To Keep it Long?

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Raghu Karnad
Raghu Karnad

Hundreds of news portals, millions of write-ups, even more hashtags and key words – such is the zeitgeist of media today, both in India and the world. The immediate deposition of an overload of facts in snatches dictates how we start the day and form opinions of events unfolding around us. On the second day of the Jaipur Literary Festival 2016, the ‘Longform’ talk at Charbagh pavilion whipped up the debate whether long-form journalism is finding its way back through the ‘three-minutes-read’ fashion. “Some people call it [long-form] literary journalism, as if ordinary journalism is anything but literary,” began Jonathan Shainin, former senior editor with The Caravan and current news editor with The New Yorker.“I fall back on American Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography, ‘I know it when I see it.”“In the tidal surge of undifferentiated content long-form stories, which are so unique, cut through and stick around.”

“As the news cycle has sped up, the hunger for something as the dust settles has increased,” Raghu Karnad, journalist and author of the book Farthest Field , concedes. “You can be familiar with various parts of a story but no one can be on top of the complete account of say, what happens in a national scandal or the career of a major political personality,” he explains. Atul Gawande, surgeon, writer and public health researcher based out of the United States, who writes extensively for The New Yorker and Slate adds to this contention through his own experiences of writing The Cost Conundrum. This is a 2009 The New Yorker essay that exposed how healthcare costs varied dramatically from one town to another in the US and how the town of McAllen, Texas has the highest healthcare costs in the county due to unnecessary overdose of medical care. Gawande explained that he felt the issue was “a very New Yorker thing”, the story was out there and he needed to “chase it”.

Choosing long-form was thus a deliberate move for Gawande. “With long-form, I could unfurl so many levels of themes under the ‘lead’ of the fraud. The fraud was not the highlight of the story for me, it was how the ordinary doctors are ordering twice as many medical procedures and tests and how the business of medicine had surpassed the calling of the profession.” The format allowed him to penetrate through the belief-system of the doctors and understand all the socio-cultural and economic undertones behind the story. The consequences of the essay were far-reaching. It caught the attention of President Barack Obama and he had a cabinet session around the issue which had an impact on several elements in ‘Obama Care’.

The amount of dedication and research that this form of journalism demands is tremendous. Falling into the rhythm of pursuing a story for long periods can be challenging. “Two-third time goes into research,” explains Gawande. “I research to the point of overload. I love it more than anything because it takes you into different directions,” he adds. But the reward such labour reaps, speaks for itself. “Short news stories last for a day or two. The capacity to produce something from six months’ efforts that remains alive for a long time, to dig in on major social issues that really matter, put life behind them with some drama and see it have resonance and ripples in the pond in a way those daily stories do not do, occupies a certain space,” beams the surgeon.

Speaking in the panel, American author and journalist for Vanity Fair  Marie Brenner talked about her own methodology of writing long-form in relation to her 1996 essay The Man Who Knew Too Much. “I am drawn to characters who are caught up in unimaginable circumstances and no story was more compelling for me than telling the story of whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand at the Brown and Williamson Tobacco company who discovered that the company was poisoning the cigarettes with certain kind of additives,” she elucidated. The story, which was later adapted into the movie The Insider starring Russell Crowe and Al Pacino, had begun as a two-sentence item in a New York daily. The CBS TV show 60 minutes had done a profile of the man that got cancelled because of the channel’s fear of taking on the tobacco company. Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter saw tremendous potential in the story and wanted Brenner to do a back-story on the network but she could find nothing on Wigand.

The story broke through several months later when Brenner was in Louisville hoping to get in touch with Wigand. His life was in ruins both personally and professionally and he was suicidal in fear of his life. Brenner received a frantic call from the CBS producer Lowell Bergman to say that Jeffrey needs asylum and if she could hide him at her hotel. This is how Brenner met with her subject. This was how she put to paper the story of a deeply intelligent and moral person who was enraged by immoral corporate profiteering.

The panelists debated intently upon where long-form stands in the context of books and films. It cannot be denied that long-form journalism has an affinity to the way scenes are constructed in visual media. But films tend to be reductive unfolding characters through often very abstract ideas result in the writing becoming a visual piece inside the piece, Gawande suggested. American environmental writer Alex Shoumatoff who has been associated with The New Yorker, Conde Nast Traveller and Vanity Fair, held, “long-form journalism reaches many more people than book. It is closer to the reader and something that you can finish off in one long sitting.”

Shoumatoff’s famed 12000 words piece Agony and Ivory, based on elephant poaching for ivory took him across nine countries in Africa over a period of six weeks. The huge impact that the article had perhaps would not have been possible if it were to be just a short news article on the same topic. “I really put in all the literary skills I ever had because I wanted people to realise what was happening and to care about it,” the writer said.

Raghu Karnad spoke about the influence Tehelka magazine had in the Indian context. “Tehelka played a role in building out that space,” he said. Referring to his article “Air, Water, Earth and the Sins of the Powerful”  published in Tehelka, Karnad talked about following victims of the Bhopal Gas tragedy on a protest march from Bhopal to Delhi. “It is a powerful thing to see people with profound health issues marching the distance you cannot imagine marching in the early summer in North India. Some of those details needed to be present to make anyone think about revisiting the Bhopal gas tragedy,” he recalled. “Longform has the space for all those things that make a story emotionally resonant in a way shorter news stories don’t. It communicates with the readers. It is like long-term relationship. You have to stick around and it gives you back something in terms of depth and resonance.”

But at what cost does long-form journalism arrive? How far is it practically, economically viable, especially in the Indian context to sustain such in-depth research and travel expenses? Is it possible for a media organisation without the backing of some other source of resources to encourage this ‘status’ format? These are some of the questions that the discussion provoked in the minds of some of the enraptured audience.