Reading between the lines

Julianne Schultz believes long-form journalism is finding an interested new audience through smartphone and tablet screens. Illustration by Simon Letch.

One of the few bright spots in an uncertain, and at times bleak, media world is the increasing confidence that reading is not dead. People are reading more than ever.

It is unusual these days to be in a public space and not see someone whose eyes are not fixed on a little screen at arm’s length, checking for the latest updates in their own carefully curated space. News from around the world and down the road, gossip from friends and notices about things to do, places to go, are constant and growing exponentially.

What is more surprising is that many people are not just reading short snips, or messages encoded in the preferred language of Twitter or SMS, but turning to screens to read long essays, immersion journalism, features, reports, profiles and much more.

The idea of reading a Griffith REVIEW or New Yorker essay of 5000 words on an iPhone screen seems counterintuitive, but in our new screen-based world it’s happening all the time. This may not be the most comfortable experience, it may not maximise memory retention, or guarantee that all the nuances of such a long piece are fully absorbed, but it is the new normal, every day all around us.

Today’s screen generation is full of omnivores hungry for information and insight – constantly scrolling and searching, dipping in and out, reading to the end and commenting. And as befits omnivores, they are not confined to one flavour or method.

A taste of an essay on the phone screen on the way home may be sufficient to come back to it later on a tablet, computer or even old-fashioned paper. The constant sifting and sorting of information opens countless possibilities – both in access to information and the way it is organised and distributed.

What this signals is that what is old is new again and more available than ever. It is also morphing in exciting ways, adding images, sound, interactivity – though at the heart of any successful piece of long-form journalism is a skilled writer who can gather and marshal information and draw on a wide range of literary traditions and styles.

For years I paid extortionate amounts of money to subscribe to my favourite international magazines and journals. They would arrive erratically, sometimes close to the publication date, sometimes weeks or months later – but they were generally worth the wait, full of riches unlike anything regularly produced in this country.

Now I receive my New Yorker, London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, Atlantic Monthly and others at exactly the same time as readers in distant places. I can have real-time conversations with them about the pieces we read – the content, the structure, the issues raised, the methods of crafting the writing and its supporting materials.

Interest in long-form journalism is not really surprising. It has been there since the great essayists of the past – a part of the rich mix of form and content that has shaped journalism for centuries, evolving with changing technology and helping readers (as well as the writers) to make sense of the world in which they live.

I was a journalism student when the so-called New Journalism burst into print and changed what we imagined journalism to be. It was immersive, discursive, combative, sometimes self-indulgent, sometimes brilliant, raising and addressing big ethical issues, providing insight into many more worlds and subjects, and drawing on literary techniques of narrative, character, dialogue in a way that was a polar opposite to the perfectly crafted inverted pyramid news story pitched at the mythical (and somewhat dim) eight-year-old child on the Clapham bus.

An older generation of Australian journalists took to the freedom and possibilities of this style with enthusiasm – honing their craft and bringing complex tales to life, immersing themselves in the subject and producing thousands of words for the then fat weekend papers. They were craftsmen and women, elegant stylists who welcomed the chance to “grow on the page”. Many went on to write books, others made films and documentaries, looking for ways to bring complex stories to life. As with all fads, so the New Journalism passed, but the memory lingered on.

During the 1980s when I was teaching journalism at UTS, one of the most popular and enduringly influential courses I taught was one which combined the techniques of literary and investigative journalism. In those distant pre-internet days, the students learned research methods that now seem arcane, and studied the literary techniques of story structure, narrative, character and voice – and combined the research and the writing in their final projects.

It was a big ambitious subject, immersed in the best writing produced in this country, and some from Britain and Europe, but underpinned by the deep and long history of such writing in the USA.

Some of America’s greatest literary stylists preferred to think of themselves as journalists – because a true story had so much power. Like an earlier generation, many of them persisted with this style of journalism in print, television, and by writing books.

An almost self-conscious and determined attachment to long-form journalism continues in the USA. The Nieman Storyboard at Harvard interrogates the form, posts regular discussions on its site, and brings an analytical approach to the writing. At Columbia University, the Roundtable project provides opportunities for students and others to pursue long-form writing and reach international audiences.

All this work is grounded in the best techniques of writing, and investigation, and produces pieces that move and inform.

It is particularly interesting to see how this writing is now being enriched with sound and image, moving pictures, commentary, and beautiful design. Last year, The New York Times’ John Branch won the Pulitzer Award for feature writing for “Snow Fall”, his extraordinarily evocative work on the deadly avalanche at Tunnel Creek near Seattle in Washington. At the heart of the piece is his narrative of the disaster and the people and place – but it is immeasurably enriched by the images, audio and other materials that bring it to life on the screen in a way that even the most beautifully crafted coffee table book would struggle to do.

Similarly, the Walkley-winning piece of interactive journalism produced by The Guardian on the Tasmanian bushfires of January 2013, “Firestorm”, demonstrates the power of such storytelling. Jon Henley’s writing, like that of John Branch, remains at the heart of the work. It is the capacity to craft and write about complex and moving subjects with skill, insight and deep knowledge that keeps people reading.

It is the writer’s eye and ear that drives these projects. The same can be said of the two Griffith REVIEW essays that won Walkleys last year. Kathy Marks’ extended report, “Channelling Mannalargenna”, was a hugely ambitious undertaking. Marks set out to understand Aboriginal Tasmania, and did so with extraordinary insight and elegance. For those brought up to believe that Truganini was the last Aboriginal Tasmanian, the contemporary reality and the historic truth needed to be retold. Marks’ approach to her work is to read everything she can, including obscure academic texts, interview widely and be there. This combination of diligence and persistence paid off. That she was able to craft a narrative, build characters, provide a sense of place and reach her own conclusions in a fair-minded way ensured that this report was not just another stab at a complex story – but a worthy winner of an important award.

Similarly, Melissa Lucashenko’s long feature, “Sinking below sight – down and out in Brisbane and Logan”, was based on one of the oldest forms of literary long-form journalism – immersion. She writes about a world she knows and has lived, so that the authenticity of the story and the nuance of the characters are extraordinary powerful. George Orwell set the bar high with Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933, but he was not of the place he wrote about in the way that Lucashenko is. But she is also a highly skilled and literate writer. She has absorbed the lessons of her craft, honed them to a high degree and applied the techniques to her journalism and fiction.

That is one of the big lessons of longform journalism: the best readers make the best writers. There is a lot to be learnt from what others have done, to unpick the structure, to pay attention to the details of the form as well as the information that will animate the shell. At its best, it is a true fiction that takes readers into another world, rather than leaving them on the windowsill looking in.

The tools for learning how to do this are now easily accessible – the best the world has to offer is there on your screen. Even if there is not a lot of money to be made from the effort that needs to be expended, this is journalism that does not become wrapping for fish and chips, or cyber junk. It endures, and through its quality and rigour it changes understanding and sometimes lives. It is also great fun to do.

Julianne Schultz is the founding editor of Griffith REVIEW and chair of the Australian Film TV & Radio School;

Simon Letch has been illustrating for The Sydney Morning Herald since 1990