The Future of Long-Form Journalism in the Age of the Digital Publishing Platform
MECHANICSVILLE, Va. — This is a terrifying time for ink-stained wretches like me. I grew up in the newspaper business, with my earliest memories back in the age of the linotypes—massive, probably incredibly toxic typewriters that spewed out lines of hot head rather than pigmented stamps on paper—were the primary method of outputting the copy that went into the daily newspaper. Just before I joined the newspaper where my father worked—The Times in Shreveport, La.—the production company switched over to computer-based typesetting. Many people who lacked the skills to adapt to the new technology, or who were just not needed with the new technology, lost their jobs.
I was a member of that first generation of journalists who moved the news from fishwrap onto the World Wide Web. I was working at the Daily Record in Parsippany, N.J. I did not volunteer to become its Web jockey. I just knew the technology. I had already created my own site and was well-versed in composing and editing hypertext markup language (HTML) in simple text editors. Tony, the guy who founded the newspaper’s Web site a few months before, knew that and volunteered me to be his replacement. At the time, many of my classmates at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism were riding their recently minted master’s degrees with a new media concentration into pretty incredible jobs. But a few years after our graduation, the dot-bomb burst. The technology was cool, but the money to pay for it—and for my classmates’ salary and benefits—failed to materialize. A lot of them lost their jobs.
At the time, I thought the newspaper industry was pretty clueless about how to use this technology and make money from it. I ended up working for an experiment, Digital City Hampton Roads, part of the Digital Cities partnership between America Online and the Tribune Company. DCHR was housed at the Daily Press in Newport News, Va. AOL hoped that by offering such local content it would attract paying subscribers. Tribune hoped that by getting page views, it could make a lot of money from online advertising. As for me, I found the work mind-numbingly boring, as I was just repackaging four stories already written and edited by others for the AOL platform. The rest of my time, I tried to find something worthwhile to do—like create a searchable database for the long series on the history of the Hampton Roads area (which subsequently vanished in a Web site redesign)—but most of the time my mind bled out making animated GIFs for advertisements and contest promotions. When I was offered an escape to the Daily Press side to actually working on news, I jumped at it. Then, when I needed to quite driving 160 miles round-trip each day so that I could finish a book I had a contract to write, I left the Daily Press.
AOL never got all the paying subscribers it hoped to attract. The Daily Press did not get all the online advertising it hoped to get. By now you may be able to guess the outcome: a lot of people lost their jobs.
The book I left the Daily Press to write, Upheaval from the Abyss: Ocean Floor Mapping and the Earth Science Revolution, was published in 2002. I have been working pretty steadily, if not lucratively, as a freelancer since. I have written for magazines, newspapers (of course), and contributed to scientific and historical encyclopedias. I contributed to two essay anthologies, The Science of Dune and The Science of Michael Crichton, in 2008. I authored another book, Huntington’s Disease, which was published in 2009. My publishing output has kept up with the rise of e-readers, tablets, and other devices. Upheaval from the Abyss is available in Kindle and (according to the publisher) PDF editions, as well as available in print in a modified print-on-demand service. A digital edition of Huntington’s Disease is likewise available. My Science of Dune and Science of Michael Crichton essays are likewise available digitally, either as part of the entire books or as standalone purchases.
Over the decades, I have created several blogs, have an ever-expanding, if idiosyncratic, Web site, and have accounts on almost all the currently fashionable social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Tumblr, and more. I can conceive, write, shoot, direct, and edit a decent short film. And I am pretty damned good with a single-lens reflex camera. And I have a smartphone, which gives me access to pretty much any information I might care to access—such as the name of the pretty decent coffee shop in Lewisburg, W.Va.—anywhere I can get a decent ping off a cell phone tower. And I just figured out how to use my phone as a mobile hotspot to file stories from a cabin in the mountains.
I think it is safe to say that I am not digitally illiterate, and I have managed to stay somewhere near the crest of the wave of publishing technology the past few decades. But my love is that relatively ancient format, long-form journalism—the stuff that takes time to report and write—and I have yet to figure out how to make a reliable and sustainable living at it in this ever-changing digital landscape. I am not alone.
