I got angry yesterday. This isn't a regular occurrence for me in general, but it's particularly unusual when it comes to sports media; there's plenty of frustration and disappointment in that world, and in discussing it, but there isn't too much that motivates me to outright anger. Yet, Esquire and ESPN The Magazine writer Chris Jones' "In Defence Of Longform" (which really reads like a defence of a specific kind of longform that he practices, a condemnation of all other attempts at the form, and an exclusion of those who aren't already practicing his kind of longform, but we'll get to that) and the subsequent Twitter arguments I had about it ticked me off in a way I hadn't experienced in years. I've been trying to figure out what exactly sparked that anger (after all, surely there are more controversial and more problematic things out there than an argument over longform standards), and I think I now know just why it bothered me so much. The case made by Jones (which was written in the wake of SB Nation running and then pulling a highly-problematic piece on convicted serial rapist Daniel Holtzclaw and then putting their longform program "on temporary hiatus" during the subsequent internal investigation), and by those who took his side, feels like the latest iteration of a highly-problematic subset of media, The Input Club, something that's used to limit the advancement of young writers and try to ensure they play by the conventional rules.
What is The Input Club? Simply, it's the belief that work should be judged not on its intrinsic merits (the output), but on who wrote it, what process they used to write it, and where it was published (input factors). This is something that's been used in the media wars before, and was a key part of traditional journalists' original arguments against bloggers. That war has now been lost, and you won't find many still taking outright shots at blogs and the web (apart from Michael Wilbon, that is), but that doesn't mean the anti-blogger, anti-young journalist sentiments have dried up completely; people have just moved the fight. In this case, thanks to the Holtzclaw story, it's happening over SB Nation Longform, which has produced a variety of incredible pieces. I'd rather read many of those than much of The Input Club's conventional longform, and I'd argue that the site should be judged on its entire body of work rather than just the problematic Holtzclaw story. They shouldn't be told to stay out of longform just because their longform vertical doesn't have the resources of conventional media outlets doing it. In many ways, that argument smacks of those anti-blogger wars, especially when you consider that many of the SBN pieces have been written by younger journalists, some with a blogging background.
Saying bloggers can't do journalism would get you widely pilloried, and even specifically saying bloggers can't do longform would probably be criticized, so the next way to do a Lucy-esque football yank and keep those people out of the real journalist club is to come up with a definition of "real longform" that conveniently excludes everything without the resources of a traditional magazine (most of which aren't exactly hiring bloggers to write big features). This approach also ensures plenty of continued employment for those already in the club. However, as we'll get to later, it's not really worth arguing with them, and their definition doesn't ultimately matter all that much. It's worth discussing, though, to illustrate to readers and aspiring journalists that their way is not the only way.
One of the biggest problems with The Input Club's ideals is that they lead to what longform critics have criticized as "longform for the sake of longform." They say that their pieces are good, but they attempt to prove this by a recitation of how much time, effort and money went into them. Consider what Jones says on this front:
In 15 years writing features, I've had hundreds of ideas rejected—sometimes with surprising physical force—and I've written exactly one story that was longer than 12,000 words. It took me eight months. I went to 13 states. I worked with one of the best editors in the business, who cut 5,000 words from it, and some of those cuts were painful. We also worked with outstanding, full-time copy editors and fact checkers, two of whom combine for a half-century of experience alone, and with a professional photographer and art director. It was a true team effort, and if we were able to calculate how much that piece cost, in terms of hours and travel, it would be well into six figures. That's what it takes. You can't say you want to play the game and then make up your own rules. Or you can, but then you risk looking like you don't belong out there.
"Look at how much work I did, the resources I had, and how much money my company spent on this piece" just feels like bragging, and it's not necessarily proof that the end product was any good. That's not "what it takes" to produce a 12,000-word feature; that's what it took to produce the feature Jones is talking about. Of course, all those resources can be helpful; it would be fantastic to get to spend eight months on something, to travel all over for a story, to work with top editors and full-time copy editors and factcheckers and professional photographers and art directors. All of those resources have the potential to improve a story. However, they don't necessarily make it better than a story produced without those resources, and they're not necessarily required to produce a good piece.
I don't know which particular piece Jones is talking about, but I'd be very curious to find out. (Update: It's likely this one, which strikes me as a good read, but not the greatest thing ever written, and not necessarily superior to some of the SB Nation pieces linked above. Your mileage may vary.) I'd be particularly curious to read and evaluate it next to some of those excellent SB Nation pieces linked above, which were presumably produced at a fraction of the cost. Standards are individual, and there are plenty of disagreements over what makes a good read, so we're not going to get universal agreement either that Jones' expensive piece is better or that some top stories done without those resources are better; that would depend on readers' particular tastes and affinities for the author, the writing style and the subject matter. I can almost guarantee that I'd find at least some cheaper pieces I like better than whatever six-figure piece Jones is referencing, though, and I don't think I'd be alone. It's superior according to The Input Club because of what went into it; I don't think that superiority necessarily translates to the actual product, which really should be all that matters.
