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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

The Long View For Long Form: Joe Donnelly Stands his Ground

Wayne Trujillo |
February 18, 2015 | 3:40 p.m. PST



Hits and Misses

Digital technologies have altered journalistic practices and platforms. That perennial pick-me-up, the sunrise consumption of caffeine and news, remains a cultural benchmark.  However, the shift from print to digital delivery means more than replacing the paperboy with a silicon chip or a tabloid with a tablet.  In the past, a community read the local newspaper and traded comments in a physical environment. Today, communities exchange comments through virtual domains, unbothered by former customs and restrictions shaped by location, time and identity.

While widespread access and anonymity reshape the community narrative, the rearrangement has also demoted the scribes somewhat.  Today, professional journalists serve more as news sharers and spreaders rather than news arbiters and authorities in the Walter Cronkite tradition.

To the masses eagerly consuming and interacting online, journalistic precepts like balance, objectivity and editorial oversight may seem pointless artifacts or, at best, historical curiosities. Old school journalism, like other pre-millennial practices, went the way of the wagon, to borrow a cliché. The distinction between news aggregation and long-form narrative would escape many users. When perusing headlines, for example, users probably aren’t overly bothered if a website relies heavily on aggregation—the practice of compiling, referencing and linking to online news content—instead of primarily producing original content. Time and budget constraints, not to mention information overload, dissuade long-form narratives that meander through assorted nooks, crannies and angles, digging deep through intense investigation and analysis. That type of journalism increasingly serves an exclusive audience, those niche consumers possessing the requisite time and desire to appreciate the journalistic effort and expense.

READ MORE: International Female Journalists Celebrated For Courage

Blogs and upstart digital news sources can offer sketchy facts and lackluster writing, but some journalists and observers accept it as inevitable that information overload produces disposable content. Others beg to differ, chafing at the haphazard, manipulative and questionable content often encountered on the Internet. To be fair, while traditionalists romanticize yesteryear’s legwork and due diligence, wire services like the Associated Press and United Press International served as precursors to aggregation, and print newspapers did run blurbs, tidbits and gossip.

Also, old school wasn’t entirely easy or effective. Restricted access presented obstacles. Journalists scoured archives and microfiche while consumers relayed opinions, ideas and feedback through telephone calls and snail mail. An op-ed or letter to the editor served as the publication’s primary public forum. News reports seldom appeared in real time. Even the nightly news recapped rather than revealed events.

While traditional journalism has its holdover advocates, at least one veteran lauds the profession’s new principles and practices. Past Executive Editor of the Seattle Times, Michael Fancher, applauds the shift in journalistic practices, arguing that the interactive technologies facilitate the original purpose of journalism as a public podium. In previous practices, a wall separated editorial, public relations and marketing. However, social media tactics encourage journalists to interact on social media and community forums. This exchange demonstrates a clash between two moralities – traditional journalistic ethics and contemporary social ethos. With bloggers and citizen journalists rushing to create free content for an interactive public, the vibrant information exchanges realize journalism’s ideals and purpose as a public service.

The commercial concerns, however, present a dilemma. As demonstrated with numerous failing and folded newspapers, the bottom line forces a somewhat tenuous 

convergence between editorial and business practices. With the ready availability of sophisticated tracking software, a tendency has arisen to structure and write articles with an evaluative intent. Staff members are assigned to craft headlines and insert key words to serve and enhance Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Search Engine Marketing (SEM), Data Management Platforms (DMPs), Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and a host of other analytical acronyms, tricks, tools and measurements, rather than to serve or enhance the story. 

Seasoned journalists balk at this chore, considering it somewhat like an addicted prostitute turning a trick for a hit. However, journalism increasingly resembles marketing communication efforts where the consumer community participates in product creation and direction. Consumer participation is great, but a concern exists that journalists will mimic corporate communications in a pursuit of fans, followers and subscribers; obsessing with hits, visits and engagement in real time at the expense of persistence, depth and balance. In other words, numbers might trump truth; popularity may overshadow excellence.  

This, in turn, snowballs into another confrontation. Looming over the journalism environment are ethical and legal questions about compensation and ownership. Depending on point of view, today’s digital environment encourages either piracy or exploitation. The public creates and contributes content for free even as it freely borrows shares and consumes licensed content.  

University of Southern California professor Henry Jenkins, along with coauthors Sam Ford and Joshua Green, explored the controversies and implications in Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. Examples of spreadable media include digital text, commercials, videos and other media that users can share, save, create, duplicate and alter. Jenkins, Ford and Green advocate a reasoned balance between the two positions, arguing that spreadable media promotes reciprocal benefits for producers and users, rather than a rigid definition of either piracy or exploitation. Tensions have existed for centuries between commerce and community, but a “moral economy,” the stated and implied rules of business engagement, has traditionally resolved differences. A reconfigured moral economy needs to address and acknowledge that, in today’s digitally enabled environment, producer and consumer are not only interdependent, but often interchangeable.

