Decline of the long newspaper story

The Columbia Journalism Review laments the decline of the long-form news story.

“Story-length is hardly meaningless when you consider what it takes to explain complex problems, like say, the financial crisis, to the broader public,” a writer says. “Or when you consider what it takes to lay out the evidence needed to properly support a story that makes explosive allegations against a powerful institution. It takes space.”

For example, The L.A. Times published 1,776 stories longer than 2,000 words in 2003; and only 256 in 2012 — a nosedive of 86 percent. One used to read an L.A, Times story in two halves: the breaking news up top, then a long explanatory examination of the topic below. By the end of which the reader’s understanding of the subject was immeasurably increased.

I’ll wager the decline is mirrored by a reduction in investigative reporting, the research and detective work behind many long-form stories.

A local example of that was the Fire Department’s costly and wrong-headed litigation against the County of San Joaquin over EMS control. One reason I believe the divisive money-wasting effort went on for years is that it was too complicated for the public to grasp, let alone put a stop to, without deep research and clear explication by community media.

Covering the story’s new wrinkles in daily stories wasn’t enough. Somebody had to wade into the issue, figure it all out, and go back to the reader with a sense its rights and wrongs.

The big fiascoes are seldom glitzy and salient, like the arena. They germinate in the bowels of government, in the course of ho-hum processes out of the ken of ordinary people. So much of what thwarts the public interest is hidden behind a thicket of complexity. The lobbyists and special interests that feed off the dysfunction in our government must be feeling much more comfortable that newspapers are less able to penetrate it. 


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    Michael Fitzgerald

    Mike Fitzgerald is The Record’s award-winning metro columnist. His column runs in the paper three times a week. Born in San Francisco, he was raised in Stockton. His column covers diverse beats including, sometimes, the offbeat. Read Full
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