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In a recent piece at the Columbia Journalism Review, financial columnist Dean Starkman looked at what he described as a “meltdown” in longform reporting, which he defined as stories that are longer than 2,000 words. According to numbers compiled by the CJR writer, newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times published 85 percent fewer long stories last year than they did about a decade ago, and Starkman argued that this decline amounts to a very real “loss in public knowledge.” But is this decline really something to be concerned about, or is longform journalism just evolving?
As Starkman notes in his column, the fact that longer stories have declined at newspapers like the L.A. Times shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: Tribune Co., the owner of the Times, filed for bankruptcy several years ago and the chain has been struggling ever since (the Los Angeles paper and many of the company’s other assets are said to be for sale). The Washington Post, where CJR says longform stories were down by about 50 percent from 2003, and the New York Times — down by 25 percent, according to Starkman — have also been suffering from an industry-wide dropoff in ad revenue.
More resources on fewer stories isn’t necessarily bad
In that context, publishing fewer long stories seems like a fairly natural response to a shortage of income, and a need to print fewer pages on expensive newsprint. It’s also worth noting that the cash-strapped New York Times has actually published more stories that are 3,000 words and longer than it did in 2003 — 32 percent more, according to the CJR’s numbers. And the newspaper got some well-deserved acclaim for the way it handled the online version of one of those stories: namely, the Snowfall feature it released as an online series and an e-book late last year.
The Times‘ Snowfall feature helps to make one point that Starkman’s bleak assessment of the industry avoids, and that is the fact that longform journalism is evolving away from the traditional newspaper-based publishing that his numbers focus on. As the spokesman for the L.A. Times noted in a response to CJR, much of the paper’s feature coverage now includes video, graphics and other elements that wouldn’t have been present a decade ago — and don’t show up in a raw word count.
“In recent years, our longform storytelling has also typically incorporated unique videos and photo galleries. The two media – print and pixels – are seamlessly integrated in a way that a Factiva search can’t capture.”
As journalism professor Jeff Jarvis pointed out in a response to Starkman’s original post on Twitter, simple length is not a determinant of overall quality in newspaper features (and to be fair, the CJR writer admits as much in the first few paragraphs of his piece). In many cases, those longer features that were published a decade ago may have been overly generous — or indulged in only because they make good “award bait,” as one former newspaper colleague of mine described them.
Papers aren’t the only source of longform journalism
If newspapers like the Post, the Times and the Wall Street Journal are being more judicious with their use of space, and trying to devote the time and resources to fewer long pieces that provide more value, that’s arguably a good thing. And Starkman’s diagnosis also focuses (not surprisingly perhaps) on newspapers in a vacuum — essentially ignoring all of the innovation that is occurring in longform journalism outside that industry, through services like Byliner, Longreads and Atavist.
The magazine-style features that Byliner has become known for, or the longform pieces that readers share through Longreads may not replace the missing newspaper features one-for-one, but they are clearly filling a need. That need also becomes obvious when you look at some of the most-saved articles at “read it later” services like Pocket — many of them are long features from magazines and other outlets (although whether those who save such pieces ever get around to reading them is another question).
In other words, newspapers are playing on a much broader field than they used to. And all that competition makes it even more important that they focus their time and energy on features that can really come alive online, the way Snowfall did for the NYT — and if that means fewer words in fewer pieces, then perhaps that is for the best.