Who Needs Paper? What I Learned from a Year of Doing Features at Buzzfeed
The Big Roundtable exists to provide a home for what lately has been called “longform” journalism, and what we like to call nonfiction short stories. Six months after our launch we have an even dozen such stories under our belt, including our latest, Jaime Joyce’s "Kill Me Now," published in a partnership with Buzzfeed. A new year’s resolution: We also would like to make ourselves a home for discussion about this key form. And so below is a fresh piece about it, written by Steve Kandell, who edits the features at Buzzfeed. We hope you enjoy it.
The two most widely read and shared feature stories BuzzFeed ran this year were about a 28-year-old box-office bomb and an 85-year-old exiled Chinese AIDS activist. The only thing they had in common was that they didn’t really exist in any form before. Also, though, they were good. The Internet is very big, so if you’re asking for the commitment that a longer story demands, and the personal guarantee that comes when a reader shares a long feature on Facebook or Twitter, you better deliver something worthy of that time.
We’ve published fifty or so of these long features since I started as BuzzFeed’s “longform editor” last November, all varying wildly in tone and content and intention. What they have in common is that they were all developed deliberately and methodically, with attention to presentation as much as structure. They are built as any magazine feature would have been built, only without the magazine part. They’re built for the Internet, to find their own audiences—not to hit a specific magazine’s voice or imagined reader. They are part of a first generation of attempts to bring the depth and rigor of great narrative journalism to a new medium and distribution system that has to figure out its capabilities and possibilities in real time.
It’s fascinating, and thrilling, and a little weird, to see something so conventional and familiar be treated like the first steps on the moon. Just over a year after starting to publish these stories on BuzzFeed on the regular—a year of being incredulously asked whether a successful, burgeoning, rapidly developing media company was capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time; a year of listening to people wonder how this kind of writing, and these kinds of writers, could exist without the imprimaturs of established brands or paper and glue—there may still be more questions than answers. But we think we’ve made a few big strides towards putting at least the main one to rest: Can this be done? Sure, why not.
What we’ve found is…this isn’t fundamentally any different than anything else that would be published on the Internet. By and large, the best stories—or our best stories, anyway—strike a chord and inspire people to share them with others on Twitter or Facebook or email or by printing them out and folding them into paper airplanes, and ultimately find their way to audiences broader and more immediate than anything you’d find on a newsstand.
So the litmus test for deciding whether a story might be worthy of deeper exploration (read: more time and energy and resources and, yes, money) comes down to just that—will you be moved enough by this work to want others to know you’ve read it and suggest they do the same?—and less about the tyranny of promotional cycles or news pegs. But this lone criterion feels both brand new and completely in line with what every writer ever has aspired to do. This can be as liberating as it is terrifying—sure, you’re unbound from these the usual constraints, but those constraints can be comforting. They’ve been around for a long time; we have relied on them. They have maybe sometimes made us complacent, TOO.
My previous job was at a longstanding monthly—and then, toward the end, bi-monthly—print magazine, and most of what we spent time thinking about in later days was how to make an issue feel like it was worth something, how to make it feel different from the Internet and do things that the Internet couldn’t do, and, then, how to use the Internet to drive people to buy a copy. The logo on the top left of the cover could do some of the heavy lifting, but not all of it. Release-date pegs and tried-and-once-true models of marketing still held ultimate sway. The Internet was something to work around, not necessarily embrace. Going in a few months’ time from lauding the sanctity of print to celebrating the possibility of not-print could have caused a nosebleed.
For all the talk about how the Internet might be devaluing this kind of journalism—letting people take all this hard work for free!—the transition to this brave new paper-free, paywall-free world was eased by what quickly revealed itself to be a simple concept: It’s pretty cool when lots of people can read the thing you worked really hard on, all at once, then urge their friends to do the same. Some of the earlier big stories we did—about questionable real-estate dealings in the Church of Scientology, or a California child on trial for shooting his neo-Nazi father—sparked interest and conversation and readership in ways that couldn’t compare with stories I’d worked on previously that lived only, or at least initially, in print. Just this week, we co-published Jaime Joyce’s story about a peculiar assisted suicide case in Arizona with The Big Roundtable, to the tune of nearly half a million eyeballs. This is never not rewarding.
The tradition of publishing long, reported stories is as old as publishing itself, which is why the unicorn status often granted to it of late can be confusing, and even off-putting. Around 2009, when print magazines started suffering more noticeably, and when white-knight tablets were still mainly rumors in the distance, there were legitimate concerns about how these in-depth stories could fit into the plans of longstanding titles and startups alike.
But in the few years since, the fantastical has become mundane: Reading a book, or a 6,000-word feature story, on a glowing, magical handheld touchscreen is so commonplace it should barely warrant mentioning. The concept of a stand-alone tablet magazine being publishing’s saving grace withered before many outlets even got a fair chance to try. Essential services like Longreads and Longform and Byliner reliably, humanely curate the daily deluge of stories, while apps like Pocket and Instapaper make the actual consumption simple and routine and gloriously unworthy of conversation. This is everything—it wasn’t until reading on devices could truly feel like reading, as opposed to merely something to be looked at, that these stories could again be thought of as opportunities for development rather than ballasts holding back progress, or worse, financial viability.
Which is not to say that everything has been solved. While many things about writing and editing feature stories remain gloriously unchanged from the magazine model, one thing has not quite made the transition yet: magazine-style payment for writers. But this has been a lively topic of conversation this year; we’ve made strides towards finding a model that works for this brave newish world and improve on what’s been standard for web journalism, but this is an ongoing concern for sure. You really do get what you pay for.
Another sticking point for many is the label that’s been affixed to these stories: longform. It is clumsily retrofitted from an adjective into a noun, that tends to attract attention to the wrong syllable so that length becomes a selling point regardless of content or context—this soup tastes awful, but hey, at least there’s a lot of it! Mass is fetishized, as if that alone should be a selling point because other things we like are short. Less considered is the form part. James Bennet’s argument in The Atlantic against the term is largely on point, although his idea that the word is a holdout from musty magazine editors looking to rebrand themselves for a brave new world—”a mumbled incantation from a decaying priesthood”—is off; rather, it feels like a word conjured by an industry fumbling to define something that maybe doesn’t need definition.
Fortunately, there’s a handy solution: Don’t use that word if you don’t want to. Don’t lump outstanding, thoroughly explored, and expertly written stories together just because they contain a certain number of words. Stop talking about the size of the box. Read about things you’re interested in, or didn’t know you’d be interested in, and delight in the differences and variations rather than dwell an incidental yardstick as dull as a word count.
So here’s the real thing to look forward to in 2014: None of this really being a particular topic of conversation at all, or at least not in such a gobsmacked way. A form of journalism that was considered by some moribund and endangered just a few short years ago is now a breeding ground for experimentation in form and function and new technology and just re-think, or simply appreciate, what people read and how and when and why. Digital journalism can’t be tactile the way print can, but it can be tactile in ways print can’t—it can still feel warm and fussed-over. Meanwhile, the playing field between upstarts like Medium and Narrative.ly and grizzled institutions like the New York Times is largely leveled; anyone with a good idea about how to get people to immerse themselves in interesting things to read is not only welcome, but free to find ways to make this fiscally feasible.
There will be tons of words—but ideally, no more than should be necessary—meticulously crafted and arranged words, accompanied by equally thoughtful artwork and design, and maybe those words and pictures will move and dissolve and do parallax-scroll somersaults and other neat tricks that no print publication could have ever dreamed, or maybe they’ll just sit there and do word things. There doesn’t have to be one answer or one way forward for publishing these stories, nor one coverall term. All they need to be is good.