Long-form journalism offers more than respite from information gluttony and expands the traditional concept of journalism.
Many Finns were, paradoxically, introduced to slow journalism rather abruptly recently, through a minute feature by the journalism collective Long Play on the now-controversial study by philosopher Pekka Himanen. The “e-single”, as the jargon insists, examined the dubious process of commissioning the 700,000 euro study on sustainable growth models, ultimately dragging Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen into the epicentre of the controversy.
The aim of slow journalism, however, is not to expose scandals, nor to ramble on in tedious length, stresses Johanna Vehkoo, the editor-in-chief at Long Play. “At best, it highlights issues that are significant but have received little attention.”
The Himanen-gate, as one segment of the media and public now readily call the affair, is a fitting example. In August, the financial newspaper Talouselämä reported rather poignantly of “Himanen’s expensive visions”. Yet, the affair soon vanished from the public eye, only to re-emerge in February, kindled by Vehkoo and co-author Anu Silfverberg.
Regardless of aims, the ensuing publicity has naturally been helpful, Vehkoo admits. “We imagined it could well take an entire year before we gained some recognition.”
Instead, by early March the e-single Himasen etiikka (Himanen’s ethics; a reference to the philosopher’s breakthrough work on hacker ethics) had been downloaded over 3,500 times and cited in virtually all major Finnish news outlets. “It’s hardly likely that all the stories stir a nationwide scandal,” the editor-in-chief reminds.
-- Editor-in-chief Johanna Vehkoo is a former fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Oxford University. Increasingly sophisticated tracking technologies enable newspapers collect data on the time readers spend on a certain page and have thus promoted the interest in slow reads.
-- E-singles typically range from 5,000 to 30,000 words and employ features of narrative journalism and creative non-fiction writing. This story, in comparison, measures roughly at 1,100 words (and has few stylistic merits).
-- E-singles are sold as inexpensive books for €1-6 and are available on a number of online platforms. Long Play’s e-singles are available for €3—6 at www.longplay.fi.
-- Snow Fall by John Branch is available for free at www.nytimes.com.
-- Byliner published more than two-dozen best-selling long-form stories and sold more than 1,000,000 e-singles in 2012.
A new watchdog in town
Vehkoo is among the several decorated freelance journalists and non-fiction writers who contribute to Long Play, the first word-smithery dedicated to slow journalism in Finland. Their début e-single, Kaukovetoja (Long Shots), written by the award-winning non-fiction author Hanna Nikkanen, was published on 16 January, roughly a year after the idea for the collective was conceived.
In sharp contrast to their breakthrough report, the e-single on the match-fixing scandal which – alongside the entire footballing world – rocked the Rovaniemi-based football club, RoPS, had been downloaded no more than a few hundred times.
At over 40,000 characters, such stories are the results of painstaking efforts ranging from a few weeks to several months. “The work on Himasen etiikka began in September, the work on Kaukovetoja already last summer,” confirms Vehkoo. At Long Play, each e-single is also assigned a main editor who oversees the journalistic process from start to finish.
“We are not a news media but a slow media,” Vehkoo says. “We don’t have to hunt for scoops and scandals and such. Instead, we want to familiarise ourselves with our topics, write thoroughly and tell great stories.”
Although the definition of slow journalism is principally concerned with length, the genre is often also associated with literary stylistic devices, for example narrative styles. The emphasis, Vehkoo stresses, is invariably on the story and the tenets of journalism.
Slow multi-form reads
Slow, or long-form, journalism may yet be only budding in Finland, but abroad it has blossomed over the past few years. On 31 December, Margaret Sullivan, the public editor at The New York Times, declared 2012 “a big year for long-form journalism”, citing the growing number of in-depth stories – exceeding 4,000 words – provided by the prestigious paper.
To a certain degree, the boom is attributable to the availability of more sophisticated tools to analyse people’s online behaviour. In addition to registering the number of clicks, advertisers and newspapers today are able to monitor the time readers spend on a certain page. However, efforts to apply this data to create new, significant sources of revenue are yet to bear fruit.
In particular, long-form journalism is thriving beyond the grasp of the traditional media powerhouses. Byliner, established in San Francisco in 2011, for example, has been hailed as one of the world’s most innovative media companies after publishing more than two-dozen best-selling long-form stories and selling more than 1,000,000 e-singles in 2012.
More than length, however, the most compelling feats of long-form journalism (see e.g. Snow Fall by John Branch, published in partnership by Byliner and The New York Times) embrace the vast possibilities of the digital platform, fluently meshing meandering text with video, photos and graphics.
According to Vehkoo, such multi-form presentation, “experiments with sound and vision”, also appeal to the Long Play collective. The e-book format, however, has yet to allow such experiments. “The dream is to have our own publishing platform that allows experiments with, for instance, photojournalism,” she muses.
Such leaps also impose new requirements on the skills of journalists, who increasingly supplement their shorthand and social skills with the basics of programming or data mining. “If I were a journalism student today, I would probably learn the basics of programming, explore the world of data and learn how to read statistics,” Vehkoo suggests.
Moreover, it may be the future of online journalism, which hitherto has struggled to elude the confines of the traditional formats; as Vehkoo notes, stories still begin with leads and are decorated with photographs and cut-lines. “Novel experiments with narrative styles distinctive to the Internet have been sparse.”
The print industry, ravaged by scandals, slumping advertising revenue and soaring paper prices, is watching the forays of long-form journalism closely, in hopes of respite. A panacea, however, remains elusive. The experiments of independent publishers with alternative funding models, for example direct reader funding, are expected to remain in the margin. The British daily Guardian, for example, announced the end of its two-year experiment with long-form journalism, the aggregator service Long Good Read, last December.
“You must offer niche content in order to rely on direct reader funding, like we at Long Play do. I am certain a number of collectives focused on a certain field will surface. You could, for example, run a site on ice hockey or literature,” Vehkoo projects. “In a world of similarities, specialisation is a strategy for success for both journalists and publications.”
In the meantime, temporary relief may be closer than print media realises. With their vast archives of stories, newspapers would be poised to exploit the booming e-book market, the British daily, Guardian, suggested in early March. In Finland, Helsingin Sanomat has already compiled a section of slow reads for its readers.
The realisation that revenue from advertising and subscriptions can no longer sustain journalism as it shifts onto digital platforms has encouraged newspapers to explore new, even radical, horizons. “The Guardian, for example, provides education; the Washington Post acquired a hospice business,” Vehkoo reveals.
Some attempts are beheld with anxiety. “The mixing of paid content and journalism in content marketing is a concern,” she acknowledges.
Meanwhile, newspapers churn out arid updates in order to appease advertisers, whose obsession with clicks, sadly, persists. “With the way online advertising works today, you must publish a heck of a lot, and often. The system encourages copy-pasting, and content becomes uniform,” sighs Vehkoo.
“Unique stories will naturally stand out.”