Practical advice for longform writers

While daily news journalism continues to suffer from job losses and budget cuts, demand for longform journalism is growing.

That’s according to Professor of Journalism at the University of Canberra and Editia Prize judge Matthew Ricketson, who spoke at the Walkley Media Conference in Canberra yesterday.

In a workshop titled From Daily Journalism to Longform Journalism, Ricketson said that longform journalism is of particular importance in a world where news is updated by the second.

“There are some things that you can’t achieve in daily news. The context is often missing, and details can’t be explored in depth,” he said.

Demand for longform reads has increased as readers seek comprehensive reporting at a digestible length. Ricketson said that there has never been more longform journalism around, “and it has never been more available”.

Despite this demand, longform journalism is often viewed as a side project.

“For writers, there are jobs that bring in the bread and butter, and there are jobs that feed your soul. Longform journalism is in the latter category,” Ricketson said.

During the workshop he gave practical tips for daily news journalists considering writing longer works, such as abandoning the inverted news pyramid style for writing that is narrative and scene driven.

“You have to give someone a reason to stay for thousands of words,” he said.

When writing longform journalism, Ricketson said that the standard journalist’s questions of who, what, when, where, why and how can be replaced with character, action, setting, chronology, motive and narrative.

He used excerpts from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (one of the first non-fiction “novels” ever written) to show how this is done. He explained that dialogue is more effective than quotations in longer works, because “using dialogue makes the reader feel as though they are watching a play unfold in front of them. They hear moods; they understand contexts”. He also encouraged using vivid descriptions that draw on all senses.

“Sense of smell is underrated … but it isn’t part of the daily journalist’s lexicon,” he said.

Ricketson also examined In Cold Blood’s flaws, such as the use of omniscient narration (where the narrator knows everything).

“The omniscient narrator voice is not possible in nonfiction because there are always gaps and contradictions in what journalists can know about an event,” he said.

Journalists are presented with similar difficulties when recreating scenes and including sourcing and attribution.

“Reconstructing scenes is tricky. It can be done, but to what extent? And how do you reconcile that with the reader?

“You have to persuade the reader that you’re not making things up.”

Amy Birchall is a journalist at MSA Media, editor and publicist at Halstead Press, member of the ACT Writers Centre board and a blogger who regularly contributes to Editia’s social media streams.






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