When to Go Long
An admirer and practitioner of narrative journalism is pleased that long stories are back in vogue. But, he warns, not every topic lends itself to such treatment, and not everyone can write long.
Jon Franklin teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
The last few years have seen a revival of interest in narrative journalism. More newspapers are featuring it, including my own regional, the Oregonian, and more journalists are talking about it as the opportunity of the future. Regional writers' conferences have embraced narrative with a vengeance. As a narrative writing coach, I have two invitations for next April, and other narrative writers tell me they're also in demand. The no-jump era, it would seem, is ending, and long-form journalism is coming back into fashion.
Looking back, the turning point was probably the 1993 "Ways With Words" report by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. This document included comments from Poynter gurus Don Fry and Roy Peter Clark, who wrote, "Generally, reporters should incorporate narrative techniques into stories to lead readers through the whole story. Those techniques include actually telling stories, focusing on action, characters and chronology."
The report was based on a study by The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, the St. Petersburg Times and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and if that's not authoritative enough for you, it was followed by a whole series of other reports, most notably an article in the summer 1994 Newspaper Research Journal saying pretty much the same thing. The gist of the argument was that it's a confusing world, and while info-bits may be easy to read, they quickly become white noise. One of the most marketable things the modern print journalist has to sell, it seems, is coherence.
All this is naturally very gratifying for an old woolly mammoth like myself, who came up during the last interglacial period and has preached narrative during the literary ice age just ending. As far as I'm concerned, we can lynch the no-jump rule right now.
üut the trouble with having a memory as long as mine is that..well, one remembers inconvenient things. The last revival of narrative journalism carried with it the seeds of its own destruction, and already I can see trouble ahead for this go-round as well.
The basic problem is that ours is a trendy business, given to wild pendulum swings. This year's truth is next year's fallacy, and if the industry's attention span can be calculated by the periodic rediscovery of the killer bees story, then it's about 12 to 15 years. And that is about how long it's been since narrative journalism was practiced in most American newsrooms. Double that and you're back to about 1970, which was the last time American journalism discovered that the strength of the print industry was making sense of the world.
The social moment then was at least superficially different than the one today. Coming out of the '60s, the then-staid newspaper industry was subjected to heavy criticism from readers and social critics for its almost exclusive reliance on official sources and traditional inverted-pyramid story forms. The cry was for coverage of average people and for more context. Magazine writers like Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion bravely led the way.
If what was intended was more thoughtful journalism, though, it didn't always play out that way. I will never forget the day that "the new journalism," as Wolfe so inappropriately named it, came to the newsroom of Baltimore's Evening Sun. I was a rewrite man at the time, and our managing editor, the late Phil Heisler, was a hard news guy who thought bylines were presumptuous and that feature stories were fluff that belonged on what we still thought of then as the women's page. It was healthy, he thought, to assign feature writers like myself to as many hard news stories as possible, but we were still constrained by the hoary old rules of "real" journalism.
For instance, our characters had to be called "Mr. Jones" or "Mrs. Thistlebottom," and if we ran longer than 20 inches our endings were subject to arbitrary amputation. It didn't matter much, since such stories were usually buried anyway.
So I will never forget the day Phil came out, plopped down on the edge of the city editor's desk and announced in a voice loud enough to carry halfway across the newsroom that all important stories would henceforth be at least 50 inches long.
He sat there for a few moments, listening to the silence crackle, and then he got up, marched back into his glassed-in office and closed the door. The era of literary journalism had come to Baltimore.
Similar scenes were being played out across America, as publishers everywhere sought to adapt to the prevailing public mood. It was the right thing to do. But that rightness played out all too rarely in the newsroom.
The situation on our rewrite desk was typical. Except for me, the rewrite men were all hard news guys whose idea of fancy writing was a pun or, on creative days, a lead delayed by maybe one paragraph – a paragraph that was often so strained and cute as to make an editor wince and roll his eyes.
