Stephen Engelberg Shares His Thoughts on Long-Form Storytelling
Next week, Ira Glass, David Remnick, Raney Aronson-Rath and Alison Stewart will join ProPublica for our first live event, at the New School, titled "Long-Form Storytelling in a Short-Attention-Span World." To preview this discussion, we sat down with Managing Editor Stephen Engelberg, one of the panelists for the event, for a chat about long-form journalism and ProPublica's role.
"I think in today's world, what we've seen is that people are hungry for bits of information," Engelberg said. "Mediocre long-form journalism falls by the wayside in this kind of world, but superb long-form journalism, I think, has a secure place in the future of writing."
The full transcript is below. You can listen to the podcast here or on iTunes.
Mike: Hi, I'm Mike Webb and welcome to the ProPublica Podcast. On March 16th, ProPublica and the New School are going to present a panel discussion titled "Long-Form Story-telling in a Short-Attention-Span World." The featured panelists will be Ira Glass, host of This American Life, David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, Raney Aronson-Rath, series senior producer for Frontline and our own managing editor, Stephen Engelberg.
To preview this conversation, we asked Mr. Engelberg to join us in the storage closet studio to talk about ProPublica's role in producing long-form journalism.
Welcome to the podcast, Steve.
Steve: Thank you, Mike.
Mike: Let's start by taking about the difference between long-form journalism and the type of stories that you'll see in a daily newspaper. How are they different?
Steve: Well, you know a daily newspaper, these days in particular, have significant limits on space and most of the stories are going to be produced fairly quickly. They are going to be related to news of the day. In long-form journalism, we hope to be telling a story and to take more time and more space to bolster the journalism and sort of deliver the narrative.
Mike: Are there clues that you see that sort of lead you to believe that a particular story is worth a lot of time, a long-form?
Steve: Well, what we look for in our investigative work is ways to get readers to care. So, we are simultaneously, of course, looking for sort of outrageous things that need to addressed, things that shock the public conscience. But we're also simultaneously looking for story-telling leads. We're looking for stories that have a beginning, a middle, and an end – an arc, a narrative that draws people in. We most recently did this on the subject of hydrofracking where we looked at one particular Wyoming resident's struggle with people doing hydraulic fracturing and people drilling for gas that we've written so much about on his nearby land in his ranch.
Mike: Do you think that story worked because we told it through someone's eyes?
Steve: Absolutely. I think that very technical, very scientific stories are difficult to grasp. It's only when you bring the human dimension, the individual who's having some specific personal effect that readers can really understand what you're talking about. Until then, it's astrophysics and very abstract.
Mike: For the New School conversation, we have people from the magazine world, radio and video. But where do you see ProPublica in this conversation?
Steve: Well, we're sort of both platform agnostic and form agnostic. We do all kinds of journalism. We have short form posts that can be a few paragraphs. We certainly write the traditional news stories but we have found that in working with some of our partners in broadcast and radio, and indeed, in text or print if you will, that there are opportunities to tell longer stories in a compelling way. When those opportunities arise, we want to grab them but we certainly are not locked into making every story into a New Yorker-style narrative. That would be a weight that would, of course, crush many an investigative kind of story. Some things lend itself to it, some things don't.
Mike: Do you have a personal favorite? I know they're all like your children but...
Steve: On some level, I think the sort of most interesting long-form thing we've ever attempted was our work with This American Life on the collateralized debt obligations and the story on Magnetar. Because going into that, we were unable to really see a clear narrative. I must say, working with our very talented partners at This American Life and with Ira Glass specifically, a narrative emerged, a story that could be told.
I'm really very excited to hear what Ira wants to talk about at this conference because I think he's really one of the masters of the form.
Mike: Ira challenges the whole premise that attention spans are shorter. Do you agree?
Steve: Well, I do. I find myself repeatedly, for example, in my car, listening to This American Life stories for five or 10 minutes with the engine turned off waiting to find out what happened. I think that as human beings again, whatever culture we're in we're sort of brought up with the bedtime story. The bedtime story is propelled by this very simple question: "And then what? And then what?"
I think in today's world, what we've seen is that people are hungry for bits of information. That's true but they're also very hungry for an excellent meal. Yes, the bar is higher. Mediocre long-form journalism falls by the wayside in this kind of world but superb long-form journalism, I think, has a secure place in the future of writing.
