Intelligence isn’t measured by the inch

Since I’ve managed to piss off some who think I’m killing the article (I’m not; instead I’m raising the bar, arguing that articles need a reason to exist and that reason is to bring new value not old facts), I might as well go to the next stage of Defcon-J and question another sacred construct:

Long-form journalism.

In his smart continuation of the discussion about the fate, need, and requirements for the article, Jonathan Glick says that nuggets of news won’t have to be embedded into articles all the time and that frees journalists to add real value in the articles they write: context, analysis, perspective…. I agree with him except for one thing. He calls this…

Long-form journalism.

I hear that more and more these days from journalists looking for safe harbor for their lengthy ambitions. But I think it’s a terrible description of the form.

Length does not equal intelligence, no matter what Nick Carr says. I know we’ve all read lots of long and stupid things. And I’ve read plenty of smart and short things.

Indeed, it’s harder to be short than to be long. Thanks to my editor’s picking at loose threads in my manuscript, I just cut more than 11,000 words out of Public Parts that I either shouldn’t have written or wrote only to think something through until I found the right expression of an idea.

When I used to write for publications, I tried to write 20% long and then it was in the editing and cutting that I really wrote, exchanging a better word for one only good enough, organizing more efficiently, getting rid of repetition, excising excess. I certainly don’t always succeed but that’s the goal. That’s a key benefit of print (yes, there are benefits): The scarcity of space forces economy of thought. We don’t have that scarcity here online (what I find scarce is time to write).

I dread unleashing writers to believe that they can now be as long as they want and that that is the measure of their quality. Save us! I fear the label alone — long-form journalism, long-form writing — will encourage words for their own sake.

We need another description that better conveys the value and the goal.

Heavy journalism. No, that’s not too enticing.

Thick journalism. Triple entendre.

Perspective journalism. That means the journalist has to have one. Oh, no, that leads to whole ‘nother fight.

Analysis. I never much liked that, either. It says that the journalist can figure out things we can’t figure out. It also for too long has been used to excuse the journalist from the collection of facts.

Value-added journalism. In advertising terms, “value-added” is a pejorative that actually means less value (it ought to be a Britishism). Too bad. I like the requirement the journalist has to add value.

Narrative journalism. No, it needn’t tell a story. I’ve also questioned the notion that journalists are necessarily story-tellers.

Smart journalism. No, that label must be applied only by the reader, never the writer.

Thoughtful journalism. Maybe. That says one must do more than regurgitate to make an article worthwhile.

I fear I’ve failed and I risk going on for too long. What do you think we ought to call it?

  • Value-added journalism is the best.

  • Andrew Marshall

    There are three types of journalism: fast, deep and opinionated. I would call it “deep”. “long-form” is a massive turnoff. It recalls that comment of Pascal (?) who apologised for having written such a long letter, “but I didn’t have the time to write a short one.”

    • but one and two can be three, no?

      • Andrew Marshall

        OK, two types. Sue me.

  • Terry

    Substance journalism? Substantive? Though that doesn’t really roll of the tongue.

  • Matt Terenzio

    There is no name because the line between will always be arbitrary. Some works have more depth, some have less.

  • Brian Crumley

    Dense journalism
    Rich journalism

  • Jim W

    Nutrient-rich journalism.

  • ‘Authentic Core Journalism’

  • Articles

    Append a 2.0 if you must.

  • Jeff:

    Thank you for noticing my post.

    On the term “long-form,” I agree that it’s a silly word. Longer than what? I meant it strictly descriptively, to mean ‘content things’ that cannot be easily consumed in the stream and on a smartphone screen. I think they will range from bloggish pieces as short as mine or yours to mini-books. Mainly, I believe that these will be stronger (not flabbier) once freed of the traditional obligation to transmit news information.

    I am also intrigued by the possibility that readers might be willing to pay for some of these longer and non-commoditizable pieces, especially given the convenience of built-in payment systems that are or will become part of every mobile and social platform. Of course, there are plenty of writers who will never want to charge because they care more about sharing ideas, gaining influence or acquiring customers.

    But writers who do need to make money would be wise to heed your warning about self-indulgence. I suppose that readers will expect some minimum amount of “inches” for their money, but it seems more important that these pieces be truly unique, personal, useful, and make good use of media and/or data. And, of course, that the reader trusts the writer, which is what I hope the ambient intimacy (Leisa Reichelt’s excellent concept) of successful realtime reporting might enable.

