Slow Journalism

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Slow Journalism
in the Digital Fast Lane

Susan Greenberg

Introduction
New technologies have made it possible to deliver quality goods and services
at low cost. As a result, people are only prepared to pay more if they get something truly luxurious or special. This trend, known in marketing circles as “the
end of the middle,” favors items where the added value is clear; hence the
growth of the slow food movement. But by the same token, a shrinking market remains for those that are deemed merely average.
How does this translate to journalism? At the bottom end, we swim in a
sea of information. Once a news wire was an expensive service, purchased only
by large organisations; now social networks function as personalized wire services. The middle market is represented by the traditional newspaper, which
has seen a steep fall in custom.
If the analogy holds, there should be a flourishing market at the luxury end
of the market for “slow journalism” (Greenberg 2007)1: essays, reportage and
other nonfiction forms that offer an alternative to conventional reporting, perceived as leaving an important gap in our understanding of the world at a time
when the need to make sense of it is greater than ever. The journalistic equivalent of slow food keeps the reader informed about the provenance of the

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information and how it was gathered. More time is invested in both the production and consumption of the work, to discover things we would not otherwise know, or notice things that have been missed, and communicate that to
the highest standards of story telling craft.
Often, a defining aspect of the genre is that the story works on more than one
level so that the specific subject matter leaves openings to other, more universal
themes. And it usually tolerates—and makes plain to the reader—a greater
range of uncertainty about what the writer knows, and how she or he knows it.
This willingness to acknowledge the subjectivity and uncertainty that exists in
factual discovery helps to allay the suspicions of an audience which has come to
mistrust the language of traditional “neutral” reporting, and arguably helps
anchor the story to external reality in a more persuasive way (Greenberg 2010).
The philosopher Thomas Nagel has argued that objectivity should be understood, not as neutrality, but as a method of verified discovery, a step backwards
from a specific, acknowledged point of subjectivity. The aim is to see the bigger
picture, “transcend our particular viewpoint and develop an expanded consciousness that takes in the world more fully” (Nagel 1989: 5). Reporting, especially the immersive forms found in literary or creative nonfiction, can be
understood in this context as an example of such an expanded consciousness, a
personal experience that is deliberately turned outward and tested by verification.
There appears to be a public appetite for “slow journalism” when it becomes
available; the jury is still out, however, about how that translates into a literary market. The description of modernity as a condition in which time is
experienced as the ultimate luxury has become a recurring theme. The main
complaint is not about speed as such, but the sense that individuals have lost
the freedom to choose; to control and vary the pace of life and use personal
judgement to decide what is appropriate (Hoffman, Honoré, Lanier). But, in
addition to these general influences, there are specific challenges affecting
narrative nonfiction, a type of literature often lost from view because it does
not fit cultural assumptions. For those interested in literary nonfiction, the rescue of texts from category error remains a primary task.2
At the same time, while anxiety remains about the “end of journalism”3 and
a shrinking market for writers of all kinds, fear is tempered by the growing
awareness that new forms of distribution have removed constraints and offered
opportunities for experimentation. Because of the pace of change and the fluidity of categories, it is difficult to identify new web genres with any accuracy.
Information Studies scholars such as Shepherd and Watters have found it useful to refer to three larger categories of this moving target: the replication of

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existing genres on to the web, the evolution of existing genres, and the spontaneous appearance of new genres (Shepherd and Watters 2004). The first category, which includes the migration of existing publishers to the web, and
branded portals that link to those publishers, contains important elements of
innovation. However, the survey here focuses on the second and third types—
evolution and invention—and the challenges arising from the new digital
environment. It also explores the ways in which the “slow journalism” meme
(Greenberg 2011a, 2011b, 2011c) may have some meaning as a way of framing and understanding the shift.
Examples of innovative form include the growth of graphic narratives; the
blog as lyric essay; a return to publishing by instalment; story telling as performance, and micro-nonfiction. What unites them in many cases is the search for
a distinctive “voice” and a more complex approach to subjectivity. The challenge
in this environment is to guard against a potential new idealism around authenticity and—in a world where text is perceived as endlessly changeable—to
appreciate the creativity that comes with constraint and completion.

