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From AJR,   August/September 2008  issue

Going Long   

A new quarterly bucks trends toward Web publishing and short-form journalism.


By Melanie Lidman
Lidman is an AJR editorial assistant.     

The new publication called "dispatches" doesn't look like your typical newsmagazine. It's the size of a grocery store romance novel, and its 200 pages are devoid of color. The cover is plain brown.

But don't hold the lack of splashy graphics against this unassuming quarterly. Dispatches doesn't depend on glitz to tell the story. Instead, it uses long-form journalism and photo essays in pursuit of an ambitious goal: to change the world.

"If people know what is going wrong and what can be done about it, things can change," says Editor Mort Rosenblum, a former Associated Press special correspondent and onetime editor of the International Herald Tribune. He teamed up with photojournalist Gary Knight and investor Simba Gill to create a magazine that delves into the big issues facing the world today.

This knowledge-is-power mantra supports dispatches' theme shifting the focus from "who?" and "what?" to "why?" and "what can be done?" Rosenblum says. During their extensive international reporting experiences, including stints in Kosovo and Afghanistan, Rosenblum says he and Knight were often frustrated by deadline pressure and space limitations. "You know that there's much more to the story, if you could follow each element out to its logical conclusion," he says.

That's what he aims to do with each edition of dispatches, which explores a single theme and features about four lengthy articles and a photo essay. The first issue, released in mid-June with the theme "In America," focused on how Americans fail to understand the rest of the world. It included essays by novelist Paul Theroux, New York Times reporter John Kifner and author Samantha Power, plus an 80-page photo essay by Antonin Kratochvil. The second issue, "Beyond Iraq," will explore issues surrounding the current conflict.

Subscription figures were not disclosed, but Gill, chief executive officer and president of the pharmaceutical firm Moksha8, says the publication hopes to lure 10,000 subscribers in the first six months. A year's subscription to the advertisement-free quarterly costs $68. Most of the magazine's content will not be available online.

Reading dispatches is like undergoing a cold turkey detox in the face of today's endless cycle of updates and headlines. Forgoing the shorter, front-of-the-book articles found in many magazines, it immerses readers in an in-depth report, beginning with the first page. The sparseness of design, refreshing in its simplicity, is a shock to the multitasking, visually overloaded modern brain.

With most of its articles clocking in at more than 15 pages, including the first issue's 50-page behemoth about a Kashmiri Muslim's journey through middle America, dispatches is certainly not beach reading. "It comes off at first as an intellectual elite thing," said Robbie Blinkoff, managing director at Context-Based Research Group, after looking at dispatches. "But the reality is, I think everyone is looking for this." In a partnership with the AP, the Context-Based Research Group recently released a study documenting how younger audiences are experiencing news fatigue with the glut of online news outlets, but struggling to find content that goes beneath the surface.

Gill insists the elite are not the target audience. "Success for us is getting to broad readership globally," he says. "We're not successful if all we do is get a bunch of academics to read this."

Phil Weedon, a subscriber and freelance photographer in London, says he is eagerly anticipating the photo essays and the fresh approach to the news he expects to find in dispatches. He's not put off by the prospect of lengthy articles.

"If it's good journalism, it's easy to read," he says.

Although plunging ad sales may make the current environment unfriendly to those who publish on paper instead of online, dispatches' founders aren't interested in what trends dictate. "All of us believe very strongly there is a very important need for this," Rosenblum says. "We're not missionaries or Don Quixotes, but we are journalists guys with consciences who want to do something."