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So Long to Lengthy Stories

This story is a bit long. Quick, read it before it goes extinct.

Leigh Doyle 17 Oct

Leigh Doyle is assistant editor for Benefits Canada and the Canadian Investment Review. While in Ryerson's journalism program, she was editor of the Spring 2005 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism where a version of this article first appeared.

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Gretzky, 19, meets Gordie Howe. Worth 9,000 words? Photo Bill Sandford.

[Editor's note: A version of this piece won the first National Magazine Award for Best Student Writer. The prize is awarded to a full-time student whose non-fiction work in a consumer magazine or university/college publication shows the highest degree of craft and promise.]

When Adam Sol finished his speech, a hum of sympathetic noises rose from the crowd at Trampoline Hall. He had just spent 10 minutes talking about being an owner in a fantasy basketball league. It's a pastime in which men pick their favourite players, create fake teams, and then track the actual individual statistics to determine whose team is best. Sol wondered why it is that only men tend to play in these leagues, and why they get so passionate about it. He speculated that the leagues are a way for men to connect with friends and briefly forget the worries in their lives. One of the men in Sol's league has a baby suffering from cancer, but when he is with the guys, he escapes his problems, if only for a few hours.

Paul Wilson, a respected author and the former editor of The Walrus magazine, was in the audience at Sneaky Dee's in Toronto early last December. It was his first time at the monthly event, where attendees give speeches on subjects outside their usual areas of expertise. He remembers looking around at the engrossed crowd and sensing the shared commiseration. "That," he would say later in the week, "would make a great magazine piece." It was engaging and emotional, it had narrative drive, and if you read it, you would learn something you didn't know you wanted to know. Wilson figured it would take a long article to convey the idea fully. But like Sol's team, Wilson's idea may well remain a fantasy. These days it is difficult -- if not impossible -- to find a vehicle to run this feature at the length he believed it needed.

Long-form magazine articles have become scarce in Canadian magazines. Eight thousand words used to be a common length for a feature. Ten thousand words or more was once considered long; now anything over 5,000 is a rare find. All the players -- publishers, editors, writers and readers -- say they want longer articles, but, hampered by financial limitations and a lack of ambition, long form is shrinking away. The few titles struggling to produce long form are either ground down by limited financial means or hoping the federal government will rescue them by changing the charitable donation status of magazines.

I heart long form

Many writers cannot avoid romanticized notions when talking about long-form articles. They regard it as the heart and soul of journalism. It's about taking risks and about discovery. Through exhaustive research, narrative drive and the use of fictional techniques like scenes, dialogue and character development, a long-form piece provides the context and analysis that a short piece cannot. It pulls readers in and gets them engaged. A long article, done well, teaches and encourages readers to learn more. "The writing matters because it is a form of communication and an articulation of meaning," says Wilson. "We can't live in a world without contemplating and understanding it."

This love affair with long form, particularly those with strong narrative elements, was most recently sparked in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, in a movement called the New Journalism. Michael Shapiro, a magazine journalism professor at Columbia University, wrote in 2002, "Journalism had seized the great ferment of the 1960s and defined what writing and storytelling should be." But this approach was in practice well before it was popularized by the likes of Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Joan Didion and Norman Mailer. Here are just two examples: in 1955, Walter Lord used the techniques that would define New Journalism when he reconstructed the sinking of the Titanic in "A Night to Remember" (which became a book). And in "The Longest Day: June 6, 1944" (which also became a book), British journalist Cornelius Ryan told the story of D-Day through the eyes of the participants.

Besides the changes in cultural attitudes and the journalists' desire to experiment, the boom in long form was a result of the new economics of the magazine business. "Experimenting with narrative arose, in part, as a business move," says Stephen Kimber, a journalism professor at the University of King's College in Halifax. Hurt by the ascendance of television as the most popular form of mass media, magazines embraced long form in hopes of survival.

Reading about hockey, eh

In Canada, a preponderance of long articles ensued in a number of places, including the weekly newspaper inserts, Weekend Magazine and The Canadian, the men's magazine Quest, and Saturday Night. One of the most celebrated pieces from the earlier Saturday Night was Peter Gzowski's 9,000-word profile of 19-year-old Wayne Gretzky from November 1980, which won a National Magazine Award (and became part of a book, The Game of Our Lives). With its vivid scenes, revealing anecdotes and sharp dialogue, Gzowski's story revealed the life and mind of a prodigy. The hefty word count allowed ample space for the accumulation of detail and context. The piece successfully captured Gretzky's essence and his importance to hockey.

