By William Zinsser
April 15, 2011
I’ve been reading about a new app, called The Atavist, that will provide an online home for “long-form journalism”–articles that run more than 6,000 words and explore their subject in unusual depth. Now a dying species in the shrunken universe of print, those extended magazine pieces were once a bright ornament on the American literary landscape.
The godfather of the form, Joseph Mitchell, was a huge influence on journalists of my generation. I would study his seemingly effortless New Yorker pieces about old-timers on the New York waterfront to figure out how such mosaic work was done. What I figured out was that only Joseph Mitchell could do it.
In the subsequent postwar era a new breed of buccaneering editors would blow Mitchell’s tidy model wide open, creating a form called “the new journalism,” in which writers often became actors in their own narrative and tended to mingle events that happened with events they thought might have happened.
At Harper’s, Willie Morris ran at full length Norman Mailer’s picaresque Armies of the Night, which featured, most conspicuously, Norman Mailer. At Esquire, Harold Hayes and Clay Felker turned Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe loose on vertiginous high-wire acts that are still remembered. Fifty years later, Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” and Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” are firmly lodged in college textbooks.
But since that golden age, with a few exceptions–notably including The New Yorker and Rolling Stone–long-form journalists have seen their market wither and have begun to look for a new home the Web. It is for those orphans that the founders of The Atavist–three young guys in Brooklyn–have developed their new site. Their purpose is to enable writers to not only publish their articles at any length but to “enhance” them with videos, photographs, audio tapes, musical selections, and other digital supplements that will “deepen the reading experience.” The three guys call it a “content-management system.”
Content management. Isn’t that what we used to call “writing”? I’ve been in the content-management business all my life. I look for content that interests or amuses me and then I manage it into a narrative. It’s what all writers do if they want to keep paying the bills. Dickens did it very well. So does every good crime writer: Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler. Elmore Leonard was once asked how he keeps his novels moving so fast. He said, “I leave out the parts that people skip.” That’s content management.
As a teacher of writing I don’t fret about the new technology. What worries me is the new terminology. In recent years I’ve tutored students at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism whose writing is disorganized almost beyond human help, but they seldom mention “writing” as what they came to the school to learn. They are here to study “new media,” or “digital media,” or “electronic journalism,” or “videography,” or some other glamorous new skill. Garbed in so much fancy labeling, they forget that journalism is just plain old content management. They return from a reporting assignment with a million notes and a million quotes and no idea what the story is about.
The reason, I assume–and I don’t expect a Nobel Prize for this deduction–is that people now get their information mainly from random images on a screen and from random messages in their ears, and it no longer occurs to them that writing is linear and sequential; sentence B must follow sentence A. Every year student writing is a little more disheveled; I’m witnessing the slow death of logical thought. So is every English teacher in America.
“As a journalist,” I tell my despairing students, “you are finally in the storytelling business.” We all are. It’s the oldest form of human communication, from the caveman to the crib, endlessly riveting. Goldilocks wakes up from her nap and sees three bears at the foot of her bed. What’s that all about? What happens next? We want to know and we always will.
Writers! Never forget to tell us what’s up with the bears. Manage that content.
[Go here for “Journeys with Joseph Mitchell” by William Zinsser.]
William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.