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March 1, 2011, 2:30 p.m.

A hive of long-form journalists: Gerry Marzorati and Mark Danner on a new model for long form

Yesterday at the Berkeley School of Journalism, former New York Times Magazine editor Gerald Marzorati and author and former New Yorker writer Mark Danner sat down to talk about the “the fate of long-form journalism in a new media age.”

Their conversation came on the heels of Virginia Heffernan’s paean to long-form journalism and the possibilities of the new Kindle Singles platform, designed for “Compelling Ideas Expressed at Their Natural Length.”

Marzorati argued that the Internet has not shortened readers’ attention spans, and that the audience for long-form journalism is large, enthusiastic, and happy to read long pieces that are actually long. And that’s a trend that’s been on the rise: During the tenure of Jack Rosenthal in the ’90s, Marzorati noted, cover stories at the Times Magazine actually grew from an average of 4,000 to 5,000 words to at least 8,000 words.* For him, the crisis of the form isn’t the audience, but the expense: Who is going to pay for  the necessary months of reporting, fact-checking, and editing — not to mention the legal protection that intensive pieces often require? (Marzorati has said previously that Times Magazine cover stories regularly cost upwards of $40,000.)

Marzorati’s comments reinforce a trend Megan highlighted this January: In a world where magazine editors are increasingly unwilling to invest in a big, intriguing story before it’s finished, long-form journalists are often turning to nonprofits to finance their reporting. Nonprofits are the “lifeboats,” as Megan put it. They keep important stories afloat until they’re close enough to publication that editors will take them on.

But the most intriguing part of yesterday’s conversation came when Danner asked Marzorati to imagine how he would build a long form-focused organization from scratch, if he had $10 or $12 million to do it.

The first step, Marzorati replied, would be to attract a lot of big-name writers who already have their own audiences. Then, he said, he would “surround, immerse each of these writers in social media tools. The writers would sort of be the hive, and the experience people would be coming for would be not only to read and encounter the writers, but also the community that this writer had created.”

Danner, liking this idea, said that approach might appeal to writers by providing “one-stop shopping” for editing, publishing, literary representation, and more, so that writers could spend less time managing their professional lives, and more time simply writing.

An edited partial transcript of the pair’s conversation is below.

Mark Danner: Are we right in worrying about the survival of long-form journalism? Is it really threatened?

Gerry Marzorati: I do think it is threatened. I don’t think it’s a technological problem, I don’t think it’s an audience problem. I think the conventional wisdom about long-form journalism — that people’s attention spans have lessened to such a degree that they no longer have the time, or they’re too distracted to read long form, or the medium itself is non-conducive to that sort of longer read (the 45-minute, hour-long read) — I think all of those things are not true.

We have metrics at The New York Times that show that people absolutely click the 23 clicks through to the end of the story. When I was at the magazine, the longest pieces in the magazine were the best-read, the most-read, the most-emailed. The pieces also tended to be, at the end of the year, the pieces that got the most pageviews of anything the Times ran…. People figured out their own sorts of behavior. They printed out the story — on the subway, you would see a printed-out version. Or Instapaper. People are reading these things, and they still become conversation pieces. I don’t know how many of you read Larry Wright’s [New Yorker] piece on Scientology, but a lot of people have read that piece…. [That] you can comment on them, you can blog about them, actually brings more readers to these long-form pieces.

The problem is who’s going to pay to have these pieces reported. That’s the problem. That’s really the crisis. You have  fewer and fewer news outlets, you have fewer and fewer magazines, willing to have a journalist report for five or six or eight months, or send them to the edge of the world — and then have the edifice in place to edit and fact-check these pieces. There is a feeling among these magazines that they don’t have to fund these pieces to create readership. It’s a really, really big problem.

At The New York Times Magazine, the number of magazines that were competing with us was just a handful, and none of them makes money. If you go back to the heyday of long-form journalism in the ’60s and ’70s, the publications were also making money —

MD: You’re talking about Esquire, Harper’s —

GM: There were city magazines, The Atlantic, Harper’s, the New Yorker. There were a lot of places that were making money publishing long-form journalism.

