Rolling Stone’s Will Dana on long-form: ‘Quality will win out in the end’

Joe Pompeo
Media Reporter
The Cutline

The mobile consumption of long-form journalism has become something of a trend lately. And where trends in journalism go, panel discussions are sure to follow.

There was one last month, which convened David Remnick, Ira Glass and other bold-faced geek names to discuss the intersection of technology and narrative storytelling. Another took place last night at New York's Housing Works bookstore. Several hundred crowded the stacks to hear four writers and editors from Rolling Stone--Jeff Goodell, Rob Sheffield, Brian Hiatt and Will Dana--discuss the role of longer-form writing in an increasingly miniaturized, just-in-time media scene.

The crowd was rapt: Mark Armstrong, creator of the influential long-form aggregator Longreads (which co-hosted the event), sat in the back taking notes on his MacBook Pro. Gawker honcho Nick Denton observed the panel from a perch near the front of the shop. Reuters staffer and round-the-clock Twitter presence Anthony DeRosa micro-blogged throughout.

"Is journalism going to survive the age of WikiLeaks, in this era where every secret, every fact is out there on the Internet for everyone to see?" asked Dana, Rolling Stone's managing editor. He answered his own question: "The format's going to change, whether it's on paper or a computer screen, aggregated or disaggregated ... [but] in this world of infinite information, it means there's an even greater need for quality information."

"People want stories," Goodell concurred. "There's a really human, elemental need to have a story about something."

And Rolling Stone has lately made a case for the power of storytelling in its own pages. Rolling Stone writer Michael Hastings' explosive June 2010 profile of now-retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal is up for a 2010 National Magazine Award in the reporting category. And Mark Boal's disturbing expose about U.S. soldiers murdering innocent civilians in Afghanistan has also stirred far-reaching debate.

At least some panelists suggested that long-form writing has become more, not less, important under the tyrannical reign of the 24-hour news cycle. The effort to deliver the news instantaneously also creates important narrative openings, Goodell suggested: "It leaves huge holes all the time," said Goodell. "It's like, Oh well, that story's over ... let's move on to the next thing."

"It leaves out so many of the important facts that you need to know to actually understand" a story, Dana added. "We saw this last year with the oil spill, where the media and the White House decided on this one narrative that was leaving out massive parts of the story. ... Once that kind of consensus gets formed in the first 24 or 48 hours, a lot of the media just kind of embroiders that bit, and the additional facts that they bring into the story are really only ones that confirm or fill out the narrative as it formed immediately. So I think there's a tremendous amount of opportunity for long-form."

Asked how he could be so sure of that, Dana hedged.

"I just think we have to have a basic faith that quality will win out in the end," he said.

(Image via Soup)