The Death of Slow Journalism
The canceling of this year's Nieman Narrative Journalism Conference is only the latest blow to long-form, story-driven journalism. A veteran narrative journalist looks back at her decades in the trenches and mourns the decline of her métier. Online Exclusive posted 6/8/09 12:09p.m.
By Candy Cooper
A newspaper editor once called me "languid" and it was half-true: I was less a wham-bam newshound than a writer of descriptive, hyper-reported stories, often on the darker sides of life. Give me the first execution in California in twenty-five years and I will write about the extraordinarily violent childhood of the man headed for the gas chamber and about how he shot his teenage victims point-blank and then finished off one of their Jack in the box hamburgers after the killings. And then I profiled his morally untroubled executioner, the doctor of death at San Quentin.
Assigned to the Berkeley, California bureau of the newspaper, I wrote, lengthily, about a student housing co-op, Barrington Hall, where the freewheeling residents staged themed dinners in the nude and believed they had invented a hip trend in using heroin. And while in the newsroom downtown, I found my way -- languorously in the eyes of the editor, I imagine -- toward a story about poor women living on the streets of Oakland, and their rapists, and a police department of overworked detectives who ignored the crimes.
I came by slow journalism honestly, and it seemed to be my calling card. My first newspaper stories were for an underground newspaper, Take Over, where I wrote windy features about a local skating rink and about Madison, Wisconsin's reputation as the center of Wicca, or white witchcraft. I wrote two long profiles of Wisconsin state gubernatorial candidates, and then sent those to an editor in Detroit, who seemed to want the long with the short, and who was willing to hire a graduate of French literature, a waitress without a journalism degree.
The Detroit Free Press newsroom in the summer of 1979 felt like a more grown-up version of Barrington Hall. A young executive editor, Kurt Luedtke, ended up with an Oscar for his screenplay based on the place, Absence of Malice. There was a mania to it, and debauchery seemed to charge right through the rows of Selectric typewriters. A talent-saturated newsroom was capturing the downward spiral of a city in steep decline. Hung-over reporters dribbled in with coffee cups and toast from the downstairs Press Galley café in the morning and hid behind the day's newspaper, avoiding assignments. The main city desk phones would start to ring and Jocelyn, the administrative queen of the newsroom, would answer the calls with a weary: "Free Press, City Desk."
I worked in the features department, the Way We Live section, which was characterized by descriptive, original, well-researched and crafted stories that appeared day in and day out on the section's front page.
I wrote about a man who had cracked up as an air traffic controller and was building his own 40-foot wooden boat to save himself; about a dispute over a neglected Indian cemetery on the shores of Lake Michigan; and about worms – and the worm pickers who descended on Detroit golf courses on summer nights, picking thousands of the slimy slugs out of the ground and then selling them to bait shops.
Whatever my tendency toward being pokey at the keyboard, I could be quick to take risks in life, and at the end of my summer internship in Detroit I drove to California. It was just before the USA Today-ification of newspapers -- before short, graphically enhanced news items were presented like small TV sets on a news page. These were the days of "takeouts," stories that might take days, weeks, or months to report and that were carefully written and edited for maximum effect – magazine-style writing for newspapers. A gruesome murder on a Tuesday might lead to a Sunday "takeout" on the crime.
There were tensions in newsrooms over these genres of news, which established gradations of status, as an investigative reporter slid into month nine or ten of an examination of police abuses while the lowly police reporter turned out two or three stories a day off the blotter. Then there was the narrative writer, someone who was not necessarily uncovering corruption but spending time immersed in the subject of a single person, place or trend. And it was often an irony; vilified by beat reporters, these long-form writers might be fending off quiet nervous breakdowns over their failure to wrap up months of research.
