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Notes toward a Supreme Nonfiction: Teaching Literary Reportage in the Twenty-first Century

Literary Journalism Studies. Fall 2013

Journalism education was born a bastard, and has spent most of its life trying
to find a legitimate home. “This rough-hewn craft has never been very
comfortable in the overstuffed chairs of the faculty commons upholstered for
professors of the liberal arts and the traditional professions of theology, law
and medicine,” the late, great media scholar James Carey wrote in 1996. He
describes the contortions early journalism educators used “to graft journalism
onto the university via history, ethics, and law. That is, they turned to
the humanities, as they understood them, to ground the new educational

Doing so made sense at the time. If journalism were a profession, the
thinking went, then it must have a history for journalism scholars to record.
And if journalism were a discipline, the thinking continued, it should have a
canon to be venerated and built upon by successive generations of scholars. In
the end, “journalism educators fashioned themselves not only into teachers of
students but tutors and shapers of the craft, dedicated to elevating journalism
to an exalted station deserving a place in the university,” writes Carey. “The fit
has always been a little uneasy,” he concludes.

Journalism’s uneasy fit with the university is precisely what drew me to
it. I was an unhappy graduate student in the late 1980s, studying political
philosophy, after having majored in philosophy and religion (with a handful
of poetry courses thrown in for substance)—a series of choices that terrified
my parents. I was experiencing an “uneasy fit” of my own. Having adjusted
from the shock of moving from a small, Quaker college to a large research
university, I still believed in the power of ideas to alter perceptions, and perhaps
even actions.

What I was having trouble getting used to was the professionalization process
Carey describes so eloquently. The transformation of a practice (in
my case, reading and writing about ideas) into a legitimate vocation. I wanted
to do philosophy and political theory, whatever that meant, not become a second
order (and, most likely, second rate) scholar of those disciplines.

My salvation came from Janet Malcolm. Like all New York pseudointellectuals,
I had been reading the New Yorker magazine for most of my life.
But it wasn’t until I came across her two-part profile of Ingrid Sischy, then
the editor of Artforum magazine, that I saw a form of journalism capable
of bringing the ideas I loved to life. The piece opens in art critic Rosalind
Krauss’s gorgeous SoHo loft, which Malcolm quickly establishes as a character
in the piece. “Its beauty has a dark, forceful, willful character. Each piece of
furniture and every object of use or decoration has evidently had to pass a
severe test before being admitted into this disdainfully interesting room—a
long, mildly be-gloomed rectangle with tall windows at either end, a sachlich
white kitchen area in the center, a study, and a sleeping balcony.” Malcolm
takes the reader on a journey through New York’s art world, using the history
of a magazine as the backdrop for a reported meditation on the very idea of
“art” itself.

What kind of writing was this, I wondered? It wasn’t a “story” in a conventional
way. It wasn’t a straight profile, as Sischy is barely mentioned in the
first ten pages. There was too much reporting for it to be an essay, and too
many of Malcolm’s reflections for it to be described simply as an article. A
group portrait perhaps? I read it through several times, and even outlined sections
on a legal pad. I’m not terribly interested in art criticism, but I was entranced
by the way Malcolm summoned ideas from these miniature portraits
and wove them into the kind of fabric I had never seen before. I knew then
that, whatever this writing was, it was what I wanted to do, even if it meant
abandoning my current trajectory.

Fast-forward twenty years. After a half dozen editorial jobs, a few dozen
articles and one book, The New New Journalism, I found myself back in academia,
running the magazine writing concentration at New York University’s
journalism department. After a decade of freelance writing, I was glad to have
a base. I loved writing, but I’d missed being an editor, and enjoyed exercising
that part of my brain on student work. One of my only complaints was that
my very best students didn’t get around to producing their best work—rigorously
reported, well written—until the final week of any given semester.

The problem, of course, was with the semester, not the students. After all,
what were the chances that a well-conceived piece would fit neatly within the
constraints of a fourteen-week period? I realized that the academic schedule
was too, for lack of a better word, academic. To address this problem, my colleagues
Brooke Kroeger, Jay Rosen, and I established the Portfolio program,
a Knight Foundation-funded, spring-summer-fall seminar to teach students
to build a body of work—profiles, reports, essays—around a proposed idea
or subject. With ten months to work on project, they were able to take more
chances and to report more creatively than they had in the fourteen-week
semester system. They now had the luxury of failing, as well as trying to
rescue a piece by reworking it in a different form. Each student was assigned
a web page—a novelty in 2003—to showcase his/her work. We devised a
credo—“Some reporters cover beats; we create them”—in order to encourage
our students to come up with stories that other reporters wouldn’t. We urged
them to participate in their stories, and experiment with memoir. Thinking
and reporting creatively made them feel more like they were doing literary
journalism than studying it.