For many, this was the golden age of magazine writing in Canada. Rosy nostalgia can be detected in the recollections of some writers who worked in the era. Others, like freelancer Don Gillmor, admit the work from the period did not consistently amaze. "For every long piece that worked, there were two or three that didn't," he says. Still, back then, there were a variety of titles with money to spend on editorial. At its high point, Weekend reached two million readers. This made for happy advertisers, at least for a while. The comfort created by financial stability allowed editors to push limits. Writers were free to experiment and the $1-per-word standard was sufficient payment.

Twenty-five years later, those healthy weekly inserts are nothing but faded memories, and many publishers and editors have concluded that readers no longer have the attention spans for long form. "Many readers aren't up for longer pieces," says former Saturday Night editor Matthew Church. What's more, longer articles are too expensive to produce. "Ideally, you pay the writer a lot more money," he says. "You have to find the right writer and that's hard. Any writer can go long." Over the past 10 years, Church has observed an unhappy trend. "Writers spend less time editing themselves," which has weakened the writer-editor relationship. "Mostly," he concedes, "it's because writers aren't being paid enough."'

Pinching pennies, pinching words

Any freelancer can tell you that. The standard fee hasn't changed in a generation. Writer Andrew Nikiforuk says he works much differently now than he did 10 years ago. A lot of shorter articles and supplementary work enable him to pay the bills. "I have to produce more than one story a week for it to be economic," he says dryly. David Hayes, another full-time writer, agrees that almost every freelancer does such work. "Writers don't make all their cash in articles, he says. "There is not enough work and not enough money." West-coast freelancer Deborah Campbell laments that there are few outlets running serious long features -- which denies Canadian readers the kind of quality journalism she believes is essential for a healthy democracy -- and compels her and her colleagues to work for publications beyond this country's borders.

There are rumblings on the west coast that a place known for nurturing long form will be pruning back the length of its articles under a new leader. In February of 2006, Gary Ross replaced Matthew Mallon as the editor of Vancouver magazine. "We're kicking ourselves now because we didn't make the most of the opportunity that Mallon represented," says B.C.-based freelancer J.B. MacKinnon, but he is quick to point out that he doesn't know how open Ross is to running the kind of articles Mallon did.

Mallon became the editor of Vancouver in 1993 and was soon known as an editor who welcomed quirky story ideas and long articles. "The thing a lot of writers appreciated was he provided the opportunity to write in a distinctive voice," says MacKinnon. Campbell acknowledges that the freedom he allowed writers helped them establish reputations and, as a result, launch careers.

Stylish pages, unstylish words?

For both of them, editors are the gatekeepers of long form. It's editors who determine if longer articles make the pages of magazines. Back in the golden age of long form, editors were hungry for fresh ways to tell stories and open to writers going long. In today's environment, with the focus on retaining readers and advertisers, editors are not as willing to experiment with style. "The industry just isn't strong enough for people to gamble," concedes MacKinnon. "But gambling and risk taking might be part of what brings people back again."

Taking the top spot at Vancouver wasn't a gamble for Gary Ross. Months earlier St. Joseph media shut down Saturday Night where Ross was the editor after replacing Church in August of 2004. In the late '70s, Ross was a senior editor at Weekend. He then held the same spot at Saturday Night from 1980 to 1987. From 1993 until the second stint at Saturday Night, he was a part-time senior editor at Toronto Life.

"I could see how Toronto Life evolved over the years," says Ross of the magazine. "Vancouver was getting to a point where it needed to take the next steps toward becoming a really substantial city magazine. I tho¬ught I knew how to go about improving it." It's hard to miss the influence¬ -- in the form of service pieces -- in the seven issues he has produced so far. Under Mallon, the summer 2005 issue included a multi-author piece comparing life in the city to life in the 'burbs. Ross' summer issue featured "18 ways to squeeze the most out of what remains" of the season. His June issue included the best places to shop. In May, it was the best restaurants and in April, the best getaways.

Ross gets that being service heavy is necessary for a city title. "We're not going to get the retail advertising support that city magazines need if we don't say what the best restaurants are and where the best gelato is." It's this kind of business-minded thinking that made him top choice for the editor role, according to Masthead editor Bill Shields. But Ross is determined to "improve the magazine" and in order to do so he needs to "enrich the editorial budget." Improvements include spending those ad dollars on longer articles; however, Ross quickly adds he won't be paying a high per-word rate. Back in 2004, when he took over at Saturday Night and began canvassing writers, he ran into the low-fees issue. During one conversation, a prospective freelancer asked Ross what the money was like. "A dollar a word is the best I can do," he said. Her reply: Do you realize we had this same conversation in 1985? And do you realize gas and rent don't cost what they did in 1985? "Yes," he said to her, "but I'm sure you're a much more efficient writer than you were in 1985."

