So how does longform journalism lift reportage and take it beyond pedestrian daily news coverage? That’s what was discussed during a session on the form that brought together some of its best practitioners. “News pieces have a life of about a day or two. Longform pieces, the best ones, are lasting. They have life that can be years long,” says Atul Gawande, practicing surgeon and a staff writer at The New Yorker.
Jonathan Shainin, the long reads editor at The Guardian and former senior editor at The Caravan, reminded panelists of the belief that once prevailed about the Internet being a threat to this kind of writing. Readers, however, returned to the form. “In fact, people have come to realise that on the internet there is wave of undifferentiated content and these stories, that are unique and powerful, actually cut through that,” he said.
Marie Brenner, American investigative journalist and writer-at-large for Vanity Fair, believes this is a complex moment in longform journalism. Brenner’s Vanity Fair article, The Man Who Knew Too Much was adapted into the 1999 film The Insider, which was based on the story of tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand.
“Media is getting redefined. In longform, you are able to bring emotions or psychology, and what your characters were thinking on critical, dramatic moments of a news event,” she says adding that it sometimes take “days to penetrate the psychological state of a character; to be able to penetrate their minds… in these critical moments”. It is not something that can be done effectively in a daily news story.
Session moderator Shainin alluded to the boom in longform in India and the conversation moved to the economic pressures facing media outlets and journalists who pursue it. Longform requires media outlets to invest both time and money – something that’s a challenge in the context of Indian journalism today. In such a context, how do writers keep it alive?
“It stays alive because people realise that there is distinct value to this,” Shainin said “Reporting the news in a newspaper is not cheap either. My point is, everyone is much more cost conscious these days than they used to be.”
Veteran literary journalist Alex Shoumatoff revealed just how exciting it was to work at The New Yorker in the 1980s -- that twilight era before the internet changed writers lives forever: “There were no assignments. My editor, William Shawn, used to say that we are interested in whatever you are interested in. And I was interested in everything.”
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