The Portfolio program was soon cited by some of our best applicants as
the main reason they applied to NYU. Older students in particular were
drawn to the opportunity to focus on a subject about which they’d grow
passionate. We began to draw an entirely different kind of applicant: young
reporters frustrated by the superficiality of daily journalism, law and medical
school students who wanted to write about their profession. One student
became fascinated with programs that claimed to help ex-convicts—mostly
black, poor, and male—get jobs, find housing, and reenter mainstream society.
Her dream was to trail several men who had served long prison terms
(twenty-plus years) for murder. The result, Among Murderers, was published
this spring by University of California Press. Another had been a local political
reporter, and wanted to write a book about the intersection of sports,
politics, real estate, and corruption on which Yankee Stadium was built. The
House That Ruth Built: Power, Politics and the Making of Yankee Stadium will
be published by Macmillan in 2016.

Less pleasing was the fact that we were losing some of our top students
not so much to traditional journalism schools like Columbia and Berkeley,
but to MFA programs in creative nonfiction, which offered them even more
personal attention, as well as larger amounts of financial aid with which to
live in less expensive cities than New York.

What those MFA programs didn’t offer was any training in the basics of
reporting and research. Rather, as MFA programs scrambled to take
advantage of the popularity of memoir and so-called reported essays, they
simply cloned their fiction and poetry writing options. Thus Readings in Fiction
I and II became Readings in Nonfiction I and II. Poetry Workshop I
and II became Nonfiction Workshop I and II. Some institutions threw in a
stray research course, but not a single one offered anything having to do with

Those criticisms aside, there is a lot to be said in favor of the MFA approach.
Its workshop model guarantees that one’s work is read closely and
consistently by one’s colleagues and teachers. It encourages a kind of mentorship
that sometimes gets lost in the standard academic setting. And it entails
a self-selection process that separates those who simply love literature from
those who want to learn how to write it. In order to be admitted to an MFA
program in fiction, a student submits a sample of his or her work, whether
that is a few stories or some poems. If an evaluator believes they show promise,
you’re in. If not, not. Most likely a better indication of success than standardized
tests, grades, and a writing sample.

What if we were able to synthesize the best of traditional journalism
education and the MFA? Require that applicants each propose a project,
teach them the basics of reporting and research once they arrived at NYU,
then workshop their pieces over the course of their last two semesters? What’s
more, what if we designed an advanced reporting course based on the ethnographic
methods of anthropologists—something we were able to accomplish
when Ted Conover joined the faculty.

Full of hope, we announced the Literary Reportage program in the spring
of 2008—precisely the moment the global economy began to collapse. And
even if we had known, I don’t see anything we could have done differently.
Even with such short notice, we drew thirty-plus applicants, accepted fourteen
of them, and welcomed an entering class of twelve students to NYU to
create a body of work, and perhaps even write a book.

Every fall I teach an Introduction to Literary Reportage course. The syllabus
is not based on the “great books” of the journalistic tradition, although it
includes works by George Orwell, Joseph Mitchell, Lillian Ross, Joan Didion,
and other writers well known to the people in this room. It begins with works
from seventeenth-century America, but is peppered with weeks devoted to
various journalistic forms, and is not strictly chronological. Most important
to me, the course questions the writer-centric focus that is the default mode
of most journalism courses. Rather, it devotes half the semester to editors like
the New Yorker’s Harold Ross, the Village Voice’s Dan Wolf, Esquire’s Harold
Hayes, Harper’s Willie Morris, and New York’s Clay Felker. They and their
magazines helped define twentieth-century American literary journalism. As
every professional journalist knows, editors do at least as much to shape the
literary landscape as writers.

When I greet the new group of Literary Reportage students, the first
thing I do is welcome them to the house of journalism. It is a big house, I
explain, with many differently shaped and designed rooms. The rooms have
names like “blog post,” “feature,” “essay,” “foreign report,” and “book,” and
the house seems to grow by a room or two every year. In order to have a long
and enjoyable career, I continue, they must find one room they truly love,
and decorate and design it so that it reflects their very best attributes. In addition,
they need to find a few other rooms where they feel comfortable, since
one can’t live in a single room forever. Each of the rooms has a different function,
and must be maintained in a way that makes sense for it. Sometimes we
move to the living room, invite our friends over, and have a noisy party. Other
times we want to be alone, so retire to the study to ponder a single subject
in peace. And then there are times when we have a small dinner party, and
then retire to the porch to continue a particularly intense conversation with a
single interlocutor. The variations are, potentially, limitless.

My optimism has several sources. Empirically, I’ve noticed that, regardless
of short-term macroeconomic circumstances, citizens of advanced
industrial societies expect the tools they use to live their lives to improve,
the faster the better. They want multifunction “smart” phones, cameras that
produce clearer photographs and videos, lighter and more powerful computers,
larger and thinner televisions, and, most recently, tablets and iPads. With
the constant improvements in hardware with which to watch, listen, read,
browse, and communicate, isn’t it likely that people will want similarly highquality
material to watch, read, browse, and listen to?