Straddling Both Worlds

"Slake came about because I saw a need for the type of narrative storytelling Slake excelled at." (Wayne Trujillo/Neon Tommy)
"Slake came about because I saw a need for the type of narrative storytelling Slake excelled at." (Wayne Trujillo/Neon Tommy)
One journalist and two expired media demonstrate the tensions between analog and digital. Joe Donnelly, former Deputy Editor of LA Weekly, spearheaded two of Southern California’s most intriguing and promising media platforms that ultimately fell short of their long-term goal to engage consumers for long and deep narrative that requires more than a click and scan.

However, that is not for lack of quality or innovation. Los Angeles’ elegant Slake and Santa Barbara’s non-profit Mission and State were conceived and initiated with bold aspirations to record, report and recount the circumstances and events of their respective communities beyond the cursory blurbs and hurried highlights populating hyperactive online news platforms.  Slake was a catch-all excursion into LA’s cultural, civic, political and artistic affairs, paying particular attention to the city’s customs and quirks. Slake read like a novel and the visuals at varying times recalled the Louvre, the Getty or a beatnik bar. The publication also reserved space for poetry.

When Slake folded, Donnelly assumed the Executive Editor position at Mission and State, an online journalism endeavor that embraced intense, investigative, interactive and deep coverage of Santa Barbara’s civil and communal life.

Slake had plenty of supporters, but some likely believed the venture foolhardy when the luxurious magazine (more of a coffee table book than a standard newsweekly) debuted in 2010, a time when journalism was already transitioning from print to digital. However, Donnelly, the co-founder and co-editor of Slake (with Laurie Ochoa), believed Angelinos deserved and desired more.

READ MORE: Why Good Journalism Doesn't Have To Hurt

“Slake came about because I saw a need for the type of narrative storytelling Slake excelled at, especially in Los Angeles at the time, which was reeling from bad takeovers of the LA Weekly and LA Times,” Donnelly recalls. “I wanted something to counter the prevailing trends of shorter junk-food journalism, click-bait driven infotainment and the notion that nobody wants to sit and read anymore. I felt like Los Angeles needed something as smart as the Paris Review and the New Yorker, but also as sexy as the city itself.”

While Slake and Mission and State, both practiced the best of traditional journalism, they did not reside in a former decade.  We frequently hear about communication media and its attributes, including all-around involvement. At Slake and Mission and State, the term “interactive” reached its apotheosis. For instance, Slake’s editors not only reported events, they helped organize and even participated in them, like the “All in the for the 99%” gathering that drew Val Kilmer to stand beside Angelinos in protest of Wall Street’s excesses.

Grand ambitions do not guarantee success. Neither venture operates today. Mission and State was officially a non-profit entity, but Slake was also a non-profit endeavor despite strong sales and critical acclaim. According to Donnelly, the apparent conundrum was actually quite simple. The magazine, at the threshold of – or at least trending toward – sustainability, suffered a bad break.  Grants from the Knight Foundation and benefactors launched Mission and State and the sale of Donnelly’s home largely funded Slake.  Both represented magisterial ambitions attenuated and ultimately dissolved by limited funds, patience and time to prove their sustainability.  But, with Slake, Donnelly did prove his point. “It [Slake]just kind of steamrolled and four issues and two years later, I was out of money, but we had proved our point,” Donnelly declares. “The journal was extremely successful in terms of accolades and awards and it made the local bestseller’s lists something like 14 times.”

The media survived for a time on passion and life support. Slake’s fourth and final issue appeared two years after launch.  Mission and State lasted a year after its June 2013 launch. When they ultimately expired, impatience was the culprit more than the economy or disruptive technologies. When asked what he’d prescribe for revival, recovery and long-term health, Donnelly’s answer is direct. “Enough money and time to give such endeavors a fair shot, rather than only enough to give them an unfair shot, if you follow. In both cases, there was enough money to make a splash, but not enough to achieve sustainability. And, in both cases, it wouldn’t have taken much more.”

To understand Donnelly’s – and, by extension Mission and State’s and Slake’s -- contemporary quest despite strenuous odds requires probing his personal and professional past. Print may be dead, but it’s clear that Donnelly’s passion for the principles that informed ink and pulp publications remains stubbornly vibrant.

Abundant Passion

The impetus for some of the best narrative journalism on the Pacific Rim in recent memory originated two decades and 1,000 miles away from L.A. At the time, Donnelly was a twenty-something professional on sabbatical from reality, tending bar at an ice cream parlor in a former railroad town on the backside of Vail, Colorado. The stint as soda jerk introduced Donnelly to his future through Trish Kieswetter, the entertainment editor of a now-defunct local newspaper, the Vail Trail.  The Vail Trail’s reach wasn’t broad, but its depth was impressive.  The weekly newspaper read like a magazine, presenting deep, ranging stories that encouraged writers to bite down hard, chew on details, savor nuance and flavor, and spit out fat and fluff.  As Donnelly discusses narrative journalism via phone and email, it is obvious those bygone days when his professional efforts consisted of both ice cream and news scoops influenced and shaped his later endeavors—and some of the best narrative journalism in post-digital L.A. media.

