Rolling Stone Writers Talk Long-Form Journalism at Housing Works

Jessanne Collins | April 14th, 2011

Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield and company at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe. (via instagr.am)

Midway through an epic question and answer session at last night’s Rolling Stone/Long Reads panel on long-form journalism, Jeff Goodell, author of last year’s How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth’s Climate, shared an anecdote about his reporting technique.

While covering an AIDS convention in Montreal as a novice reporter, Goodell said, he’d been assigned to profile a health commissioner who wouldn’t return his calls. So Goodell pieced together the commissioner’s probable travel plans, and then called airlines asking for his flight information. “I’ve got a friend who has a surprise birthday,” he told the airline’s customer service line. “Can you please tell me what flight he’s on?”

It took several dozen tries before a sympathetic customer service rep — who might have recently enjoyed a surprise party himself, Goodell supposed — spilled the commissioner’s flight number. Goodell booked himself on the flight and requested an adjacent seat. “I was so happy, but I got to the airport and he’s standing in line and I’m in line, and thought, oh fuck, I can’t do this” Goodell recounted. “So I walked up to him and I said, ‘I called the airline, I got seated next to you and I’m sorry, I’ll move away.’ He just looked at me with this dead-level stare and said, ‘I admire your guts. Come on!’ ” They ended up having dinner together when they reached their destination, and Goodell had his profile.

It was something of a rockstar move for a reporter, and to the over-capacity crowd at Housing Works Bookstore and Cafe, the panelists may as well have been rockstars themselves. Fueled by the recent rise of Long Reads and other online aggregators, lengthy professional journalism is enjoying a flurry of new appreciation, not least by the denizens of Twitter who participated in their own piecemeal reportage throughout the lecture (see also: #RSreads).

The panelists, Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana said by way of introduction, represented the “three legs” the iconic music magazine is built on –deep news reporting, nuanced celebrity profiles, and authoritative rock criticism. Goodell — “the only Rolling Stone writer who has never actually met a rockstar” — is a contributing editor who’s written on technology, crime, and environmental issues. He was joined by Rob Sheffield, also a contributing editor, who writes about music, TV, and pop culture, and has authored the books Love is a Mix Tape and Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, and Brian Hiatt, a senior writer Dana called the magazine’s “go-to cover story writer.”

In the name of storytelling, Dana invited each panelist to share their “most Almost Famous moment,” which evoked images of Goodell getting beaten up by coal miners, Britney Spears dissing her own record to Sheffield (after he gave it a rave), and Bono resting his head in Hiatt’s lap. Reminiscing about the good old days of truly long-form rock-and-roll journalism, the panel brought the audience to hysterics riffing on a hyperbolic Jackson Five profile with a 1,000-word lede about the taxi ride to the studio and a 50,000 word piece about Santana that detailed the geneology of the drummer’s family.

Dana then directed the discussion to the role of long-form journalism in a short-attention span society.

“People want a beginning, a middle, and an end. They want context,” said Goodell in response to a question about whether the abundance of raw information — a la WikiLeaks — threatens the endeavors of journalism outright. “There’s a human need to hear stories, it’s a very satisfying way to get information. Whether that medium is an article or television or a movie or some kind of three-month long Twitter feed, it doesn’t matter.”

Dana concurred, remarking that the breakneck pace of the contemporary news cycle means details will always slip through the cracks as a media consensus is formed almost immediately around the narrative.

“I’m worried about whether we are going to have enough chewing tobacco ads because that pays the bills — but I’m not worried about the enterprise of journalism,” he said. “In a world where there’s endless amounts of information, there’s an even greater need for quality information, where you have analysis and access and great writing and great editing and great packaging.”

For a solid hour, audience members raised questions. Would RollingStone.com “pull a New York Times” and charge readers to view stories? (Yes, it has and will.) What’s the place of first-person writing in narrative journalism? (“Hunter S. Thompson could do it, that doesn’t mean everyone can.”). And where, exactly, were the female long-form writers? Especially on this panel? (“We expected that someone would ask that question,” Dana stammered. “I don’t have a great answer for it.”)

Even as some in the audience seemed skeptical about the future of long-form journalism in an increasingly digitized world, the panelists, for their part, were optimistic.

“A great story is a great story. The platform matters but it’s not the most important thing,” Dana said. “The important thing is the story can’t be bland and it can’t suck. If something is great, people will want to read it, and they’ll read it whether it’s on the Web or in the magazine.”