One of the most important things I learned in school is that if a word or term can mean anything, it also means nothing.
And so it is with “long-form journalism” in an age where web series, podcasts, blog posts and more can be created easily and quickly. Scrolling through social media I’ve had to ask myself, “What isn’t long-form?”
Did you sit down in your living room and have an unstructured conversation with your friends for five hours? Long-form. Did you write an article and quote more than two people? Long-form. Did you host a panel for 20 minutes? Long-form.
I used to be a fan of the term, back when its use was more discriminate. To me, long-form didn’t mean that a piece was lengthy just for the sake of being long. It meant journalism that has a certain rigour — an article that’s 10,000 words because it needs to be; given the research and hustle that went into it, given the nuance at hand, given the complexity of both the issue and the possible solutions.
So why are we all so eager, as content creators and journalists, to apply this term so widely?
I think I know. There’s an idea right now in journalism that the public is under siege, and the enemy at the gates is a massive army of short, simplistic articles and web posts. In this context, everyone in media wants to portray themselves as righteous crusaders fighting against that. I was guilty of this myself earlier in my career.
But few journalists — let alone independent producers and content creators — have the time, money and opportunity to pore over hundreds of complex documents, travel across continents for interviews or hire legal counsel to review a piece. Given this, it seems to me that a lot of valuable but relatively cheap and low-effort work is made needlessly long and repetitive just to create an illusion of a certain type of journalism.
So, now I’m unsure every time I see the term “long-form.” It seems like more of an expression of how the journalist, producer, or media personality wants to be perceived than a meaningful description of the type of work she/he is putting out there.
I think this approach gets publications and journalists into trouble. Rolling Stone‘s “A Rape on Campus” story is an example. It was thousands of words, but it was basically a really long one-source story. Rolling Stone had to retract it, and eventually had to pay out $1.65 million in damages to the fraternity the article defamed. Basic fact-checking wasn’t done and obvious questions weren’t asked.
I’ve written about the lack of substance in journalism before. Things have gotten better, especially since Facebook changed its algorithm. I want to clarify something, though — I don’t think substance means “lengthy”. It’s more complicated than that. But that means before calling something a great work of long-form journalism we need to look at more than just the word count or time.
I’ve started a podcast of under five minutes per episode. It’s ridiculously short, hence the name “Micro.” It’s a podcast, but for me it’s also an experiment and a test — I want to see if I can prove that brevity can be valuable. That’s an uphill battle in this age, for sure, but it’s one I’m ready to take on.