The following was New York Times Magazine editor Gerald Marzorati's keynote address at the 2009 CASE Editors' Forum.
I watch what people read. Everywhere I go. Obsessively. Furtively. Seeing what they are reading, I pass judgments quickly and with confidence. I establish imaginary relationships: I used to get crushes on women who were reading Proust, or Baudelaire, or a recent issue of French Vogue. I am not impressed by men who carry big Lincoln biographies onto planes. I’m afraid of people who spend too long with a page of Dostoevsky. A young person immersed in a volume of poetry give me hope. I would trust leaving my children with anyone who can fold a broadsheet newspaper properly.
One afternoon last September I was on a long line to order lunch at this little health-food takeout place next to the old Times Building on 43rd Street. A guy in front of me – early 20s, tall, hip -- was intently reading his Blackberry, holding it up to his face, his nose nearly pressed against it. I watched what he was reading, or strained to -- a Blackberry has no cover or front-page or other tip-off to what the text might be. It was more than a message he was reading – I could see that. It was long, and he was scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. As we both got to the counter, I sort of sidled to his left, making like I was checking out the day’s soups, and it was then I got a clear glimpse of what he’d been engrossed in: It was that week’s cover story of my magazine. And about what he was reading – was doing – I have yet to come to any clear judgment, though I do have this feeling that I better.
The piece he was reading was, essentially, a narrative journey through the tribal areas of Pakistan that border Afghanistan. It was becoming clear by early last summer, when we assigned the piece, that that part of the world was the real front in what had come to be called the War on Terror. It was a dangerous and remote place, and it was where the Taliban, and remnants of Al Qaeda’s original leadership, and all types of other militant Islamicists, had come to find a safe haven. The piece was the first big non-fiction magazine narrative about what we called Talibanistan – nearly 10,000 words long. My first thought, understanding what the guy had up on his tiny Blackberry screen, was: why would anyone want to read 10,000 words of anything that way? That way meant no tactile feeling of paper, of turning pages forward and sometimes back; no display type; no photographs – incredible photographs, in this case, by the award-winning Lyndsey Adadario; not even any line breaks in the text to give you a sense of the shape and pace the writer had carefully crafted for the piece.
The author was Dexter Filkins. Just a few weeks earlier, he had published his first book, The Forever War, a long and personal narrative mostly about the Iraq war built around three previous pieces he had written for the Times Magazine, and other material he had gathered as the Times’s chief war correspondent in the wake of 9/11. In an essay about the book that had just appeared on the front page of the Times Book Review, the novelist Robert Stone had compared Filkins’s book to that great volume of Vietnam reportage, Dispatches, by Michael Herr. Each was a classic, the one book that found a voice to speak of a generation’s war, Stone wrote. Stone was arguing that these books were literature, non-fiction literature, and that their authors were something more than reporters conveying information.
I had first read Herr’s Vietnam reportage, the stuff he built his book from and around, in several issues of Esquire magazine when I was in high school. I had sat in my room in New Jersey and maybe put on the Beatles White album not too loud and then read slowly and carefully the way I might the Jane Austin I was working through in my English class. We are all unreliable narrators of our own narratives, but I like to tell myself – and now I am telling you – that there is some connection between reading Michael Herr then, and in that way, and the fact that I have spent nearly 30 years editing long-form magazine writing. What I am also conveying to you, I think you are sensing, is that that guy with the Blackberry reading Dexter Filkins’s piece on a tiny screen on a lunch line really got under my skin. All the Capital “A” art and aspirational stuff about the Michael Herrs and Dexter Filkins’s, the Big Meaning long-form non-fiction that I had spent my life thinking was this very particular American literary form, had now been reduced to a blur of pixels being thumb-scrolled like my sons’ youth-coded text messages and twitter tweets. On the other hand, he WAS reading the piece, wasn’t he?
And one more thing about Blackberry Dude: He wasn’t paying to read it. He hadn’t bought the Sunday Times. Maybe a Google search had somehow brought him to the piece and he had only the vaguest idea it had appeared in my magazine. Or maybe a friend had e-mailed it to him. Whatever, the fact that reporting of the kind that long-form journalism requires costs lots and lots of money was surely not being communicated out there in Webland. Paying for what now gets called content – that wasn’t cool. But if more and more people were going to be reading on line, and, thus, fewer and fewer people were going to be paying for this kind of journalism, how could it survive? Blackberry Dude, it turned out, was a bigger threat to me than any weirdo fervidly reading Dostoyevsky.
