What is longform journalism?

So what exactly is longform journalism? The most current and relevant definition comes from an international expert on the form, Matthew Ricketson, who recently assisted former Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein QC in an independent inquiry into the media in Australia. He is one of the judges of the Editia Prize.

Writing in “Australian Journalism Today”, a 2012 Palgrave Macmillan textbook of which he is editor, Ricketson defines longform journalism in book form as, “Where practioners use journalistic methods to research and write independently about contemporary people, events and issues at book length in a timely manner for a broad audience”.

By journalistic methods, he means “the finding of documents, whether in print or online, interviewing people and first-hand observation”, and notes that when journalists are given, or take, “more time and space for their work, they need to adopt a narrative approach to storytelling that means their true stories enlarge readers’ understanding of an issue or event”.

The academic and journalist goes on to say that, “When done well, longform true stories deeply engage readers emotionally as well as intellectually.”

Ricketson sets out six key elements of longform journalism in his chapter of “Australian Journalism Today” (his piece is entitled “The new appreciation of long-form journalism in a short-form world”). He writes that it is about actual events and people living in the world, and concerns the issues of the day; that it is the result of extensive research; that its writer has taken a narrative approach making the most of the availability of a range of authorial voices; that it explores the underlying meaning of an event or issue; and that it has impact.

The University of Canberra Professor of Journalism says journalists writing longer works tend to do more face to face interviews, and devote more time to each individual interview. They spend more time observing people and events first hand, and can source documents via FOI, for example, given they face lesser time constraints than newspaper or magazine journalists.

Ricketson cites examples including David Marr’s 2010 Quarterly Essay on Kevin Rudd, Power Trip, Helen Garner’s The First Stone, Geesche Jacobsen’s Abandoned: The Sad Death of Diane Brimble and Paul Barry’s The Rise and Rise of Kerry Packer.

He sums up the value of book-length journalism saying it “derives from the immediacy and urgency of the journalist’s probing of events, issues and people that affect society; the fresh information and insights yielded by in-depth research that may influence public debate; the opportunity for the reader to be shown something about the world and its people that they know little about; the level of engagement for the reader offered by a book written in narrative style; and the pleasure for the reader if the journalist writes in a distinctive or memorable style.”

It’s a popular genre, and the rise of the ebook will only boost it further. Bring it on!

Charlotte Harper