NYU Media Talk of the Town: Long Live Long Form

NYU’s Kimmel Center was buzzing with excitement. The 2016 Summer Publishing Institute class mingled with M.S. in Publishing: Digital and Print Media students, faculty, and publishing industry insiders while watching the sun set over Washington Square Park and anticipating a talk on the new ways print media is being reborn. The latest installment in the NYU Media Talk series, NextGen Editors: What’s New, Different, and Daring, began with an introduction from moderator Michael Calderone, Senior Media Reporter for The Huffington Post. “When I first graduated from NYU, I had one job at a newspaper, where I wrote one column,” Calderone explained, emphasizing how simple things seemed when he was a student himself. “No one can get by doing that now.”

The panel consisted of Mark Lotto, Cofounder and Cochief Creative Officer of Matter Studios; Ben Smith, Editor in Chief of BuzzFeed; Will Lee, Digital Editorial Director of People.com and EW.com; and Jessica Grose, Editor in Chief of Lenny, an email newsletter from Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner. Every voice chimed in quickly about what the print industry used to be, and what it is today. While the golden years of huge newsstand sales have faded, all agreed that the ability to tell a story is still key. “Writing well is what hits home,” Grose said, as she described the nostalgic return of weekly newsletters—a piece of the industry that many thought would have faded in the new digital age of short attention spans and clickbait practices.

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Panelists (l to r) Ben Smith, Editor in Chief of BuzzFeed; Will Lee, Digital Editorial Director of People.com and EW.com; Michael Calderone, Senior Media Reporter for The Huffington Post; Jessica Grose, Editor in Chief of Lenny; and Mary Lotto, Cofounder and Cochief Creative Officer of Matter Studios. (Credit: NYU Photo Bureau/Olivo)

Lee took time to explain to the audience how People as a brand has changed, and what that meant for his role in the digital sphere. “There are a lot more outlets for celebrities to display their own lives to people,” he mentioned, as everyone has a brand now on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. “It comes down to our choices. Do we spend all day chasing a story? Or do we take out time and write something more meaningful?” When it comes to People’s forty year old brand, the trust in the brand’s content has extended to People.com as well, allowing a surprising amount of flexibility when it comes to curating new content.

But this summer’s Media Talk was nothing if not contestable. As each expert detailed how their brand has carved a place for itself in the changing media world, another panelist was there to offer advice or commentary. “It’s incredibly time consuming,” Smith said, discussing how BuzzFeed balances its coverage of news, lifestyle, animals, video, and so much more. “I tend to look for people who understand the ecosystem, who look for things that people in different groups will like.”

Social media was one of two central discussion points during the evening, as each panelist stated exactly how they use outlets like Twitter and Facebook, and also explained their frustrations and needs in a world of algorithms and changing trends. Lotto, of Matter Studios, seemed the least concerned, having faith in the platform builders and how to cooperate with them, rather than exist in a world of reaction to new media developments. “Platform builders are engineers, they like to solve problems,” Lotto assured the audience of students who were all listening for a way to tame the unpredictable internet-factor in publishing. “If you go to them with a problem, they’ll try to help you solve it.”

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NextGen Editor panelists in discussion at the NYU Media Talk.

The second topic of the evening became the question of the hour. Reminiscent of the Oxford comma debate, the life or death of long form journalism was the passionate closing note of the night. “Good advice to end the segment,” Calderone joked with a chuckle, “Long form is gone! Take that off your résumé!”

Yet Lee and Grose both disagreed, each standing up for their brand’s respective turn towards long form content. “We have video media in the works,” Lee explained. “It isn’t quite the same as long form articles, but when it goes for twenty or thirty minutes, we still have to have that voice to keep our audience engaged.”

“I don’t think long form is dead,” Grose insisted. The Lenny Newsletter is home to articles which reach 2,000 words or more—a stark contrast from the 300-500 word limit blurbs found on most news and features websites. “But the days of writers who can make a living on only long form is gone. You have to be versatile, and as long as you have a strong voice, you can carry it.”

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SPI 2016 students discuss the panel with program alumni at the networking reception. (Credit: NYU Photo Bureau/Olivo)

Students and alumni of both NYU’s Publishing programs became part of the discussion, asking one another their thoughts on long and short form as they left for the post-talk reception. One student admitted, “I find it disheartening that long form alone is no longer viable. But it just means we have to adapt.” Adaption was certainly a center focus of the night.

As the evening ended, students and alumni were still musing on the panelists’ comments about keeping all options open and being optimistic about the future of media. Alumna Richelle Szypulski of SPI 2015, who is now an editorial operations assistant at Travel + Leisure, said, “One year later, I’m still just as enamored of the incredible perspective publishing execs share from the stage and excited by the constant fluidity that challenges our industry.”

by Maggie Berardo

Header image photo credit: NYU Photo Bureau/Olivo

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