As I said, I have spent almost all my professional life – at Harper’s Magazine, then the New Yorker, and for the past 15 years at the Times Magazine – working in one way or another editing pieces of long-form magazine journalism. And now I am worried -- not panicked but worried – that I and the dwindling others who do what I do will be turning out the lights on it all before long. But let’s start at the beginning, not the end. Let me spend some time explaining why I think this kind of journalism matters. And before I do that, maybe I should try to establish what it is I mean by long-form magazine journalism.
By non-fiction, of course, I mean prose that is based on facts, on material selected from (and remaining a verifiable part of) what we call the real world. No invention here. Nothing largely out of the author’s mind – like a straight-on essay. Just the reported facts. But NOT just the facts. Because in long-form journalism – and by long-form I mean here pieces of 8 or 10 or 15 thousand words, sometimes even more -- in long-form journalism there can be a tremendous amount of invention brought to bear on how a piece is organized, on how its story-telling armature is constructed, on what voice is arrived at, and on what style inhabits the sentences. There is art in the presentation, or, more accurately, the re-presentation. These long-form pieces are not the sort of news stories you read in your paper – though let me be clear that I love newspapers. What I mean is that these are not stories with a summary of what is coming placed at the top, with the facts then arranged in descending order of importance. These are narratives.
A long form magazine piece, for example, may be built on a series of scenes that dramatize the material. Such scenes situate a character, and situate you, the reader – you and the subject of the piece are contextualized, brought INTO the piece. And scenes bring the time frame, the period under discussion, ALIVE. I’m going to give examples here from the Times Magazine, because it is the magazine I know most intimately. A lively example of this sort of scene –driven journalism is a portrait we published last April of Chris Matthews, the MSNBC host, written by Mark Leibovich, a Times Washington reporter, and last week nominated for a National Magazine Award for profile writing. The piece opens in a so called spin room after a Democratic presidential candidates’ debate in Cleveland – spin rooms tend to be bland ballrooms or gyms or the like where the candidates handlers try to spin reporters about who won the debate and such. The piece about Matthews, which unfolds over weeks in the narrative, eventually moves to a hotel bar, then on to Matthews offices at MSNBC, then to the set of his show “Hardball”, and finally to his home . Here, in essence, is his universe, and from the carefully re-created settings of these places, and the people encountered by both the author and Matthews himself in these settings – people watched and quoted as they interact with Matthews -- we come to a sense of this man: A convincing sense of what he thinks and does.
Other magazine pieces, like the one by Dexter Filkins I mentioned about the Afghan-Pakistan border region (it just got a National Magazine Award nomination, too, for reporting), are organized around a journey, with the reporter as our Virgil. Then there are pieces built upon what is called simultaneous narration - -that is, narrating consecutively what different individuals are doing at the same time. In the fall of 2005, we published an 18,000 word story – one of the longest pieces the Times Magazine has ever run, a grand narrative of survival – on the lives of six men and women who were in the town of Banda Aceh in Indonesia the day after Christmas, 2004, when the tsunami hit. Over the years, I’ve edited pieces built on interior monologue, sequential narration and other techniques. My point is not to turn this into an English class. My point is to make the case that this sort of magazine writing is stuff that the people who do it take very seriously, and they take it seriously for one reason, in the end – to engage you, the reader. The bet is that the narratives they so carefully construct draw you in, get you hooked, get you to identify with people and places, keep you there to the end. Pieces like the ones I’ve briefly described may take up to an hour, or more, for you to finish. They require a lot of you. The payoff is that the facts you learn in the reading of such pieces stay with you, nudge your understanding of the world a little. I worry that this experience will not survive in the Information Technology Age. I am not at all sure you want to or can stick with pieces like this reading on a smart phone.
But let me finish a thought here by saying what is required of the writer of such a long-form magazine piece. Always, always, it requires a tremendous amount of reporting. Weeks and weeks of reporting. Hanging out with the subject of your piece, hoping some scene will emerge that because of where it is and what the dialogue is, will reveal that subject. Journeying to all sorts of places, hoping the trip will encounter drama, and meaning. Painstakingly re-creating a moment – like the one when the tsunami hit – through hundreds of interviews. It is arduous, all this reporting. The weeks, the months. And all this time, of course, costs money. A typical cover story in the Times Magazine, when you add up what we pay the author and what the expenses for travel are - -and this leaves out the editing and fact-checking costs, the photography, and so on - - the tally is north of $40,000, and often, if a war zone is involved, considerably more. Do we still have the time to report and read such pieces? And will we have the money? If the reader is an on-line reader, paying nothing, who is going to foot the bill?
