Editor and journalist Ian Jack examines the history of long form journalism, what the phrase means and why it’s more talked about than written.
There’s a fashion for ‘long form journalism’. On recent visits to India I’ve heard the phrase a lot, though it’s also common in Britain and of course in its birthplace, America.
What is it? The answer ‘a long piece of journalism’ doesn’t take us very far. What do we mean by ‘long’ or ‘journalism’? The first is easier to answer. ‘Long’ in this context can mean anything from around 5,000 to 25,000 words, or (to give a sense of scale) a piece of writing about 5 to 25 times the average length of an opinion column in an intelligent British newspaper such as The Guardian or the Financial Times. But what do we mean by ‘journalism’, a word that can apply to anything published in a journal aka a periodical, ranging from a learned essay to a dispatch from a football game, online and off. The answer here, I think, is that we mean reporting, the process by which a writer informs herself/himself about a subject by going into the world to see things and talk to people. By this definition, long form journalism would probably exclude a 10,000-word disquisition on, say, Wordsworth’s poetry but it would certainly include 10,000 words on, say, a controversy over Wordsworth’s relations with his sister, in which the writer followed a journey made by the pair and interviewed various Wordsworth experts and persuaded them to say clever or ridiculous things.
To me, then, the phrase means a piece that registers the writer’s encounter with the world in an open, interesting and (not least) understandable way. It might be investigative – wondering why and how something happened. It might be descriptive – an account of a journey or a conversation. Often it will be a mixture of both. Its structure might be divided by scene or by argument – again often a mixture of both. Other names for it such as ‘literary’ or ‘narrative’ reporting suggest that its standards of writing and storytelling should be high.
Its modern origins as a form or genre lie in American magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly that were established in the last century for a largely metropolitan audience that wanted a deeper appreciation of topical subjects than a newspaper article could offer. These readers were among the most prosperous and leisured in the world, often spending many hours every week on commuter trains – hours that needed filling. They were offered pieces that had been expensively researched, diligently edited, pedantically fact-checked. Writers were given time. A New Yorker writer, for example, might write no more than three or four long pieces a year. Some writers wrote rather less – one of them, Joseph Mitchell, famously went every day to his office at The New Yorker till the end of his life, and yet published nothing during his last 32 years.
This was a difficult model of literary production to export – it cost so much in writer’s fees and editorial time – but it began to find exponents in Britain when the first Sunday colour magazines were published in the 1960s. Advertising revenue gave them generous editorial budgets that afforded photographers such as Don McCullin and writers such as Norman Lewis and James Fox. The literary magazine Granta didn’t have so much money to spend but at least it had the pages to fill, and in the 1980s it too found room for long pieces of reporting. James Fenton’s The Fall of Saigon became a classic of its kind. Outside the English language, however, there have been few practitioners – in Germany, France and Spain it tends to be essays and extended interviews that find favour rather than reports. The late Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish foreign correspondent, was a notable exception, but the work we remember him for was almost always first published in books.
Now, mainly thanks partly to its presence on American writing courses and the enthusiasm of a Delhi monthly called The Caravan, long-form reporting has found Indian exponents too, though not as many as the phrase’s currency there might suggest. The truth is that it can probably never become a genuinely popular thing. Researching and writing a story takes time, and time is money; very few magazines, not excepting The New Yorker, these days make enough profit to pay writers a dollar or a pound a word plus their travel expenses, which means that either the writer or the magazine’s philanthropic owner must subsidize the project. Online publishing provides limitless outlets for reported pieces – length no object – but online publishing doesn’t pay the hotel bill, the train fares and the rent. Lastly, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Fifteen thousand word pieces need different and slower literary techniques than 1,000 word ones: they aren’t simply the shorter length multiplied by 15. And because there is so little demand and so little opportunity to practice, learning the craft is difficult.
Over the past 30-odd years I’ve written as well as edited many pieces of ‘long form’ without realizing it had a name – at The Sunday Times, Granta and elsewhere. Some people do it superbly: my favourites include Ian Parker and Janet Malcolm, both of whom write for The New Yorker. If you want to see how to do it, these are the names to read. Then again, you might just as well read them for pleasure
Ian Jack has edited The Independent on Sunday and Granta magazine and now writes a column for The Guardian. His long-form reporting includes pieces on the Hatfield train crash, the SAS killings in Gibraltar and the cult of the Titanic. He recently returned to Granta to guest-edit a special issue devoted to India.