Richard Just on long-form journalism and online cover stories at The New Republic
Last week, The New Republic began posting “online cover stories” on its website. Announcing the move, the magazine’s new editor, Richard Just, wrote about his belief that “beautifully crafted, methodically edited, intellectually rich long-form writing can also thrive online.” He introduced the inaugural story, an extensive review of health care reform and its possible repeal. As fans of long-form journalism, we wanted to know more. So I talked with Just by phone on Thursday to find out whether his motivation rose out of idealism or analytics, and just what these stories might offer that isn’t already available to readers. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Yesterday you announced that The New Republic will be doing online cover stories. Can you talk about what those stories will look like?
They’re going to be in many ways very much like print cover stories. One of the things that I love about The New Republic and loved about TNR long before I worked here was the kind of variety of magazine journalism that fits within this place. There are places that do wonderful narrative long-form storytelling, there are places that do wonderful argumentative essays, and there are places that do brilliant literary criticism. But you don’t get all three of those within the same magazine that often, and I think that TNR is the place that combines those things, in my opinion, better than anyone.
We do those beautiful narrative stories that are storytelling for storytelling’s sake, just a great human story. We do those in the magazine, and we’re going to do those online as well. But in the same way that a lot of our cover stories in the magazines are arguments, they’re historical essays, they’re provocative arguments, done at length – a lot of these will fall into that category. Many of our cover stories and our best long-form pieces in print are literary pieces. They are, in magazine parlance, back-of-the-book pieces, cultural criticism. In that sense, the online cover stories are meant to be just another outlet for this writing that’s always been part of our signature, an essential part of what the magazine does.
Where did this idea come from and how long have you been contemplating it?
It was my idea. I’ve only been editor of TNR for – I guess I took over about a month ago. This was one of the ideas in taking over the magazine that I really wanted to do, because I look around at the universe of magazine journalism, and what you see is that there are a handful of other places that are still committed to long-form, but there are very few places that have tried to take long-form onto the web, who say long-form doesn’t have to just be confined to print magazines.
It can work on the web. It’s reflected in our traffic numbers, and I imagine if you look at the traffic for other sites, it’s probably reflected there, too. People do read long pieces on the web. For us, frankly, our pieces that do the best on the web, that garner the most attention, they’re often our big print cover stories. So there is an appetite for that.
I think there’s been a conventional wisdom in journalism that we all have to run toward the model, that the way journalism is going in the age of the Internet is for everybody to compete against each other to get to the next nugget of information 30 seconds before the competition does, and to publish it online in a sentence or two. That’s fine; that’s part of journalism, too. But I think that’s left a void where this older idea of what magazine journalism is used to be. This effort is an attempt to fill that void.
You’ve framed the decision as a kind of commitment to an ideal but have also said you think these stories can thrive online. Do you expect the long-form stories will hold their own in terms of online audience against the costs of producing them?
There’s no question that we feel like it is first and foremost an ideal. I believe in the value of long-form for all the reasons I laid out in what I wrote. I believe that there’s a virtue to it. On the other hand, as a magazine editor, you also want to provide things that are good and worthy, but you also want them to be things that are read.
I feel like this is a case where our ideals about what journalism can and should be aligned with what I see as maybe a little bit of a void in a journalistic market – that there’s an appetite for this journalism that perhaps isn’t being filled by the limited number of places that do long-form. Having an additional outlet for it beyond what we can do in the print magazine every two weeks makes sense.
You’re absolutely right to point out that there’s the idealistic part of it and the practical part. My hope is that the two align. I feel like I have some evidence to suggest that they will, but we’ll find out. It’s an experiment – hopefully one that will work.
Will the pieces be written by staff only, or will you use outside writers?
TNR has always been a wonderful combination of the brilliant people we have on staff that are identified with the magazine who write a lot of our big pieces. But a good chunk of our print magazine and a good part of our daily web magazine is filled with really terrific writing by people from outside TNR as well. This will be a similar combination.
What audience do you want to capture? Is there a demographic, is there some mental place these people are at, some education level? What do these people look like?
I think it’s going to be pretty consistent with our readership right now, which is highly educated. Beyond any particular demographic way that you could slice our readership, if I had to describe our readership, I would use the word “intellectual.” People who love politics, but not just politics: people who are interested in ideas.
To me, that’s the thing that unites all the kinds of long-form writing: the arguments, the narratives, the cultural criticism. If you sit down to read a 6000-word piece, it’s because you’re interested in ideas. All great long-form journalism at some level – even the pieces that are just great narratives, and you read them just because you want to see the twists and turns they take – ideas are always implicit in those stories as well.
I think our readership is a very intellectual readership, and I think that will continue to be the case for these stories.
You wrote that “a void has opened where a certain kind of old-fashioned magazine writing used to be.” Is there a particular feel to stories you want to see that is different than long-form pieces that appear online at The New Yorker, or Slate, or Salon?
I think our literary section, which is run by Leon [Wieseltier], is the best in the world, and it has been for decades. That’s always one thing that comes to mind when you’re talking about what distinguishes TNR.
In addition to the kind of great narrative stories that some of the other places you mentioned are known for, I think there’s a real commitment here to long-form argument, which is a rare thing. Ninety-nine percent of what we would describe as political argument takes place in bite-size chunks these days. And that’s OK – blogs have virtues. One thing I said in my post is that this in no way signals a retreat by TNR from the ethos of daily argument that is political discussion on the web. We enjoy being a part of that, and I think our writers are very, very good at it. John Chait is, for my money, the best political blogger on the web. So it’s not a retreat from that. Nothing I’m saying or doing with this project is meant to suggest that there aren’t virtues to that form of argument as well.
But there is something about an argument that’s 6000 words. It takes on a different value and a different form than one that’s conducted over Twitter or in 100-word or 200-word ripostes between bloggers, which is just the way that so much political argument takes place today. I think that there is a real commitment from TNR to the idea of long-form argument, to arguments that take account of nuance, that take account of counterarguments, that are no less impassioned in their conclusions but that are stronger and more intellectually honest and more interesting and more fun to read because they offer evidence to back their points. It’s not the kind of glibness that short-form argument can take on.
Obviously, there are other magazines that still believe in long-form, but I really feel like the commitment to long-form argument is something that distinguishes TNR, something that we do better than anybody else.
What will be the relationship between the long-form pieces on the site and in your print magazine?
Look, in every issue of the magazine, we have several big pieces, usually a few in the front of the book, political pieces, and a few in the back of the book, literary pieces. Those appear on the web, and they will continue to appear on the web. It was the appearance of those on the web and the success that those pieces were having traffic-wise that made me think this might be a good idea. The online stories won’t be in the magazine, because then they wouldn’t be online stories. This is just a way for us to do a little bit more of what we’re already doing.
[For more thoughts about long-form online, see a Nieman Lab piece on how Slate is approaching the issue, as well as New York Times editor Bill Keller's remarks at last year's Boston University narrative conference.]