I suggested earlier that I think the kind of journalism I have been talking about is a distinctly American form – a modern American form. Why is it that long-form magazine journalism has thrived here and not elsewhere, and why in the past fifty years or so, and not before? Which isn’t to say there were no antecedents, here or elsewhere. We could start in 1722, which saw the publication of Daniel DeFoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. While technically a work of fiction, it drew heavily on Defoe’s uncle’s diary to re-create that uncle’s life in England during the Black Plague of of 1665, and the scenes DeFoe writes strike me as great proto-non-fiction narrative journalism. I feel the same way about Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Notebook, his finely observed literary sketches of mid-19th century peasant lives in Russia (first published in a Moscow magazine) , and, closer to home , Stephen Crane’s prose portraits of ordinary city people – workers, immigrants, the poorest of the poor -- that he published in a variety of New York newspapers in the 1890s. Crane in particular, I think, was pointing the way to the kind of magazine journalism I am talking about this afternoon. In a time of muckrakers, he was not a muckraker. There is nothing polemical in his writing, as there was in the writing of, say, Lincoln Steffens. What Crane was after was a kind of close-in clarity, a sense of felt detail. He wasn’t trying, on the page, to covert the reader to a cause. What he was after was a mix of anthropology and phenomenology. As the critic Alan Trachtenberg has written, Crane, in his lengthy newspaper stories, wanted to arrange facts and observations in a way that ultimately transformed information into experience. And that, in essence, is what long-form magazine journalism is about.
With the exception of the tradition of British travel writing, this kind of writing has had no European counterpart – and, for that matter, no counterpart anywhere else in the world. Magazines in Germany and France print long articles, but these pieces are largely essayistic and always fiercely subjective. Nor do they trouble the reader with scenes or narrative. Reporting, when there is reporting, remains firmly at the service of ideas and theories. It should prove my point that the only European magazine to do otherwise has been the British quarterly Granta, which was revived in its present form by an American, Bill Buford.
What brought long-form magazine writing into being in America was, I would argue, the essentially empirical and pragmatic nature of our culture – its distaste for, and distrust of, abstraction and ideology. Ours is a huge land and one of constant change. It is a fluid nation where class divisions are never static – which has made it a tough place to write as Balzac and Zola wrote. We crave stories – all cultures do – but we also crave facts. Lots of facts. And facts are more compelling, easier to digest, when arranged narratively.
So this magazine writing I’m talking about: When does it actually begin to appear? Many, I suspect, would disagree, but I’d say, quite precisely, that it begins on August 31, 1946. Let me set the scene first. America is a largely literate and relatively prosperous country. It has a flourishing magazine culture – magazines being a terrific vehicle for increasingly national advertisers to reach increasingly affluent consumers. America at the end of World War II is now the most powerful nation on earth – it has even more to know about itself. And in the August 31, 1946 issue of The New Yorker, those literate enough and prosperous enough to buy it learn over the course of tens of thousands of words what it was like one year before when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The article was written by John Hersey. It took up the entire editorial space of the issue. Hersey had interviewed hundreds of survivors, but told the story of six, in suspense-filled simultaneous narration. It read – and still reads-- like a gripping novella.
The issue sold out on newsstands within hours. Albert Einstein acquired 1,000 copies. ABC cancelled all its regular radio broadcasts on four successive evenings to read the work over the air to millions. Oh, to be a magazine editor then.
Long-form journalism of this kind slowly spread in the Fifties beyond the New Yorker to magazines like the Atlantic and the Saturday Evening Post, but it was in the early 1960s that it really exploded as a genre, with the advent of the so-called New Journalism – Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Michael Herr writing for Esquire; Joan Didion and Gary Wills at the Saturday Evening Post; New Yorker writers like John McPhee. Magazines were as flush as they ever would be, and other forms of journalism, particularly the suddenly important medium of TV news, were not equipped the way a single writer willing to report for weeks or months was to get behind the scenes in Hollywood (think of Gay Talese’s famous portrait of Frank Sinatra) or inside a subculture (think of Didion’s foray into the summer of love here in Haight-Ashbery).
At the same time, the culture seemed to welcome these long-form journalists – access for magazine journalists was, by today’s standards, readily available, and the world of publicists and press secretaries was in its infancy. When my old boss at Harper’s Magazine, Lewis Lapham, was writing for the Saturday Evening Post in the early 1960s, he was assigned a profile of the new president, Lyndon Johnson. After a few phone calls, he arranged a trip to Texas to golf 18 holes with the president – just the two of them, alone together for hours, with some secret service types roaming the fairways. When I went to Washington several months after President Bush was elected, I met with Karen Hughes, then his communications director, to discuss what sort of access to the President I could expect if we decided to do a cover story on him. During the 1970s, John Hersey had written a cover story for the Times Magazine on President Ford and in the course of reporting it had spent a week in the White House. Hughes reached into her briefcase and pulled out the current issue of Time magazine with a portrait of Bush on the cover. “You know how much time they got with the President for their cover story? She asked, and grinned, coolly. “Fifteen minutes on Air Force One.”
