“Now Boarding”

Abstract photo of a plane projected on a blank wall

I’ve been woefully neglectful about maintaining this site in the past year or two, mostly due to my focus on my design business and my big upcoming nonfiction-related project.

But for the record, I published this story about my obsession about texting my last words in The Morning News a while back.

Worse than the fear of texting or posting something mundane as my final message is the possibility of leaving without any message at all; the idea that I might vanish without a word, without any final expression of love. Ultimately, it’s not the poetry of my last words that terrifies me; it’s the silence that will follow.

I fly less often now, but still think about this every time I sit down on a plane. Read the full story.

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.

08

Dec

“Waiting for Bigfoot” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day Eight)

Colleen O’Neil’s “Waiting for Bigfoot,” is barely a “longform” article at just under 3000 words, but since it’s about twice the length of a typical Slate or Salon story, I say it qualifies. O’Neil’s story takes her on an outing with a group of Ohio Bigfoot enthusiasts/researchers.

Bigfoot

The tone of the story is light, but respectful. She doesn’t openly mock the group, though she’s clearly a nonbeliever. But she observes and listens to the people she meets; she gives the reader a sense of the being there in the woods with them:

WHEN I ARRIVED AT the campground that night, I found a dozen or so men and women lounging in lawn chairs around a campfire. I’d expected a few skinny, acne-speckled teenage boys and maybe some shotgun-wielding folks in tinfoil hats. But these people looked … normal—a group of middle-aged men and women in blue jeans and lumpy sweatshirts. The men sported camouflage hunting hats, and the women had short frizzy hair. They looked more like volunteer firefighters than paranormal enthusiasts.

I sat down next to a man from Pittsburgh who offered me a cookie.

“I don’t believe in Bigfoot; I just believe in Shawna’s cookies,” he chuckled, gesturing toward one of the women. “I just happened to be lost in the woods one day and come upon these people. And next thing you know, they start talking about hairy guys with big feet who live in the woods.

O’Neil spends some time on the history of bigfoot sightings and its grip on folklore and legend around the world. She explores the enduring interest in the mythic man-ape-monster. But her story quickly veers back towards the group she meets. O’Neil clearly sees this as a story about the people, not the mysterious creature they’ve come together to find.

Nancy puffed on her inhaler, Bernie shoved his “Bigfoot kit” (plaster for footprint casting, a stick of beef jerky, and an audio recorder) into his backpack, and Todd handed out flashlights to everyone. Then we set off down the trail.

For the past two hours, Bernie has led us down miles of dark trails. We’ve walked to the historic stone house by the lake, to the spot where Bernie and Nancy had their sighting, to the entrance of the caves that have the most nightly Bigfoot activity. We’ve taken so many turns; I have no idea where I am.

Every once in a while, we stop so Nancy or Todd can shriek and shout gibberish into the forest. That’s how they communicate with any creatures that might be nearby. They encourage me to try it; Bigfoot is attracted to female voices. I let out a weak yelp. Nancy smiles proudly. I blush and laugh nervously, feeling totally ridiculous. Are they trying to prove something to me here? It’s really not working.

We continue tramping through the undergrowth. Todd has been talking about paranormal activity for the past half-hour. His girlfriends, he says, have never really been into Bigfoot or ghosts. He’s single at the moment. He pauses. “You know,” he says to Bernie, “you guys are lucky to have each other to do this with. It’s good to have anyone to go on these hikes with—especially someone like a mate.”

Bernie smiles.

There’s something very simple and effective about this story.

The hook is that this is a bunch of people who hike around the woods looking for Bigfoot, but it’s really about a group of people who’ve come together and found connections and community. O’Neil shows it to us rather than telling us. By the end of the piece, it doesn’t really matter if they find proof of the big hairy Sasquatch.

Read Waiting for Bigfoot →

03

Dec

“Urban Meyer Will be Home for Dinner” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day Three)

Sportswriting is often overlooked as a source of serious journalism, including long form narrative nonfiction. Yet many of my favorite nonfiction writers — Gary Smith, Gay Talese, Buzz Bissinger — have focused much of their talents on the world of sports. Wright Thompson’s “Urban Meyer Will Be Home for Dinner,” from the August 6 edition of ESPN the Magazine, is one the better recent profiles I’ve read.

