Some have called long-form journalism an endangered species. But ground-breaking articles requiring months of research and writing continue to appear. Why is such work important? How is it created? James Fallows and Corby Kummer of The Atlantic chart the journey of a major feature story from conception to publication and speculate about the future of long-form writing in the digital age.
Tom Levenson, Professor of Writing at MIT, served as moderator.
At Thursday’s Communications Forum, James Fallows and Corby Kummer began by discussing one of Fallows’ most famous pieces, “The Fifty First State.” Published in 2002, the piece dealt with the potential consequences of initiating a pre-emptive war in Iraq. Although The Atlantic published his article in the fall, Fallows emphasized that he began research on the piece a full ten months earlier. He conducted extensive interviews with “spies, Arabists, oil-company officials, diplomats, scholars, policy experts, and many active-duty and retired soldiers.” His interviewees were from the United States, Europe, and the Middle East and encompassed the entire political spectrum. To ensure the quality of his coverage on this important issue, Fallows opened his piece by disclosing to the reader the depth and breadth of these sources. Kummer joked that this “I-did-my-homework lede” was one of Fallows’ favorite writing strategies and was a testament to his skill and expertise as a reporter.
Fallows and Kummer also discussed the art of profile writing, comparing two vastly differently pieces by Fallows on Jerry Brown and Barack Obama. In his piece on the California governor, Fallows implied that he tried to cover both the personal and political sides of the story: his article included details on Brown’s public persona as well as Fallows’ own personal investment in the governor’s work (Fallows was born and raised in southern California) in addition to his interactions with Brown as a person. Fallows implied that he also tried to tie Brown’s profile as an individual to events of larger political significance. He wanted to compare Brown’s current term as governor to his previous incumbency and to address Brown’s approach to problems currently crippling the sunshine state. He also wanted to emphasize how problems in California were in many ways a microcosm of issues currently plaguing the entire country. To Fallows, the profile was an opportunity to do something much larger than simply sketch a public personality – it was an opportunity to tell “America’s story in the history of California.”
Fallows took a different approach with his Obama profile in March 2012. Reducing the number of direct quotes from the president to a minimum, Fallows used the profile as an opportunity to explore why incumbents are often seen as prone to failure in their second term. In contrast to what he termed the quick-and-easy “catchphrases of the foreign policy cabal,” Fallows sought to take a broader historical stance, looking at the ways the press and the public have assessed presidents at the end of their first term throughout the twentieth century. His profile described Obama’s calm and controlled personality in times of pressure a trait that Fallows likened to FDR, Truman, Clinton, and both Bushes. To Kummer, this approach to writing profiles of politicians has helped Fallows avoid the genre’s typical trap of reinforcing a “great man’s version of history.” Kummer argued that for this type of profile to work, it can’t just reinforce a cult of personality—the profile needs to use the individual as a starting point to talk about larger issues in society.
Besides discussing some of their favorite collaborations, Fallows and Kummer also talked about their approach to long-form journalism in general. Referring to the immersion required to write a well-researched story with tact and nuance, Fallows stated that he focused “not on breaking news, but breaking ideas” – using the tools of investigative reporting to synthesize and make sense of big picture trends. Fallows also confessed that he tries not to write about topics that he is wholly unfamiliar with and finds it difficult to write about a place until he has actually visited it. To Kummer, this immersion required for success in long-form is particularly difficult in a landscape rife with budget cuts and time constraints, which force journalists to settle for “the best approximation of truth with deadlines.” And yet even with the minute-by-minute and atomized approach to journalism that has overtaken most of the web, Fallows and Kummer remain generally optimistic. Despite the budget cuts and competition, they persist in their opinion that long-form, well-researched journalism will continue to play an important role well into the digital age.
Q + A
A questioner from the Sloan School of Management asked how The Atlantic is tackling the future of video and multimedia journalism. He also wondered how these forms could approach the level of research and quality which are displayed in The Atlantic’s long-form written pieces.
Fallows mentioned that he has been engaged with documentary work for a number of years, having produced a series on China for PBS and having won a New York Emmy for his documentary work. However, he also believes that the jump from being a writer to a video journalist is difficult, because they require entirely different skill sets. According to Fallows, the leap from writing to radio work is less difficult, as the skill sets are more related.
Moderator Tom Levenson agreed with Fallows, adding that it makes a lot more sense to have a team with dedicated videographers rather than a journalist who tries to take on multiple skillsets. While multi-skilling is an important trend in the journalism profession now, Levinson asserted that gaining a professional level of expertise in multimedia journalism can take a lifetime.
Seth Mnookin, Co-Director of MIT’s Science Writing Program, said that, in his experience as a journalist, it has often been a demeaning profession. He asked how Fallows and Kummer felt about that situation.
Fallows responded by saying that he thought journalism was by far the best job in the world. He cited the ability to live fifty lives within your own, travel the world, and share your opinions with a wide audience. What Mnookin calls “the demeaning factor” in journalism, Fallows actually sees in a positive light. When interviewing subjects, Fallows enjoys continually being put in the ignorant position – encountering people who know more about a subject than he does. To Fallows, this ritual ignorance is “one buffer against the big head.”
Kummer also agreed with Fallows, adding that he receives enormous pleasure from his work as an editor. He enjoys the process of being exposed to finer minds than his own and learning from his writers, in the same way a doctor learns from her patients or a teacher learns from his students.
Catherine Guthrie, a freelance science writer for fifteen years, asked Fallows and Kummer about journalism’s working poor. Listening to them reminisce about being able to jet set all over the world, she couldn’t avoid comparing those experiences to her own economic situation and those of her journalist friends who often write online articles for free. She wondered what Fallows’ and Kummer’s views were on this situation and how we can help close the gap.
Fallows agreed that this is a very serious question and reiterated that he feels lucky to have been able to support himself as a journalist over the years. However, he also thinks that the current web-model of “self-exploitation” has been a feature of the profession since its beginning. He cited his own early years as a reporter at the Washington Weekly, pointing out that the publication went bankrupt the day after he started. In any profession with a supply/demand imbalance (from journalism to entertainment to sports), Fallows argues, a period of self-exploitation is often necessary to break-in. Kummer agreed, adding that, in the future, journalism jobs that pay for jet-setting to China will probably be non-existent.