The Life and Rumored Death of Literary Journalism

I went to a panel a few weeks ago at the AWP conference called “Reporting Creatively: The Dying Art of Literary Journalism,” which was an engaging and well-constructed panel on the present and the future of the craft of literary journalism. The tenor of the panel was largely tilted towards pessimism, or at least worry, about the possibilities that lie ahead for well-written, longform journalism, the kind that takes time and talent and creativity to produce. Naturally, a lot of the concern centered around changing publication priorities and audience demand, and the conversation involved lots of mention of new versus old media and the role technology has played in shifting journalism into to new formats and structures. 

I feel sometimes put in a slightly uncomfortable position in these discussions. In so many ways I consider myself a lover of old-school media with a persistent fascination with and affinity for paper and magazines and printed words, yet at the same time I’m an undeniable member of the digital age, with my feet firmly planted in digital publication. I’m not ashamed of being a blogger, or that my publications have to date existed solely online. The blogging world is slippery and vast, but full of promise and discovery and at the moment I love being a part of it. This split leaves me wanting to be a champion of both camps. Often, I feel as if I ought to defend myself, to extend my hands and promise that I’m not killing off journalism and the sanctity of the written word by doing what I do, assuring some distant deity of journalism that I do not worship false idols by publishing online.

The truth is that the Internet has given me a chance at journalism, a chance I wouldn’t wish away or be foolish enough to think I could replicate without a digital platform. It has allowed me, in ways otherwise impossible and out of reach, to publish longform work on topics I love and care about and spend time with. Sometimes a digital publication allows for greater access to brilliant work and well-crafted thought. Sometimes the blogosphere allows people to work their way towards producing quality writing in a less historically conventional, but no less authentic manner. This is why I think literary journalism as we used to know it may be gone, but why a new literary journalism can live on if we work for it and let it happen. 

Marshall McCluhan may have said that the medium is the message (how many of us actually know anything else that McCluhan said, for however often we may quote that), but we accept that phrase so axiomatically now in our interpretations of the digital age that I think we grant digital technology more power over journalism than it really has. We have this belief, not without merit or basis, that the printed word in its physical and tangible form is of higher value, invested with deeper worth, spiritually or intellectually or even financially. We ought to question that assumption, that central framing of digital vs. print. To me, the blog posts of Ta-Nehisi Coates or Alyssa Rosenberg, David Carr or Roxane Gay or Corey Robin, are of great cultural and personal value, with no loss of depth or meaning because they are part of the supposedly threatening morass of the blogosphere. And in some cases, they have had more powerful impacts on how I write and think than something I might have read on the pages of an issue of The New Yorker or Foreign Affairs.

Let me reiterate: I love a magazine. I’m usually carrying at least one print issue of a magazine around with me, usually more. My magazine subscription practices alone are evidence of my dedication to keeping print media alive. A magazine is an entire beautiful experience that reaches your mind on a million different levels at once. It is a self-contained, layered narrative that can be engrossing and unified, if done just right. This doesn’t mean that literary journalism and wonderfully classy writing does not and cannot melt your mind on the screen as well as on the page.

I think we should take the blogosphere to task when it becomes the bandwagon, when it becomes a merchant of brief, substanceless clickbait, when it becomes a vehicle for snark over content, and so on. But let’s not pretend that poor thinking and ensuing self-congratulation are primarily a function of the digital age. I think that the digital medium has seriously challenged journalism, but to some extent I believe journalism needs to look inward to solve its problems instead of externalizing the causes of its troubles. In her recently-published and much-discussed essay, “Why I Left News,” Allyson Bird writes “I don’t think the Internet killed newspapers. Newspapers killed newspapers.” As Bird writes, lots of the sturm und drang of contemporary journalism is an unlovely mix of audience demand that extends beyond the changing realities of digital reading and corporate and establishment influence and pressures. 

The presenters at the AWP panel were complicated and informative in what they said, and this piece is not an argument against them, but rather a continuation of their conversation, in which they admirably challenged cantankerous journalism doom and gloom. I am arguing, though, for more discussion and innovation in the ways that the digital age can enhance literary journalism and give it new life by changing its readership and connecting writers to editors and to subject matter in new and wonderful ways. 

Addition: Right after I finished writing this up, I stumbled on an interview with Atavist co-founder Evan Ratliff from earlier this week in which he talks about the digital models for longform publishing and reading, and their expansion and development over the past couple of years. 

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