Early evidence suggests that they do. Despite slightly slowed growth, ebooks
accounted for twenty-three percent of book publishers’ revenue in 2012,
helping to buoy all of trade publishing, which saw revenue rise by six percent
to $7.1 billion.

I’ll close with a few tentative conclusions, derived from the corner of
the digital journalistic universe I know best. Apple released the iPad exactly
three years ago, in April 2010. The aggregator,, went live that
same month, followed by two digital publishers: Atavist in January 2011 and
Byliner in June 2011.

Although Atavist and Byliner have slightly different business models and
publishing formats (Atavist titles include video, audio, and photographs),
they offer writers a similar deal: we’ll pay you a $5,000 fee for your piece,
130 Literary Journalism Studies
and then pay you fifty percent of every copy, and all rights, sold. The pieces
average between 10,000 to 20,000 words, and Atavist estimates that it sells
anywhere between 4,000 to 55,000 copies of each title, with most selling in
the 20,000 to 30,000 range.

Byliner’s first release, Jon Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit, famously sold
over 200,000 copies, with the first 90,000 given away for free. William
Langewiesche’s Finding the Devil has been at the top of the Amazon Kindle
Singles list since it appeared. And Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek,
the first result of Byliner’s collaboration with the New York Times, won a Pulitzer
Prize for feature writing.

Byliner and Atavist are a small but important part of literary journalism’s
digital landscape. They are privately held and reluctant to share precise
sales figures. Data from Longform are more indicative of the new editorial
consumption habits. Founded by two young journalists on a lark, the website
posts four 2,000-plus-word stories each day, drawing from thousands of
magazines and websites. The website averages 400,000 unique visitors per
month, and the mobile app has sold 35,000 copies, at $2.99 per. They are
releasing a free app this fall.

What Longform’s metrics reveal about its readers is intriguing. Longform’s
demographic is the envy of any advertiser: young (fifty percent of the
readers are under 34), mobile (thirty percent read primarily on phones or tablets),
and well educated (forty-two percent have attended graduate school).
Virtually every story posted receives at least a thousand reads, with the average
being four thousand. These stories require commitment. They aren’t the
kinds of things you read while talking on the phone and pecking at your
computer. Usage is heaviest between seven p.m. and two a.m., peaking at
nine p.m. The number of visitors to Longform doubles during weekends. A
full sixty-five percent of visitors complete every story they read.
What kinds of articles are people reading? Well, we’re talking about young
people on the internet, so stories having to do with sex are nine times as likely
to end up among the year’s fifty most read. Out of the eighteen stories about
sex that Longform posted in the past two years, twelve made their way into
the top fifty. In addition, articles that involve murders are three times more
likely to be read than other crime stories. So, yes, sex and death still sell.

Perhaps most surprising is what readers don’t care about: newness. This
past April, the most read story on the site was Walter Kirn’s “Lost in the
Meritocracy,” an Atlantic story first published in 2005. I guarantee that you
won’t find any other website where the most popular post is eight years old.
The best narrative nonfiction—unlike basically every other content type
on the web—doesn’t lose appeal as it ages. A 1993 murder story from Texas
Monthly was number nine on the 2012 list. George Orwell’s “Why I Write”
(1946) was number twenty. A total of three dozen older stories made it into
2012’s top fifty list. In fact, Longform’s readers are ten percent more likely to
read an older story than a new one. The publication date carries almost no
weight. Readers care more about an article’s subject than whether it is new.

Finally, Longform’s metrics indicate that young readers may be more
drawn by certain authors than the magazines that publish them. The top
twenty publishers on Longform—magazines like the New Yorker, the New
York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, GQ and Esquire— account for fifty-two
percent of its total archive. Yet those same twenty publishers are responsible
for only fifty-five percent of the most-read stories, which is a negligible increase.

A well-known publication name doesn’t move the needle much at all.
That is, a New Yorker story is no more likely to get clicked than a piece from
someone’s personal blog. In fact, unknown publications often do better than
brand names because readers are intrigued to see something new.
However, an author’s reputations is a much better predictor. The eighty-seven
writers who had at least five articles on Longform—Tom Junod, Jessica
Lussenhop, Matt Taibbi, Michael Lewis, et cetera—are ten percent more
likely to show up on one a top fifty lists. That is to say, readers appear to care
much more about writers and their subjects than when, where, or in what medium
a story has appeared.

While I don’t know whether projects like the ones I’ve mentioned can
sustain the business of long-form nonfiction, I am optimistic. If nothing else,
I’m certain that journalism’s sprawling house will continue to expand, and
that my students will have a lot of renovating to do.

Robert S. Boynton directs the Literary Reportage Concentration
at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. He is the author of The New
New Journalism (2005)