At my next newspaper, the Long Beach Press-Telegram, one reporter did spend a year on police abuses, and another reporter and I spent weeks hounding a white police detective who had been the last to see a popular black high school football player before his body was found hanging in a jail cell. We waited for the cop for hours in a company car parked in front of his Los Angeles house, then spent another 20 minutes at his front door, talking our way inside before he finally unloaded his story into our notebooks and tape recorder.
In the 1980s, as the USA Today/Gannett Corp. model took hold, newspaper editors were pressed to produce news on a diet, faster and shorter. A conventional wisdom evolved -- that little news morsels delivered in bright packages, like Pez, might save the industry. Still, many editors were driven by an opposing motive to win journalism prizes. Bad ideas floated downward from sterile news meetings where editors tried to second-guess an imagined Pulitzer board. Or they recycled old ideas that had already won prizes. Police brutality was a favorite. Nursing home abuses. Kids who kill. These were often more topics than stories. Let's write a 10-part series on PCP – so we did. But the winning-prizes motive could occasionally leave room for serendipity, for real, original creations to emerge from the notebooks of reporters who were out in the world. There was still hope for the languid.
By 1985, I was working at the San Francisco Examiner, where, whatever the sensational Hearst traditions, the paper invested wholeheartedly in statewide, national and international reporting. The Examiner sent teams to cover the fall of Imelda Marcos in the Philippines, the Iran/Contra hearings, and a deadly earthquake in Mexico City. The paper sent me to a women's prison in Frontera, in the Southern California desert, to write about a group of women who were seeking clemency from the governor for killing their batterers.
And it was true, the long and the deeply reported won journalism prizes – a shocking $25,000 prize for me, it turned out -- which led to a mid-career journalism fellowship, which led to my return to the Midwest, and, eventually, back to the Detroit Free Press. There, I was hired to write "special projects" on a beat created by the late Free Press publisher Neal Shine, to cover Michigan's at-risk children. We wrote about child welfare, juvenile justice, phony nonprofits. We wrote daily stories, longer features and investigations. We wrote about a girl who had been chained to her bed and left to starve while a whole town, it seemed, had told authorities of her abuse. I spent a month in a crack house, with the mother of an 11-year-old murderer.
Marriage led me to New Jersey, and the newsroom I walked into in Hackensack some 20 years after that first summer in Detroit sat amidst an impressively gritty and lifeless downtown. Situated across from the county bus station, on some 20 paved-over acres that flooded in most rainstorms, the building that housed The Record had the squat, modern architecture of the late 1970s. There were presses inside that shook the newsroom when they rolled.
The Record had won its share of journalism prizes, but its spirit was muted, and if reporters are a malcontented lot, the Record attracted among the crankiest and then surrounded them with an exhausted-looking phalanx of editors. I felt like leading the city desk on a brisk hike in fresh air, if there was any left in Hackensack, and then serving up a platter of deeply colored vegetables for lunch.
There were still editors at The Record who valued not only investigative reporting but deep and original storytelling, and the paper paid consultants to hold workshops to instruct us all in how to do it. But as elsewhere, it seemed, a journalistic schizophrenia set in. On the one hand, reporters were sent to journalism conferences to learn how to conduct investigations or write narrative stories. On the other, business managers -- and some editors – sought out quick, quicker and quickest stories that were increasingly parochial in scope, whatever the newspaper's traditions. In addition to short and flashy, the new byword was local.
I could see the trends in conflict across the industry. At writing conferences or in-house workshops, the question was inevitably how to use long form techniques – storytelling, document searches, interviewing for story, descriptive writing, character development -- on deadline. The truth was, more or less, that you couldn't.
Page redesign – that harbinger of newspaper death -- had already hit The Record. Seeking answers elsewhere, the business managers bought in to another notion of what could save the day: "CI," short for "Continuous Improvement." Some called it "Constant Insanity." It was a business improvement model, inspired by the Japanese, meant to impose greater order and efficiency on the daily newspaper.
