long-form journalism

More time to tell a story? Better make it count

I woke up and didn’t know where I was.

The room was pitch-black. My alarm had just disrupted five hours of uninterrupted sleep. I spent five seconds scanning for context clues until I remembered:

“I’m at a hotel. I’m on St. Simons Island. And I need to leave immediately for the beach to shoot a sunrise.”

TV news journalists often must execute their assignments within an immovable window of time. At my station, we hold a morning meeting at 9:30, match reporters with stories by 10, and then expect those stories to air sometime between 5 and 6:30 PM. Deadlines loom over every decision: “Should I get these extra shots? Do this extra interview? Actually sit down for lunch? Only if I have enough time.”

Long-form storytelling pushes back those boundaries. In my new role, I produce a story a week while handling a variety of other responsibilities for my station and company. I largely set my own schedule, and I know my assignment long before the day it is due. When I ask myself if I should take an extra step in service of the story, I often do not need to consider time as a factor.

So I often answer, “Yes,” arriving earlier, staying later, and working weekends far more than I did before. I pace myself and make sure to balance my hours when I can, but when I see the potential to tell a powerful story, I relish the chance to do so.

That’s what led me to this hotel on the Georgia coast. I had learned about a man from metro Atlanta named Douglas Stephens, who in 1981 threw a beer bottle into the ocean with a message inside. Thirty-six years later, the bottle had been found, and the man who discovered it was planning to return it to its original owner.

I had to be there.

So despite having just returned to Atlanta from a work trip Thursday evening, I prepared to leave again nearly 24 hours later. I packed a bag, gathered my gear, and set off on a five-hour drive — half of it in darkness — for the coast. I arrived on the island at 11:30 PM and went to sleep just after midnight, bracing myself for a busy Saturday.

I could have planned a much longer rest; the two men weren’t planning to exchange the bottle until 12:30 the following day. But I knew, to tell the story right, I needed to do more. I woke up at 6 AM so I could shoot sunrise on the beach just before 7. I drove to the nearest UPS Store to print photos and then headed back to the beach to capture them on video. I arranged a 10:30 interview with the man who found the bottle, Ryan Burchett, at his home in nearby Brunswick. Then I asked him to keep wearing his wireless microphone while I drove ahead to the meeting spot to put a similar mic on Douglas.

When the meeting happened, it brought smiles to all involved. I stood back and captured the moments, knowing I had done everything possible to produce a story worthy of them.

The piece would run the following week (you can watch it above), and I knew I would need to spend several days beforehand putting it together. But in this moment, I didn’t think about that. I said goodbye to Douglas and Ryan, packed my gear, ate a triumphant lunch, and began the five-hour drive back home.

And when I went to sleep that night in my own bed, I refused to set an alarm.

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The Solo Video Journalist is available for purchase. You can find it on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and the publisher’s web site.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com. You can also follow Matt on Facebook and Twitter.

5 reasons for hope for journalism’s future

I realized it the other day: I started the year by highlighting a sobering story for any storyteller.

I linked to a brilliant piece by Andrew Marantz called “The Virologist”, which profiled a web site/content creator who aims for clicks and money without any nod to ethics or storytelling. Sites like this — think Buzzfeed, but even more calculated — drive on the highway of journalism without getting into the lane of journalistic responsibility. Marantz gave an absolutely brutal assessment of the landscape of the Web.

The piece, to be sure, started the year on a low note.

So let’s take it back to a higher one.

Let’s use this space to talk about what excites us for the new year — and the future of journalism and storytelling.

Here are five things that give me hope: (more…)

PODCAST EPISODE #21: Glenn Stout, Series Editor, Best American Sports Writing

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I have spent a lot of time on this site talking about my annual tradition.

Every year, around this time, I purchase the Best American Sports Writing anthology and go to town. I crack it open and find 25 of the year’s finest pieces of sports writing. I read them, learn from them, and get inspired by them.

While I work in television, I can honestly say I have been affected professionally by these annual collections of print journalism. I always walk away with various insights on how to connect as a storyteller, from structure to character development to perspective.

Beyond that, quite simply, I leave with a better understanding of the world. That is the inevitable result of reading 25 stories that make you ponder, wonder, and feel.

For me, the Best American Sports Writing series has always been special.

And for that reason, so is this podcast.

My guest: Glenn Stout, series editor of the Best American Sports Writing anthology. (more…)

Some short thoughts on long-form journalism

I am noticing a promising trend.

More and more, media outlets appear to have prioritized long-form journalism as an important asset moving forward.

