Longform meltdown (cont.)

Reaction to a post on the decline of longform stories at major papers

My post presenting data showing that major newspapers drastically cut back their longform story output in the last decade generated a pretty big response, as these things go.

It also generated a bit of offline buzz around newsrooms, too, I’m told.

That’s all to the good.

The overwhelming number of people who cared to weigh in on Twitter just RT’d the post along, sometimes adding a comment expressing dismay: “#Sad” or “Such a shame” or just “Yikes.”

The post also generated a fair measure of hostility, too, which some may find puzzling.

First, there has to be the obligatory misreading of my point—
“Length is now how journalists should be measuring their value”
is what I’m said to have said. Of course, the post *actually* says: “No one equates story-length with quality.” And you can’t blame the length of the post for missing that. It’s the opening line.

Jeff Jarvis also protests: “Newspaper length as a metric is often a proxy for ego, bad editing, and wasting readers’ time.”

Okay. But if the complaint is about the use of story length as a metric, I say that since everything about journalism these days is measured to within an inch of its life, quantifying story length is obviously fair game. There is power in measurement, as we learn. And those numbers really were shocking.

And if the problem is that longform itself is often a proxy for “ego, bad editing, and wasting readers’ time,” you can say that about any form, starting with Twitter.

What I find strange is that longform itself, after all these years, must still justify itself as a form. Not this good story or that boring one. But the form itself. Why? It’s another tool. Some of us believe it’s journalism’s most powerful one.

Now, I’m happy to welcome any new tool that’s useful. Hail, Twitter. Long live Big Data. So why is this one particular tool, especially one with such a storied record, forever in the dock?

Mark Armstrong makes some constructive points, including:

Dean Starkman’s piece feels oddly timed, especially when you think about the number of outstanding stories being shared in the Longreads community every day and the popularity of long-form content in Pocket

4. Even if newspapers are cutting their long-form content, it’s a missed opportunity, because they’d be the only ones doing so. Online publishers like Deadspin, The Awl and The Verge and niche magazine publishers are only deepening their commitment to this storytelling.

Indeed. And this is great. More cultural production is generally better.

But the thing I think about is that the major newspapers could and did create longform on an industrial scale. Put it this way, the four big papers I cited produced a combined 3,592 fewer stories over 2000 words last year than in 2003. What’d we miss? We’ll never know. The extent to which digital outlets’ growth offsets legacy decline is a good thing. But I’d like to see the data on that. I’d add that the issue obviously goes well beyond the sheer quantity of longform produced. I make the case, for instance, for the importance of big journalism institutions here.

But I really liked this exchange between Armstrong and other notables, and agree with basically everything in it:

Longform meltdown

reaction to big decline in long stories at major papers

Storified by · Mon, Jan 21 2013 13:05:52

What’s odd about the decline of long form at the LA Times and WSJ http://bit.ly/10FS8XB is that there’s no good economic argument for it.Jay Rosen
@jayrosen_nyu can u explain? success of longer stories seems to me predicted on whether they work at length—& many newspaper stories don’tEric Umansky
For the people formerly known as print journalists, economic survival increasingly means high value, unique content like long form @ericumanJay Rosen
@jayrosen_nyu yes, I’d just say that high value and long aren’t synonymous.Eric Umansky
@ericuman True.Jay Rosen
@jayrosen_nyu @ericuman Long doesn’t equal quality. Room in the paper to go long when merited—does, I think.Theodore Ross
@theodoreross @jayrosen_nyu @ericuman long doesn’t equal quality, but it’s a fantastic filter for helping to find it.Mark Armstrong

Yup. And there were a lot more all over the place, including this good exchange between Barry Yeoman and others on the difference between longform and narrative.

Like I said, a lot of reaction, much of it passionate. That’s the power of longform for you.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman. Tags: , ,