The Internet as a Writing Space
Despite its multimedia nature, the internet is a surprisingly textual place; even
images and sounds need text for users to identify and link, and in some corners
the web has taken a narrative turn. One of the peculiarities of this space is the
way it mixes both written and oral cultures by giving immediacy to a permanent text—what Walter Ong calls “secondary orality” (Ong 1982: 136).4
Writing always faces a challenge in translating the bodily act of speech to the
page. The skill lies partly in understanding that the translation cannot be literally word-for-word, and in finding other ways to convey mood, tone and voice.
In the digital medium, these writerly concerns come even more sharply into
focus in the task of translating words for a more immediate audience.
A claim for the internet as the rightful inheritor of long-form, narrative
journalism—the evolution of an existing form—was made as early as 1995,
when technology commentator Josh Quittner urged mainstream publishers to
go beyond the “repurposing” of texts online and explore the potential for innovation. The New Journalism defined by Tom Wolfe in 1975 had “smashed the
conventional notion of reportage,” he wrote in 1995.
It was good to speak with a voice (as long as the writer wasn’t too much of a dork). It
was important to take risks and experiment (as long as there was a tangible payoff for

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the reader). But Wolfe and company had a relatively small tool chest to loot. Imagine
what those new journalists could have done with video and sound, with hypertext links
and limitless bandwidth.…We’re not just going to change that art, but evolve it—you
understand—take it to the next plane: The Way New Journalism (Quittner 1995).

He went on to identify the key features of this new form, in terms that have
been used ever since: a more intimate voice, hypertextuality, multimedia, and
an instant, interactive audience reaction. In the academy, these qualities were
mapped by Jay David Bolter, who gave currency to the idea of the internet as
a “writing space” (Bolter 2001).
Although online publications such as Hotwired and Suck.com engaged
with these concerns, the appearance of Slate a few years later arguably marked
the first professional, general-interest, web-only magazine to try to meet the
challenge. One tactic, explained by Slate editor Michael Kinsley, was to tell stories in installments: the reporter would
file dispatches, which we will post immediately, as he goes about his research. The readers will be able to follow the reporter as he gathers and analyses his material, as we have
no more idea than you do about where the story will lead him or how it will come out.
When he is done, if it works, the entire article will be published as an eBook (Kinsley
2001).

This approach, an early form of crowdsourcing using a cascade of information,
correction and detail, became the template for much online journalism.
Another example of evolution is the revival of the serialized story, published
as a series of short blog posts connected by a unifying, over-arching theme
(Clark 2011).

The Blog as Lyric Essay
Quittner’s comments applied to websites in general and came several years
before the emergence of the blog, a self-publishing interface with a reverse
chronology. The term “weblog” was originally coined to denote a particular way
of sharing links to external sites, and the convention among early blogging artisans was that it should not be used for original content. But in May 1999, the
technology writer Dan Gillmor announced that he would be extending the format to news and “short essays” and accompany links with explanations that put
them into context (see Ammann 2009). Gillmor went public—to some controversy—a few months later, using a custom-built pre-release of Dave Winer’s

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Manila content management system. Around the same time, Blogger.com was
launched, eventually helping to popularize the personal narrative, which had
already been established as a web genre (Ammann). By May 2003, giving a lecture at Harvard University, Winer was able to define the blog as the “unedited
voice of a [single] person” (Winer 2003).
The ease that the new format brought to self-publishing, and the liminal,
permanently “unfinished” nature of much web-based writing, gave new life to
the venerable essay. This development was noted in 2006 by the writer and
commentator Sven Birkerts, who wrote:
The essay is poised to achieve a second life in our complex hyper-driven culture. I see
it as an ideal medium of response and reflection, adjustable in scale from a few short
pages to more ambitious lengths (much as the short story can span the gamut from
sketchy aperçu to near-novella), and it is open to a full range of voices.…Increasingly
these days, it makes use of different strategies of collage and lyric juxtaposition, both
of which reflect the evolution of contemporary sensibilities (Birkerts).

