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*Edit: I meant Raymond Carver, not Chandler.
Also, you may find this of interest to your previous comment, @paulcarr -- you're welcome to hire me or any of our writers ;)
2 years, 6 months ago on Suddenly everyone wants New Yorker style content. Only one catch: Who is going to write it?
Dear Sarah Lacy,
As you well know, many publications (especially online) live dual lives: first for the headline grabbing articles, many no longer than a paragraph or two, often aggregated from other 'sites of note' like the New York Times. This obviously drives traffic and hence ad revenue to pay the bills, but it also undermines the cost of production for legitimate news. As the NYT's David Carr once pointed out, their articles are repurposed and put out as 'original content' on other news sites. It's commentary at best, and dangerous laziness at worst.
The second life is that of legitimate long-form writing, as you lament about here. That too is unfortunately slave-driven by media cycles and timeliness. Many great stories, if they're not relevant to whatever the news-cycle is fascinated with, are often ignored in a sad-but-true "TL;DR". "I'll come back to it later" is the battle cry for long form content.
As many people noted, "New Yorker" style journalism is not just about being long and well written. It's simply not 'news'... it's 'content,' which can be irrelevant but culturally important. It takes time to create a thoughtful and reflective piece that isn't simply requoting press releases with the insight of a twitter message. It takes time to research, to hunt down quotes, to write, to edit, etc. By the time a good piece is written, it's often yesterday's news. Much great long form journalism ends up being about topics that aren't timely, and serve more as well written cultural criticism than news and editorial. (Neither is it just about the time it takes to train great writers Many would argue that you need a great editor, not writer-- Raymond Chandler, albeit in fiction, is a great example).
I professionally edit two separate publications, one print and one online. My print magazine comes out on a monthly basis and has no way to compete with its neighborly dailies and weeklies. Instead, we focus on telling stories that don't make it into the news. We're not driven by any cycle than our own doing. That's similar to the New Yorker: its best stories aren't timely; in fact, their best stories (as well as New York magazine's and Harper's) draw attention to that which isn't news, and gives them the leeway, even with a tiny staff, to produce great content for the sake of every professional journalist's standard of 'writing something important.' Their best work lives on as sources for future news, as resources in anthropology classes, as the starting point of books, and as time-tested pieces of writing that hold up precisely because they don't care about cycles. It's easy to get an 'exclusive scoop' and develop a great piece when you're outside of the news-cycle, which is where modern media makes its profit from.
On my online journal ( http://whataretheseideas.com ), we focus on exactly that. Even if we write about 'news related topics', we wait to do more than just simple reporting of facts, a table where we can't hold our cards at. We combine research with meetups. We combine journalism with problem solving. We combine criticism with original design projects. We covered Muslim women in the Olympics, but waited to see what happens after the press disappeared: "did anything actually change?" When Mat Honan got hacked, we followed up with solutions to internet security, and again with an expose on how to hack online buying systems. We looked at Anders Breivik, the Oslo bomber, but asked the questions that no one else wanted to ask. We've written about technology, but we used the topic to bring attention to history and economics: "is there a web 2.0 bubble?" If there's an issue in the news, it's not enough just to follow up on it-- we also created original work outside of the boundaries of traditional journalism.
As an editor, it's my job to tell writers that it's not enough to just tell a story-- you have to do something with it. None of my writers are traditional journalists... they're psychologists, financiers, designers, all who use the written word to communicate and ask: "What Are These Ideas, and why are they important?" Creating "New Yorker" style journalism is about the purpose as much as it is about the process, method, and final product. We begin every story by asking ourselves, "Why should we care? Can we say something or do something no one else has done?" Every story we cover can lead to a book. Every story we write can lead to founding a new company, or a new design project, or a new community.
I think that's the most important point that can be made: quality content comes from purpose, and many new-media organizations focus quickly on making enough money to sustain themselves. If you lament the state of journalism, ask your writers this: "Is the work worth doing? Do I have something to offer that others can't? If I don't say it, will anyone else?" It's not a race. My writers and I work for free, because we know we're doing something other people aren't. That's payment enough to create high quality work. The readers will come, albeit slowly.