Mike: Now, we saw a conversation that the former New York Times editor, Gerald Marzorati, had at Berkley. He also agreed that the premise isn't shorter attention spans, but he thought that the real problem to him was that there's just not as much money to fund long-form stories.
Steve: Well, clearly if you are doing something akin to what we're doing, which is not only long-form but investigative, the costs are prohibitive. It isn't to say that a traditional news organization can't make the same investment we're making but as these places have less revenue, the sort of percentage that any one represents has gone up significantly. When you have a staff of 400 and you put a reporter on a story for a year, that's one kind of thing. When you have a staff of 100, that's obviously four times as great. In general, to both meet the sort of legal test of a story -- that it has to be not libelous, it has to stand up to scrutiny of the toughest order – and to meet the quality test, which is that it has to be compelling, completely reported and fair.
And to meet our test, which is that it's revelatory and it is a subject and a finding that potentially involves change. That's asking an awful lot. At ProPublica, these stories take a long time because they are very difficult.
Mike: Do you think that some new organizations shy away from doing those stories because they're so tough?
Steve: Well, you know, it has to have an effect on you. The truth of the matter is that every news organization that does this finds that unique content drives their web traffic and everything else. You know, last year the Public Service Award in the world of print journalism, the Pulitzer, the highest prize went to a news organization, a newspaper which had seven reporters. One of whom did a story for an entire year. So, that editor was making a statement that he would commit 1/7 of his staff to an investigative story. So, you do have choices. You always have choices. But the reality these days with everybody trying to do everything, is that given a choice between doing 10 modestly complicated stories and one very complicated story that may not come out, I think editors are going to gravitate towards the surer bet.
Mike: Well, to that point, a lot of people speculated early on in ProPublica's life that we were going to subsidize the news. I don't think it's turned out that way.
Steve: Well, I think subsidize is the wrong word for it. First of all, none of these companies are really making a fantastic profit. So it's not as if we're in the days when your typical print newspaper was turning a 20, 30 percent return on equity every year and here we were giving them free material. We have done extensive business with newspapers that are in bankruptcy and with public radio and public television. You know, yes, there is an implicit, "Don't call it subsidy. Call it support."
We do databases that are very complicated and then we put them on the web and 70 or 80 or 100 different news organizations do local stories. Is that a subsidy? I suppose so. But that's what we intended to do. We intended to do journalism that would bring change by getting certain things out into the public. If that happens to be helpful and drives some traffic and profits to news organizations that are otherwise suffering, I think we're pretty comfortable with that.
Mike: I want to skip a beat and just sort of ask you about our new experiment with Amazon's Kindle Singles. Is there a particular type of story that works best as being a Kindle Single?
Steve: Well again, I think what we would be looking for is stories that have a character or characters at their core – a narrative in which something actually happens. You know, we did Sebastian Rotella's brilliant reporting on the Mumbai attacks which have a beginning, a middle and end. We focused on some of the American victims in those attacks. We were able to tell a story about people who came to Mumbai with certain hopes and met a tragic end. I think in the most recent instance where we're looking again at the single guy who's suffering from the effects of hydrofracking around him, we're once again able to do that.
I think topical stories are less suited to the Kindle Single, which isn't to say we won't try it. But you know, if you think about what David Remnick, another member of this panel, does every week at The New Yorker, they do brilliant, in depth reporting built around characters and stories. I think that's what you have to do with the length Kindle Single is.
Mike: Well, Steve, thank you very much for joining us.
Steve: My pleasure.
Mike: We're looking forward to hearing what else everyone has to say at the panel.
Steve: Indeed, me too.
Mike: All right. That was ProPublica managing editor Steve Engelberg. Follow him on Twitter @SteveEngelberg. For more information about the long-form story telling event, go to ProPublica.org/events. Now for this week's Officials Say Tumblr quote of the week: "We very much regret that you were detained." Who said it? Philip H. Lynch, chief of the civil division in the U.S. attorney's office in Seattle, in a letter to an Army veteran (and American citizen) who was detained for more than seven months by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on suspicions that he was an illegal immigrant.
That does it for this week's show. Thanks to Minhee Cho for producing it. For ProPublica, I'm Mike Webb. We'll see you next week.