Our percentage of days meeting deadlines was supposed to improve, our general wastefulness decline. Signs went up around the newsroom, with the word "Muda," or mess, in Japanese and the international interdiction sign across it. We received threats and reprimands about the pileup of papers on our desks. Had my fourth-grade teacher, Miss Dade, been reincarnated as a Twenty-first Century newspaper editor? It was hard to know whether this was a misguided business department mandate or one person's obsessive-compulsive disorder. Either way, it was an unconscious metaphor. By definition, journalism was creative and untidy and all of the efforts to treat it like banking or insurance or accounting misunderstood its essential nature – and would be sure to fail.
Panic seemed to intensify at the Record, in the form of quantification. How large is the mess on your desk? How many minutes late is your copy? How many words are in your lead? There should be no more than 26, it was rumored. There were edicts against anecdotal leads, and leads with dependent clauses. Annual reviews included byline counts – how many stories could you write in how short a time?
Slow food, as a movement, was ascendant, but slow journalism was under attack. This would become the age of "charticles," or presentations of news that combined words with data and graphics into a journalistic form. I swam against the tide, churning out, as best I could, news features – on homeless teens living at a fancy mall, on an old factory and its legacy of cancer, on a girl and her friends who became addicted to cutting themselves at school -- but the languorous me, the Still Waters of Journalism me would never stay afloat in a declining industry moving toward...what? Tidiness? Word Counting? Charticles?
I took a leave, and then another leave, and while I found no immediate answer in the leaving, I realized that I had become a dinosaur in my own industry, a proudly, condescendingly whining stegosaurus, whose bones might one day be reassembled in some museum of journalism history. "Pearls Before Swine," my spouse said, supportively, offering me a reward if I left for good, but I saw only after departing that I had been just one tiny part of an entire industry in crisis. The Titanic was going down while I was demanding a stateroom with a view.
My departure left only a ripple, but if I think about the stories that my fellow reporters and I wrote that probably won't be written anymore, then I see the loss compounded. Who will write about the gruesome realities of capital punishment and not just about its policy outlines? Who will act as the watchdogs of police abuse and corruption if it takes weeks and months to uncover it? Or child welfare policy gone wrong? Or an overcrowded juvenile hall? Who will find kids living in squalor under a bridge near Neiman Marcus? How will anyone care if no one knows?
Perhaps Continuous Improvement worked for the Record; circulation has risen slightly, former colleagues say. The paper has sent reporters to Iraq, baseball spring training and President Obama's inauguration. It has insisted on tough coverage of a local hospital board. But it has also dispatched advertising, circulation and printing operations to various nearby properties, emptying its Hackensack plant. It has sent most of its reporters to work out of their own homes or local cafes with cell phones and laptops. It has combined its statehouse bureau with the Newark-based Star-Ledger, its former competitor, and has joined a consortium of other papers to share what has come to be called "content" as opposed to "story" -- a word that will surely require its own display at the journalism museum along with "typewriter" and "newsprint."
The Long Beach Press-Telegram and the original San Francisco Examiner are gone. And meanwhile, the Detroit Free Press will deliver a newspaper just three days a week, prompting one columnist to warn against dying on the wrong day in Detroit: Without the daily obituary page, your friends may not learn about your passing in time to attend your funeral. Then again -- and here, some argue, comes the upside of print's passing -- there is always Tributes.com, a round-the-clock nationwide obituary writing service that will let you know via your email in-box each morning who has died in your town the day before.
Well, I'm still here, as are my colleagues from The Record, The Detroit Free Press, The San Francisco Examiner, and the Long Beach Press-Telegram. Maybe we need a service that pays tribute not to all the whining dinosaurs like me, but to all the deeper writing and reporting that's ossifying along with us. Call it storiesneverwritten.com. And we'll need a special wing at the museum for the ones who lumbered and plodded, over-reported and over-perfected, the languisaurs.
Candy J. Cooper (firstname.lastname@example.org), a journalist based in Montclair, New Jersey, is beginning an anthology about the demise of newspapers. ###