    Incidentally, today’s Kindle Single bestsellers are mostly 2 bucks for 30ish pages. Would readers pay a writer they trusted 50 cents for 8 pages? 25 cents for 4? Ringtones, anyone?

    • Why would I not consume something rich and gratifying on my smartphone screen??

      • I think you will. You just won’t do it as part of a stream of fast-flowing content.

  • I expect from any text worth being read, journalistic or not, long or short, at least a single unique author’s perspective – what ultimately turns the most “unjournalistic” prose into just the perfect one. Does it make any sense ?

    • Miles Davis


  • Following the geek model of tl;dr (too long; didn’t read), I would suggest something like gj;wr (good journalism; worth reading) or better gj;wc (good journalism; worth collaborating).

  • Unedited journalism

  • Perhaps the major difference between snippets and articles lies primarily in the amount of context included or explained?

    If that’s true perhaps the term should include the word context –

    contextual journalism?
    contextually rich journalism? (ironically – may be too long)

  • Pat Locke

    How about “deep-cut” journalism — you know, like the iTunes playlists for people who really want to collect the gems that don’t get air-play except on the old “album rock” stations?

  • Brian Rock

    Contributory journalism.

    As in making some fundamental contribution to the conversation.

  • George Mason

    Until a better term, I still sort of lean toward “narrative” — although mindful of Jeff’s even earlier journalism/storytellers posts. Seems to me the value in Jay Rosen’s “narrative” (he admits cliche) proposition is that without a compelling story, we are buried-alive in story-less facts, sometimes misinformation, and have no time for them. If they be not of life-or-death immediacy, then I’ll wait for the story — preferably stories. Seems even long, long before today’s hourly quicksand of “facts” came the narratives of “60 Minutes.” Don Hewitt nailed it, until something better comes along. What am I missing?

  • I always use the term “Enterprise Reporting” – in place of “long form journalism” – because I do agree long doesn’t always = good. But “enterprise” suggests original and ‘in-depth’ reporting which I think is what people are grasping for when they use the term “long form.” Just my .02

  • I think that it should just be called journalism. All of the other words describe what real journalism is about. Tweeting a few facts is not the journalism. that is just a way to entice people to read the real article. The actually article has to have facts, opinions, analysis and context or some combination of that. While it is true shorter is often better there is a point that being concise and being short are not the same thing.

    I do not believe you can tell enough of any story in one-liners or as Glick said “smart phone screens”.

  • Wasn’t it Clay Shirky who recently pointed out that new media, and the proliferation of mobile devices, has increased our ability to a) coordinate, b) synchronize, and finally c) document?

    In this light, we might talk about more or less well-coordinated, synchronized and/or documented journalism.

    If so, we’re judging journalism as, for instance, the ability to coordinate in terms of (quickly) getting in touch with reliable sources and collecting relevant information, and thus to be in sync with what’s actually happening or has happened. Both aspects obviously play a role in our ability to document and comment on events.

    I guess this is what good journalism has always been about – that is, nothing new other than the democratization of media … which of course puts the notion of well-coordinated, synchronized and documented journalism in a new and to some extent different light.

  • Tyrone Revere

    I second the motion to call it “Journalism”.

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  • How about “Essay Journalism?” It used be called feature writing…

  • Pat Farrell

    I fail to see any benefit in applying or even coining a label for journalism today. The label does not enlighten the old dying media heads. Its not as if the wit who coins the term gets any long term credit.

    I do worry a lot about my favorite kind of news article: those written by Dana Priest of the WashPost. She only writes one or two a year. But in two of the last three years, her one article one a Pulitzer Prize (secret prisons, and Walter Reed scandal). This year’s story on the size and scope of the “war on terror” industrial complex was good as well, I think they didn’t give her a third in a row to let someone else have a shot. It has to cost a fortune for her to do the research, I can easily see a half million dollars per article, and would not be surprised to hear it costs two or three times that.

    Most of the articles in the WashPost and NYTimes are common with other widely available material. Stuff like Dana Priest and a few others do is unique and nearly priceless.