Hence this project.
The big question is this: How do I (how does anyone) survive as a writer of long-form journalism/narrative nonfiction in an age where photons replace cellulose? To get to the big answer, though, I had to break it down into four more smaller, more concrete questions:
- What effect will the rise of alternate platforms (e-readers, etc.) have on the market for nonfiction books?
- What effect will these changes have on the nonfiction author?
- How can the nonfiction author better tailor book proposals and books for success in this changing market?
- How can other those interested in other publishing jobs (editing, production, etc.) better prepare themselves for entry into and survival in this changing market?
To get answers, I consulted recent reports on the state of the publishing industry, interviewed several journalists and authors (of both nonfiction and fiction), posted a survey on SurveyMonkey, and attended a panel discussion on “The Future of Longform Journalism,” at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York on March 4.
Reports of Death Premature?
No responsible analyst of the news business would argue against the notion that circulation among print publications is declining. Sales of newspapers, magazines, and print books has dropped—sometimes precipitously. The daily newspaper industry has arguably suffered the most. Afternoon papers largely disappeared from the landscape as more and more people turned to evening news broadcasts, or skipped checking in on the news altogether. Daily newspapers suffered as more and more peopled opted to drop their subscriptions and get the same news from the same source—their daily newspaper—for free from its Web site. I would argue that the profusion of politically-motivated news sources—whether we are talking about talk radio, cable television news, or Web sites and blogs—gives “news” consumers the ability to seek out the message (if not the facts) they find most reassuring and consistent with their pre-existing world view.
Times in the news business are so bad that CareerCast.com, using somewhat questionable logic, ranked being a newspaper reporter as the worst job in American in 2013. The web site’s method took into account the following factors: environment, income, outlook, and stress. The logic is somewhat questionable with respect to journalism because it failed to take into account societal importance, sense of mission, personal satisfaction, or other factors that draw people to the profession. But, given the survey’s reliance upon likely job growth and average pay, it does say something relevant to the current discussion. The number of newspaper jobs is shrinking, and the declines there are paralleled in other segments of the legacy (i.e., print and broadcast) media. There is hope in the CareerCast.com report, however: “But journalism is not a dying art, nor is reporting a profession without prospects. Rethinking the industry has made reporters adapt.” 
While print circulation is declining, it seems that the demand for news—including long-form journalism—is actually increasing. A Pew Research Center study released last year found that half of U.S. adults own some form of mobile access to the Internet, such as a tablet or smartphone. More than 60 percent of those use those devices to consume news. Another Pew studies found that a growing number of Americans consume news from two or more mobile platforms—and that the more devices they own, the more time they spend consuming news. A third Pew study found that men, college graduates, and the young are more likely to consume news from mobile devices. The young “… are much lighter news consumers generally and have largely abandoned the print news product, young people get news on mobile devices to similar degrees as older users. And, when getting news through apps, young people say they prefer a print-like experience over one with high-tech or multi-media features.”
The Pew finding that younger readers’ preferences for “print-like experience,” may hearten older writers still unsure about the new technology. For example, New Yorker writer David Grann, staff writer for the New Yorker, author of The Devil and Sherlock Holmes and The Lost City of Z, and one of the participants on the “Future of Long-Form Journalism” panel said that he has not changed the way he approaches his work. Dean King, author of The Feud, Unbound, Skeletons on the Sahara and Patrick O’Brien, does think in terms of multimedia potential, but ultimately—for him—the words are most important. “Ever since these things came along, these possibilities came along, I don’t think anybody’s found a good way to marry text and video,” King said. “I’m sure there is the really exceptional work where that makes sense.”
Courtney Baird, a former magazine journalist who is now managing editor for GrindTV.com, argues that multimedia thinking will have to become more integral to the writer’s process: “… these alternative platforms will force writer-journalists to think with a ‘web first’ mentality and spend time producing interactive charts, photos, maps, and video of their interviews, as these are now integral aspects to any story,” Baird said. “I think writer-journalists of the past only considered what words they were going to create—and now they must almost think like an editor or even a broadcast journalist. What are the ‘assets’ that can be added to this story and make it more interactive for the user?”