This profile looks at the new coach of the Ohio State football team, starting his new job after struggling with life-threatening stress and burnout at his last job. It’s an honest look at a man who struggling to reconnect with his family and his ambition at the same time. If you’re a sports fan, as I am, a lot of Meyer’s career choices have been mocked and criticized by sports pundits (Meyer quit his job from Florida twice before retiring and unretiring to go to Ohio State); few really had any sense of what was going on with him or what was driving his decisions. This story reveals a lot about about the personal crises Meyer faced.

Urban Meyer

Photo by Jamie Sabau for ESPN The Magazine

One thing I admire about this piece is that it is a very traditional feature story; no complex structure, no deception, no literary trickery. The narrative is almost the textbook curve of a “hero’s journey.” Aside from the opening scene, it is mostly a straightforward chronological story, giving us Meyer’s history leading up to today and the conflicts in his life. Thompson offers this direct “nut graf” in the ninth paragraph:

In front of him is a second chance. Behind, there’s his old dream job in Florida, which he quit twice in a year, and the $20 million he left on the table, unable to answer the simplest of questions: Why am I doing this? During the break, he studied himself for the first time in his life, looking for a new him or maybe trying to get the old him back — the person he was before a need for perfection nearly killed him.

And Thompson employs the strongest tool for a nonfiction writer: scenes. The story if packed with little moments from Meyer’s life, flashes of emotion and experience that take the reader inside his private life. Here’s one amazing paragraph from the story, rich with detail and scenes that say so much about the young Urban Meyer and his struggles:

He discovered more than a calling in college. He met a beautiful woman named Shelley, and after he got his first job in Columbus, she moved to town. Once, a possum peeked its head over the television, and Urban and his roommates screamed and stood on the couch, yelling for Shelley, the Ohio farm girl, to do something. Urban made less than his rent. He lived on happy hour egg rolls. Staying up all night during the season, he cut 16 millimeter tape, nursing a six-pack of beer through the tedious job. He loved it. To make ends meet, he picked up shifts at Consolidated Freightways, driving a forklift. Shelley calls it his “Archie Bunker job.” He bought steel-toe boots, and three or so nights a week during the offseason, he pulled the graveyard, getting off at 6 a.m., showering and heading to the football office. At the warehouse, they got a breather about 2 a.m., those callow faces yellowed in break-room light, eating peanut butter sandwiches, maybe a bag of chips. He looked around and saw the same question on every face, one he knew they could see on his: Why am I doing this?

That paragraph is only 196 words, but consider the research and interviewing that led to it. It describes five scenes from nearly 30 years ago, and Thompson dug up details like what he ate, what he wore, and what he was thinking at the middle of the night. This little paragraph is a short story. It’s a narrative inside the narrative, beautifully written.

The close of the story is ambiguous, which isn’t surprising, because the football season is about to start, and nobody knows how this will all turn out. The story ends at a new beginning for Meyer. The future is murky and unknown, something we see in the final image from the story:

Standing before his players in the meeting room, he can smell it, hear it — feel it even, in places he doesn’t understand and can’t control. Nobody makes a sound. Meyer’s shirt is wrinkled, untucked a bit. Thick veins rise on both sides of his neck. He squints out at the team, his eyes dark, hiding everything and nothing at all.

It’s an ominous final scene. Most readers, by this time, will feel sympathetic to Meyer, hoping for him to succeed without letting his career consume his life and health, but Thompson doesn’t try to sugarcoat it: Meyer is back at work, fired up with intensity and passion, and it’s unclear if it may unravel him and his family again.

Read Urban Meyer Will Be Home for Dinner →

02

Dec

“The Bravest Woman in Seattle” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day Two)

This story, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing this year, has haunted me since I read it. It has lingered in the back of my mind and prompted me to double check the locks on my doors and windows before I go to bed. As a father, a husband, and a man, it has shaken me. It’s rare that a story can stick in your head like this, but this one did.