  • Simply call it Journalism. Long or short, narrative or mainly informative, it is still called journalism. In a way, it is still conveying something worthwhile for the readers to enjoy. Some writers would choose to elaborate more on enhancing reader’s imagination on longer articles still a certain “niche” of readers love these flowering words. Though there are others who would stick to what they would say, brief and concise. Nevertheless, it is still journalism.

  • Jeff,

    Amen! My dad used to say you could spend ten dollars and it might be it could be money wisely spent but you could also spent ten cents and have it be a waste of money. I have read 120-inch stories that were so wonderfully riveting I forgot I was reading til the end (most of them narratives or with a strong narrative component, by the way, rather than great treatises on An Important Issue Of The Day). Far more often, I have read 20 inch stories that should have been a brief. The nicest – yet scariest – compliment I ever received as an editor was when I tackled a very good reporter’s 100-inch profile to 60 inches. The reporter said “I don’t know what you cut.” I always said my greatest (maybe my only real) asset as an editor was that I get bored easily. Because, as I always say, the newspaper – or web site or mobile feed – ain’t homework. Making every word count was the first rule of writing back when I was teaching high school English and it’s good advice for journalists!

  • Sorry, I’m just now driving by this post.

    I use the term longform, but what I really mean is, it’s “meaty.”

    Also, it’s rare.

    And it goes good with a glass of red wine.

    It’s carnivore non-fiction.

  • Jeremy Adams

    To borrow a phrase from my innovation classes in MBA school: value-capture journalism. Don’t just add some value – capture it. Write articles that pull together the most important facts, most important analyses, and most important related topics pertaining to the issue being written about and present it in one article.

    • Jeremy Adams

      Also, this has the sense of “curation” that you talk about on TWiG and on this blog, but without the stuffier connotation that I think that word brings with it from its more common museum connection.

  • how about “in-depth?”

  • John Beckman

    When I was browsing your site about the comments on CCN regarding
    Wiener I noted this article wish to add my agreement to your basic
    proposition. The length of any article has nothing whatever to do with
    The quality of the communication.
    William Shakespeare said it best ” brevity is the soul of wit “.
    In computer programming the shorter the better.
    In architecture “less is more “.
    In physics E = MC2
    Enough said.
    My prediction is that long form journalism or whatever you call it
    will have a marginal market in the future.

  • Susan Gibson

    Art and architecture, and math descriptions of our world, and their exercise, or not, of brevity, have nothing to do with thinking about the concept of brevity in journalism — or the need to explain complex issues succinctly and factually.

    We need more and we’ll get it: we’re smack in the middle of news deliverers and readers figuring out the pipeline. I really liked what Messrs
    Jarvis and Glick say here.

    Shakespeare, with that short phrase about brevity being the soul of wit, was teaching us how to tell a joke, how to toss off a bon mot, and a bit about literary irony, for goodness sake, not how to guard a society’s freedom or fairly plan a town budget by way of good ‘reportage’.

    Journalism is often simply where-was-the-tornado, but mostly the subject is far more complex.

    Brevity in journalism, applied indiscriminately without bound, could easily mean a failed experiment known as the United States because the shallowness and inevitable distortions will lead to even more ignorance in the readership.

    Stand up, humane readers and thinkers.
    Agree to watch a few ads.
    Pay your quality journalists: they shouldn’t have to moonlight.
    They can enable us to keep our nation alive and free as long as we reciprocate by paying, in some form (as individuals, not a bunch of corporations buying off a writer) for quality and honesty.

  • Four thoughts;

    In the great re-branding exercise that is makes up so, so much of today’s media comment does it really matter what tag you put on it today ? It’ll only change again tomorrow with a new screen format.

    While I agree that journalism is, in many ways, the mirror to zeitgeist there is no implicit or explicit reason why a journalist should not be able to write what she thinks is appropriate for the publication. Sometimes the geist is thoughtful, sometimes succinct. Sometimes a jumbo essay is required to topple the sacred cows of the handbag making world.

    Starbucks naming schemas do nothing to enhance content. They do not add to authenticity. They fail to provide veracity. It is easy to hide poor coffee in flashy cups with extract of hazelnut sprinkled on the top, to stretch the analogy

    If you truly want quality, training smart journalists to do the basics of the job well and to have hungry, enquiring minds is worth a thousand times your time in branding bu**sh**.

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  • There is no name because the line between will always be arbitrary. Some works have more depth, some have less.

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