Long form heroes

There were expectations of longer articles in the pages of Saturday Night when Ross arrived, but he never wanted to be a hero by trying to save long form in Canada. That position hasn't changed, nor has his view that a magazine needs to be a balance of short and longer pieces. Most people are too pressed for time to read many long articles, he said in a 2005 interview. Instead of blaming the younger generation and the Internet (which pays a writers fraction of what print magazines do), as many do, he says the problem lies with how his generation, the baby boomers, prioritize their time. "There is a big bulge in the population," he says, "and they're not going to read a lousy 8,000-word piece. But if it's a brilliant 8,000-word piece, I think they will." More recently, Ross has said he wants to run longer pieces at Vancouver, but "wants to get 6000 words' worth into 4000 words." So far longer articles have crept into Ross' Vancouver in the form of profiles, such as the piece on architect Arthur Erickson and pageant contestant Lora Sun.

The offices of Vancouver magazine, like Ross' old haunts Saturday Night and Toronto Life, are in an office building in the centre of the city. St. Joseph Media fits smartly in a large, red-brick, open-concept, loft-style office on Queen Street East in downtown Toronto. From all around, the clacking of shoes on hardwood echoes in the brightly lit office. Staff members stride back and forth, seemingly indifferent to those around them. On the west side of downtown Toronto, The Walrus is tucked away up a set of stairs on the first floor of its Duncan Street home. Staff members have offices off the main room, where the interns work. A large painting of a Walrus hangs on one wall. The shelves of the bookcases that line the boardroom sag noticeably. A plush Walrus toy sits on the top of one. The desks and floor are cluttered with paper and boxes. The staff nods or smiles when someone enters the office.

Even before launching The Walrus, publisher Ken Alexander and founding editor David Berlin rejected excuses about short attention spans and raised hopes for the long-form cause. So far, the public has been supportive. The magazine has a subscription base of 50,000 and newsstand sales of 15,000 a month. It aims to encourage public discourse in Canada and become as revered as The Atlantic Monthly. Commitment to long form is a strategic aspect of this undertaking. Its inaugural issue, October 2003, led with a 9,000-word investigative cover story by Marci McDonald on then prime-minister-in-waiting Paul Martin. Each month, there are three to four articles over 4,000 words long, and smaller articles often exceed 2,000. "We provide readers with what they need," claims Alexander, "and provide writers with a vehicle."

The launch of The Walrus provoked considerable response in the industry. D. B. Scott, a magazine consultant involved in the early stages of the magazine, believed that some people ultimately got more "sizzle than steak." Indeed, the first months of The Walrus's life were not without problems. It struggled with an unclear editorial vision, revolving-door editorial staff and untimely, irrelevant articles. But some think The Walrus is slowly establishing itself. The magazine has attracted many prominent writers in Canada and editorial content expresses a stronger, more confident vision than in early issues. Alexander, who is now both publisher and editorial director, has been working to make the articles timelier. He says, "I am only interested in one thing: content."

Show me the money

All the talk about commitment to depth and quality is supported by a willingness to pay writers higher than standard rates -- depending on the story and the writer -- but Alexander has to face reality sometime. The Walrus does not bring in enough money from advertising and subscriptions to keep itself afloat.

Under current tax laws it is not as easy to give financial support to magazines in Canada as it is in the United States, which is why the Atlantic can lose money and still thrive through generous philanthropic support. The Chawkers Foundation grant of $5 million, which, in effect, was to be seed money for The Walrus, would not have been available to the magazine if it wasn't granted foundation status as a non-profit. That status will enable the magazine to become one project of many under an umbrella organization dedicated to a charitable cause (in this case, encouraging public discourse). With Revenue Canada approval, The Walrus organization can now canvass for donations, like the Chawkers Foundation grant, thereby creating an additional revenue stream. He'll use that partly to champion long form, even though some say it's a lost cause in this country. "If you don't have high aspirations," says Alexander defiantly, "then go home."

