the magazine of the columbia daily spectator
May 1 2013
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Missed the Cliterary Open Mic? Check out the highlights here
March 29 2013
Sex & Low Beach
Rebecca White started working on her article a year ago when she ran into composer Gabriel Prokofiev, just one of many characters that make an appearance in her story about the state of classical music in New York City. She interviewed him one last time via Skype last weekend before putting the finishing touches on her piece. And after a year of interviews, concerts, and data collection, White’s story is set to run next week.
Spending a year or two reporting is not unusual for the writers at Narratively, a digital publication that launched this past September, though founder Noah Rosenberg has been working on the idea for over two years. Narratively doesn’t pay attention to the ups and downs and all-caps headlines of the traditional news cycle. The publication instead fixates on the untold human interest pieces—the “rich, intricate narratives that get at the heart of what this city’s all about,” according to their website.
“My goal is to have someone come to our site in three years and read a story that we put out yesterday and still find meaning in that story and have it resonate,” says Rosenberg. “We’re telling stories that are more than just a news item. They read like literature.”
Each week, the editors of Narratively settle on a broad theme, publishing a different story relating to that theme each day of the week, told in whatever medium is best fitting: long-form article, short documentary, photo essay, etc. Past themes have included “Drifters,” “Taking It All Off,” and “How We Die.”
What’s remarkable about Narratively’s pieces is that they run approximately 5000 words in length, roughly eight times as long as the average New York Times op-ed. To compensate, Narratively publishes just one story each day—a story that, according to Rosenberg, is so well-crafted it demands the reader’s time.
“When we do [publish] something, it’s going to be really valuable and interesting,” he says. “The Times is doing the best reporting in the world, but oftentimes the features stories have space constraints and these beautifully crafted narratives are being overshadowed by the next big headline. We want each story to have its spotlight.”
Managing editor Brendan Spiegel thinks the one-story-a-day model makes the experience more manageable for the reader. “People have so much stuff in their RSS feed, email account, Tumblr account that it’s overwhelming,” Spiegel says. “We can tell them, ‘Here, look at just one story every day.’”
Narratively is part of a growing trend of publications and platforms dedicated to long-form narratives. Websites such as Byliner, Longreads, The Atavist, and Longform are battling the digital era’s diminution of news down to bite-sized headlines and Tweets.
Max Linsky, co-founder of Longform—a website that collects and posts non-fiction articles from across the web “too long and too interesting to be read on a web browser”—thinks the current deluge of information is exactly what makes websites like Narratively appealing. “In the mid-2000s, people sort of decided that no one was going to read anything long again,” Linsky says. “The trend is quite obvious that people have shorter attention spans. But there is a by-product of that. When you spend all your time thinking, writing, creating in 140 characters, the value of being able to step off the web and really engage with a longer piece of content is that much higher.”
Glenn Lewis, director of the journalism BA program at CUNY’s York College and faculty member at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism believes long-form journalism is much more popular now than it was three or four years ago, and he’s hopeful that publications like Narratively will push it further in the right direction.
Lewis thinks long-form offers a fuller, richer understanding of the story. Most articles, he says, are snapshots of the story. Long-form delivers the whole movie. “There’re a lot of people out there who will relish seeing a well-told true story in film. An example would be Argo,” he says, “a fabulous movie told in a beautiful, very tight, pure narrative, long-form approach.”
In fact, according to Lewis, most critically-acclaimed movies were originally based on true stories. “Where were they before they were films? They were books!” he exclaims. “It’s just that people don’t always connect the idea of what they’re seeing on screen with the writing or reporting that created the story to begin with. There’s never really been a situation when pure long-form narrative has not been viable. It’s just the way it’s consumed. I’m just hoping now that it will be consumed now more often in the way that it was written.”
While Lewis is hopeful long-form will expand, Robert Boynton, director of NYU’s Literary Reportage program, is hesitant to make any assessments about its future. Boynton believes journalism is in such a period of flux that speculating is foolish. “I like some of the pieces [Narratively has] run, but I don’t really understand how they’re going to be sustainable,” he says.
However, Linsky believes being a new publication puts Narratively in a good position. “Evolving is hard, change is hard,” Linsky says. “What’s exciting about places like Nararatively and other new publications is that they’re built for this exact moment. I have no idea if any of them will be as sustainable or successful as what we think of as venerated magazines, but I think they’re in a good position to give it a real shot.”
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