Access today is a problem, but not the biggest problem. There are still places in today’s culture where access is NOT a problem, and it is in those places where what has been called the NEW new journalism has been flourishing. I would point to the realm of health and science, and the remarkable long-form journalism of the New Yorker writer and author of The Hot Zone Richard Preston along with the work in my magazine of my good friend Michael Pollan on the way we raise our food and eat. How about sports, which is America’s chief form of popular culture today: Michael Lewis may be the best long-form journalist to ever write about sports. Katherine Boo, Adrian LeBlanc, Jason DeParle and Alex Kotlowitz have done memorable work about the poor, who are not only always with us but ready to open up their lives to magazine journalists. And I would suggest that when you gather the pieces about Iraq and Afghanistan and now Pakistan by Dexter Filkins, the New Yorker’s George Packer, The Atlantic’s Mark Bowden, and others, you will see that we are in a golden age of long-form war reporting. And I feel compelled to mention that in our new wars, more than ever before, reporting is terribly, terribly difficult, thanks in no small part to our government, and terribly, terribly dangerous, thanks to those Islamicists who harbor a deadly hatred of journalism – the very idea of it -- and those who create it. When Dexter Filkins was reporting that piece along the Afghan-Pakistan border, he barely escaped a kidnapping.
Which brings me back to my Blackberry Dude at the health-food place, reading long-form journalism on-line. I happen to know that he is not alone. Tens of thousands of people read our cover story on line each week, sometimes hundreds of thousands. I’m not sure who they are, exactly, but I do know – because you can track these things on the Web -- that many of them live in places where the print version of the magazine is simply not available, places in the United States for sure but also places around the world. I suspect a fair number of these readers are printing the stories out – I’ve seen them on subways and in airports – but I imagine that most of them are like my teenage sons and are undaunted by having to click 25 times or more to get through a cover-length piece. This is good news, I think: The conventional wisdom that the Internet was not friendly to any piece of prose longer than a few hundred words has not been borne out at the Times Magazine site. Our most popular pieces are the longest.
And we are doing some interesting things of late to enhance their reading – or it it viewing? – experience. We sprinkle links throughout the on-line versions of our pieces, embed video form time to time in the text, provide a space for reader comments and often have the author of that week’s cover story available on the site to take questions for a few days. We’ve also gotten into the habit of putting a particularly topical piece up on-line early – several days before the Sunday print magazine – in order to generate interest from bloggers and more mainstream outlets like NPR and the Today Show. This sort of publicity can , in turn, generate a conversation that drives readers to the print publication. We editors are all publishers and publicists now, too – no more of that just sitting with a pencil in your office stuff – and I’m OK with that, if the work I and my staff have worked hard to create and believe strongly in gets before more eyeballs as a result.
But, to return to where I began, what are those eyeballs, those readers, experiencing, and what is there relationship to the magazine out there in cyberspace?
This is what I can’t measure. But my gut feeling is one of queasiness. That man or woman out there scrolling or clicking through a long piece – what is his or her connection to the piece’s origins, shape, context in a publication? Can these sorts of things mean anything to someone not encountering the piece in a physical, tangible magazine? And without that object, which has traditionally come wrapped in a Sunday New York Times, how is the reader able to comprehend the authority behind the words – the painstaking quest (never wholly achieved, of course) for accuracy and fairness? And without BUYING that object as part of the Sunday Times, how is that on-line reader to understand that this piece of long-form journalism is not simply a lengthy riff written by someone at his laptop in pajamas, but an expensively produced report? Would he or she ever agree to pay for that story? How much?
My guess is these questions are going to be answered in the next four or five years. I hope an editor is standing before a group like this sometime in the second Obama Administration discussing how a rejuvenated economy has brought about a flourishing multi-media magazine culture. Maybe she will be demonstrating how easy it is to make micro-payments for individual magazine pieces, and how this new version of the Kindle built just for magazines has found a whole new audience for long-form journalism. Maybe shoe wouldn’t even be in the auditorium, but simply conferencing everyone from her Blackberry. I wouldn’t mind, really. As long as there was still long-form journalism around to conference about.