I’m a fan of long-form journalism. I commission, edit and publish it at The Fence magazine. I even enjoy reading it – most of the time. But there is a tendency, sometimes, for such pieces to be ornate, obtuse, and often, quite frankly, too long. I wanted to find out what other editors and writers at other more influential publications felt, and how they divine the future for long-form journalism in the British mediascape, and whether there are too many furtive glances Stateside, where the format is a jewel in the country’s literary culture.
The Financial Times and The Guardian are the two newspapers with flagship long-read platforms, and, interestingly, there are two American editors near the helm: Jonathan Shainin, a former editor at the New Yorker, moved to London in 2014 to set up the game-changing Guardian Long Read, and is now the paper’s head of special projects. Matt Vella, formerly of Time magazine, became editor of the FT Magazine two years ago.
Both of them underline the significant differences between the American and British markets. In the UK, there are spiky broadsheets competing fiercely for the same readership in a small island, whereas in the vast continent of America, establishment newspapers represent each city, with the Los Angeles Times infrequently crossing swords or subjects with the Boston Globe (in the pre-digital era). The idea of feature writing, Shainin insists, is a different tradition in the States, and is defined not by length, but by the way articles are commissioned and reported.
Tellingly, all of the famous practitioners of New Journalism – Joan Didion, Hunter S Thompson and Tom Wolfe – made their names as magazine writers, where publications like Esquire and The Nation were responding to the staid rigour of the US newspapers; while in the UK, the whole concept of feature writing, of writing at length, is a newspaper tradition.
There is a feeling that the Fleet Street heritage encourages British editors to commission soft-soap profiles of celebrities or political figures too frequently, as opposed to running riskier, more ambitious material. Subject matter is one thing – range is another.
Jonathan Beckman, editor of 1843 Magazine, says: “Britain is temperamentally unsuited to long-form journalism… the stories in the States tend to be more garish, more gothic”.
There are practicalities, too. Samira Shackle, a regular writer for the Guardian Long Read, tells me: “Just recently I had to abandon a story I was scoping out, which was based around a recent court case, as the only way to get transcripts from the court would be to pay for transcription at a cost of £180 per hour plus VAT. Given that the court sits for four to five hours a day and this trial lasted four weeks, it’s entirely prohibitive.”
Most of the editors I spoke to averred that there is a very small talent pool of journalists capable of long-form writing in Britain. The skillset is considerable: you must have the ability to write lucid prose, report assiduously, organise your materials – which can be particularly tricky when lawyers get involved – and deal with the harsh realities of the editing process, and the ever-likely possibility that your piece might get spiked at any moment, leaving your months of hard work unrewarded.
Which brings us neatly to every writer’s favourite subject: money. So many people are drawn to American publications because they pay much more. There are many outlets that will pay more than a dollar a word. The New York Times Magazine, I am told, pays up to $2.75 per word. In the UK, there are, by my impolite enquiries, six major publications that will pay more than 40p per word. At the top of the tree, the market leader is Granta, which has a new rate of 85p per word.
But the magazine fee can be just the starter: the rich promise of podcast syndications and TV and film options beckon – though this has led, in writer Simon Akam’s view, to an increasing number of journalists trying to pen capers. Someone who does that pretty damn well is Jeff Maysh, a former staff writer at Loaded who has scored, by his count, ten option rights on articles he’s written, including one for $1m – a fair bounty indeed for an 8,700-word feature.
But Maysh is an outlier. Many freelance writers will only have the capacity to execute three or four major pieces a year, if that. A delay in publication, which is common, will mean a delay in payment. While in the States, as Samira Shackle says, “you might have a contract more akin to a book contract where you’re paid part of the fee on delivering a first draft”.
Vella agrees: “In general, the rates are too low. If the only people who can afford to write are people who are independently wealthy, then you won’t have a vibrant journalism scene.” It’s not just the writers who suffer. American publications are better resourced, with squads of skilled senior editors, hoovering up errors and questioning misplaced commas.
Back on this side of the pond, it is worth noting that many of the leading current affairs magazines eschew length: you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything longer than 2,000 words in The Week and The Spectator, and while features are a mainstay of the Times, the Telegraph and the Sunday Times, they have yet to formulate a peer platform to match the ambitions of the Financial Times and the Guardian.
Peter Geoghegan, who has written brilliant lengthy pieces for the London Review of Books and other outlets, is the editor-in-chief of Open Democracy, and tells me that he’s not planning to publish them on his own patch, as they are just “too expensive, especially the high-quality stuff”.
Some who have bet on quality online feature journalism – that’s journalism for ‘free’ – have lost out. Buzzfeed News’ Pulitzer Prize-winning team has been disbanded. Vice’s verticals snapped years ago, and the parent company, once worth billions, is now to be bought out of bankruptcy by its creditors. And at Tortoise Media, there has been a successful pivot away from long reads to podcasts, because the research showed readers were not staying with online articles to the end.
I am told that at certain broadsheets, planned expansions into long-form journalism have been scuppered, as there was a feeling that they would be loss-making. After a tough start to the millennium, many legacy publications are now in profit – lots of profit. Among their number is the leading current affairs magazine in the country, both by circulation and influence, Private Eye, which is famed for the density of its news stories, with five or six stories of 300-400 words packed into one page.
Senior hack Adam Macqueen, who has worked for the Eye since 1997, thinks that the ‘long read’ could do with a rebrand: “‘I’ll Read That Later’ might be a better title in a lot of cases – I’d put money on an awful lot of them sitting on open tabs for weeks or months like those apples people buy with their lunch with the best of intentions and then leave on their desks to go all wrinkly and finally get thrown away. Obviously, there are some fantastic examples of the genre, but mostly I think if stories can’t be told short they’re quite often probably not stories.”
At this point, it’s interesting to see just how long these magazine features are. Amia Srinivasan’s latest London Review of Books essay on free speech in university campuses clocks in at 9,974 words, just under a third of the length of Animal Farm (Mrs Dalloway is 63,422 words; The Great Gatsby is 47,094).
Melissa Denes, features editor of the New Statesman says of long reads: “They are a way of countering audience weariness, on important subjects like migration, which people are encountering every day in the news section – an in-depth piece on Channel crossings, reported with skill, will make readers engage with topics in a different way.”
While Matthew Whitehouse, editor of The Face, says the two longer pieces he publishes in each quarterly issue allow him “to turn the fashion magazine on and off – it’s something to alternate with the glossy images”.
Sophie Elmhirst, who has just delivered the definitive piece on condoms, is a regular writer at the Guardian Long Read and 1843, and feels that there is an exciting new sensibility developing in British long-form journalism, a “mercurial combination of subject and perspective, perhaps a particular tone and humour”.
Fashions ebb, tastes change. For much of the 19th century, leading British periodicals like Blackwood’s Magazine and the Edinburgh Review published lengthy essays on poetry, philosophy and other such exciting subjects. And it was just 30 years ago when a young British editor by the name of Tina Brown took the best job in American magazines: she had once described the typical story in William Shawn’s New Yorker as “a 50,000-word essay on zinc”. Who knows what alchemies and strange ironies await.
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