In “Why I Blog,” the Atlantic magazine journalist Andrew Sullivan—one
of the earliest “mainstream” writers to advocate blogging—continued this conversation, like Birkerts drawing on continuity with the essay’s defining master,
Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592). Sullivan singled out “personality” as the
form’s distinctive characteristic, but distinguished between the blog and the
diary. With a blog, he wrote: “You end up writing about yourself, since you are
a relatively fixed point in this constant interaction with the ideas and facts of
the exterior world. And in this sense, the historic form closest to blogs is the
diary. But with this difference: a diary is almost always a private matter”
(Sullivan 2008).
Sullivan saw benefits in the form’s limitations. The reverse chronology, for
example, forced us to piece together a narrative that was never intended as one:
“It seems—and is—more truthful. Logs, in this sense, were a form of human selfcorrection. They amended for hindsight, for the ways in which human beings
order and tidy and construct the story of their lives as they look back on
them.” And the apparent superficiality of the short form “masked considerable
depth” because of hyperlinks. “A blog bobs on the surface of the ocean, but has
its anchorage in waters deeper than those print media is technologically able
to exploit.” It does not replace traditional writing but inspires it, adding “a new
idiom” to the act of writing (ibid).
Since Sullivan wrote these words, the literary potential of blogging has been
widely recognized by those working in the more traditional areas of publishing,

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in the shape of “blooks” and literary awards.5 But for the most part, blogging
has remained associated with artisanal diaries, made accessible on mass platforms, or the opinion and gossip compiled by large aggregators. A tension persists, however, between the two camps present at the birth of the form, in the
fights between those who define blogging primarily by its interactivity—short
comments with links to other sites—and those who see it primarily as a space
for longer, original content. The main criticisms of the former include a lack
of original reporting, an increasingly predictable style and subject matter
(Duray 2011) and the potential to close off critical engagement.
Literary nonfiction still finds expression in print, and in addition to traditional channels such as books and magazine articles, there has been an explosion of experimental print forms such as the magazine in hard covers, with a
longer shelf life. Examples include Delayed Gratification in the UK, Vingt-et-un
in France, and the one-off San Francisco Panorama in the United States, which
aimed to “repurpose…the newspaper from a vernacular to a luxury good
and…from a primarily information object to a primarily aesthetic one” (Garber
2010a). One also finds a proliferation of what is sometimes called the nonfiction “chapbook”—a term borrowed from poetry and conceptual art to describe
anything literary, short and incomplete—which packages bite-sized lyric essays
and interviews in a format that can be sold in bookshops (Chauvier 2009;
Briscoe 2010).
But some industry analysts argue that, despite the merits of print, the
medium should not be politicized, and new media channels may even offer superior possibilities for the form. “Too often, I think, the emotional aspect (a
wistful defensiveness about print) leads us to conflate the qualities of print with
the commodity of print, and to forget…that those qualities aren’t unique to the
medium by any stretch,” writes Megan Garber, for the Nieman Journalism
Lab. “The vast majority of the qualities print enthusiasts cite when praising the
form are ones that can exist just as readily—and often, more readily—on the
web” (Garber op cit).
One example of “evolution” occurred in Slate, where staff writers and editors were given paid sabbaticals to leave behind “the horse race of daily internet publishing” and develop long-form, in-depth features on subjects they
found compelling. Editor David Plotz told the New York Observer: “They can
sleep until noon, close the blinds…and read all afternoon long, as long as
they’ve got something to show for it in the end” (Koblin 2009). This resulted
in a series of original works which chimed with the readership, in the form of
page views of three to four million for the most popular reports, and helped to

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build the brand’s reputation for excellence. “In order to thrive…we had to do
something more than just 1,500-word pieces, and more than just explainers,”
Plotz told Garber later. “Our job is not necessarily to build Slate into a magazine that has 100 million readers. It is to make sure we have 2 million or 5 million or 8 million of the right readers” (Garber 2010b).