It strikes me every time I look for pieces for my weekly “3 Great Stories” post. I see long-form articles that feature creative presentation, graphics, and multimedia incorporation. In many ways, such stories indicate how media can build unique, enriching content for a digital audience. With these stories, the written text itself could work in a newspaper or magazine, but the entirety of it — with all the other forms of media thrown in — could only work online.

Here now, a few short thoughts on long-form’s future:

The market and audience appears to be there. Look at how many web sites now cater to long-form enthusiasts, from BuzzReads to Longreads to the Browser. Even more amazing, the Browser actually charges for its curation — $20 a year, which won’t break the bank but is still, at least, something. Major media outlets are investing in ways to tell long-form stories to an online audience, with the New York Times and New Yorker regularly producing innovative work. (more…)

LESSONS LEARNED: From role models and inspirations

I am on vacation — and out of commission — for the next two weeks, so I wanted to use this space as a vehicle for reflection.

Since I started the Telling The Story blog last winter, I have written extensively about lessons about storytelling. Many of those have come from fellow journalists and storytellers, who have been great sources of inspiration throughout my career. Here are three of the moments that stand out to me, along with brief snippets from the posts themselves and minor edits for clarity:

Saying goodbye to Gary Smith, this era’s greatest sportswriter: Many journalists crave the thrill of the deadline, the immediacy of breaking news, or the access of being at the center of a giant story. Others, such as myself, feed off of something else.

We feed off of depth.

We feed off of the desire to tell as full a story as possible and to examine a person or issue from as many viewpoints as we can find. We want to tell the whole truth, educating and informing while bringing our world a little closer.

Any journalist who fits that description, and who knew about Gary Smith, had no choice but to envy him.

Smith wrote just four stories a year for Sports Illustrated. But those stories were always powerhouses because Smith, by the time he wrote them, had become such an expert on their subjects. Rick Reilly once wrote that Smith “has a rule. He’s not done researching a subject until he’s interviewed at least fifty people. That’s why [his stories] are often the most unforgettable of the year. They are meticulous in their depth of reporting, nearly preposterous.”

For most journalists, “preposterous” seems accurate. They would love to interview 50 people for a story, but they don’t get the time. They also don’t get the space to unpack the knowledge such expertise would bring. Smith wrote stories that filled 20 pages; most TV reporters get 90 seconds.

Thankfully, given that kind of real estate, Smith never wasted an opportunity. (more…)

PODCAST EPISODE #18: Thomas Lake, senior writer, Sports Illustrated

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Last week I wrote a tribute to the amazing — and newly retired — Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith. I mentioned how I first read one of Smith’s famous long-form, back-of-the-magazine epics as a teenager; I then rediscovered him as a young journalist.

Turns out I wasn’t alone.

One of Smith’s successors at Sports Illustrated — and one of the finest heirs to his long-form legacy — had a similar experience and has reaped the benefits of a rewarding relationship with this sportswriting icon.

That young journalist is Thomas Lake.

His career has taken him from daily newspapers to regional magazines to, currently, the most prestigious sports magazine in the world. And roughly midway through that journey, Lake got a major assist from his future SI colleague.

Lake discusses Smith’s influence, his own work, and advice for young journalists on this episode of the Telling The Story podcast. (more…)

Saying goodbye to Gary Smith, this era’s greatest sportswriter

I think of it as a rite of passage.

When I turned 13 years old, I achieved a religious milestone: my bar-mitzvah, in which a Jewish boy, upon that pivotal birthday, becomes a man. And I cherished it.

But unbeknownst to most of my loved ones – and, to be sure, my rabbi – I had experienced, earlier that year, another giant leap forward that represented, to me, a sign of growth and maturity.

I subscribed to Sports Illustrated.

And, in the process, I cancelled my subscription to Sports Illustrated for Kids.

(Technically, my parents paid for these subscriptions, but let’s not worry about that.)

I could not contain my excitement. An aspiring sportscaster and avid sports fan, I could not wait to start reading a grown-up sports magazine. Like any teenager, grasping at adulthood before reaching it, I wanted to spread my wings in every avenue possible, even in the seemingly frivolous category of magazine readership.

My enthusiasm for the sports themselves, however, was still childlike. When I opened Sports Illustrated each week, I zoomed to the quick hits, short articles, and entertaining pieces that focused on the games and players, as opposed than the stories that surrounded them.

Then I found Gary Smith.

And I read the article that altered my view on sports, sports journalism, and writing – permanently. (more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Upworthy, ageism, & post-Olympics Sochi

More and more, I see long-form writing being spread on short-form media.

