Going the Distance

By Franklin, Jon | Washington Journalism Review, January-February 1993 | Go to article overview

Going the Distance


Franklin, Jon, Washington Journalism Review


To journalists accustomed to dealing with inverted pyramid and delayed-lead stories, the long piece can be daunting. The biggest hurdle is the idea that there is something unnatural about the long story. There isn't. In fact, the current fashion in soundbite journalism notwithstanding, the natural length for stories is long.

A presidential election goes on forever, an endless tangle of convolutions and permutations. Trials are often an interminable interplay of legal technicality and human emotion that leaves all participants drained and changed.

Even the continuing saga of Madonna is by its nature a long and rather enigmatic tale - or it would be, at least, if you attempted to explain it to a visitor from Mars.

The reason that most stories can be written short is that they aren't stories at all. They're installments. The reader, not being a Martian, has been following the soap opera we call the daily news and already knows what happened in the last episode. That's why the reader doesn't need an explanation of who Madonna is, or why she would wear a corset as an outer garment; it's enough to just describe her latest antics.

This is why, despite the epic nature of life, most news stories can be short bursts of information encapsulating what happened yesterday, with perhaps a bit of background to jog the memory. The ongoing story already exists in the reader's mind. The news story simply moves it forward a notch or two.

The key idea here is that the long piece is justified only when the reader either does not have the context for the story or when that context is wrong or superficial. When that's the case, nothing but a long story will do. And when it's done correctly and for the right reasons, almost nothing else in journalism packs quite the same wallop.

From a strictly practical perspective, the reporter confronts a long piece in one of two general circumstances.

The first is when the reporter has uncovered some truth or insight that the reader can't fully comprehend without the perspective context brings. If scientists have discovered a new family of side receptors on human brain cells, the fact itself can't stand alone; the reader has to be taught enough about biology to understand what the discovery means and why it's important to the human condition.

The long story is also called for when the reporter has found a good yarn to tell - a story that will take the reader somewhere he or she would normally not be able to go and, in the process, provide some human insight germane to the news.

The story of a welfare mother's fight to protect her daughter from pimps and see that she gets a good education is one example. The story of a judge's dogged struggle to help the teenagers who come into his court might be another.

The initial judgment as to whether or not a given story meets one of those criteria is the single most important decision the long-haul journalist ever makes. Unfortunately, too many journalists delude themselves into thinking their stories meet the criteria for long-piece treatment when they clearly do not. Often reporters and editors make the mistake of letting a piece grow because "it's worth it."

But length lends gravity only if there is a strong narrative line. Otherwise, it anesthetizes. Many profoundly important stories can be told briefly and, if they can be, they should be.

Another reason stories sometimes get played out when they should be folded into an inverted pyramid has to do with egos and city room politics. Many organizations equate the long piece with stardom, and permission to write long is a reward for hard work and unpaid overtime.

The sad reality is that not everyone - not even every hardworking star - can write the long piece. Narrative copy takes a particular set of skills not only to compose but to edit, and the successful journalist is usually the one with significant experience. …

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