What I Learned by Reading 31 Longreads in 31 Days

Now that I’ve wrapped up my 31 Longreads in 31 Days challenge, here are some thoughts, observations, and takeaways from the experience.

1. Longform nonfiction is alive and well

With the collapse of the magazine industry and the shrinking newspaper business, many have suggested that longform nonfiction feature writing is a dying genre, with business models favoring shorter, “web-friendly” content.

But I kept finding evidence to the contrary. Magazines may be vanishing, but other sources are taking their place. I found excellent longform nonfiction stories at places that didn’t exist a few years ago, such as Buzzfeed, Grantland, and SBNation. Smaller publications like Seattle’s The Stranger and Dallas’ D Magazine had two of the best stories I read.

I wrote up 31 stories, but I read twice that many last month. Some stories were disappointing. Others just didn’t seem a good fit. Some I couldn’t finish. But I never lacked for options. I wound up with dozens of other fine longreads I didn’t get to. I could have I made it 365 longreads in 365 days, and still left plenty unread.

To find a wealth of fine stuff to read, my three favorite starting points are longform.org, longreads.com, and byliner.com.

2. There’s no substitute for a great story; but it takes a great writer to tell it well

Some of the pieces I read were clearly driven by an incredible underlying story: the fight for the life of Kelley Benham’s four-month-premature baby; Bill Fong’s shot at perfection; the deadly tornado that ripped through Utica, Illinois. But it took skillful, smart writing to elevate each of these articles into something memorable. Dry news stories could have been written about any of these subjects, but instead, the stories used the power of classic storytelling techniques: scene, character, point of view, and vivid, concrete details to bring each of these narratives to life.

On the other hand…

3. Great nonfiction stories can take something seemingly ordinary and mine it for rich, complex ideas

In contrast to #4… some of the best work I read focused on topics that were relatively mundane, but explored them to reveal depth and meaning. Nick Paumgarten looked at the issue of commuting and explored its cultural, sociological, and personal impact. Eli Saslow’s look at the day in the life of a Virginia pool salesman told a broader story about the struggling American middle class and the ongoing economic recession. Malcolm Gladwell looked at the unlikely success of a pre-teen girls basketball team in California and connected it with broader ideas about underdogs and insurgent campaigns.

4. It’s the scenes, stupid.

When I look back at all 31 stories, a common element in almost every one was the use of scenes; a dramatic moment (or moments) that revealed a lot about the subjects and themes of the stories and provided the dramatic context for larger ideas and themes. Regardless of the topic or the writing style, great scenes anchored these narratives and elevated them from the page.

5. Reading apps are awesome

If you’re not already using Pocket, Readability, or Instapaper, you should. I used to lug around stacks of articles and magazines in my bookbag; no more. Reading apps make it simple to collect articles to read and sync them across multiple devices, as well as make them easier and more enjoyable to read on small screens. I traveled a lot during December, and being able to keep dozens of stories on-hand without printing anything out was extemely helpful. My only gripe with all of these is that none of them offer a way to annotate stories. I’d love to see that feature in 2013.

While I’m at it, one new tool I’ve started to use is readlists.com: add in a bunch of links to stories you want to read and it will create a single .epub file to read on your kindle, ipad, or mobile phone. For starters, he’re a readlist I’ve created with my 10 favorite longreads from the 31 I read in December. You can grab it can put it on your favorite e-reader or tablet.

6. The New Yorker is still the best starting place to look for longform nonfiction

I found incredible work in GQ, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, and a wide range of smaller publications. But again and again, I kept finding myself digging into longform stories from the New Yorker. As a designer, the magazine kills me; it looks like something for an old granny in Vermont. But week after week it delivers smart, thoughtful features and profiles that run the gamut of longform nonfiction. I can barely keep up with my subscription — I have a pile of unread New Yorkers in my office — but when I can steal the time to dig through them, I am rarely disappointed.

Speed Round:

7. Writers whose work I most want to emulate:
Nick Paumgarten. Malcolm Gladwell. Gary Smith. Gene Weingarten.

8. Writers whose work I admire like hell, but could never hope to replicate:
Julie Keller. Mike Sager. Kelley Benham. Tom Junod.

9. The best thing I read in 2012:
Never Let Go. Kelley Benham’s story is moving, thoughtful, beautiful, and extremely well written. Read it.

16

Dec

“The Lost City of Z” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 16)

There are longreads. And then there are long longreads. And then there are epic, holy-f@#king-shit longreads that just leave you blown away.