To be clear, I'm not inside Jones' head (or anyone else's), so I don't know if he subscribes to the Input Club theory in general or in this particular instance. I'm just saying from the outside, that's what his piece appears to be arguing. Consider these lines from his piece:
Here's the situation, as I see it. A bunch of sites—SB Nation is far from alone here—wanted to start doing longer features. They wanted to start doing features because, done well, they can “improve engagement” or whatever it’s called and lend a sense of prestige to a venture that maybe hasn’t always been seen as a quality product. The longform vertical becomes the stable anchor tenant for a much larger, looser enterprise. That's fine and logical, I think; it's like the use of distraction in a magic trick. (Or, put more charitably, "a rising tide lifts all boats.") The problem arises because of the gap between the desire to do longform and the ability to do it well.
That “ability gap” exists for all sorts of reasons. In the case of SB Nation, as far as I can tell, one man was pushing out a magazine's worth of features each month by himself rather than with a masthead of twenty or thirty. (There is a 2011 interview with Glenn Stout below. If you didn’t know him before the Holtzclaw piece, it might change your opinion of him and his work.) He was doing it with limited resources—SB Nation wasn't paying the rates that would attract top-flight writers—and apparently without much of a safety net. The Holtzclaw story was deeply flawed, but I still have empathy for both its writer and editor, because producing a risky story like this one properly is maybe impossible without the necessary support systems in place. When you run hundreds of stories on a relative shoestring, something like this was probably inevitable.
So, Jones appears to not only be saying that those who wrote for SB Nation Longform weren't "top-flight writers" simply based on their willingness to work for fees less than he'd want, but also that the site wasn't "doing longform well" because they didn't have a masthead of 20 or 30 involved in it. He throws further shade at the site with "not always seen as a quality product" (and Esquire is? Their homepage currently includes such quality features as "The Women We Love Of Instagram"and "The 23 Hottest Looks From The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue," and there are plenty of problematic pieces in the actual magazine too), and goes on to talk about how longform should only be done the way traditional magazines with immense budgets would do it:
I’m about to sound like an old man, but fuck it, old men are right sometimes. Doing good longform requires incredible resources. Those include things like talent and experience, but they also include cold-hard cash, in the shape of good writer's fees and the expense of the on-the-ground reporting such pieces require. The real trouble is, the genuine assets of writing online—speed and cheap, infinite space—are precisely the things that can work against good feature writing. It takes time, and you can't treat space (or the reader's attention span) like a bottomless resource. You can’t volume shoot longform. ...
This modern middle ground of longform in theory, digital by practice is pretty clearly fraught. Newspapers and magazines aren't perfect; Lord knows that even with our best efforts, we make mistakes. But the more analog systems and teams of professionals we have in place improve the chances of great work happening, and they reduce the chances of catastrophic error. The digital revolution was heralded by some for its elimination of the traditional gatekeepers. It turns out those gatekeepers did a pretty good job, and they were in place for good fucking reason.
This rant about gatekeepers is the tiredest of old-media canards, and it's another example of how this relates to the old blogger-mainstream media war. Like "you need huge resources to do longform," it's a statement that sounds good at first: who doesn't want resources? Who doesn't want extra editors improving their work and ensuring you don't publish something horrible? Consider the more subtle implications, though. If you start mandating that longform can only be done by "more analog systems and teams of professionals," you're reducing the playing field to traditional magazines and media outlets. Perhaps you allow digital ones to join the party if they play by the old-media rules and pay "rates that attract top-flight writers" (so, essentially, those traditional journalists who have already been accepted into the longform fraternity), but that's frankly incredibly unfeasible for most digital operations (and it can be argued that it's not really feasible for print, either; it's just hard to separate those costs out from all the other problems print journalism is facing). Moreover, who's to know that the club won't again yank the football away and move the goalposts once you meet the standards they set? The arguments for gatekeepers and resources feel like a property qualification for voting; "Well, we can't outwardly ban these people, so let's just create a standard they can't meet."
But those gatekeepers were in place for "good fucking reason," weren't they? It's interesting to consider that many of the worst journalism scandals have come at places with incredible resources and substantial "gatekeepers". Take a look at the remarkable failures with Rolling Stone's 2014 story about an alleged gang-rape at the University of Virginia. Examine the cases of serial fabricators Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, who worked at The New York Times and The New Republic respectively. Gatekeepers did not stop those problems. Could they have? Maybe. But it's worth noting that the biggest failure in the Rolling Stone case was exactly what SB Nation has been accused of; a lack of critical editing. They had editors in place, but those editors didn't pick up on the problems with the story. I don't remember Jones telling Rolling Stone to stay out of longform after that. Telling, isn't it, that print media outlets like Rolling Stone and The New York Times are judged on their body of work after scandals, while a digital site like SB Nation is condemned and told they shouldn't engage in longform because one of their many, many longform pieces went awry?