MD:  For many magazines, whose identities have been formed with the reputation of funding this kind of work, do they have an alternative? Are they having the possibility that “we can’t do this stuff anymore, we can just stop doing long form, period”?

GM: I think that’s what’s happened. I cannot believe that Rolling Stone’s newsstand sales, or what have you, that that’s being driven by whether they have long-form journalism or not. It’s a crisis of the expense of reporting.

MD: What does long form bring to a publication? [With Rolling Stone], the McChrystal piece earned them a great deal not only of attention, but also news chops. Is this Tina Brown’s notion of  “the mix”? Take a glossy magazine, give it credibility by inserting long-form journalism? What do you have left if you pull this stuff away? [Do they think], “I’m going to cut this stuff, but we’ll be fine without it”?

GM: In part, you’re seeing things like ProPublica rise up. When I was at the magazine, we won a Pulitzer Prize partnering with them on a long reported piece…and here’s an interesting story. [The author, Sheri Fink] had come to the magazine with this pitch years before. She had really no experience as a magazine writer, but it was a really interesting idea. We just weren’t in a position to fund what we knew was going to take a year or two of reporting — and we especially weren’t in a position to make the case to make the money available to someone who didn’t have that experience. Eventually ProPublica funded her reporting, and we got involved about a year before the piece was published, and began shaping the story, and getting our legal team involved, and that sort of thing.

MD: What was the economic model? Most of her travel and reporting was funded off-site?

GM: ProPublica funded most of her reporting, and did a lot of the initial editing. Steve Engelberg, who had been the Times’ investigative editor in the 1990s, is the managing editor at ProPublica. We knew each other and had a good working relationship. It wasn’t without a fair amount of back-ing and forth-ing. It’s very unusual to be involved in a project like that, where you have so many editors. It turned out to be a great experience in the end.

I suspect you’re going to see more of these kinds of organizations springing up, which is not without its own problems. ProPublica has its own best practices. I imagine there will be organizations in the future who have a specific message they want to get out, or a specific line of inquiry to pursue, and what’s the Times’ relationship with them going to be? You need to know the agenda of everyone before you leap into bed with these things.

MD: From the point of view of a young writer who is looking at long form and trying to make a life of it…is the landscape from that point of view worse? Are there fewer outlets at the end of the day? Fewer chances to make a living?

GM: I don’t think we know yet. We’re at a very early moment in web journalism. It changes year to year, so rapidly. Obviously the tablet is going to have a bigger impact than we can even imagine. I think there is something about reading on the tablet that is just more conducive to the practice. I also think Steve Jobs has figured out a way, brilliantly, to get people to pay through the iTunes store. Could you imagine paying 99 cents for a piece of journalism that you really want to read? Probably, yes. If you now have these sorts of models in place, through some startup money and foundation money, someone coming along and creating these kinds of pieces…yeah, I think it could happen, there’s a good chance it will happen. I don’t think we’ll know what it’s going to be until we have the first Harold Ross of Web 2.0.

MD:  Maybe Kindle Singles are an early sign. But there’s nothing in there about the editing method, nothing in there about if you have an idea for a story, how you end up published. It simply seems to be a place where writers who are already of some reputation can publish.

GM: There are a few other projects — Longreads, Longform.org — but I don’t know if they pay. A lot of them are just collecting pieces from various publications. The problem is discovery — search.

One of the things that’s really taken off in the last 10-15 years: The public has a hunger to actually encounter the writers who are writing these pieces. One of the ways nonfiction writers are able to make money — not all nonfiction writers, but a fair number of them — is on the lecture tour. A kind of 19th century idea, the book as a loss leader for actually going out and encountering people.

[On the web] there are costs that you do eliminate, physical paper costs, which are considerable. You could imagine that someone could pull together a cadre of writers, fund them through foundation money, raise some kind of venture capital money, have some combination of lecturing and writing. If I were in that position, one of the things I would be very interested in experimenting with is: Is there a way to make more transparent the work-in-progress, which you have the possibility of doing online? We’re experimenting somewhat with this in the Times. If you have Nick Kristof in the main square in Cairo and he’s tweeting, can you get people interested in the story through that, and the story comes later? And part of what he’s doing through tweeting is explaining how he’s gathering the story. You’ve got some added value, which you don’t have in print.