The Lost City of Z,” by David Grann in the September 19, 2005 issue of The New Yorker fits into that last category.

Percy Fawcett

Photo of explorer Percy Fawcett; source unknown

At just over 20,000 words, “The Lost City of Z” tells a sprawling story than spans more than a century, centered around British explorer Percy Fawcett — a real-world Indiana Jones — who ventured into the Amazon forest in 1925, searching for ruins of the fabled “City of Z,” a prehistoric civilization he believed to be buried somewhere out in the undiscovered jungle.

The story follows Fawcett’s expedition, which ventured into unmapped parts of the Amazon, never to return; several efforts by other explorers to find Fawcett, or his evidence of his demise; and finally, the author’s journey to Brazil to re-trace Fawcett’s footsteps. Grann tries to solve the mystery of what happened to the explorer, but also, if the City of Z he sought actually existed. It’s a fascinating history, with adventure and suspense across multiple narratives.

There’s so much to love about this story. First off, there’s the massive body of research packed into this piece. There’s so much here that the story was later expanded into a full length book. But in this initial version in The New Yorker, Grann gives us rich details from Fawcett’s own writings, mixed with beautiful description of what they experienced, like this:

Fawcett’s team stayed in Galvão’s red brick manor for several days, eating and resting. At one point, Galvão later told a reporter, Fawcett removed from his belongings a strange object covered in cloth. He carefully unwrapped it, revealing a ten-inch stone idol with almond-shaped eyes and hieroglyphics carved on its chest. Rider Haggard, Fawcett’s friend, had obtained it from someone in Brazil and given it to Fawcett, who believed that it was a relic of Z.

Then the three Englishmen were on their way again, heading east, toward Bakairí Post, where in 1920 the Brazilian government had set up a garrison—“the last point of civilization,” as the settlers referred to it. Occasionally, the dense forest opened up, revealing the blinding sun and blue-tinged mountains in the distance. The trail became harder, and the men descended steep, mud-slicked gorges and crossed rock-strewn rapids, where they had to check their skin for traces of blood, which might attract piranhas. They also had to remain alert for a pernicious eel-like fish called a candiru, which, as Fawcett once wrote, “seeks to enter the natural orifices of the body, whether human or animal, and once inside cannot be extracted.” Fawcett had seen one specimen that had been removed from a man’s penis. “Many deaths result from this fish, and the agony it can cause is excruciating,” he wrote.

Through the historical records, private notes, and correspondence, the 57-year-old Fawcett comes alive in this story as a very human figure.

The subsequent searches for Fawcett and revelations along the way become equally colorful. The explorers who followed Fawcett often met grim fates and gruesome endings. In the middle of the story, we learn that one of his descendants ominously came into possession of Fawcett’s ring, which had been recovered in 1979 by a filmmaker in Brazil:

Montet-Guerin said that she wanted to show me one more thing. It was a photograph of Fawcett’s gold signet ring, which was engraved with the family motto, “Nec Aspera Terrent”—essentially, “Difficulties Be Damned.” In 1979, an Englishman named Brian Ridout, who was making a wildlife film in Brazil, heard rumors that the ring had turned up at a store in Cuiabá. By the time Ridout tracked down the shop, the proprietor had died. His wife, however, searched through her possessions and emerged with Colonel Fawcett’s ring. Montet-Guerin, who had since put the ring in safekeeping, said, “It’s the last concrete item we have from the expedition.”

Montet-Guerin had been desperate to learn more, she said, and had once showed the ring to a psychic. I asked her if she had learned anything. She looked down at the picture, then up at me. “It had been bathed in blood,” she said.

Hollywood couldn’t write that any better.

But the core of the story is really about Grann’s efforts to try and find the lost city Fawcett was searching for at the time he disappeared. Grann slowly unspools two narratives in parallel: the more we learn about Fawcett’s history, the further along Grann advances in his own adventure. In the present day, he retraces Fawcett’s steps just as he reveals details from the historical part of the story.

Grann experiences the conditions first-hand that unraveled so many previous expeditions. As he treks through the jungle himself, he lives through some of the same fear that others faced:

Occasionally, I slipped in the mud, falling in the water. I yelled out Pinage’s name, but there was no response. Exhausted, I found a grassy knoll that was only a few inches below the waterline, and sat down. My pants filled with water as I listened to the frogs. The sun burned my face and hands, and I wiped muddy water on myself in a vain attempt to cool down.