So, with the input (the money, the numbers of editors specifically assigned to a piece, the outlet publishing it) mattering so much more than the output (the actual piece itself) to these judges, is there any hope for those not already in the club? Not really, but they'll grant you the illusion of hope. See Jones:
If nothing else comes from this episode, I hope that it demonstrates what goes into the best of what we do, and helps Young Writers understand why rejection happens, and why they might not be ready to write cover stories for The New Yorker next year. "Longform" doesn't suck because of this piece. This piece shows how hard the good stuff really is, and if there is a cult among us, that's why it exists: We
know just how rare and elusive the highest heights are, and why it's worth celebrating when any one of our shrinking number is lucky enough to reach them, however briefly.
What's actually "the good stuff" is very much subject to interpretation, and will vary from reader to reader, but the references to the "cult" and "our shrinking number" are maybe even more telling. It's a very small group of those who practice #longform according to Jones' standards, because there simply aren't many publications willing to invest that much in a story; Jones talks earlier in his piece about how the one over-12,000 word piece he's written took him eight months and cost his outlet "six figures" (between travel, expenses, compensation for those involved, etc), and the numbers of places that can afford to spend six figures on a story are extremely limited. Moreover, if they're laying out that kind of money for a story, you can bet they're only hiring someone who's already written plenty of those conventional stories. See Jones' Twitter advice on starting at the bottom and working your way up (which fits in with previous advice he's given about not being critical of outlets and playing by the traditional rules):
If everyone follows that advice, it really will be a "shrinking number"; you're only going to get new #longform writers when the old ones in the biggest magazines retire and they promote from within. In another parallel to the blogger-mainstream war, that's how things conventionally worked at many newspapers; you started in the smallest places or doing the worst jobs and only ascended when a gap opened, with who got to write what often based on seniority rather than merit. That was a huge part of the blogging revolution; without those "gatekeepers," talented people were able to put their writing out there, often in different and better ways than the traditional model, and they found an audience for it.@Leah_Sottile @AndrewBucholtz @jfdinunz Smaller pieces at smaller places. Shouldn't write 5,000 words before you've written 400, 1,200, etc.— Chris Jones (@MySecondEmpire) February 24, 2016
It's notable that one of the most important media figures out there, and someone who played one of the biggest roles in the democratization of and success of longform, initially quit media because he was frustrated at the menial jobs he was asked to do and the seniority-tied infrastructure that kept him down. That would be Bill Simmons, who went on to become not just a high-profile columnist, but to found Grantland and run it as editor-in-chief, doing a ton there to promote good journalism and storytelling (including longform). Yes, they had their missteps too, but on the whole, Grantland was a huge benefit for sports journalism, both traditional and innovative, and Simmons' new site will hopefully be the same. In any case, it will definitely be paying good writers, and maybe even some traditionalists. That's ironic, considering that Simmons probably never would have been let in their club.
Overall, it's hard to buy Jones' contention that good, long journalism and the numbers of those who practice it are shrinking. If anything, good longform is expanding, and that's thanks to digital sites like SB Nation, which have generally done a tremendous job and produced a lot of great pieces. Of course, there's bad stuff to sift through out there too, but that's absolutely the case for traditional magazines as well. The "cult" is only shrinking in the minds of those practitioners who have a very narrow and exclusive definition of who's in their club.
In the end, though, The Input Club doesn't particularly matter, and this piece isn't written in an attempt to change the mind of anyone in it. That's a futile endeavor. They're welcome to keep their definitions, and to only praise and promote long pieces done by traditional organizations to their exacting and high-budget standards. The good thing for readers is that they're not the only game in town. There's plenty of excellent work out there that isn't created according to these standards, and as long as readers are willing to judge it by its merits, the world of sports journalism will be just fine. The Input Club doesn't get to determine what pieces are published, or at what length, or by who, or at which outlet, and they don't have to read them. As long as others do, there will be good content created.
This isn't to say that we should ignore criticism and dialogue, but rather to take heed of what criticism we listen to and what it's based off. That's why I vow, both as a reader and a writer, to do my best to be in The Output Club going forward. It's an alternative, inclusive model, judging pieces only by what's in them, not if they were written by "real journalists" using traditional models at traditional outlets. I'm going to do my best to not focus on where content appears or who wrote it (and oddly enough, this will probably help some of The Input Club; for example, many of Esquire's pieces will likely appear much better if considered without the baggage of their brand and their other content), but on if the content's actually good. This is a big part of how blogging rose to prominence in the first place, and consistently creating good content is what led us to a place where the blogs won the war. Doing so going forward is how digital outlets will do just fine with longform, regardless of criticisms from The Input Club.