The future of long-form journalism: Frontline’s Aronson-Rath and ProPublica’s Engelberg on multimedia collaboration
It’s always “The Future of Long-form Week” here at Nieman Storyboard, but we’re excited to note that this week, some key storytellers from different media are getting together in New York to talk about long-form, well, at length.
Tonight at 7.pm., ProPublica and The New School are hosting “Long-form Storytelling in a Short-Attention-Span World.” Alison Stewart, co-anchor of the PBS show “Need To Know” will moderate a great set of speakers: Ira Glass, host of “This American Life”; David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker; Raney Aronson-Rath, series senior producer for “Frontline”; and Steve Engelberg, managing editor of ProPublica. The event is free and open to the public.
In a kind of sneak preview of what tonight’s discussion might be like, Aronson-Rath and Engelberg talked long-form Monday on “The Leonard Lopate Show” at radio’s WNYC. Two key things that emerged from their conversation were their excitement about the changing consumption of long-form and their positive experiences with collaboration (sometimes with each other). Here are a few of their on-air comments, lightly edited for clarity.
Lopate asked if there are specific pieces of a story, or even whole stories, that work better in a particular medium. In response, Aronson-Rath discussed “Frontline’s” partnership with ProPublica:
Sometimes Steve will bring to me – and he knows this – the most amazing reporting. And the two of us will put our heads together and say, “How can we make that into a documentary film?” There are times when the visuals just aren’t going to be able to bring that story more to life than they’re going to be able to do in print, so we have to pass. And that’s a real disappointment.
To a certain degree, there are limitations to the visual form, in the sense of the complexities, and also simply people sometimes don’t want to go on camera. There’s a whole range of issues that we have that Steve doesn’t. And I would argue the vice versa [is also true]: There are sometimes visual stories that are just terrific that aren’t as strong or as powerful in print.
Engelberg agreed, but emphasized the complex stories that ProPublica has been able to deliver through cross-platform collaboration:
Having been in an organization, ProPublica , an investigative newsroom, where we don’t have a printing press or radio station – we’re web-based – we work with more different media than anyone else. We have found an amazing flexibility, particularly with radio, which turns out to be excellent for complicated storytelling – far better than I think I understood when I started. And “Frontline” has done some miracles with us already, in terms of getting complicated things on the air. So I think we’re stretching the boundaries of this now. The boundaries are disappearing, and we’re seeing that there are more possibilities than we might have first thought.
Later, Engelberg said that in some ways, long-form storytelling may be improving despite the difficult straits that journalism finds itself in today:
I think one of the things we could do when newspapers were a monopoly is tell long stories in a very boring way because there was frankly no place else to go. You would take these stories, they would not have narrative, they would not have pacing. They would just be just facts layered one upon the other. To me, it’s become clear that in this competitive news environment, we need to learn what a good documentarian already knows, which is how to tell a story, how to develop a character, how to make people care. So I feel like, in all of our editorial conversations with “Frontline,” with NPR and so on, that we’re learning things, too.
In addition to depicting a “fundamental” shift toward collaboration, Aronson-Rath described the way that technology is changing storytelling options at “Frontline”:
It’s just an incredible time for us. The cameras are now so much cheaper, they’re more accessible. So on the “Law and Disorder” project, for example, our producer was actually filming the entire way through. We were able to post those videos online and actually have visual storytelling that lasted the whole year, instead of what we would normally do, which is to keep our production to a few weeks at the end of the process of reporting.
Those technological changes, of course, are not affecting just the way storytelling journalism is produced. Aronson-Rath talked about how even old-school media are considering the ways viewers will consume their content:
We believe [that] for documentary film, the tablet, the iPad, basically these new platforms are essentially going to be our salvation. … We’re really trying to create the most exciting environment that you can inside a film, around the film. That in part is why we collaborate with folks like Steve, because we really believe that very sophisticated text companion pieces are essential. When somebody’s on an iPad, and they’re watching our film, if they’re going to get distracted, we want to distract them to our material, our content, to what we feel is important.
Engelberg noted that at first, ProPublica entered the journalism arena to fill what was seen as a gap in coverage by newspapers and magazines. “Over time,” he said, “what became clear to us is that reporting and storytelling transcend medium.”