After half an hour, I stood again and tried to find the correct path. I walked and walked; in one spot, the water rose to my waist, and I lifted the bags above my head. Each time I thought that I had reached the end of the mangrove forest, a new swath opened up before me—large patches of tall, damp reeds clouded with mosquitoes, which ate into me.

I won’t spoil anything else here, but suffice it to say: this is an amazing piece of nonfiction: part history, part detective story, part adventure. I’m in awe of the work and research that went into this story. Excellent storytelling and writing bring it all together. Despite this being the longest story I’ve read so far this month, I’d have happily read more.

Read The Lost City of Z” →

10

Dec

Washington Post’s “Facebook Story”

As I’ve noted before, many modern web communications create natural narratives. “A Facebook Story” by Ian Shapira in the Washington Post is a powerful work of narrative journalism that follows the story of a pregnant woman’s journey through her posts and those of her family and friends. Most of the story is told through the status updates by Shana Greatman Swers, with some small narrative annotations by Shapiro:

screen capture from Facebook story, showing posts and comments

It’s a powerful, emotionally-wrenching bit of journalism, done in a very unconventional way. I read it this morning and can’t get it out of my mind. I’m not sure if the story strikes me so deeply because my wife and I have recently had two children, or because it’s set, mostly, in the same hospital where our girls were born, or simply because it’s a gripping story told in the primary characters’ own words.

Shapira doesn’t do much traditional writing in this piece, but he shaped and edited Swers’ facebook feed to tell the story, with minimal bits of his narrative to round out the feature. The editors and designers at the Post also did a good job making the online story interactive: when you click on some of the photos, they expand so that you can see them bigger.

This approach wouldn’t work for a lot of stories, but this piece illustrates beautifully how old and new media can come together to create powerful, compelling narrative nonfiction.

If you haven’t read this, you should.

For more, check out Shapira’s live chat on the Post, as well as an interview with his editor Marc Fisher at the Nieman Storyboard.

03

Nov

Long-form narrative and the art of cooking slow food

In the Washington Post last week, Joel Achenbach wrote an interesting feature on the diminishing opportunities for long-form narrative nonfiction in the newspaper-death-spiral/Twitter/iPhone era.

As seems to be the case anytime that I read about trends in the magazine and news business world these days, the outlook isn’t promising.

There seem to be two lines of thought: one is that modern audiences don’t have the patience or the attention span for longer narratives, which is why they watch reality TV shows and love Twitter. The other line says that people still want good journalism and storytelling: the problem has to do with the business model of publishing, not with the demand for good narrative. Achenbach gets to the heart of the problem:

Good stories take time to craft. Good writers, editors, copy editors, photographers, etc., all expect a living wage. The real question in the months and years ahead is whether there’s a business model that can support good stories. Norman Sims, journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: “The great stories will survive. But the question is who’s going to pay for them. . . . This is not fast food. This is slow food. And it’s expensive.”

And that’s part of the challenge as a writer. There are lots of opportunities to deliver “fast food” writing: short, punchy pieces. Sidebars. Lists. Examiner.com would rather I write five short posts a week than one long, thoughtful one. Getting the chance to write good, long-form narrative is a big challenge.

For what its worth, call me a optimist. There’s no question that there are a lot of ADD Americans out there who lose interest after 140 characters. But most people still crave good stories, true ones or fiction. It’s in our DNA. I see it with co-workers who are counting down the days until return of Lost, gripped with “what’s going to happen next.” I see it on the Metro, with commuters nose down in Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer books. I see in in my 18-month old daughter when she begs me to keep reading to her at night.

16

Oct

Huffington Post jumps ahead of Washington Post in online readership

Arianna Huffington

Arianna is conquering journalism?

Editor & Publisher reports today that the Huffington Post, which didn’t exist until 2005, had more unique visitors than the Washington Post web site in September.

It doesn’t help that the Post editorial page has drifted to the right for a decade, that the editors allow for gross inaccuracies and distortions by one of its most prominent columnists, or that it has decided to diminish the Washington Post Magazine by striving to make it “lighter and happier.”

I’m not sure what’s more amazing about this: a) that a political web site started up four years ago by a wealthy left-wing celebrity has build a bigger online readership than a legendary American newspaper, or b) how rapidly a legendary American newspaper continues to shrivel away both in substance and reputation.

06

Oct

Writing: An “elitist” career?

