Longform: Means More Than Just a Lot of Words
December 17, 2013
Mary Clare Fischer

Earlier this week, I was catching up with a friend and former editor on Gchat. We were talking about journalism, and he wrote, “I wanted to send something along, ‘cause I figure you’d appreciate it as a longform person.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve been referred to as a “longform person.” Over the past few years as a student at the University of Maryland, I’ve built up a reputation on the campus, not only as a reporter who loves to delve deeply into subjects but also as a voracious reader who binges on “Snow Fall” variations daily. So I was intrigued when I saw The Atlantic Editor-in-chief James Bennet had written an essay lambasting the use of the word “longform” to describe…well…longform.

“Reader, do you feel enticed to plunge into a story by the distinction that it is long? Or does your heart sink just a little?” he writes.

Related story: “Breathing New Life into Old Stories”

Bennet states that length is not the most redeeming quality of the riveting narrative pieces that have become “all the rage” in both establishment publications such as The New York Times and digital outlets like The Verge. So why market this form of writing using this relatively unimportant characteristic? I’m not sure I would have called it “longform” either, if I were the one tasked with inventing a name for it. Now that “longform” has become a well-known term, however, we need to embrace it and the connotations that come with it — or invent a new word or phrase to encompass what longform is.

I understand his worries about readers taking the term literally. They should, in some ways. A longform label certainly signals, “Hey, this is a piece that maybe you shouldn’t read on your three-minute cigarette or coffee break,” as Narratively founder Noah Rosenberg put it to me in an interview.

I agree, too, that length and quality are not necessarily synonymous. Sports Illustrated’s “The Book of Tebow” longform piece, for example, was undeserving of 14,000 words (in my very, very humble opinion; please don’t murder me, Thomas Lake. I still love “Bad Nights In the NFL.”)

Yet the connotation of a word is just as important as its denotation. In the past, the phrase “long form” has been used to describe theatre and Census forms. Now, that has changed. (See the increasing use since 1970, although this Ngrams chart, which tracks the frequency of words used in books, only goes up to 2008.)

As a Millennial who has watched the rapid shifts in the news industry unfold, “longform” means more than just a lot of words to me. Instead, it describes 1) a level of in-depth reporting that goes beyond the everyday standard of production and/or 2) narrative storytelling that’s presented in an appealing way, often with multimedia elements to enhance the piece.

“I’ve never thought that the ‘long’ referred so much to length as it does the length of time spent reporting, writing, editing and then presenting it to people,” agreed Glenn Stout, a contributing editor at SB Nation Longform and the series editor of Best American Sports Writing. “In my mind, ‘longform’ means you’re going in a little deeper than what has been traditionally thought of as newspaper features or magazine features because quite frankly, in the last decade there has been less room in both of those mediums for longer, more in-depth kinds of writing.”

“Where longform is useful and the reason it’s developed as a term is that for online writing, it tells you what this is going be,” said Chris Jones, a writer for Esquire. “If you buy a magazine, you know the sorts of stories that are going be in there — you don’t have to explain it. But if I tell you, ‘Oh, I read this great story online,’ you don’t know if that’s a slideshow or a blog post or a 10,000-word piece.”

Though I’m making an assumption here based on limited experience in the journalism world, I would say that most readers understand longform to fit into one of those two categories. If journalists were to suddenly start using a new phrase to denote the same type of storytelling, this might create more confusion for readers — and a greater incentive not to read longform.

Which brings me to addressing the alternatives that Bennet suggests using to replace “longform”: “new journalism” and “magazine writing.” Referring to Merriam-Webster, “new journalism” is defined as “journalism that features the author’s subjective responses to people and events and that often includes fictional techniques meant to illuminate and dramatize those responses.” Essentially, it’s journalism with a literary twist.

Bennet is right; this term could be applied to much of what is considered “longform.” But I must return again to the value of connotation. The phrase “new journalism” has such a storied history, with the weight of writers such as Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and Hunter S. Thompson all embedded in it. These people were outrageous characters, immersed in a culture of social movements that encouraged radical thoughts and actions.

“The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” was a seminal work of new journalism, but I read plenty of longform, and I’ve had difficulty finding examples that are written in such a rambunctious, devil-may-care, utterly subjective manner today. (Exception: Drew Magary’s GQ story about smoking weed with Snoop Lion.)

Longform is not new by any means, but it has evolved; to give it a name that hearkens back to an older style — that’s labeled as “new,” ironically — would be misleading and inappropriate.

So, then, why not call it magazine writing? Jones said this seems normal for him, but he does work for a magazine. Rob Fleder, former longtime executive editor of Sports Illustrated, said many magazine writers have been arguing for this semantic change for years, as “there’s no real difference” between the two structures.

Rosenberg said the problem stems from the idea that the word “magazine” may be defined differently in the future.

“If you’re calling it magazine journalism, there’s a lot of us in the industry that have an idea of how we see that,” Rosenberg said. “It screams of awards and $4-a-word pay rates and inky hands. But to younger people or future generations who won’t have magazines as we know them now, that kind of phrase is paramount to calling tweets social media-based telegraphy.”

Michael Shapiro, a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism and the founder of The Big Roundtable, a startup that publishes longform stories, said he hates the word “longform,” but for the “form” aspect of the word that symbolizes the lack of innovation characterizing many feature stories for years. Yet he doesn’t think qualifying these stories as “magazine writing” works either — because of the current definition of magazines.

“By and large, for most magazines, which are special and niche publications, while they do interesting stuff, the interesting stuff that’s going on is where the space is wide open for storytelling,” said Shapiro. “Magazines are a business, it’s like newspapers are a business, and short stories [longform in this context] are not a business, they’re a literary form.”

How unsurprising. The magazine writers want to call longform “magazine writing,” and the digital entrepreneurs don’t. Personally, I agree with the latter group in that magazines conjure too much of a print image to work in this context.

Any alternative suggestions?

Jones: Simply, a story.

“A story to me is something that probably has some heft to it. It’s what we call them at work. When I pitch a story, I never say, ‘Oh, Peter, I’ve got this great longform idea.’ That’s not how we talk. We talk about stories.”

Shapiro: Nonfiction short stories.

“I’m interested in the writers who want to work like a journalist but think like a novelist. What we have in the digital world is a space where we can do that. When people say, ‘What do I call that?,’ I call it a short story, I call it a novel or I call it a novella, those are the three categories in fiction… So I’d call them nonfiction short stories — and I put in the word ‘short!’”

Larry Burke, editor-in-chief of Sports on Earth: Nothing… or a word that hasn’t been invented yet.

“When we worked at SI, we always had this thing called the bonus piece, this big piece in the back of the book that’s a longform story. To my knowledge, they never tagged it in the magazine as a bonus piece — readers just knew it as the long piece in the back of the book. When we do those things — and we’re still trying to figure out how best to present them — I don’t know that we will call them anything or I don’t think it would be a name like longform. I think it would be more visually cued as something that is not long necessarily but like an event, something we put extra time into — we’re not just rolling something out that’s 8,000 words because we want to waste your time.”

An event. I like the sound of that. Could we merge the words “story” and “event” and call longform pieces “storivents”? “Narrative events”? “Interactive events”? Are those redundant? Is this argument meaningless?

Perhaps, but the fact that we’re having it at all shows how many people care about this broad, vague, crazy thing we do that has managed to be universally defined as “journalism.” And that is a wonderful thing.


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