An Experiment in Long-Form Cyberjournalism

An Experiment in Long-Form Cyberjournalism

An Experiment in Long-Form Cyberjournalism

The inner workings of Slate.
Feb. 7 2001 3:00 AM

An Experiment in Long-Form Cyberjournalism

At Slate we operate under the basic assumption that good journalism is good journalism, whether it comes to you via paper or pixels. At the same time, we do try to think hard about new ways to do journalism in this new medium. We're not motivated entirely by a high-minded spirit of experiment. Commercial calculation plays a role. The brutal fact is that for nonessential reading, people for some reason still prefer curling up with paper and ink to sitting upright in front of a computer screen. In order to pry them away from traditional magazines, magazine-style journalism on the Web has to offer some compensating advantages. At Slate, simply being better by universal journalistic standards is something we're arrogant enough to aspire to, but not arrogant enough to count on. So the search goes on.

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One obvious advantage is that we're free. (During our brief attempt to charge for subscriptions a couple of years ago, we had 30,000 takers. In December, according to Media Metrix, we had 2.1 million "unique"—i.e. different—U.S. visitors.) Another obvious advantage is timeliness: We're published and delivered instantaneously. Being on a computer screen is actually an advantage in attracting readers at work, who seem to prefer not to be seen curled up with a paper magazine—whatever their preference in the privacy of their own homes. And with the arrival of tablet PCs, eBooks, and other portable reading devices, the differences between a Web site like Slate and traditional magazines will gradually disappear. (Crude plug: If you have one of these devices, or even a PalmPilot, we're ready for you. Go to MySlate and download your personal selection of current Slate articles in HTML, in Microsoft Reader format, or as an audio file.)

Meanwhile, our search for Web-appropriate forms of journalism has had mixed results. We do some interesting things with e-mail, in our humble opinion, in features like "The Book Club" and "The Breakfast Table." Neither we nor anyone else, in our even more humble opinion, has yet done anything journalistically dazzling with interactivity or multimedia, though we keep trying.

One form of magazine journalism seems especially resistant to the Web. That is the long, reportorial piece like those published in The New Yorker, the Atlantic, and the New York Times Magazine. If people are reluctant to read a 1,200-word article on a computer screen, expecting them to read 5,000 or 12,000 words on a screen seems especially hopeless. And arbitrarily chopping a long article into shorter "pages," as many sites do, isn't much of an improvement. So we've been thinking about ways to do long-form journalism that are appropriate to the Web, and we're going to try some of them out. The first such experiment starts this week.

In "Seed," Slate's David Plotz will tell the story of the Nobel Prize sperm bank founded in the late '70s by California industrialist and eugenicist Robert Graham and publicized by its most prominent sperm donor, William Shockley, the Nobel Prize-winning inventor of the transistor, who became obsessed with the degradation of the human gene pool. And David will report on what became of the children born of Graham's experiment.

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At least we expect that he probably will report on it. Instead of doing all his reporting and then composing a long article, David will file dispatches, which we will post immediately, as he goes about his research. The readers will be able to follow the reporter as he gathers and analyzes his material, and we have no more idea than you do about where the story will lead him or how it will come out. When he is done, if it works, the entire article will be published as an eBook.

In fact, we hope that readers will actually help put the story together by supplying information (with, as Plotz , strict protection of privacy) and by engaging and helping the author to refine his arguments. 

Call it "transparent journalism." And one interesting, if not alarming, aspect of the experiment is that it will be transparent to the very people David will need to interview and gather information from. His sources will be able to read his mind. What effect will this have?

A decade ago a New Yorker writer named Janet Malcolm stirred a fuss with an essay arguing that journalism is inherently dishonest because the reporting process relies on deception. Her famous opening lines:

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Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.

I dismissed this at the time, and since, as a typical, irritating New Yorker exercise (of that era) in moral bludgeoning through unsupported hyperbole. Sure, some reporters deceive and betray their sources. But more typically the relationship between a reporter and a source is, at worst, mutually exploitative in a fairly mild way. Both have something they want to get out of the interview—in the source's case, a bit of vanity balm if nothing else—and both benefit from it. Just like most deals in a free economy.

Anticipating this experiment, though, has given me pause. Would even the most scrupulous and fair-minded reporter—i.e., Slate's David Plotz—want his sources to know his thoughts, strategies, hopes, tentative conclusions before he even talked with them, or indeed before they even have decided whether to cooperate? Maybe Malcolm has a point.

Or maybe she doesn't. Would the typical source want the journalist/interviewer to be able to read his or her mind? Would either party in any transaction, commercial or emotional or any other sort, not feel disadvantaged by having his or her thoughts one-sidedly exposed on the Web? Clearly there are other interesting potential experiments here. But Plotz jumps first, and I think we'll see where he lands before committing any more troops to this mission.

Click here  first installment of David Plotz's "Seed" and here for the second. If you want to reach David Plotz to confidentially discuss the Nobel Prize sperm bank, please e-mail him at plotz@slate.com.