Dana Goldstein, a former CAP co-worker who now writes for The Amercan Prospect, put up a post on “Journalism’s Elitism Problem.” In short, she points out that the career path for many professional writers involves four years of college education (and any debt that comes with that) followed by unpaid (or barely paid) internships, which leads to the relatively low-paying jobs in journalism. The result: a pool of would-be writers narrowed down, most often, to the wealthy, white elite who can afford it:

The average student-debt burden in the United States is $23,186. Believe it or not, that’s also a typical entry-level salary at a “thought leader” magazine. It is economically irrational for a highly educated person with that level of debt to choose journalism over law, consulting, advertising, or public relations. That’s not to say journalists don’t have student debt — many do. But it’s a difficult, sometimes discouraging slog, and you have to truly love this work.

Goldstein also points out that these barriers lead to a very selective group of people who can afford to work in the field of journalism, which in turn, affects the ideas and perspectives that dominate journalism:

It’s not hugely shocking that journalism has evolved into a career with significant entry barriers, one of which is the unpaid internship. This makes the profession whiter, wealthier (in terms of family wealth; salaries remain modest), and less concerned with public policy issues that affect the poor and even the middle class. While journalism was once a career that didn’t require a college degree, today it is highly elitist and dominated by graduates of selective colleges. In some fields, like political “think” journalism, the Ivy League schools are grossly overrepresented. (Yep, that includes me. I went to Brown.)

Her argument is spot-on, and helps explain why major outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times so often seem to reflect a very narrow spectrum of opinion and ideology. It’s not a conspiracy or a sinister plot, but the major media wind up dominated by white, affluent Americans. Goldstein offers some policy ideas —- student loan reform and lower tuition — to try lower some of the barriers to a more diverse newsroom, though I suspect such changes are unlikely in the near future.

I know from my own experience that the barriers can be daunting. After graduating from college, I carried a huge amount of debt, so the possibility of an unpaid internship or even taking an entry-level journalism job someplace seemed unthinkable. Years later, when my writing itch persisted, I applied to journalism grad programs at Northwestern and Columbia, got accepted to both, but ultimately opted not to go when I stared down the astronomical tuition costs. I couldn’t fathom piling new debt on top of old debt, aware of the low salaries and unstable job prospects that awaited. Maybe I was a coward, but I blinked and didn’t go.

I’m fortunate enough to come from a relatively affluent middle class family and benefited from a fine education. And the unconventional path to a career in writing is a challenge. I’m still on the outside, looking in, fogging up the window. Yet I’m reminded that if it’s tough for me, how much steeper is the hill for someone who hasn’t had it as easy?

25

Sep

Defending Michael Vick

Baltimore Sun Columnist Susan Reimer spoke to my graduate class last week giving us some tips and suggestions on writing columns, including:

  • ask a lot of questions
  • write what you know
  • simplicity and clarity are key
  • read other writers
  • if you’re not an expert, admit it
  • be a contrarian
Michael Vick

Michael Vick is a bad man.

The last one, “be a contrarian,” came to mind when I read her latest column for the Sun, Call off the dogs; Vick’s paid enough. It’s a good read, and well-argued column that makes the case that as bad as NFL player and dog-killer Michael Vick might be, the punishment for his crimes have been excessive:

This country is completely schizophrenic in its treatment of animals. Not only do we eat them, we treat them with inhumanity before we do. And we hunt them for sport. There was a lottery for the pleasure of killing bears, for heaven’s sake. The winners celebrated their good fortune. The bears? Not so much.

Dogs, unlike cows, pigs, chickens and deer, had the good fortune to respond to domestication centuries ago, and for that reason we label them friends, apparently in better standing that the wives, girlfriends or random hotel workers and night-clubbers who happen to get in the way of other sports stars.

I asked Reimer if the column was what she really thought, or whether she wrote it to “be contrarian,” work up readers, and try to spark a strong reaction. She sprang to life, arguing her case to me, raising her voice and gesturing dramatically. It reminded me of many loud, animated dinner table debates I had growing up in an Italian-Jewish family. Her passion suggested that her argument was her argument, not just a devil’s advocate position whipped up to generate web traffic. Her defense of Vick works well, in part, because it’s based on a genuine opinion, not some reflexive effort to flip expectations and take the unpopular side of public sentiment.

So a lesson to take from this: being contrarian is an effective tactic as a writer; being a contrarian with conviction is even better.

25

Mar

Nieman Conference: Wrap Up

Nieman Conference LogoI’m back from Boston now, after my second Nieman Conference. Overall, another really impressive, well-run event. Kudos to everyone at the Nieman Foundation for putting on a fine conference.

