After a year and a half of searching, Oregonian reporter Tom Hallman Jr. finally found the ideal family to illustrate his story on tracing family roots. His first thought was, This will make a great series.
His next thought was, No, it will make one great story.
Like countless others in these days of depleted newsholes, no-jump edicts and supposedly turned-off readers, Hallman no longer takes the position that reporters should write until their notes run dry and then wheedle editors into publishing the whole caboodle. In an age of McNews, full-course journalism is far from dead. But selectivity has become the watchword, and nursing major projects into the paper has emerged as a newsroom art form.
"We're writing a lot of stuff shorter so we can write some stuff longer," says Jacqui Banaszynski, a Pulitzer-winning writer who now heads the special projects team at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "We really have to justify a long story. But if we do justify it and it's written well, we get it in."
For his project, Hallman quickly decided that one powerful narrative would stand a better chance with readers - and editors - than a series. "As a writer, I would have read a series," he said later. "But putting myself in the place of the average reader, I don't think they would have. It would have lost its power."
So Hallman produced a 90-inch Sunday blockbuster, "A Father's Legacy," that dramatically followed the Charles and Deena West family's journey back to Mississippi in search of roots and reconciliation. Complete with special layout touches, intimate photos and a scene-by-scene writing style, Hallman's piece illustrates much about what is happening with long writing these days.
If not under siege, then projects seem at least counter-trendy. The recession has brought deep newshole cuts, and many papers have reallocated space away from hard news. Technology and reader appetites have propelled front pages toward short, breezy, colorized, graphics-enhanced, non-jumping copy. Takeouts, often derided as bottomless, troublesome and just plain dull, make a big fat target for bean counters and space snatchers.
But don't bury them yet. Project journalists, always enterprising when their own words are at stake, have adapted. Most noticeably, newspapers are picking their shots, justifying every newsbank-busting mega-project with inch-by-inch scrutiny. "We're still committed to doing longer projects," says Editor Arthur S. Brisbane of the Kansas City Star, which won a Pulitzer Prize last year for a series criticizing the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "But for the Category A stuff - the very, very long in-depth pieces - we really take a careful look before taking the plunge."
Other trends include a frequent preference for the oneday spread instead of the traditional series. Strong story-lines - "tale-telling," as Susan Ager of the Detroit Free Press calls them - often win out over issue packages or exposes. And to make the cut, almost any project must be compellingly written and presented, as the art of long writing assumes a status alongside the inverted pyramid.
To the degree that long writing is thriving at all, many journalists credit the stunning success of the Philadelphia Inquirer's 1991 series, "America: What Went Wrong?" by Donald Barlett and James Steele. The nine-part series, later issued as a 40-page broadsheet reprint and then turned into a bestselling book, generated 25,000 letters, demand for 400,000 reprints, and more than 365,000 book sales through eleven printings.
While Steele modestly declines to estimate the influence of the series, he does say the intense public response has resonated up the Knight-Ridder corporate ladder. "We have felt for years," Steele says, "that people do read long stories if you make them readable and interesting and tell people something they didn't know. It's a very simple formula really. And this drove that home. …