Last month on TheAtlantic.com, editor-in-chief James Bennet posted “Against ‘Long-Form Journalism’“. The online essay is an adaptation of an introduction he wrote for Best American Magazine Writing 2013.
Bennet is not opposed to longer works (his own piece runs 1,850 words). He argues that the use of ‘long-form’ to convey weight or seriousness is a step in the wrong direction for journalists and journalism:
The magazine industry is moving past lazy dichotomies of print versus digital to a fusion of old values, ambitions, and techniques with new ways and means of reporting and storytelling. This is a hard transition, obviously, but, equally obviously, there’s no going back. As journalists—people whose job it has always been to go out and learn something new every day—we shouldn’t be in a defensive crouch; we should be on the attack.
The editor then makes a case for what he thinks would be a more expansive term:
[T]here’s another perfectly good, honorable name for this kind of work—the one on the cover of the anthology that gathers together all the great pieces I’ve mentioned. You might just call it magazine writing. And get on with it.
I’m sold on the idea that journalism is not necessarily a function of length. I particularly like Bennet’s notion that journalists are “people whose job is to go out and learn something new every day” (and presumably share that with the rest of us).
What surprises me, though, is his notion that we might call it “magazine” writing. As much as digital access has changed journalism, that feels like a drop in the bucket when thinking about how much it has changed the notion of a magazine. When it comes to “moving past lazy dichotomies,” we might want to start with the unquestioned primacy of containers as an organizing principle.