It started when Kieswetter brought Donnelly aboard as the Trail’s arts and culture writer, initiating a journey that led to graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley and a subsequent career writing for premier journalistic institutions like the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, International Herald Tribune, Times of London and Mother Jones. Ironically, after a post-graduate internship at the Washington Post failed to materialize into a staff position, Donnelly returned to the Vail Trail, enticed by the promise of a ski pass and the opportunity to dive deep beneath the surface of a story, even if the paper represented a pond, actually a puddle, compared to outlets like the Washington Post. In retrospect, he considers the apparent setback fortuitous.

“I felt a bit defeated at first, going back to where I started, but it turned out to be a great move… I got to do important stories on housing, income inequality, environmental issues, mental health issues and more,” Donnelly recalls. “Vail then, and I knew this, was a great microcosm for the major stories of the day in our culture – income inequality, service industry wages, labor exploitation and environmental stress.” 

Back Against the Paywall

While the practices and platforms have changed, the traditional journalistic ethos remains Donnelly’s professional core and concern. A veteran of the millennial battle between rapid cycles and entrenched principles, it appears Donnelly lost the war at first blush with the demise of both Slake and Mission and State.  

However, Donnelly is not ready to acquiesce or surrender the fight to economics or technology. The quick, easy and iffy clash with Donnelly’s understanding of both reporting and writing as an art rather than an afterthought. He believes other journalists share his perspective—and the rewards and value will be greater in the end.

“When there's an opportunity to do thoughtful, piercing, long-form narrative that adds context and understanding to issues, doesn't just dangle click-bait in front of people, I think we all respond as journalists to that opportunity,” Donnelly asserts. “Those opportunities are fewer and farther between now, of course, so it makes them even more valuable.”

The valuation presumes that consumers will not only pay attention, but also pay a price for good content, whether through donations, a paywall or some other sustainable method.

“That means consumers have to vote with their time and attention, and, somehow, their money, too,” Donnelly explains. Research, writing and editing take time and funds. While research is an obvious challenge on a limited budget, professionals often overlook or underestimate the importance of good editing.

“There is so little editing going on,” Donnelly points out. “That was one of the hallmarks of Slake as well – the stories were carefully and lovingly edited. And they didn’t answer to internet imperatives such as clicks or marketing departments.” 

READ MORE: Exposing Gary Hart And The Future Of Political Journalism

Indeed, Donnelly reserves a particular professional distaste for SEO, SEM and other analytical aspirations. “The tyranny of Google (analytics, clicks, traffic) is ruining journalism,” Donnelly bemoans. “It's turning it into a fraud where salacious headlines adorn stories that are barely related to the headline, or disingenuous stories are concocted because they can be jimmied to fit into the search-bot matrix. It's gross.” 

Donnelly’s recent efforts, including print media like TakePart and a serial column about middle-aged fatherhood sidestep marketing concerns. Keywords aren’t a concern and headlines reflect the content. But his work remains popular despite resisting the accepted best practices for online writing. In the process, he proves that traditional journalism practices are both viable and valuable and corrects widespread misconceptions about pre-digital journalism.

One such misconception is that long articles equate to great (or at least better) articles than briefer reads. Long or short: it’s about quality, not quantity. The Atlantic’s James Bennett wrote, “As networks of human beings displace search algorithms, editors are discovering that not just headlines but overall quality matters more and more, whether a story is short or long.”  Bennett dismissed the term “long-form” as somewhat of a red herring; Donnelly agrees. “Storytelling and being involved in stories is how we experience things outside our own individual experiences,” Donnelly observes. “It doesn’t matter how long it is, either. Talk of the Town stories in the New Yorker are short, but they say a lot. When I was at the LA Weekly, Jonathan Gold won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his food column. It wasn’t about the food, it was about the stories that went with the food.”

Call it either food for thought or downright stubbornness, but narrative journalism, free of marketing restraints and concerns, is not passé, not by a long shot, according to Donnelly. Ever the optimist, he predicts a long-term victory for the painstaking, precise and exploratory journalism that Slake and Mission and State represented. 

“What I've found is that the good stories will find readers, even if it's not immediate. They stick around. They have some gravity and don't just float off into the infinite space of the internet.” Indeed, Donnelly intends to archive Slake’s previous issues for public consumption on an updated website this year. 

It’s obvious Donnelly will give up neither the pursuit nor the practice of quality journalism—nor his belief that Slake holds a worthwhile place in today’s media market. While time and money ran out the last few rounds, Donnelly still has passion to spare.

Contact Contributor Wayne Trujillo here; follow him here.

Editor's Note: Portions of the Joe Donnelly interview and article text appeared in material for USC Annenberg Master of Communication Management courses.



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