Eli Sanders’ “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” is riveting, horrifying, and (unexpectedly) inspiring. It’s about a terrifying crime of violence, rape, and murder, and the woman who survived (that’s not a spoiler; Sanders reveals the outcome of the crime in the fifth paragraph). The story is really two parallel narratives: the story of the two women before, during, and after the night of the crime; and the subsequent testimony of the survivor in court, where she recounted the gruesome details of that night. Those details are devastating enough. But Sanders gives you a rich sense of the two women though specific details (big and small) and anecdotes. The reader gets a sense their personalities, their relationship, and their plans for the future. But we also learn the little details: their favorite booth at a neighborhood restaurant, what they drank that night, what they ate. And as the narrative leads up to the night of the crime, the “normalness” of it all sets up the reader for the painful blow of what we know is coming:

Dinner. Then a movie that had been lying around the house for a while, a musical that made them both cry. It was around midnight. Butz checked the locks multiple times (like always), she brushed her teeth multiple times while flossing in between (like always), she took the left side of the bed (like always) right next to her water and her lip balm. Her partner took the right side of the bed (like always). They said good night.

The article doesn’t spare the reader the grim details of what the criminal did to the two women, just as the survivor didn’t spare those details to the jury and the courtroom observers. The reader is trapped there with the two victims, trying to will a way out of the nightmarish situation. Sanders takes the reader towards the end of the night, when, despite everything, there seem to still be fleeting moments of hope and humanity, a possibility that the worst is already over:

She said: “Please don’t hurt us. We’re good people.”

He said: “yeah, you seem like you’re good people. I wish we could have been friends.”

Butz replied: “yeah, I wish we could.”

“Which,” her partner said on the stand, “is exactly what she would do… Even in that moment, she wanted to make some sort of connection. She said, ‘Maybe we still can.’”

He asked: “Do I seem like a good person to you?”

“She put the tips of her fingers on his chest — I will never ever forget this — and said, ‘I am sure there is some good in here.’”

He said: “No more questions.”

I won’t go further about what happens next or how the story ends, but it’s powerful and compelling.

The structure of the story makes it devastatingly effective. The reader starts out with the knowledge of what happens by the end of the night, but not the details or the people involved. Then Sanders winds back the narrative and introduces us to the victims, making them very real people, with hopes, passions, and plans for the future. And after that, the crime itself is unveiled in an unblinking fashion, through the testimony of the survivor on the witness stand. We can only imagine the courage and pain it took for the victim to recount her story in front of her family and a room full of witnesses. And it tells us even more about the woman we met earlier in the story, before all this happened.

I’m not surprised that this story won the Pulitzer. It’s a difficult story to read, but a fine example of a nonfiction feature that can tell a story with genuine depth and emotional power, without being sentimental or over-written. The language is very spare and direct; there are few artistic flourishes or showy literary techniques. Sanders smartly avoids all that and delivers a devastating story with raw, simple language and a methodical, unflinching chronological narrative. The story doesn’t need clever wording or phrasing; the truth is enough. More than enough.

Read “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” →

01

Dec

“How to Build An American Car” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day One)

Buried near the back of the October 2012 issue of Esquire, parked behind articles about Clint Eastwood, Mitt Romney, and vodka, is “How to Build An American Car,” a beautiful look at the people behind a new model of Cadillac.

A story like this could be dull and tedious. Manufacturing is not usually a sexy, interesting topic. And a story about a new automobile sounds like something you’d read only if you were trapped in a dental office with no other option. But this is a brilliant work of research and writing by author Justin Heckert.

The story of the Cadillac ATS is really the stories of all the people who created it. It’s about people like Taki Karras, the designer who created the look of the car; Rick Kewley, the man who tests the steering wheel; Matt Highstrom and Cody Hansen who developed the on-screen interface, Ray Kiefer who designed the seat, Michele Killen who developed and picked the colors of the paint, and Stacey Silver, who installs parts of the taillights on the assembly line.

Nine photos of workers who created the car

Photo by Andrew Tingle

What makes Heckert’s story so effective is all the rich background and anecdotes we get on the people featured in the story. It’s a dozen personal profiles packed into a single story. Short-form and long-form collide.