While King focuses on his text, he does consider the role of multimedia from a broader perspective.
“When I go someplace, even when I consider my topics, I consider all [these] things,” King said. “I’m going to be creating intellectual property, one of which is going to be the text of my book. But because my books are research-intensive, and often involve travel to remote places, I’m always considering ‘What are the possibilities? What are the other possibilities? What are the other media forms that I can bring value to?’ So when I go on a research trip, I sell a magazine story. I also have a documentary company come with me if at all possible. … I’m able to generate some income from that, and also some publicity for the nonfiction book. So those are all things that I think any modern nonfiction writer is going to want to consider.”
An exceptional work that does bring together text and imagery is The New York Times’s package, “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.” The story, about an avalanche that struck a group of elite skiers on a backcountry slope in the Cascade Mountains—and killed three of them—earned reporter John Branch a Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for “his evocative narrative about skiers killed in an avalanche and the science that explains such disasters, a project enhanced by its deft integration of multimedia elements.”
“Snow Fall” is a stunning work. Published on The New York Times’s Web site, the opening screen features a large animated image of a snow-covered mountain slope, with wisps of snowflakes blowing across the sand-like ripples on the surface. As the reader scrolls down, other multimedia elements pop up, such as links to videos, slide shows, and audio. At strategic points, such as lower down the opening screen where the geography of Tunnel Creek and its environs are described, features such as an animated flyover through the mountains appear, or on another screen where a real-time animation (with sound) of the avalanche appears. On another screen focusing on the skiers’ descents, as the reader scrolls through the description of individual ski routes, the path discussed is illustrated on image of the mountainside. The text moves as the reader scrolls down, the image remains in place, but the ski paths already discussed remain highlighted.
Some of the most effective deployments of multimedia are in the use of the audio from phone calls between emergency dispatchers and the surviving skiers and between emergency dispatchers and the ski patrol office at an adjacent ski area. In one recording, you can hear attempts to resuscitate one of the dead in the background. In another—arguably the most heartbreaking recording in the piece—a member of the ski patrol at an adjacent ski area breaks down and fights for emotional control as she learns fro an emergency dispatcher that two of her dear friends—one a co-worker—are dead. The relevant words are in the text, but they do not carry the emotional impact (and in this case, is a correct use of the word “impact”) of the actual recording.
Science fiction writer Dennis Danvers, whose works include Wilderness, The Watch, End of Days, Circuit of Heaven and The Bright Spot (as Robert Sydney), finds a lot of good opportunities in the world of electronic media, but that it does not have a great effect on how he conceives or executes his work.
“I guess about the only thing, knowing that it’s like to be read on a smaller screen, is that it might prompt me to write shorter paragraphs to give the reader navigational clues,” Danvers said. “It opens up the possibility that if you want to do something, you’ve got more options. I know there’s often interest in hypertext as part of fiction. I can think of one editor in particular who always [says] ‘If you can think of a great idea, I want to see it, but they really don’t end up publishing much. … At least as yet, I haven’t seen a writer who has found a comfortable way to use that in fiction.”
It may be that nonfiction offers better opportunities for incorporating multimedia. Valerie Brown, a former musician turned science writer, is somewhat reluctant to dive into digital platforms. But Brown, who refers to blogging as “a pain in the ass,” knows that some of her own work lends itself to multimedia presentation.
Brown was a singer-songwriter on the Portland, Ore., music scene in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She wrote an academic article on what was happening there from 1967-1970—a time when two local bands, Paul Revere & the Raiders and the Kingsmen—were getting plenty of airplay on the nation’s radio stations. A publisher now wants her to do an e-book based on that article.