The Mobile Experience
Perhaps blogging is experiencing its own “end of the middle,” as people gravitate either to shorter personal broadcasts and “curated” links, pushed out to
known individuals on social media networks, or to longer narrative texts that
lie waiting for visitors. A new relationship appears to have developed between
short and long forms, with the former used to advertise, and create an audience
for, the latter. “Ten years ago, my favourite bloggers wrote middle-takes—a link
with a couple of sentences of commentary—and they’d update a few times a day.
Once Twitter arrived, they began blogging less often but with much longer,
more in-depth essays,” wrote Clive Thompson in Wired (2011).
This development is influenced not only by social networks but also by the
emergence of new devices such as Smartphones and tablets that allow readers
to use those networks, and interact with longer texts, in new ways. At the time
of writing, there has been an explosion of web tools and applications dedicated
to creating new distribution channels for long-form journalism and nonfiction
story telling in general. It is difficult to report here on such fast-changing
developments in a definitive way, but a few cases illustrate the trend.
One concept is the tagging of stories already available online as “long
reads” that can be saved and read at a time chosen by the reader. Some online
publications provide an in-house button for this purpose; others are found via
services such as If You Only and Long Reads (Longreads), which collect recommendations from the public (currently via Twitter) and then help to build
audiences by tweeting them back to followers, using a hashtag. If new audiences
come to long-form journalism in this manner, this may give publishers more reasons to produce it. Long Reads founder Mark Armstrong told Poynter: “We’re
hitting a point where hopefully the traffic will justify the level of effort that goes
into writing and reporting these stories” (Tenore 2010). This is confirmed by
If You Only’s Bobbie Johnson, who wrote: “The project is in its infancy but one
thing I’ve already found out is that there is a growing community of people dedicated to spreading good writing, using the very technologies that people say
is killing long-form journalism” (Johnson 2010).

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The market is further encouraged by apps such as Instapaper, Flipboard and
Read It Later, which translate texts to formats that work on Smartphones and
tablets. Longer-form stories can easily get lost among other content on a news
organization’s website. The option to reformat provides a second chance and
improves the likelihood that the article will be seen, Nate Weiner of Read It
Later told Poynter (ibid). A non-commercial platform designed to work on any
device was being developed by the Center for Public Integrity in the United
States (McGann 2010). And new web-based projects such as Longform.org provide central online destinations for long-form nonfiction writing, searchable
by tags and accessible via social media and syndication feeds (Longform 2011).
Established editors are also taking a punt. The New Republic announced at
the start of 2011 that it was rolling out a series of longer “online cover stories,”
as an alternative to short blogs. The magazine’s editor, Richard Just, explained:
The best narratives and the best cultural criticism are not simply means of delivering
information; they rise to the level of literature. Of course, there can be artistry in blogging, but it is a different kind of artistry. A 300-word post cannot hold you in suspense;
nor can it deliver a shocking conclusion. A brilliant piece of long-form storytelling can
do both of these things. Another value, which we hope will especially come through
in our argumentative essays, is a certain appreciation for nuance. Writing a long argument means introducing complexities, it means engaging counter-arguments, it means
giving yourself as a writer time to doubt your convictions. That doesn’t mean long-form
journalism can’t arrive at impassioned conclusions; the best long-form writing often
does. But writing long means grappling with all sorts of nuances on the way to those
conclusions and taking readers on a journey in which they will have the chance to do
the same (Just 2011).

Evolution has occurred in distribution and publishing as well. The online
bookseller Amazon launched “Kindle Singles” in the autumn of 2010 for stories between 5,000 and 30,000 words—longer than the average magazine article but shorter than a fully fledged book. Early titles included The Happiness
Manifesto, by Nic Marks, and Pakistan and the Mumbai Attacks: The Untold Story,
published by ProPublica. Such outlets provide an additional revenue stream
and—most importantly—represent “the editorial normalization of long-form”
(Garber 2011).
The writing distributed in this way has come from both new ventures and
established publishers, During 2011, for example, the Atavist and the “digital
chapbook,” eChook, commissioned bespoke multimedia stories, while Little,
Brown worked with a mobile software company to make available unseen
chapters of Iain M. Banks’s latest novel, Transition (2009), along with his orig-

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inal notes and commentary (Flood 2010). Although the example cited here
concerns fiction, the provision of supplementary material holds promise for literary nonfiction, whose trademark is the documentation of discovery.