For example, when he writes about Rick Kewley, the steering wheel expert, he describes Kewley’s hands, and how they compared to the hands of his father, also an autoworker:

Outstretched, the end of Rick Kewley’s pinkie to the tip of his thumb measures ten inches. He uses this measurement when he’s at Lowe’s looking for hardware, and he has been aware of that distance ever since his fingers stopped growing. He has a story about his hands. It’s short and sweet. When he was a boy, his father would place his hand and his son’s side by side, as a way to check how much the adolescent Kewley had grown. At some point a long time ago, Rick’s hands became larger than his father’s. Now Rick’s son, by the same measuring method, already has hands slightly larger than his.

When we meet Taki Karras, the designer who came up the with the shape and body for the car, we learn about his childhood in Dayton, Ohio and his early fascination with cars and design:

His father owned a grocery store in Dayton, Ohio, called Karras Market, on Wilmington Pike. There was a magazine rack at the store. Taki couldn’t reach the top row, which was stocked with auto magazines, so he used to ask people in the store for them, used to point. He would draw sketches of cars in the break room of the grocery store, Lamborghinis, Lotuses, cars people only dream of. One summer, when he was eleven, he was on a flight home from Greece with his family, and he was holding a toy Ferrari. A woman sitting next to him asked, “Do you want me to draw that for you?” She was an artist. She spent the flight staring at the toy Ferrari and working at her seat on the pull-down tray. When the flight was almost over, she handed him the finished picture as a gift.

Later, Heckert takes us on the road with the on-screen user experience designers and lets us ride along as they meet and study real-world drivers:

Cody met a man with a parrot. This was in San Francisco. The man with the parrot drove an old Infiniti. As he was driving, he turned to Cody, who was silently watching him, taking notes on a digital sketchbook. The man looked at a regular button on the side of his stick shift. He pointed to the button. “This is my Turbo button!” he said, and turned again toward the road. After their ride, Cody went into the man with the parrot’s apartment. They were sitting on a couch amid the clutter, facing each other. The man with the parrot was talking about his fiancée. How she liked to sunbathe in the nude. The parrot took a giant shit on his shoulder and he just kept talking.

Matt and Cody and the other members of the team met people who yelled at their kids. Who texted while driving. Who talked on the phone so much that members of team Journey wanted to stop taking notes and smack them. One woman asked the man next to her at a stoplight if he wanted to go on a date.

What makes this story brilliant is that it’s assembled with characters and little stories and moments like these that make it all a rich, human experience and puts faces on what would typically be an invisible, hidden process. Structurally, the story goes through the car, piece by piece, and we find out about real people who have some role in those parts. In the end, when Heckert describes the first-ever model of the Cadillac ATS coming off the assembly line and driving off into the world, the reader that every new car has hundeds of human stories behind it.

Read “How to Build An American Car” →

16

Nov

Dissecting Gladwell’s take on Football and Dog Fighting

Malcolm GladwellOne of the writers I most admire is Malcolm Gladwell, a regular contributor to the New Yorker and the author of the Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers. His insightful writing explores big ideas through deep research and reporting, linking together seemingly disconnected events and ideas. In one piece, he ties together the biblical story of David and Goliath, Lawrence of Arabia, and a girls basketball team in northern California… and it makes sense.

His most recent New Yorker article, “Offensive Play” asks the question “how different are dogfighting and football.” The piece is alarming, fascinating, and effective. It doesn’t just try to provoke the reader with a provocative comparison for the take of being sensationalistic: Gladwell reveals that football, at almost every level, is much more brutal and damaging than most of us fans would like to realize. He doesn’t just make an argument: he tells stories, and builds a case, piece by piece.  Gladwell would have made a fine prosecutor.

Tim Wendel,  one of my mentors at Johns Hopkins, once advised us that when we see an article that blows us away, we should go back and rip the story apart, dissecting it to see how the author put it together and why it works so well.  Wendel described how earlier in his career, he literally cut up good nonfiction magazine stories into chunks of paper and spread those snippets out on a table to study how it all fit together.

