Let me first say that I get the creeps whenever I encounter the new journalism buzz-phrase “long-form journalism.”
Long-form -- rhymes with chloroform.
Why not just say “long,” since that seems to be what is being advertised.
To be effective, the writer needs to blend facts, details, descriptions, observations, quotes, opinions, in an interesting manner. That is, the writer needs to be able to write, and the editors need to be able to edit.
That’s long enough, right there. However, some long pieces are glorious, worth reading slowly, carefully, from beginning to end. I just read three over the weekend.
The Passion of Roger Angell. By Tom Verducci. Sports Illustrated, July 21, 2014.
Roger Angell has graced the New Yorker and his own books for the past half century with his writing about baseball (along with other elegant pieces.) On July 26, Angell will be honored at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., with the annual J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the highest honor given by the Baseball Writers of America. (Angell has never held a BBWA card since the New Yorker does not cover baseball on a daily basis.)
Tom Verducci, a Sports Illustrated writer and television commentator, has proven worthy of his subject, accompanying Angell to the cottages and docks and sailboats of his beloved Maine, and even to the cemetery, containing the headstones for Angell’s mother, Katharine Angell White, his step-father, E.B. White, his brother, Joe, his daughter, Callie, and Angell’s wife, Carol, whom he misses badly, and for Angell himself, the stone (1920-) lacking only a final date.
To his immense credit, Verducci captures the bittersweet outlook of a man who is 93 and has much left to say about baseball, about life, about writing:
“I used to have a terribly hard time starting, because when I wrote I didn’t do first drafts. I wrote the whole piece on typewriters and would x out and use Scotch tape. I think I began to realize that leads weren’t a big problem. You can start anywhere.”
For many decades, the best baseball writing of the year would arrive in the mail at the end of spring training -- Roger Angell’s report on spring training, often from the baseball hangout, the Pink Pony in Scottsdale, Ariz., now defunct. The first Angell of spring was a sure sign we would outlive winter, real life was resuming. His pieces could have gone on forever, as far as this reader was concerned. Amazingly, long-form journalism had not yet been invented.
Wrong Answer: In an era of high-stakes testing, a struggling school made a shocking choice. By Rachel Aviv. The New Yorker. July 21, 2014.
Speaking of trends, the current infatuation with testing scores led the Atlanta school system to encourage cheating. Rachel Aviv followed one idealistic educator, feeling forced to abandon actual teaching and caring for the young, down the path to Watergate-style chicanery. Great reporting provides a guide to this tragedy.
The Trials of Graham Spanier, Penn State’s Ousted President. By Michael Sokolove. The New York Times Magazine. July 20, 2014.
The former president of Penn State allowed a seasoned magazine writer to visit him in the wreckage of the child-abuse case involving Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator with the football team. The article says Spanier was brutalized by his own father; I never knew that. Now Spanier faces legal charges that he failed to investigate the possibility that Sandusky was sexually abusing young boys within the football “program.”
There is no doubt Spanier and Joe Paterno were clueless in coping with developing hints and charges about Sandusky. (I listened in on a Paterno press conference in 2008; in retrospect, this was not the same man I had followed for decades, but Spanier could not get him to retire.)
Sokolove makes the case that the institution of Penn State was willing to chuck Spanier and Paterno into history and pay $60-million to the loan-shark-minded N.C.A.A. for the privilege of being able to make more money as a football “program.”
Note: I just discovered a piece by James Bennet in the Atlantic last December, decrying the spawn of longform-journalism. It’s really good. And not that long.
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.