Thursday 7 February 2013, 09:58
The dinner was awesome, staggering, gargantuan. I gave up counting courses after we got to 14. That did include the home-made ricotta, produced that morning, but not the home-made liqueur which she insisted my wife imbibe despite her pregnancy, “for the baby”.
So why am I telling you this? (Apart from the fact that it makes me happy every time I think about it.) The reason is that we are living in an age where everything we consume is meant to be quicker: more palatable; down in one; 140 characters. One tweet and a single swallow. What goes for mastication also goes for media.
One big trend nowadays, identified at a BBC College of Journalism event last week by former BBC strategist and digital consultant Nic Newman, is the rise of ‘bite-sized news’ (see 24-28 minutes into his presentation). For Nic, it’s exemplified by Nowthisnews.com and its 160-second edit of the Lance Armstrong interview. A hundred and 60 seconds! That’s almost as fast as Lance, even without EPO.
This ‘Chicken McNugget’ approach to news is no doubt going to grow and grow. But what surprises me is that alongside it is the continued strength of long-form written journalism, especially online. Over the past couple of years I have been repeatedly amazed and delighted by the quantity and quality available in articles of 3,000 words and more. What is most astonishing is that an awful lot of this originates from - guess where - the land of the dying newspaper. Yes, the US.
Let me show you what I mean with a few articles that have stuck in my mind. There’s the journey into perhaps the most insane movie project ever; or the story of a Russian family cut off from all human contact for 40 years; or Michael Pollan’s account of a dinner party lasting 36 hours.There’s a stunning investigation by the BBC’s Owen Bennett-Jones into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Or a hilarious account of what happens when you cast Lindsay Lohan in your low-budget film. I’ll give you a hint as to the article’s conclusion: don’t cast Lindsay Lohan in your low-budget film.
All of these are good few thousand words, and fascinating with it. But maybe you’d like something meatier? How about this devastating two-part investigation into injustice in Texas. Or, for those with a real appetite, the magisterial Janet Malcolm on the humanity and inhumanity of the removal of a single child from a New York family - in three parts.
Some of these articles come from publications you might expect - The New York Times et al - but hands up who’s heard of The Texas Monthly. And I found most of them through newish curated aggregator sites, linking to the best of these long reads - sites like, ah, Longreads.com. But try also Thebrowser.com, Arts & Letters Daily and Brain Pickings.
And that’s aside from long-form broadcast - the tantalising smorgasbord of in-depth documentaries on radio and video which seem to have retained or even increased their audience. They include radio gold-dust such as This American Life, Radiolab and our own humble offerings from the BBC (below). Plus newcomers like Vice or Latitude News.
So some of us seem to have an appetite for the long, slow journalistic meal. How this is sustained economically I’m not sure, although I can guess at a few reasons. Some of the writers get support from public foundations or academic posts, or perhaps are sufficiently frustrated by shorter forms of journalism that they are prepared to research and write effectively for free. And in some cases (like the Janet Malcolm triptych) the articles are long enough to become a book.
But who has the time to read 7,000 words on the economics of happiness or the evolution of parasitical worms? Is there really an audience for this kind of stuff? I think there is. And I’d like to think that they are the Sicilian feasts, the ones we remember a decade later, after all the fast-food has been forgotten. Perhaps that’s true.
Or perhaps their renaissance is also, perversely, a consequence of our reducing attention spans. Because maybe these long reads are not replacing journalism. Maybe they are a replacement for the real long reads.
Wednesday 6 February 2013, 11:13
Friday 8 February 2013, 12:15