form journalism — the milieu of the New Yorker, LongReads, and the such – was in itself an absolute good, that the rest of the population was at a loss for not staying up to speed with the latest 25,000 Lawrence Wright opus. To listen to their comments, it’s almost like the industry has been eagerly anticipating the Kindle, iPad and Instapaper to come every since the first web page was uploaded.

For those of us in the audience who have hopes of a future full of intelligent, research-intensive journalism beyond snarky blog posts or robot-guided aggregation, the forum was a mercifully optimistic evening. None of the panelists were apoplectic about the future, each confident that the quality of their publications was high enough to stand above the churning and fickle waves of an evolving media landscape.

Glass was relaxed and casual talking about the finances of his show, confident audiences would continue support even in the wake of congressional attacks. Remnick said anytime he felt worried he looked at the crowd at a Yankees game and though that every week three times as many people were reading his magazine (To which Glass interjected: “I thought you were going to say, ‘I can’t believe people spend hours watching this instead of reading the New Yorker! This is the slowest story ever!’ ” To which there was much laughing.)

So what’s the secret to making good long-form journalism? It’s not, as you have to explain to people all the time, the topic that makes it. Sure, a big blockbuster story sometimes starts from the top down, like the New Yorker story on Paul Haggis and Scientology. But more often, the most intense, moving or critical journalism starts with a single nut of information, a hunch, and a hell of a lot of legwork. The instincts are key to figuring out which ideas to pursue, and the kill stats Glass et. al quoted at the top here show just how much digging often goes unrewarded, until one time you hit treasure, or at least a sign of where treasure may have once been.

The last big project I worked on before I left Hilton Head started with a police report about a body found in highway adjacent patch of woods. It blossomed slowly into a story about a deceased homeless man, then about a makeshift camp of other homeless people where he lived, then finally a months-long pursuit of how and where the entire homeless community lives and survives in the shadows of the resort community’s opulent wealth, with an intimate portrayal of a friendship between two homeless friends (and any number of tick infestations from pushing through thick brambles of woods surrounding a half-dozen itinerant campsites littered with malt liquor bottles and Styrofoam hot dog containers).

Glass stated it perfectly:

“In general, great stories happen to those who can tell them.”

And in a panel such as this, anti-intellectualism has no luck of gaining even a small foothold. It is encouraging — after weeks of hearing head-slapping national debate over whether the pursuit of intelligent discourse is something we should be supporting — to hear people calmly defend the right of people to be smart, of writing to be erudite and elucidating without pandering to the lowest common denominator.

” ‘Elitism’ is used as a baseball bat,” Remnick said. “Shooting for the moon; I don’t know why that is innately elitist.”

For journalists and aspiring students, the panelists offered some advice, none of which, by the way, included running away to grad school or PR.

Engelberg said he puts no stock in whether you went to journalism school. In the 1,300 resumes he receives (which makes me slightly less confident about applying for this reporter job. sigh.), he looks for a range of experience and work history.

Glass made a call to action: “start making stuff.” There’s no reason, in today’s DIY world, you can’t have any work examples to share or chances to create your own experience, even if it’s just personal blogging or DIY radio pieces.

And Remnick, bless him, said he doesn’t mind when strangers come up to him on the street to hand him an envelope full of work samples, because you never know what you’re going to find (and me without my huge envelope of clips that day).

“Read endlessly,” he said. If you can’t read everything, you have to at least try.

And he said something J schools don’t make nearly clear enough. You can disagree with writers on style, content or point of view, but there’s one universal quality that tells you the person actually belongs in the building.

“Without that kind of dumb stubbornness, do something else,” Remnick said. “Hunger. The only like-mindedness I’m looking for is that.”

2 responses to “At long-form J panel, hunger is the only future

  1. It’s funny you should write this now because I’ve recently become infuriated with people who are upset about companies like The Huffington Post, etc., not paying people for their writing. Most of those people, generally speaking, don’t deserve to be paid for their writing. If they did, they would be getting paid to write, and they wouldn’t be writing for The Huffington Post. What Engelberg said is spot-on, and this whole media upheaval, in many ways, is just a market correction. And it’s a healthy one. It’s eliminating dead wood, and that’s a good thing. In my short journalism career, I’ve seen so many fucking people earning paychecks that should have been pushed out of the industry decades ago. If you want to get paid to write, you’re going to have to work a lot harder than you did before. No one seems to care that authors, screenwriters (almost every other kind of writer) have been working in this sort of climate for decades. No one gets paid to write their first novel or their first screenplay or their first magazine piece. They write a whole bunch of unpublished shit for free until they finally hit their stride. And that’s the way it should be. They spend money to write because they believe, at some point, that time investment will pay a dividend. And, again, that’s a good thing because it makes the hiring and selling process a hell of a lot more democratic. It’s also more Darwinian, but I’ve never had a problem with that either. (This is also an issue in the photojournalism and larger photography industry and those whiners piss me off too. No one seems to want to accept that they must operate within a business industry. And any worthwhile industry has a significant entry cost.)

  2. God. I’m so pissed. Seriously. Take a look at The Huffington Post today. “Oh, pay me for my gag-inducing screed about Obama’s secret neo-conservatism. I worked on it for two hours.” Go fuck a cinder block. Seriously.

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