In the newsroom as a whole, though, there were a number of us to whom the new rules of engagement were a godsend. We were those who in a kinder world (the world of The Saturday Evening Post) would probably have been short story writers. We immediately threw ourselves wholeheartedly into the study of literary structures and techniques, and a fair number of us mastered them at least well enough to bat .500 or so. Phil Heisler's little announcement, as much as it pained his already-ulcerated innards, was a break that I and others could parlay into a career in projects and literary journalism.
But I have to admit that, more broadly, the revolution was a disaster. For one thing, while most of my fellow reporters liked to think of themselves as good writers, many were simply awful; they were good reporters whose perceived writing talent was in fact the distilled anguish of long-suffering editors.
Too often, "writing long" was done by including more facts. Fifty inches gave the city hall reporter space to lay out the whole city budget in stupefying detail; the government reporter saw it as an opportunity to analyze in detail each revision to the UåS. Civil Service regulations. Zoning stories suddenly became..well, complete. Putting such reportage in the context that might have rendered it interesting involved skills that most reporters didn't have and didn't know existed.
The 800-pound gorilla was suddenly structure. A 10- or 15-inch news story could be organized by the seat of the pants, shifting around paragraphs until things seemed to work. But the number of possible arrangements grew exponentially as the number of parýgraphs increased. Chronology was a useful organizational tool, except that no one had ever taught most of us that chronology had to be written in waves, emphasizing important events and summarizing unimportant ones. As a result, many interminably long ~tories were organized like diaries or ships' logs. This happened, and then that happened, and then the other thing happened.
The nut graph had not yet been rediscovered in those days, and so most of the poor schlocks who suddenly found themselves operating under the 50-inch rule simply did 50-inch inverted pyramid stories. The only constructive result was that it taught the rest of us that stories had trajectories and movement – in the case of an inverted pyramid story, a relentless psychic motion in which each paragraph was less relevant, and therefore more boring, than the last. These are the stories that, at the end of the era, researchers would use to prove that readers didn't jump. Who would follow a boring story inside, only to watch it become even more boring?
My faction of the newsroom was, in the meantime, busy experimenting with nut graphs and, after that, more complex literary structures. Some of us scoured libraries for books explaining how fiction writers used structure to create tension and maintain reader interest. I was fortunate enough to lay my hands on a copy of Robert Meredith and John Fitzgerald's bible of plot and structure, "The Professional Story Writer and His Art."
In my case it took 10 years of slow, hard work, punctuated with many disasters, to get the hang of it. Others caught on more quickly. But when we finally got it, we were able to write accurate stories about important trends in such a way as to cause the readers' interest to rise, not fall, as the story went on. Given one of these stories, the reader would jump and even jump again.
ýt was soon clear, however, that while these stories were loved by the readers, only a few of us would ever develop the skill to do them with any regularity. Worse, they often took hideous amounts of time, which made them very expensive by newsroom standards. Before I left Baltimore at the end of the era, I was taking two to three months to do a story. Don Drake, of the Philadelphia Inquirer, once spent a year doing a story about a local medical school.
It also became clear that most stories just didn't merit this kind of treatment. The fully structured story had some specific strengths. Like fiction, it was experiential: It could take the reader into an otherwise alien world, such as the operating suitüs of a major medical center, and make that world seem real. On the explanatory side, it could humanize and provide interesting, in-depth explanations for important processes, like budgets, that the average reader would otherwise never have a real chance to Snderstand. Literary journalism made a complex world much more accessible and, therefore, understandable. It entertained as it educated.
But at the same time, literary journalism dramatically increased the level of journalistic responsibilities. Journalists without a keen respect for relationships between fact and truths could impugn the credibility of the whole profession. The low point was surely when a Washington Post reporter had to give back a Pulitzer she'd won for a faked story. Before it was all over we learned some hard lessons.
The bottom line is that narrative journalism is a big gun that fires an expensive projectile. Not every story merits it, nor can every reporter be trusted with it. Most stories should be short, to the point and written in traditional journalistic style. A cop roundup, written in fake Joan Didion, makes the reader wonder if the journalistic world is asleep at the switch.
Literary journalism should be used thoughtfully, with discretion. This means that hard decisions should be made with each assignment. When this responsibility was accepted, the results were spectacular. The example that always comes to my mind is Gene Roberts' Philadelphia Inquirer.
