An Open Letter to Michael Kinsley (from 2002)

It's a bit surprising to me that people are still, two decades  since the popularization of the Web, grappling with and fretting over how and whether to do "long-form" journalism in digital media. I put "long-form" in quotes, because each medium has its own systems and constraints, and long-form doesn't necessarily mean text. A documentary is long-form journalism for broadcast media. And, perhaps, we need to rethink the idea of "long-form" for the Web. Which brings me to a piece I wrote on in 2002 on the ideas of long-form, answering journalist and editor Michael Kinsley. (And my apologies for older links that don't work. If you find archived versions, please let me know.)

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By Dorian Benkoil 
Published Aug. 21, 2002 5:20 pm

Dear Michael,
I’ve heard you in a couple of places recently, expounding on what you’ve learned about doing journalism on the Web after many years as top editor at Slate.

Generally you were right on, but I sensed one important blind spot: You spoke as if the Web were print. For example, you repeatedly lamented how hard it is to sustain the sort of long-form journalism a print magazine might do.

“Publishing long New Yorker/Atlantic-type pieces,” you said in one interview for NPR’s “On the Media,” may well be “a type of journalism that is not suitable to the Web.”

But that’s like a filmmaker bemoaning the ways he has to condense a novel to squeeze it into a feature film, or a TV journalist complaining that the words of his evening news broadcast wouldn’t fill the front page of a broadsheet newspaper.

The Web, like TV and film, is a different medium than print — one that can convey just as much, and perhaps more. And I would argue that in doing so, Web journalists must present their pieces differently than when writing for, sayThe New York Times Magazine, of which you also spoke well.

Horizontal, Not Vertical
I think of the Web as a “horizontal” rather than “vertical” medium. People reading on a computer tend to get impatient, to skip from one thing to another. Rather than scroll down — vertically — they’ll jump (or “click”) to a “new” page — horizontally — even when that new page is a continuation or tangent of what they’re already consuming.

Web-based publications, from your competitor to The New York Times Magazine, capitalize on this tendency in the simplest of ways: breaking up articles onto multiple, cross-linked pages.

More sophisticated methods of engaging Web users include one you mentioned: having a journalist keep a kind of professional journal that elicits the story as it’s reported, in small chunks day-by-day, or your nifty trick of using the “voice of e-mail.”

Even more sophisticated, I would argue, is using more of the medium’s potential by not confining yourself to print.

Take, for example, a hypothetical New York Times Magazine piece on the Middle East. Let’s make it 5,000 words. Then let’s adapt it for the Web, giving users a fun and enjoyable ride rather than a slog through page after page of screen-based text:
  • What’s the main point, the “nut” of the story? Can we convey it, with a reasonable amount of color and depth, but without digressions or asides, in, say, 1,200 words — which means, maybe two “Page Down” clicks, “vertically”?
  • Can we take a digression from the piece and make it a 400-word sidebar on a different page?
  • How about some visual elements described in an attached photo slideshow, with clever and creative captions that tell more of the story, as The New York Times did last week here with a fun walk-through illustrating its piece on virtual TV news?
  • Maybe a bit of audio of some interview subjects, conveying not only the words they spoke, but also the added context of their tone of voice and, for video, facial expressions, as MSNBC consistently does with its audio-visual presentations, as here on its coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks and the war on terror.
  • How about an interactive graphic giving insight into the geography, history or other background behind the piece so someone can flesh out their understanding, as, my employer, does consistently, such as on this primer on the Middle East. [[NOTE: is blocking access to this story as of April 12, 2012.]]
It is, to be sure, a lot of work, but once done gives a rich Web-centric presentation of the same material that might total more words, be enjoyable to enter at any of numerous points, and convey as much information and more emotion than the Times Magazine piece.

Even such print-oriented sites as The International Herald Tribune‘s, with its “horizontal” presentation of individual stories and a Web-based “clippings” file, are trying to present their material in a way that’s attractive to Web-based readers.

I’d be the first to acknowledge that the above techniques are not perfected. This is, after all, an evolving medium whose technology changes many times a year. But it’s just not right to say that it’s not possible to do long-form journalism on the Web.

Knowing the Numbers
Michael, you also spoke of the double-edged sword of knowing the numbers, of how Web technology allows you to know exactly how many people look at every piece for exactly how long. You noted how that can tend to denigrate the less-viewed material.

Yet, in print, editors don’t know how many people actually read their articles, or who, or how far into them they go. How many times have you stopped reading a piece in the middle and turned the page? At least on the Web, you can presume someone who’s accessed a story has a certain level of interest, and perhaps is more engaged, than the casual magazine or newspaper reader.

I have learned over five years of working in Web journalism — after many more years in magazines, radio, TV, film, a wire service and more — that each medium has its tedium, but each can also borrow from the others while playing to its greatest strengths.

As I said, you were mainly spot-on in talking of everything from the wonderful ways to play with the medium to the excitement of building it from scratch and how the wealth of figures generated by users’ “clicks” can ultimately be misleading. Thank you, too, for many wonderful stories and revelations in Slate and for sharing your observations.

And, if you’ve read this far down, thanks for reading mine.
– Dorian Benkoil

Dorian Benkoil is a managing producer at He previously spent about a decade at The Associated Press and Newsweek. This piece reflects his personal views, not those of his employer.

Collaborating in Person to Support the Virtual

Collaboration has been growing in journalism (and media in general), and I'll be attending two collaboration events in the Bay Area. One, Collab/Space, is part of the launch of Collaboration Central on our client PBS MediaShift, and is happening at U.C. Berkeley's Bowman Center. (The hashtag: #collabspace ?) Luminaries such as investigative journalist and Berkeley educator Lowell Bergman, U of Arizona's Dan Gillmor and MediaShift's Mark Glaser will also be there.

The other event, TechRaking (#techraking) is at Google's headquarters on Thursday, in Mountain View, CA. It's being run in part by founder David Cohn and will apparently focus more on the technology that has facilitated so much of the collaborative work that is possible today.