I found two of this week’s 3 Great Stories through links on friends’ Twitter feeds, which struck me as ironic both then and now. Here is a social media service, designed for lightning-quick communication, often derided for the lack of depth it encourages through its 140-character Tweet limit. And yet, it has become — on some small level — a conduit to explore much larger works of writing.

My vantage point on Twitter is, I believe, not unique. When I use it, I typically want a quick scroll of headlines, quips, and commentary to keep me abreast of the latest news and conversation topics. But I also find myself turning to Twitter during pockets of down time, and in those moments, I find myself susceptible to being lured into a long-form read.

Here is what lured me in this past week:

Watching Team Upworthy work is enough to make you a cynic. Or lose your cynicism. Or both. Or neither (3/23/14, New York Magazine): Speaking of something that seemingly succeeds by functioning against conventional wisdom, enter Upworthy.

The web site known for its bluntly emotional headlines and sincere content is also notorious for its astounding ubiquity online. It is much-loved and much-hated — and the envy of virtually every web developer eager to duplicate Upworthy’s rags-to-Internet-riches success.

Give credit, then, to writer Nitsuh Abebe for penning a fascinating article that goes behind the scenes with Upworthy’s 40-person staff. Abebe covers all angles of the Upworthy saga, from its founders’ mission to its detractors’ skepticism.

More than that, Abebe, normally the music critic at New York Magazine, performs the deft trick of revealing various details of the Upworthy creative process while still acknowledging the seeming mystery of the site’s monstrous performance. He maneuvers around that tension throughout the piece, which remains absorbing throughout.

(more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: The “riding the wave of long-form writing” edition

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Seems like the pendulum, in the written world, is heading back towards long-form journalism.

Major web sites — including ones that generally traffic in web clicks, like Slate and BuzzFeed — have devoted entire sections to long reads. One web site even calls itself “LongReads” and commits itself strictly to long-form work.

This excites me. I have made plain my love for this brand of storytelling.

But I especially appreciate its current, if brief, resurgence, because it comes at a time of quick hits, snippets, and an overall overload of online content.

Here now, three great long-form stories from this past week:

Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet (1/6/14, Pacific Standard): This article has been getting a lot of attention this week … and rightly so.

Amanda Hess dives into the topic of Internet abuse, specifically as it relates to women, who receive a disproportionately high amount of it. She mixes her own experience with those of countless other female journalists and bloggers; she exposes the potential logistical issues in reporting abuse and counteracting it; and she buttresses everything with sobering statistics.

Consider this paragraph, where Hess breaks down what one might experience should she bring her claims of abuse to the police:

The Internet is a global network, but when you pick up the phone to report an online threat, whether you are in London or Palm Springs, you end up face-to-face with a cop who patrols a comparatively puny jurisdiction. And your cop will probably be a man: According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2008, only 6.5 percent of state police officers and 19 percent of FBI agents were women. The numbers get smaller in smaller agencies. And in many locales, police work is still a largely analog affair: 911 calls are immediately routed to the local police force; the closest officer is dispatched to respond; he takes notes with pen and paper.

(more…)

3 GREAT STORIES: On Facebook, journalism, & downtown Atlanta

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

As the year nears its end, so does this segment — at least in a sense.

This entry is the final 2013 edition of “3 Great Stories” that focuses on original content. In the next two weeks, I will publish my favorite stories of the past twelve months, much as I did during the first six months of the year.

So, without further ado, here are three great stories from last week, a strong week in a very strong year for storytelling:

On second thought … (12/13/13, Slate): If you read this blog regularly, you know I am no stranger to using my life experiences — even my Facebook timeline — as inspiration for entries.

Naturally, I enjoy when other journalists do it, too … especially when they, as I try to do, springboard that inspiration into compelling work that affects a wider audience.

Jennifer Golbeck of Slate’s Future Tense blog does that here. She uses a friend’s question on Facebook — about whether the social media service tracks what you write, even if you don’t post it — and researches her way to a provocative think-piece about user privacy. She finds a study in which the authors, both Facebook employees, freely admit to mining our un-posted writing and using it for their own research.

Golbeck articulates, at her entry’s end, why Facebook users should be alarmed by this:

Facebook studies this because the more its engineers understand about self-censorship, the more precisely they can fine-tune their system to minimize self-censorship’s prevalence. This goal — designing Facebook to decrease self-censorship — is explicit in the paper. So Facebook considers your thoughtful discretion about what to post as bad, because it withholds value from Facebook and from other users. Facebook monitors those unposted thoughts to better understand them, in order to build a system that minimizes this deliberate behavior.

(more…)