ýnfortunately, most newsrooms avoided the hard decisions and operated on policy. In my newsroom the long form was introduced by edict. It became good in much the same spirit that, 20 years earlier or later, it was bad. In the interim I remember editors at the Evening Sun brainstorming stories that they could depend on being long and then stalking the newsroom to find someone to assign them to.
The absurdities to which this led are perfectly captured by our own "neighborhood" series. Desperate for a reliable source of long stories that would make the paper seem to care about its citizens, an editorial genius who shall remain nameless hit on the idea of doing an in-depth story, every week, about one local neighborhood. Since Baltimore neighborhoods generally changed in nature every few blocks, this single idea probably would have furnished enough copy well into the 21st century.
Fundamentally, it wasn't a bad idea. It was kicked off with stories on truly interesting neighborhoods by lifelong Baltimore residents like Carl Schoettler, and the pieces held readers until the very end. But after a couple of months, writers of Schoettler's caliber got bored and figured out ways to weasel out of doing any more. After that, a quota system was instituted, in which every reporter had to do one neighborhood story every so many weeks; we quickly discovered how to get out of that by being heavily engaged in something much more important when our turn came. I am not sure, but I may be the only reporter on the paper during that era with a perfect record of dodging neighborhood stories. As a result, editors were reduced to stalking the newsroom for victims. The inevitable result was an eternal series of interminable, disorganized and pointless stories written about dull neighborhoods by slow reporters.
Multiply this by however many newspapers there were in America in those days, and you have some idea of why it was something of a relief when, in the '80s, a series of studies showed the obvious: By and large, people didn't read jumps. Truth is, I don't blame them.
The problem, of course, was that as the page turned and the era ended, it ended by thousands of managing editors popping out of their offices and announcing that, henceforth, no story would jump off the front page. Given the latest findings about the reader appeal of narrative, one might point out that the no-jump era coincided with an unprecedented decline in reader penetration and a loss of prestige by newspapers and those who work for them.
Now, having spent the last decade criticizing the no-jump era, I can only be delighted at the renewed popularity of narrative journalism. Yet the woolly mammoth in me looks at the front page of many of the trend-setting papers and remembers the ice with fondness.
While I think long stories are an important part of journalism – and yes, my own favorite part – I must say that most of the long stories I see don't require that treatment. In a world where decisions are made on the merits of individual stories and individual reporters, the lion's share of the literary journalism I see would be better handled as inverted-pyramid stories or, at most, delayed-lead features. What could have been good stories come off instead as underreported and overwritten fluff.
In 1996, for instance, the average AIDS story hardly requires heavy reader orientation up top. Nor does the average homeless story need to be humanized. Who wants to read a mood-setting lead on top of the latest O.J. Simpson story? If this new literary era that's dawning isn't going to crash and burn like the last one, we had better start exercising some judgment.
In truth, the stakes may be even higher now than last time. If newspapers don't get better and learn to help the reader make sense of a world that often seems to be out-driving its lights, then there may not be another chance.
For openers, we need to face the fact that while all stories should not be eight inches, neither should they be 50 or 100. The narrative story is of value only when we want to take the reader deep into a story and when we have something profound to say. If we have news, but no point, then we should use news forms, not literary ones.
We also need to face up to the fact that narrative journalism does not embody a trivial skill. Not everybody can do it, and those who can need to be selected and trained – which takes time and money. Journalism is behind every other industry I know about in serious on-the-job training, and when the meager training dollar is allotted it tends to go toward teaching new technology or financing remedial studies. The good writer is the last to benefit.
None of this is to dampen the spirits of my colleagues who are toasting the new era. Narrative journalism is good for newspapers, good for readers and good for writers' careers. It's fun and exciting to write, and fun and exciting to read. It is not a panacea, but I truly believe that if we do it right, it can help reverse the decline of our profession.
At the same time, hear this warning from a woolly mammoth who knows far too much about ice ages: If narrative journalism is a powerful journalism, it is also a much more specialized, complex, difficult and dangerous journalism. And we forget that at our peril. l ###