When we fetishize “long-form,” we are fetishizing the form and losing sight of its function. That’s how a story with a troubled woman who commits suicide at its center gets told as a writer’s quixotic quest to learn everything he can about the maker of a golf club that he stumbled across during a late-night Internet search for tips for his short game. There’s a place for writers in their magazine stories, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with offering readers a glimpse into the reporting process. The trouble starts when the subject becomes secondary, and the writer becomes not just observer but participant, the hero of his story.
What, then, is the function — the purpose — of “long-form”? To allow a writer to delve into the true complexities of a story, and also to bring readers closer to the experience of other people. Whether a long-form story is published in a magazine or on the web, its goal should be to understand and illuminate its subject, and maybe even use that subject to (subtly) explore some larger, more universal truths. Above all, that requires empathy, the real hallmark of great immersive journalism.
When ‘Long-Form’ Is Bad Form, Jonathan Mahler.
This article is a critique of long-form writing on the internet, spurred by one particular piece in which the writer is unraveling a mystery and thus plays a central role. Mahler is conflating arguments here to support his overarching opinion that long-form on the web is a overly-hyped trend.
Long-form journalism has grown from being the lonely centerpiece in print publications to being the surprise darling of digital products; with tablets and readers, they’re easy to consume, and with the right designers, they’re hallmarks of beautiful visuals and useful dataviz.
But more importantly, they showcase the best work of ambitious writers who prefer hard journalism to listicles. To argue that their ‘fetization’—I’m pretty sure Mahler just means ‘popularization’—takes away from the art of the writing itself is a mind-boggling claim.
Part of Mahler’s concern is that the articles aren’t being read thoroughly before being lauded. While it is a shame, it’s hardly a new problem, and as has been the case for centuries, the only person missing out is the shallow reader.