Wednesday, February 24, 2016


Why the failures of SB Nation’s 12,000-word Holtzclaw piece are being used to condemn "longform" as an art or profession baffles me.

Here's the situation, as I see it. A bunch of sites—SB Nation is far from alone here—wanted to start doing longer features. They wanted to start doing features because, done well, they can “improve engagement” or whatever it’s called and lend a sense of prestige to a venture that maybe hasn’t always been seen as a quality product. The longform vertical becomes the stable anchor tenant for a much larger, looser enterprise. That's fine and logical, I think; it's like the use of distraction in a magic trick. (Or, put more charitably, "a rising tide lifts all boats.") The problem arises because of the gap between the desire to do longform and the ability to do it well.

That “ability gap” exists for all sorts of reasons. In the case of SB Nation, as far as I can tell, one man was pushing out a magazine's worth of features each month by himself rather than with a masthead of twenty or thirty. (There is a 2011 interview with Glenn Stout below. If you didn’t know him before the Holtzclaw piece, it might change your opinion of him and his work.) He was doing it with limited resources—SB Nation wasn't paying the rates that would attract top-flight writers—and apparently without much of a safety net. The Holtzclaw story was deeply flawed, but I still have empathy for both its writer and editor, because producing a risky story like this one properly is maybe impossible without the necessary support systems in place. When you run hundreds of stories on a relative shoestring, something like this was probably inevitable.

I’m about to sound like an old man, but fuck it, old men are right sometimes. Doing good longform requires incredible resources. Those include things like talent and experience, but they also include cold-hard cash, in the shape of good writer's fees and the expense of the on-the-ground reporting such pieces require. The real trouble is, the genuine assets of writing online—speed and cheap, infinite space—are precisely the things that can work against good feature writing. It takes time, and you can't treat space (or the reader's attention span) like a bottomless resource. You can’t volume shoot longform.

In 15 years writing features, I've had hundreds of ideas rejected—sometimes with surprising physical force—and I've written exactly one story that was longer than 12,000 words. It took me eight months. I went to 13 states. I worked with one of the best editors in the business, who cut 5,000 words from it, and some of those cuts were painful. We also worked with outstanding, full-time copy editors and fact checkers, two of whom combine for a half-century of experience alone, and with a professional photographer and art director. It was a true team effort, and if we were able to calculate how much that piece cost, in terms of hours and travel, it would be well into six figures. That's what it takes. You can't say you want to play the game and then make up your own rules. Or you can, but then you risk looking like you don't belong out there.

This modern middle ground of longform in theory, digital by practice is pretty clearly fraught. Newspapers and magazines aren't perfect; Lord knows that even with our best efforts, we make mistakes. But the more analog systems and teams of professionals we have in place improve the chances of great work happening, and they reduce the chances of catastrophic error. The digital revolution was heralded by some for its elimination of the traditional gatekeepers. It turns out those gatekeepers did a pretty good job, and they were in place for good fucking reason.

If nothing else comes from this episode, I hope that it demonstrates what goes into the best of what we do, and helps Young Writers understand why rejection happens, and why they might not be ready to write cover stories for The New Yorker next year. "Longform" doesn't suck because of this piece. This piece shows how hard the good stuff really is, and if there is a cult among us, that's why it exists: We know just how rare and elusive the highest heights are, and why it's worth celebrating when any one of our shrinking number is lucky enough to reach them, however briefly.


  1. I've since excerpted/paraphrased from this response on Twitter, but here's the wordier version:

    Plenty of good points here. Particularly: "…the more analog systems and teams of professionals we have in place improve the chances of great work happening, and they reduce the chances of catastrophic error." Nothing's perfect, of course. But more eyes can help catch flaws.

    I come at this from two perspectives.

    The first as one of the "traditional gatekeepers" whose value was diminished, seemingly permanently, in part due to the digital revolution (and who spent a few on-and-off years working with those two fact-checkers who "combine for a half-century of experience alone"). From that, I don't fully grasp how a longform venture gets kickstarted in the first place if they'll be under-manned and underfunded from the get-go--even more so if those behind the outlet have backgrounds in journalism and have encountered the complexities of getting a complicated, thousands-of-words piece right. As you said, when that's the case, and with such volume of content flowing, these kinds of things are bound to happen. Shit, they happen at major rags (see: Rolling Stone, etc.); so clearly conventional media doesn't have best practices perfectly honed either. But my read of the SBN saga is that the reporting and editing did not counterbalance each other; both failed to capture enough of the scope and nuance that a sensitive story involving repeated sexual assault by a police officer demands. Just like receiving a zillion rejections, filing a story only to be told it needs more reporting is something many writers have heard from editors. While SBN doesn't have a prior record of running work flawed in those way (at least that I'maware of), I'm curious about the internal process that allows a story like Arnold's to run in the first place. Perhaps an eventual clash between SBN's expectations and the limited resources it could provide its longform staff was a inevitable. But I wonder to what extent thin resources contributed to this particular story's incomprehensive nature. I'd be interested to hear from others about the editorial processes from outlet to outlet.

    The second angle I can offer is of a writer who's pitched SBN and discussed various projects with Stout, none of which materialized. I can't speak to his editing process, but as a writer, I try to approach pitches with an awareness of my limitations, be it time, access, inadequate reporting or writing chops, whatever. That comes from working with way better journalists with more years writing lengthy features. And the self-doubt I discovered in that experience has led me towards stories that I feel my skill set is fit to handle (read: soft!). Who knows if that's the case with the SBN writer, or if his vision was skewed by some unaccounted for bias given his history of covering Holtzclaw's college football career. But as much as the editing and fact-checking systems need to be programmed to accommodate longform non-fiction, so to does the writer need to be cognizant of the sensitivities a story like Holtzclaw's presents, and be honest with himself about whether he is capable of producing cohesive work on the topic. Petchesky's take on Deadspin struck me as the most on target: the piece "reads as if quantity was mistaken for complexity."

    Just my two cents.


  2. So happy you've returned. Please keep posting, SOBV.