Media critics like to wonder whether there’s a place on the Web for long-form narrative journalism. But evidence that such work can still be produced, and still find an audience, came last week from what might be an unexpected source: The Huffington Post, which on April 8 published Ryan Grim and Arthur Delaney’s “Power Struggle: Inside The Battle For The Soul Of The Democratic Party,” a lengthy (over 11,000 words!) look at efforts by the party’s left wing to expand its influence.
So how did this behemoth come to be? Like a lot of big stories, it started with something smaller. Grim said he first conceived of the piece as a one-day story about the fractious relationship between Lynn Woolsey and Raul Grijalva, the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in the House of Representatives. But as he looked into it, Grim says, he saw an opportunity to “tell a story about the clash inside the party as a whole”—one that would eventually focus on the relationship between rival coalitions within the party, strategic choices like whether to ally with outside groups, and the perennial question of how a party can maintain a “big tent” while pushing for core goals.
A story like that requires a few things: the reportorial talent to pull it off, an audience that will read it, and an editorial structure that supports the effort. There wasn’t much question that Grim and Delaney were up to the task as reporters: both had backgrounds in long-form reporting for the Washington City Paper, and Grim is the author of a well-received book. And while there might once have been questions about whether there is an audience for long-form work at HuffPost, Grim says, he doesn’t think there are anymore. He had first taken the leap into longer articles at HuffPost with “Priceless: How The Federal Reserve Bought The Economics Profession,” published last September, which ran over 4,000 words. He and Delaney followed that up in December with “The Cash Committee: How Wall Street Wins on the Hill,” which ran to about 6,500 words. Despite their length, both pieces found an engaged readership. “We knew that there was a market for these long stories,” Grim says, and he and Delaney say they’re pleased with the response they’ve gotten to their latest effort. As of Tuesday afternoon, “Power Struggle” had been viewed about 240,000 times, according to Nico Pitney, the site’s national editor, who said he is “99% sure” it’s the longest staff story HuffPost has published.
Getting the freedom to write long wasn’t a problem either. “Everybody was on board—they said let’s go for it,” said Grim. (By contrast, he said, during his time at Politico, “I remember fighting tooth and nail for paragraphs.”) That doesn’t mean other assignments were put on hold; in the two months they worked on it, Grim and Delaney maintained their normal posting schedule, often “filing a story or two every day,” Delaney says. Helping to manage the workload were interns Julian Hattem and Laura Bassett, who assisted with research and transcription. HuffPost also brought in Avi Zenilman, who had previously worked on “The Cash Committee,” as an outside editor, and purchased a custom data set on political contributions from the Center for Responsive Politics that helped show how money flows to more conservative Democrats. But other than the extra help, the process was straightforward, Delaney said. “It’s pretty normal—it’s just a really long story.”
Huffington Post did do two small things to increase the chance that the story would resonate. For a broad audience, they created a slideshow that broke the narrative into chunks, allowing bloggers to link to discrete episodes. (That feature has actually drawn scant attention, Grim and Delaney said, perhaps because it was not prominently displayed on the site.) They also published the piece mid-week during a Congressional recess—a slow period when a core audience of readers who work in politics for a living, like activists and Hill staffers, would be more likely to have time to digest and share it. (They’d done something similar with “The Cash Committee,” which came out the week between Christmas and New Year’s.)
Of course, “long” is not a synonym for “good,” and a story that demands this much of a reader’s time really has to deliver. So how does “Power Struggle” measure up? Well, it may be a tad too long—readers without a strong pre-existing interest in the internal rivalries of the Democratic Party will likely find it to be more information than they’re looking for. And as for its analysis, the political scientist and blogger Jonathan Bernstein offers some astute criticisms. But even with those caveats, it’s a richly detailed, deeply reported look at one corner of our political debate, which puts new information on the record and boasts some strong moments, like Grijalva acknowledging his error in leaking a leadership “whip count” memo to the press. That’s pretty good—enough that it’s worth looking forward to the next time Grim and Delaney go long.