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01 July 2009 8:30 AM

Ideas 2009

Interview with Jack Hitt, Part I

Jack Hitt is one of America's best storytellers. His credits include Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, This American Life and Rolling Stone. You can buy his most recent book here.

Q. A famous Joan Didion line is that "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." That idea appeals to me. I'm a radio listener who lusts after episodes of This American Life, a magazine reader who loves nothing more than a 15 page feature story by Michael Lewis, and a television viewer drawn in by ongoing sagas like those portrayed on Lost or The Wire. The examples I've cited attest to the appeal storytelling retains in our culture.

At the same time, long form narrative non-fiction seems less present than it once was, and among the magazine writers I know quite a few fear it's disappearing, whether due to financial constraints or a shortening of the American attention span. As one of the best in the business when it comes to storytelling in magazines and on the radio, what's your take on the present and future of nonfiction storytelling in America?

You'd think that for as long as we have heard that our stories are disappearing, our attention spans shrinking, our children not reading and our teens skanking out at rainbow parties that by now we'd just be a nation of spastic bonobos. Long-form stories? I've never understood what "long form" stories are. Stories either hold your attention until you get to the end or they don't. If they don't, then usually an editor or someone with the remote control brutally reduces them to short-form stories.

I hear a lot about how television destroyed our attention spans 25 years ago with MTV and paved the way for the micro-information age of the internet. But that same lights and wires in a box has now given us the Wire, the Sopranos, the Shield, Deadwood, and Mad Men. If Charles Dickens were alive today, wouldn't he be collaborating with Richard Price or Barry Levinson? Half the plots on TV today owe a full frame screen credit to Jane Austen. This is not the fin de siècle of the long form; this is its siglo del oro.

As to the internet, a word that now means far less than what it is, doesn't it all depend on where you look?

I'm currently following a debate about science and religion between Chris Mooney and Jerry Coyne and many others. By word count alone, it's probably closing in on the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Granted, it's a non-fiction discussion, but it's fantastic. If the medium is the message, I'd say that the blogs are not only suited to tweet-like micro-notes but also to a new kind of long-form narrative. Are you following the saga of Gov. Mark Sanford's true romance or John Edwards' hideous one? Those are long-form narratives that just accrue more and more detail everyday, as detailed and as stunning as anything on HBO. Granted, there is no single author here, but from the very first blog narrative I remember erupting on-screen (Josh Marshall's relentless pursuit of the Trent Lott/Strom Thurmond scandal), there is a beautifully new narrative perfectly suited to the McLuhanesque architecture of this new medium - and it is long form.
Q. As I noted, you've done work for some of the most prestigious magazines in the country, as well as This American Life. What's the difference between telling a story in print and doing it on the radio? Do you prefer one medium to the other?

I'm going to change your question here because my answer about the difference between radio and print is too boring to read. So, let's recast this question as a follow up to the above. Will single-author stories of the kind that regularly appear in the New York Times Magazine or the Atlantic disappear because those traditional media outlets are dying? Or is there some way to keep those media arriving to our doors on paper or some other form? This argument has freaked out writers and editors for the last five years and reduced us to regularly uttering ugly phrases like "business model" and "monetizing" and "securitizing."

One issue here is advertising. Will it come back in some form? There are those who argue--and they have studies to prove it!--that advertising on paper is more efficacious than internet advertising. Is that true or the wishful thinking of the zombie media? Is it also true that people comprehend less while reading online than they do on paper? My middle-school daughter last year did a science project where they got a bunch of kids to read a story online and another bunch to read it on paper--and then answer comprehension questions. The readers on paper comprehended more. Granted, this was a science project conducted by 11 year olds, so, um, "more research is needed." Maybe holding a medium in one's hands facilitates memory and understanding. I used to think so (I can still remember where and on which page of certain novels that I first read certain words). And I want to think so, but I'm just not sure anymore. Or, is it true, as the cartoonist Tom Tomorrow has argued, that what the internet really revealed about old school advertising on paper and television is that it just doesn't work. At all. Even on the internet. Maybe it's not that the Age of Old Media is over. Maybe it's worse. Maybe we're exiting the Age of Advertising.

Maybe where we're headed is not where either the zombie media nor the blog triumphalists wish. James Fallows suggests an E-Z pass model of online micro-payment system. And the newest idea from Clay Shirky involves something vaguely resembling NPR's ten percent audience share that does voluntarily contribute to a "free" radio which will emerge organically from, say, among the most-read blogs, the Huffington Post aggregate sites, the columnists like Glenn Greenwald with devoted readerships, and reporting sites like TalkingPointsMemo.com? But it may also be that we go all the way back to the future. I'm talking about: Patrons. Not micro-financed patrons of a penny a piece. I'm talking about well-financed lovers of newspapers, magazines, and blogs and the rest.

I used to work at Harper's Magazine. The story of its death in 1980, announced on the air by Walter Cronkite, is now legendary in journalism circles. Rick MacArthur, the grandson of the insurance billionaire John D. MacArthur, heard the report and single handedly decided that he didn't want that to happen. So he arranged for the family foundation to buy it, create a free-standing non-profit to run it, and resurrected the magazine. I think we are looking at a future full of Rick MacArthurs.

The truth is that there are all kinds of good reasons (and bad ones) for wealthy Americans to buy an ailing magazine or newspaper.

Mort Zuckerman was known to very few people until he started serving as the patron of various magazines, for a while including this one. Now he's an established pundit with no journalism under his belt except what he's published in own magazines (paleo-blogging).

Word is out that a billionaire Mexican businessman name Carlos Slim Helú is investing heavily in the New York Times. How inconceivable is it that papers like the Times get snapped up by international men of finance, who happily underwrite, say, the Times's brand of reporting and writing in exchange for a global reputation as the man who promotes investigative journalism, promotes a free press, and publishes, well, long-form stories?

The creative destruction of the internet will carry on with open source solutions and distributed communications and adding great new voices to ongoing cacophony that has always been American journalism. But generating new business models, ab ovo, might not be quite as easy as a patron with an interest in being a publisher.


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