“If we were to do an e-book, it would be really fun,” Brown said. “You could have sound clips—like I made a PowerPoint where I had sound clips of these old raggedy recordings I had found from back in 1967 that some buddy had been keeping in their basement all that time—and little sound bites from people I had interviewed and stuff. That would be something that would be really fun to do in an electronic way. … You’d get the sensory experience of listening to the thing. You could do illustrations more easily than you can do in print. So, yeah, in that sense, I think it could be really exciting.”
Another print partisan is Kelly McMasters. McMasters, columnist for Paris Review and author of Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir of an Atomic Town, who with her husband, the artist Mark Milroy, recently opened up a bookshop, Moody Road Studios, in Honesdale, Penn. She loves the sensual experience of holding a traditional book.
“I basically strive to appeal to people’s romance of paper,” McMasters said. “What I’m selling is sort of the experience of what I when I first read Anna Karenina, or Steppenwolf, or when I left my copy of Man with the Golden Arm on the train. You know, it’s sort of the memory of your books, of the reading—of the act of reading—that I think doesn’t go along with a Kindle or anything electronic. So that’s one part.
“I’m also trying to focus on books that can only or should only be read on paper. There’s this beautiful new publisher out of India that’s putting out hand silk-screened books and they’re just works of art. … Books of poetry, I really feel strongly that you can’t read poetry on e-readers. So I’m very pro-romance.”
Her work on her column for Paris Review, “Notes from a Bookshop,” has given her an appreciation for multimedia presentation, however.
“What the editor asked for, along with my essay every month, was lots and lots of pictures,” McMasters said. “And so I thought, okay, I can do that. And then she said, ‘And link everything you can.’ And so I started having a lot of fun with those links, but part of me thought, ‘Well, nobody is actually going to pay attention. Who is actually going to click on those links.’ But it turns out that people do, and they were really enjoying some of the less expected links.”
Nevertheless, the challenges faced by those attempting to combine text, imagery and sound are not insignificant. As impressed as I was by “Snow Fall,” I do not see it as a model to be widely emulated. For one, Branch’s text stands alone and would have made an excellent feature without the added multimedia. For another—speaking as someone who actually creates such multimedia—it is virtually impossible for any one person to have the skills to put such a package together, certainly not in a timeframe that would prevent him from going bankrupt because he has spent so much time on the one project that he’s ignored all other paid work. In the case of “Snow Fall,” 16 others were named as contributing to the graphics, design, photos and videos that made up the piece—and that does not include members of the group caught in the avalanche who also contributed content. Sure, text, images, and sound can be married, but what is more likely to result from most such efforts is a shotgun wedding rather than a compatible and happy union. But I also agree with Baird that writers must keep at least the potential for a decent union foremost on their mind.
Electronic technology should prolong the market life of nonfiction work. I remember the shock when Barnes & Noble pulled my first book, Upheaval from the Abyss, from its shelves—even from stores in the Richmond, Va., area in which I live—after only a few months of visibility. From my limited youthful experience in retail, it is usually easier to sell something if the customer can get a look at it first. Prior to the Web, such a disappearance from store shelves could bring the commercial death of a print work—whether fiction or nonfiction.
“The direction in print publishing is that it’s got the shelf life of a loaf of bread,” Danvers said. “They can’t clean out a new release from the shelf fast enough. The fact is that online seemingly has an unlimited amount of space to keep things hanging around.”
Danvers added that online publication, by prolonging the shelf life of an writer’s work, may broaden the audience for it.
“More people end up reading your stuff in an online venue than they would in a print magazine,” Danvers said. “Especially when you consider … anything I published, say, in 2008—I can think of a particular story—it’s still available to readers. If it had been in a print publication, you could find it somewhere, but it would be hard at this point.”
In addition to aiding readers discover new writers, online and electronic platforms offer other benefits to nonfiction writers.
“The way I see it now is that it really opens up the market for all lengths of nonfiction,” King said. “Before, you either wrote a newspaper story, a magazine story—I guess, a journal story—or a book. And now, things that were novella length in nonfiction, there’s a market for that. No matter what the length of your work, there’s now a fluid market, and I think ultimately that’s a good thing. People won’t be puffing up topics that don’t quite fit a book to reach book length. So topics that maybe deserve 120 pages would have fallen between the cracks. Now there’s a place to publish those things and sell them.”