The Search for Authenticity
If literary journalism represents an attempt to offer original and documented
writing that aims for a high level of craft, the move into a digital environment
puts it in potential conflict with a form of internet writing that makes a virtue
of its raw and instantaneous nature. The “unedited voice of a single person” has
become to many a normative ideal: a guarantee of authenticity, defined in opposition to writing that is perceived as professional, and therefore fake.
The role of “voice” offers an interesting example of contested norms, since
voice is the main device by which a writer signals an approach to subjectivity.
The Atlantic blogger Marc Ambinder announced in late 2010 that after five
years, he was moving back to conventional reporting. One reason was exhaustion: “The feedback loop is relentless, punishing and predicated on the assumption that the reporter’s motivation is wrong.” The bigger problem, however, was
that blogging was an “ego-intensive process” which made the form’s demand
for personality a new tyrant:
Even in straight news stories, the [blog] format always requires you to put yourself into
narrative. You are expected not only to have a point of view and reveal it, but to be
confident that it is the correct point of view. There is nothing wrong with this. As
much as a writer can fabricate a detachment, or a “view from nowhere,” as Jay Rosen
has put it, the writer can also fabricate a view from somewhere. You can’t really be a
reporter without it. I don’t care whether people know how I feel about particular political issues.…What I hope I will find refreshing about the change of formats is that I
will no longer be compelled to turn every piece of prose into a personal, conclusive
argument, to try and fit it into a coherent framework that belongs to a web-based personality called “Marc Ambinder” that people read because it’s “Marc Ambinder”
rather than because it’s good or interesting (Ambinder 2010).

The valorization of “raw” writing over polished, considered work finds
expression in the classroom, in the form of resistance to the revision of texts,
with the first draft perceived as more “real.” But a deeper awareness of writing
craft tends to undermine this ideal, by questioning the possibility of a truly raw
and unedited text, and the essentially Romantic concept of creativity that
underlies it. In the creative arts, people are expected to feel “passionate” about
their work, but this is often misunderstood; it is precisely the ability of the writer

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to achieve distance from raw emotion and to construct a narrator’s persona
(Gornick 2002: 7) that leaves the reader free to find his or her own emotional
response. The goal is always to widen the range of choices. The experienced
writer seeks to avoid the risks of either alienated objectivity (Hartsock 2000)
that, by refusing to take a stance, reduces the ability to analyze, engage and
innovate, or alienated subjectivity that, by using an exaggerated, emotive
tone, tries to manipulate the reader (Greenberg 2011d).
The experienced “slow journalist” is also aware of the creativity inherent
in selection, constraint and completion. The use of crowdsourcing provides an
effective new form of intervention, but inevitably has its own limits, and there
are signs that the “network effect” can mirror the more superficial editing of less
experienced writers (Jones 2008: 263). By doing so, it may reduce the likelihood
of sustained critical engagement (Greenberg 2010: 12).
The resistance to editing and selection extends to the concept of completion. One analysis of “done-ness” in digital publishing noted the tendency to
merge “complete” with the concept of “closed” and “incomplete” with “open,”
giving greater value to the second pair (Sewell 2009: para 2). This appears to
ignore the messier but more creative truth that the more one understands the
text to be “finished,” the more one is able to identify what needs changing; we
need both constraint and fluidity. One only has to think of the way in which
vital changes to a text come to mind, the moment that one presses the “send”
button on an e-mail.
Literary journalism represents an attempt to offer considered, original and
documented writing which recognizes that subjective experience needs verification—and freedom from all prescriptive norms—to stay real. However, the
move into a digital environment puts it in potential conflict with a form of nonfiction that makes a virtue of its raw and instantaneous qualities. The challenge
in this environment is to find important new ways of delivering the luxury of
slow journalism’s reflection and documented discovery, and make creative use
of the tensions at play, to allow for a further evolution of writing forms.

Notes
1. A brief history of the Slow Journalism meme is provided in Greenberg 2011a.
2. In one example, the first edition of Essays in Love by Alain de Botton (1993) was presented
as a novel, despite his protests. When the book went into a second edition, the author had
enough clout with the publishers to have the book recategorized as nonfiction. But when
it was made into a film, the producers insisted again on calling it a novel. He commented: “You have to choose your battles” (de Botton 2010).

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3. Examples of the term’s use are widespread. One example is the international conference
of that name at the University of Bedfordshire, September 2008.
4. Internet researcher John Coate wrote that for thousands of years, “language has been either
spoken or written. But online conversation is a new hybrid…talking by writing. It’s writing because you type it on a keyboard and people read it. But because of the ephemeral
nature of luminescent letters on a screen, and because it has such a quick—sometimes
instant—turnaround, it’s more like talk” (1992).
5. In one UK example, Jack Night’s police blog was awarded the Orwell Prize for political
writing in April 2009.

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