Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Longform Podcast

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Vital stats:
Format: interviews with writers and editors of long-form articles
Episode duration: 35m-1h
Frequency: weekly

Say 3:00 a.m. has rolled around. I’ve walked my lady home, downed whatever wine remained in the night’s bottle, sent the day’s last few dangling e-mails, read two or three page-downs on Twitter, glanced at Facebook, and checked the New Yorker for anything new from Anthony Lane. I could go to bed. Or I could check Longform.org. Though I rarely admit it, I only direct my browser that way in hopes of finding a 3,000-, 5,000-, or — jackpot — 10,000-word article so interesting as to deprioritize sleep and the dull preparations it demands. I imagine you’ve done this too. If you happen to have a day job, maybe you’ve burned hours of your employer’s time — even days of it — reading articles aggregated by Longform and its ilk (Longreads, say), luxuriating in a combination of boredom, fascination, and sheer spite. I had to ditch my own day job after envisioning the decades ahead melting into an ocean of text, often damned interesting but essentially opiate.

Though I no longer rely on Longform as that sort of drip-feed, it has remained in my night-elongating rotation — no morning pressure to get to “the office,” after all — and I took notice when the site began putting out a podcast [RSS] [iTunes]. The show delivers not audio versions of long-form articles but interviews with the sort of people who write and commission them: folks from New York magazine, the New Yorker, the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine... you know, the publications whose sites you pull up after dark looking for an extended distraction. (Also publications with “New York” in the title. Longform does have its office, I believe, in New York, but guys, come on — America has two cities.) Built at the intersection of an addiction to long-form articles and a compulsion to listen to interview podcasts, the Longform Podcast should sit right in my personal (and thus professional) wheelhouse. Yet I approached with trepidation.

Scanning the guest list, I inhaled sharply: “Oh no — journalists.” To be fair, journalists have proven less a force of 21st-century irksomeness than has the concept of journalism itself. It once rode high, at least in the United States, on newspapers’ robust stream of classified ad revenue. But when the money dried up, journalism took the uniquely unpalatable rearguard action of insisting that we need it. Through little fault of journalists working today, American journalism had already drawn considerable resentment for its perceived high-handed self-regard; doubling down on yapping about the Fourth Estate raises predictably little sympathy. Here I defer to the aforementioned Anthony Lane, on Shattered Glass, Billy Ray’s movie about about disgraced New Republic reporter Stephen Glass: “Glass may be a rotten apple in the barrel, but the contention of Ray’s film is that the barrel itself, the noble calling of the reporter, is as sturdy and as polished as ever. Give me a break. On second thought, give me His Girl Friday. Five minutes of Howard Hawks’s speedy and cynical view of hacks in sharp suits, as they themselves bend the world to fit the shape of their own cynicism, is a more bracing sight than ninety-four minutes of Stephen Glass and his tragic slide from grace.”

From listening to their interviews, I do believe that the Longform crew and their subjects understand full well, if sometimes on a half-suppressed level, how weary we all feel with the established models of journalism. With each skilled, young-ish writer and/or editor I heard one of the Longform Podcast’s trio of hosts (one of whom comes from The Atavist, a new-media operation I don’t quite understand) talk to, I grew more convinced that they’ve all been badly hamstrung by both the irreparable old journalistic business models and the corruptingly pageview-driven current ones. But the money side has only done half the damage, at most; say the word “journalism” to today’s average young reader, and they surely think of some combination of plodding sequential narrative, pretend objectivity, deadening house style, and J-school piety. Pay occasional reflexive tribute to the positively spun versions of those qualities though they may, Longform’s interviewees generally “get it.” But get what? An idea that crystallized for me when I heard the new episode where travel writer Rolf Potts argues that travel writing concerns travel only incidentally and writing almost wholly: journalism will find itself replaced by essayism, or at least transformed by it.

Having built my own career of talking and writing, I can understand why someone might call me a journalist, but I still wince when it happens. I do pull up Longform in search of work by my (roughly defined) peers, but certainly not for anything I’d consider reportage. In those wee small hours of the night — or even during the day — I’m looking for essays. “An essay doesn't begin with a statement, but with a question,” writes Paul Graham in "The Age of the Essay”. “You don't take a position and defend it. You notice a door that's ajar, and you open it and walk in to see what's inside.” Longform mainstay John Jeremiah Sullivan has demonstrated mastery of, if not the pure essay, then at least the highly essayistic piece of reporting. I look forward to one day hearing him on the podcast. The conversation will surely not contain much hand-wringing about who will fund the Baghdad bureau. (If every Baghdad bureau shut down tomorrow, I doubt I’d notice for months, if ever.) The conversation surely will contain an insight or two into, explicitly labeled or not, the journalism that has become essayism. Forget the new journalism; bring on this new new journalism, the contours of whose stories follow the contours of human thought. Consciously or unconsciously, many of the Longform Podcast’s subjects, as well as Longform itself, will do the bringing. As soon as those fact-checking departments can't make payroll, we'll really tear it up.

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[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes] and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He's working on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]