Itchy Fingers and Downcast Fans
While McMasters sells print books in her shop, her book, Welcome to Shirley, is available as an e-book—which has its benefits.
“Now that I am five years past my hardcover publishing date, my Kindle sales continue and are great,” McMasters said. “I think there is something in the compulsive spontaneity of clicking a button. It’s sort of like with iTunes first came out and I got my first iTunes bill and it was way more than I thought it was because, ‘Oh, it’s just 99 cents.’ I’m just clicking a button and getting instant gratification and not thinking that at the end of the month I’m going to run up a $50 bill, whereas if it was in front of me and I had to pick up three books and go check out, I might end up putting one back. I think that because of the compulsive—or impulsive—nature of the American consumer, e-books will help us. But it doesn’t necessarily make me as a writer happier.”
Some of the dissatisfaction comes in the interaction with reader. As an author, I can attest to the pleasure of connecting with readers at book signings. I’m not so popular as to require sticky notes with names and suggested inscriptions and several helpers working to move the crowd along. I have few enough fans that I try to personalize what I write in their copy of the book. I like it when fellow authors try to do the same for me.
But the connection can only be made when you have a book to sign.
“I did a book club the other night and at the end of it I’d say six out of the eight women had bought paper copies. So at the end they came up and asked me to sign,” McMasters said. “One woman was asking me to sign her copy and she sort of jokingly looked at her friend who had her Kindle with her and said ‘I’m so glad I go the real thing!’ because I could sign it. And it’s like: a) the idea that you called it the ‘real thing’ was beautiful, even if it’s the same thing; and b) it was totally true. … People are so excited to come up and meet the writer and have this transfer paper. ‘Here, can you put your name on this?’ It’s now going to hold a memory that you just can’t do with an e-book.”
A Persistent Tension
Jody Rein is a long established book agent—one of her clients is Dean King. But over the years she has become more involved with electronic publishing. She sees some shear between market forces and a medium that is a natural fit for long-form journalism.
“My own opinion is that long-form nonfiction’s most natural home is still in print—the sort of people most likely to read long-form nonfiction prefer it in print form,” Rein wrote in response to an e-mail query. “The typical seeker of digital content by and large is most comfortable with quickly scanned pieces with big headlines and lots of links. So there’s a tension in the marketplace between the best form for the consumer of the product—print—and the market as a whole which is moving powerfully toward digital content.”
For Rein, this tension has created an incredibly uncertain environment for consumers and creators.
“Basically nobody knows what’s going to happen. Digitization of content has changed the world—it’s enabled bad reporting and bad writing and regurgitated content to flood our homes and brains. [The digital world] craves new content, constantly. And it doesn’t pay,” Rein said. “On the plus side, this has created a hunger for authenticity and responsibility in reporting. On a good day I would say that the internet makes it possible for authors to get their content out there without barriers; it’s an amazing way to establish a readership if you have the time [and] savvy to promote yourself. On the other hand, who has the time [and] savvy for unpaid work?”
While Rein believes top-level journalists will continue to be able to command top pay for work in the digital world, the massive amounts of digital detritus otherwise spewed out may adversely affect demand in other ways.
“On a bad day I would say every day I see another ten or a hundred examples of how an ocean of bad writing (and bad TV reporting as well) is dumbing down the expectations of the public. I worry about that. The Internet is hurting us in that respect in so many ways,” Rein wrote. “So it’s a huge issue. From a career perspective I encourage aspiring journalists to keep fighting the good fight. In a way they have to constantly establish the market for quality work by writing quality work. Publishers are doing what they’ve always done—looking for books they can sell. Journalists can get published by writing saleable books—good books on subjects of interest to bookbuyers.”
Many of the new evangelists of the digital age have argued that writers, even of nonfiction, need platforms—such as blogs and social media accounts, such as Twitter or Facebook accounts, that they actively use to promote themselves. They should use tricks such as search engine optimization to ensure their names show up near the top of Google or Bing searches. But Rein offers a more pragmatic view for aspiring nonfiction writers.