A few quick closing thoughts:

Books I want to buy now, based on what I saw in Boston:

A few overall impressions from the conference:

  • Journalists are in a rough spot right now. Issues involving the collapsing newspaper business and the seemingly shrinking prospects for good, meaningful journalism kept coming up. It was the elephant stomping through the Boston Sheraton. I will remember Connie Schultz‘s words to the people in the hall: “The business model is broken. You are not broken.”
  • I’m an experienced, professional web and multimedia designer who wants to do more writing. I found myself surrounded by lots of experienced, professional writers who want to do web and multimedia. Maybe we can meet in the middle someplace?
  • Most journalists and writers seems to genuinely love what they do. Often, they make financial sacrifices to stay in their careers, but few seem to regret it. A lot of conferences feel cold and formal, with people milling about, shaking hands, handing out cards, trying awkwardly to seem excited to be there. Not here. Most of the people I met were passionate and excited about their work, getting better, and learning from others. That’s the kind of people I like to be around.

I hope to be back in 2010…

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21

Mar

Nieman Conference: Thoughts on Day One

At the Nieman Conference, everyone talks about “storytelling.” It’s what most writers here aspire to, rather than everyday news journalism. So when I walked into the main hall for the Connie Schultz keynote address, the story of the state of the journalism industry was told in the size of the room itself. The welcome and keynote was in the same hall as last year, but a room divider had been added. There were still hundreds of people, but by the looks of it, about half as many as in 2008. Schultz’s speech was great, but the welcome session felt, at times, like a funeral.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Schultz shared some inspirational stories and encouragement for writers. “Being scared,” she said, “sometimes is a really good thing.” I wasn’t familiar with Schultz, a Pulitzer -Prize-winning columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, but I’m a fan now. She blended personal stories with professional insights and humor. She talked about her father, a working-class man who hated his job and once said to her “you could teach a monkey to do what I do,” and how he dreamed of giving his daughters the life he didn’t have. I almost teared up. (Being a new father tends to make me a sucker for fatherhood stories). She closed with a word of encouragement to the audience, some of whom lost their jobs in the past year: “Every narrative has a beginning, middle, and an end… including yours.”

The fact that I’m here, at this conference, trying to reinvent myself as the writer I always should have been, is a testament to that idea.

Tom French

Tom French

The first session I attended was “Narrative Archaeology” with Tom French. As I expected, having seen French last year, it was a great session, filled with practical tips and techniques for doing narrative journalism. French, another Pulitzer Prize winner, recently left the St. Petersburg Times to take a job teaching journalism at Indiana University. His departure from daily journalism is sad, but also makes sense: He’s a natural teacher, with a tremendous conversational style and a wealth of experience as a feature writer and editor.

His handout, “Hunting and Gathering” (PDF) covers some key ideas about the how to report for good featuring writing. Here are a few of the best gems from his presentation that didn’t make the handout:

  • When trying to do narrative on deadline, “choose a scene and zoom in tight
  • When in doubt, under-explain” (let your readers put the piece together; they’re usually smarter than we expect)
  • French says that after reporting for a story, he typically has ten times as much content as he can use. How to select what makes the cut? Make a “greatest hits” list: quotes, scenes, details that you would “die” if they didn’t make the story, and start from there. Most likely, he notes, even all of those won’t make it.

Next, I attended Walt Harrington’s session on “Intimate Journalism: How to go from “sources in a story” to characters who reveal the human condition.” While I have tremendous respect for Harrington as a writer, this session was disappointing. Harrington was the opposite of French: formal, scripted, and, it seemed to me, somewhat aloof. For the first half of it, Harrington basically read from a prepared speech on the merits of deep, sophisticated narrative journalism and how hard it is. It was an interesting piece that I’d like to read, but I’d rather he had talked more informally about his process and how he learned to do his work. The Q&A that followed his speech was a little more interesting.

Harrington is skeptical that anyone can become a good narrative journalist by taking workshops and reading about techniques. Instead, he argues, you have to “learn to do it only by doing it.” His other simple suggestion, other than years of experience and hard work, is that if you want to be a good nonfiction writer, you need to read a lot of good nonfiction. I think he’s right on all of this, of course, but it still would have been helpful to hear more stories and examples of the lessons he learned along the way of becoming a great writer himself.

After that, I roamed around the reception for a bit (I’m terrible at these things), ate crackers, and met Modou Nyang, who came all the way from Gambia to attend the conference. Very nice guy. Made the trip from D.C. seem like a short walk…

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