So let me briefly do my dissection of “Offensive Play” here.  First here’s a brief outline of the piece:

  • Scene: former NFL player Kyle Turley melts down at a bar
  • Description and background on Turley
  • Turley’s experience isn’t an anomaly: background and description of other NFL players who suffered from similar mental and physical problems after their careers
  • Quotes and more first-hand stories from Turley
  • Shift to background and summary of Michael Vick dogfighting trial and sentencing, followed by his recent reinstatement into the league
  • Background on dogfighting
  • Detailed, graphic description of a dog fight
  • Transition: back from dogfighting to football: what is a “morally acceptable” sport?
  • Shifts to medical research on dementia & Alzheimer’s; physical indications of neurological problems caused by head trauma
  • Introduces researcher who found connections between ex-boxers and ex-football players and brain injuries
  • Introduces second researcher who further found links between football players and high frequencies of neurological disorders; symptoms described echo those of Turley in the opening scene
  • Description of how findings of symptoms match Turley’s breakdown
  • Description of second researcher & her office.  Would she advise her own son to play in the NFL?  She’d tell him no, “Not if you want to have a life after football.”
  • Transition: moving from research of sports injury risks and how other sports handle them. Is the injury risk inherent to the sport, like dogfighting, or can it be reduced?
  • Example of how NASCAR improve safety after death of Dale Earnhardt
  • Background, history on football and long-standing concerns about injury risks
  • Examination of football injury research at UNC; how researchers determine that a routine tackle or a block can be the physical equivalent of being in a car accident
  • Key take-away from UNC research: it’s not just one or two big hits that damage players; it’s the cumulative effect of countless “little” hits as well
  • Also: Helmets can only help so much:  players today are too big, too fast
  • Transition:  back to Vick’s surviving dogs; how the most prized dogs were bred & trained for “gameness” and willingness to fight
  • Transition: linking the “gameness” of dogs to the “gameness” of NFL players;  back to Turley and the pressure to play “all out” despite injuries; anecdotes from final, painful days of his career
  • Transition: Ira Casson, chair of an NFL committee on brain injuries, and the limits of what can be done
  • Closing thought that the sport won’t be changed or eliminated any time soon, as so many fans love the sport, in spite of what it does to the players
  • Echoes his closing thought with a quote from a book on dogfighting that describes the passion of the spectators

The story is just short of 8000 words, but it’s a fast, gripping read.  Why does it work?

First, reporting matters. Gladwell doesn’t just sit at his laptop and argue against the brutality of football and warn that it does lasting damage to players.  Above all else, the story is reported well.  He talks to three medical and science experts, two former football players, a trainer who is trying to rehabilitate Vick’s former dogs, and an expert on the business of NFL football.  He also digs into the history of football, the nature of dog fighting, NASCAR safety issues, and the Michael Vick case.  He can quote both what the NFL commissioner said about Vick and what Teddy Roosevelt said about the sport in 1905.  In short, Gladwell dug through old documents, talked to people, and asked a lot of questions to collect the raw materials for his story.

Second, scenes move the story.  The piece is loaded with science, research data, and historical information, but scenes drive the narrative.  By my count, there are at least twelve scenes in the story, moments that he vividly recreates for the reader.

Third, characters count.  Gladwell doesn’t merely quote the people he interviews; he shows them. The reader gets a vivid idea of what Turley looks and sounds like.  We see researcher McKee’s office, which includes a statuette of Brett Favre on a shelf.  We don’t just hear about Vick’s dogs; Gladwell shows them playing with a trainer in Utah.  All of this humanizes and deepens the story.  The human characters put a face on the scientific, medical side of the story: he uses Turley’s experience as bookends to the piece.

Finally, he shows more than he tells.  Gladwell doesn’t rail against football or dogfighting; rather, he lays out the evidence and the connections and largely lets them speak for themselves.  He closes with the disturbing idea that we hate dogfighting because of the suffering and harm it does to the dogs, but love football, despite the apparent long-term suffering it inflicts on many of its players.  He paints the connections that he discovers, but doesn’t overstep his role and hammer those findings into his audience.

Gladwell leaves the readers in a troubling spot: he doesn’t provide any real solution to the problem, but nonetheless makes the compelling case that the sport is possibly every bit as cruel and harmful as dog fighting.  He shows that the reader complicit in the problem, then leaves them on their own to decide what should happen next.

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.

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