“In terms of tailoring proposals, yes, it’s a big plus if a writer has an established internet following … A product becomes much more interesting to both publishers and consumers if the author is well-known,” Rein wrote. “But narrative nonfiction isn’t usually written by people who care a whole lot about self-promotion, and that’s a good thing. Publishers expect writers of commercial nonfiction to have a platform—what they expect from journalists are credentials. In that respect nothing has changed—the concept proposed must be interesting and fresh to readers; the writer must be qualified to write what he proposes.”
Overall, decline in print sales—at least for books—seems to have slowed. For example, the BBC reported in May that sales of print books in the United Kingdom declined just 1 percent overall in 2012—though sales of print books in some genres, such as children’s books, actually increased. When looking at combined print and electronic sales, 2012 was a record year for British publishers.
The Summing Up
Print is obviously not dead yet, although electronic publishing will take up more of the market over time. How things play out in the long term will depend on economic and generational shifts. I think it is too soon to tell whether or not a younger generation will bring about the demise of print. For example, my two teenage children read quite a bit—but their reading is almost entirely confined to ink on dead trees.
What I expect will happen is that print and electronic sales will reach some kind of equilibrium. Print products will have a smaller market share, electronic products will have a larger market share, but there will be a demand for both. And the choice of where to publish may be driven more by the needs of the project than anything else.
“Story is story, you know. It’s still story. The difference in platform are differences in just understanding the medium and how each medium communicates,” said Christy George, former president of the Society of Environmental Journalists. “In radio, it’s sound, so you actually use sound to evoke mood and emotion and sense of place and things like that. In television, it’s images and sound, so you’ve added another dimension and, by adding that dimension, it actually eliminates the need for a lot of words that you used to use to describe things—so you don’t have to. And so it’s a different kind of writing, but it ain’t rocket science.”
It may not be rocket science, but considerable uncertainty remains as people grapple with the changes that have wreaked havoc in the publishing industry of late. But George thinks we will all get a chance to catch our breaths and figure out how to fit in soon.
“We’re all going to have to change,” George said. “Change sucks. But the pace of change, I can’t believe it’s going to keep going at this level. It’s sure has been a tumultuous decade. I just have a feeling that things are going to settle in pretty soon.”
 Kensing, Kyle. “The Worst Jobs of 2013.” CareerCast.com (2013). Published electronically April 23. http://www.careercast.com/jobs-rated/worst-jobs-2013.
 Project for Excellence in Journalism. “The Future of Mobile News: The Explosion in Mobile Audiences and a Close Look at What It Means for News.” Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, http://www.journalism.org/analysis_report/future_mobile_news.
 Project for Excellence in Journalism. “Mobile Devices and News Consumption: Some Good Signs for Journalism.” Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, http://stateofthemedia.org/2012/mobile-devices-and-news-consumption-some-good-signs-for-journalism/.
 Project for Excellence in Journalism. “The Demographics of Mobile News: Men, College Grads and the Young Are More Engaged.” Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, http://www.journalism.org/node/31859.
 Branch, John. “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.” The New York Times (2012). Published electronically December 20. http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2012/snow-fall/.
 The Pulitzer Prizes. “The 2013 Pulitzer Prize Winners: Feature Writing.” The Pulitzer Prizes, http://www.pulitzer.org/citation/2013-Feature-Writing.
 Several times in those passages, I had to fight for emotional control myself.
 Cellan-Jones, Rory. “The Book’s Not Finished Yet.” BBC News (2013). Published electronically May 1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-22366415.
 BBC News. “Fifty Shades Boosts UK Book Sales.” BBC News (2013). Published electronically May 1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-22358062.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This began as a class project for ENGL 670, Literary Editing and Publishing, which I took as a student in the Media, Art, and Text Ph.D. program at Virginia Commonwealth University. The only substantive change to the original class report is the incorporation of material from an interview with literary agent Jody Rein. Her response arrived after the project deadline.
Leave a Response
You must be logged in to post a comment.