Canada may be unable to support a magazine that fully embraces the cause, but readers' appetites for lengthy reads are partially sated by work in city and niche magazines, though such titles provide a less amenable environment. For advertisers, publications that cater to a precisely defined audience make sense, says publishing consultant and former Saturday Night and Toronto Life publisher Marina Glogovac. They can appeal to retail and local advertisers instead of only companies with national reach. City magazines such as Toronto Life or Vancouver, and niche magazines like Explore, have been able to take advantage of the dependable ad base to exercise some editorial muscle. In 2001, Toronto Life published an 11,000-word piece by John Lorinc about suburban sprawl. While not the norm, the magazine does regularly find space for articles ranging from 3,000 to 5,000 words long. "I do it because I can," says editor John Macfarlane. Lorinc, who expresses an unusually optimistic attitude about the industry, believes long form is a distinctive type and should be used sparingly. "But," he concedes, "it would be better if more editors felt they had the option to run long once in a while."

Verbal sprawl

The editor best known for his dedication to long form is James Little. Outside the Explore magazine editor's office, a Globe and Mail article dated July 6, 2002, is tacked onto a wall. Penned by feature writer Ian Brown, "Length Matters" laments the downsizing of magazine articles. Little has underlined one particular phrase -- "intellectual miniaturization" -- in black pen.

Al Zikovitz, Explore's publisher, says it is relatively easy to run 3,000- to 7,000-word pieces because of exciting subject areas -- like giant squids in Australia and civil unrest in Sudan. Lately, Little has started occasionally making long features his cover stories instead of always going with service packages. He's been more confident that they'll sell, and in February he learned he was right. The newsstand numbers for the September/October 2004 issue -- with "The Big Melt," a 4,000-word piece about shrinking glaciers written by Nikiforuk, on its cover -- were the highest of the year.

However, Explore's freelancers are paid less than a $1 per word, which means the quality can be inconsistent. Zikovitz would like to run longer, more thorough articles, if the magazine had more editorial space. It struggles with finding a balance between long articles and shorter informative pieces. "We need to make sure we are addressing most of the needs of all the readers," he says. That means getting more advertisers onboard and growing the magazine becomes the crucial problem for all niche and regional publications.

Weekend warriors

Finding more readers and attracting more advertising dollars are less of a worry at large newspapers. Lately, there has been more experimentation with long form in weekend sections of major dailies. But this does not mean long form has found the home it needs. In January of this year, The Toronto Star launched its new Sunday section with magazine-style headlines and layouts. In the first two editions, there were four articles close to 5,000 words, but the majority of stories were of a more typical newspaper length. In the Globe's weekend Focus section, series articles are a regular part of the mix -- a November three-part narrative called "Shades of Grey," about Canada's aging population, ran over 10,000 words. And Michael Valpy's recent, almost epic profile, "Being Michael Ignatieff" was over 13,600 words.

If that sounds long for a newspaper article, 160,000 probably seems outrageous. In January 2003, The Hamilton Spectator ran 31 consecutive instalments of Jon Wells's investigative piece "Poison," about Sukhwinder Singh Dhillon, a local man who murdered his wife and three others. Besides winning a National Newspaper Award, the serial boosted sales five per cent for the month, another testament to readers' hunger for long, engaging articles. Editor Dana Robbins has since run three major pieces over 100,000 words, part of an overall strategy to attract new readers to the Spectator.

This new development isn't all positive. An article in multiple parts is not the same as one large article, since the overall narrative flow is interrupted. To date, only a handful of newspapers have attempted this type of serialization, but if long articles were to become more common, freelancers would have to contend with the paltrier rates newspapers traditionally pay.

The low rates are not so low that writers are deterred entirely from going long. The desire is strong enough that many work for small fees or honoraria. Otherwise, smaller general interest magazines of a certain level of quality -- such as Toronto's This, Vancouver's Geist, and Montreal's Maisonneuve -- would not exist.

While publishers and editors remain focused on balancing the need to maximize advertising revenues with providing content satisfactory to their readers, magazine writers struggle to find a place for lengthy narrative -- not to mention make a living. The system is ailing and long form's needs are many: timely stories, talented writers, an interested audience, experienced editors, supportive publishers, and, above all else, money. It's a Herculean struggle to pull all these elements together. "If Canada does any long journalism at all," says Scott, "it's a goddamned miracle."

Leigh Doyle is assistant editor for Benefits Canada and the Canadian Investment Review. While in Ryerson's journalism program, she was editor of the Spring 2005 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism where a version of this article first appeared.  [Tyee]

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