Maybe that’s one of the things that will make this work. You subscribe to this place, and you know you’re going to get a story in six months, from some war correspondent, that’s really going to be a big narrative — but along the way, that reporter is tweeting and posting about what he or she is doing.

MD: It’s really an amazing “back to the future” thing. Tolstoy did War and Peace by subscription, and finally, with publication in full, the earlier volumes were substantially changed. You signed up for the beginning and you basically saw it in progress.

If you were going to set something like this up — you had a few million dollars in venture capital — given the obstacles now and the advantages, how would you go about doing it? If I handed you $10 million, $12 million.

GM: You’d have to start by attracting some big-name authors. One of the things the Internet has reinforced is the individual brand of a writer, and it’s to those writers that people go. I was having this discussion with Michael Lewis. He publishes his pieces in Vanity Fair, but most of his readers don’t read Vanity Fair — they just read it because he’s attached the link to a tweet and sent it out.

MD: Most of his readers are not paying readers —

GM: Those writers in some ways have transcended the publication. I think it’s going to be harder online to set up this kind of “publication” feel, this kind of magazine, front of the book/back of the book/feature well, that was there to serve advertisers — to some extent, anyway. That sort of thing will disappear.

You will have to at least start by building the brand around a handful of these writers, and then, how I would go about it, would be just: Surround, immerse each of these writers in social media tools. The writers would sort of be the hive, and the experience people would be coming for would be not only to read and encounter the writer, but also the community that this writer had created.

MD: So are we talking to them, paying to get onto the community, or paying for a Kindle —

GM: You’d probably give them different options. You could subscribe to all the people, you could subscribe to one writers. I’d probably use social gaming mechanics to actually get people returning to the particular place, by which I mean: You become the most important commenter on Mark Danner, you are recognized, because your comments are the most read of all the comments. We badge you. We give you the title and you are now badged.

This has an enormous effect on keeping people coming back. It’s the same thing as in those shoot-em-up Mafia Wars: You work your way up, you kill more and more mobsters. You keep coming back. You have a place in the game. You become a super commenter, your comments are flagged in some way. Maybe you do it in color shades. The blue overlaid comment is the one that’s the most read. Or you get badged by bringing other commenters to the site, bringing 20 of your Facebook fans to the site.

[Marzorati is the Times' Assistant Managing Editor for New Products and Strategies, but when I asked him about comment incentives after the talk, he said the Times is not planning to implement a badge system any time soon — it's just something he finds interesting.]

MD: How would you attract writers? Editors attract writers by some combination of paying them the going rate or force of personality. What are you offering them as a lure?

GM: The promise of getting them more readers than they would otherwise have. You could work out deals with print magazines that you also reverse publish into, form partnerships with Amazon and other distributors…. Ultimately, what these writers want is the best readership they can have, and if you figure out a way to pull that off, the promise of the Internet is gigantic. The reach — The New York Times, on any given weekday, sells 800,000 copies, and you know, we have more than 60 million unique visitors a month. It’s gigantic. It’s international.

MD: There’s also an irony here. The Internet has made long form writers entrepreneurs. You have a website, you have speaking tours, you have a publisher and a literary agent…. It’s more time-consuming for the author. Maybe what you’re offering is one-stop shopping: We are your publisher, we are your editor, we are your literary agent.

During the Q&A session, Michael Pollan, who is also a professor at the journalism school, asked Marzorati:  “What should we teach these kids, especially as long form writers?

GM: I position myself on the more conservative side. I don’t think journalism school is a place to  learn how to write computer code. I think a lot of the tool kit you’ll need, you’ll get on the job. I think our job, if you want to be a long form journalist, is to read a lot of really great long-form journalism and learn how to write it…. Reading is my own particular hobby horse. I think in a lot of programs there isn’t a lot of time built in just to read, to read the people who did it really well.

*This sentence has been updated to reflect the fact that the rise in story length Marzorati referred to came during the ’90s, under Jack Rosenthal’s tenure as editor.

Mark Danner image by Dominique Nabakov.

POSTED     March 1, 2011, 2:30 p.m.
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