This week marked the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Mumbai, India, in which 162 people were killed, and scores injured. I began a series of articles that mirrored Virginia Quarterly Review’s decision to run a four-part long-form journalism piece that would be exclusively online.The articles, which all-told, totaled 19,000 words, told a stunning tale of chaos, terror, the deliberate infliction of suffering, and a response from Indian armed services and police that seemed to contribute to the death toll.
Jason Motlagh, the author of the article, spent months interviewing survivors and researching the details. The result is something stunning. And, I believe, ground-breaking. It heralds good things for what can be done online.
This type of journalism is usually saved for the pages of print. VQR’s decision to run it online was monumental, and I was curious, now that the series was complete, how its editor, Ted Genoways, felt the experiment had gone. He was gracious enough to allow me to interview him.
In our interview, we talk about the successes and limitations of writing long-form journalism for the Internet.
LB: What was the genesis of the idea for doing long-form journalism as a blog piece? Why not publish it in the print journal?
TG: Jason Motlagh had written an outstanding article for us about separatist groups in India and came by the VQR offices to discuss what he might work on next. I wondered if he thought it would be possible to undertake a long-form narrative of the Mumbai terror attacks. Jason has great contacts in Mumbai, especially with reporters there, so he agreed to give it a go. The original idea was to publish it in our Fall issue, but Jason was still working as the deadline approached–and the piece kept get longer and longer. But it wasn’t just getting bigger; it was getting better. We started talking about releasing it on the web as a way of letting it run as long as it needed to be and also timing its release closer to the anniversary.
LB: Now that you’ve done it, what is your initial reaction to the response the piece(s) have received? Do you think it would have have attracted a larger audience in the journal? Or do you think that you’ve benefited from word of mouth (something that is hard to do with journals, I would think.)
Probably the most gratifying element of the response has been hearing from survivors of the attacks–words of praise and thanks but also additional information and refinements of the timeline. We’re working on a revised version of the article, something else that wouldn’t be possible with a print publication. It’s still too early to judge the full readership of the whole piece, but we’ve already had a strong response. The upside of the blogosphere is that it’s democratic nature allows a great piece like this, even if it’s from a small publication like ours, to circulate widely and swiftly. The real question is whether we can convince foundations or other funders to support this kind of journalism, because it’s expensive to produce and putting it up free on the web doesn’t do anything to offset those costs.
LB: What is the future of this piece? Is it something that your writer is going to turn into a book?
That’s up to Jason–but he’s gotten a number of inquiries from agents and book editors. I think that it would make a great book, and Jason is the perfect writer to undertake that job.
LB: Having done this once, and really broken new ground, would you do it again?
That’s an interesting question. This piece was really a special opportunity, and I think that we should try experiments like this only when we feel like we have something as singular and important as this piece is. On top of that, this isn’t the kind of thing that we can afford to do often unless we can identify sources of support. So I think we’ve proven that we can undertake this kind of ambitious reporting successfully and shown that there’s an audience out there for it. Now the question is whether we can figure out a way to pay for it. The web is a cheap delivery mechanism, but multiple trips to Mumbai, months of research, and the staff time to edit the piece, prepare it for the web, and promote it, isn’t free. We’re lucky to have great support from the University of Virginia, but in tough economic times, we need to find a few altruistic supporters of journalism who see this kind of work as important, whether it’s profit-generating or not. I’m optimistic that such people are out there.
> As so many complain that the web is full of ‘bad journalism,’ this piece will become my touchstone for rebutting such nonsense.
That’s great–and you’re right: it’s untrue that the web is bankrupt of good journalism. And we’re actually very excited about the possibilities of mixing traditional media with new media. Indeed, one of our principal foundation supporters, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Journalism, underwrote an article that we published by Kwame Dawes about HIV/AIDS in Jamaica. Pulitzer funded a photographer, Joshua Cogan, and film crew to accompany Kwame. They developed that story into news segments for PBS and, with support from the MAC AIDS fund, into an incredible online project called “Hope: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica“, that recently won an Emmy for “new approaches to news and documentary programming.”
Kwame also wrote poems that he and Josh turned into audio slideshows. That approach inspired a project called In Verse that I created with radio producer Lu Olkowski. That project produced paired poems and photographs for the current issue of VQR (Susan B. A. Somers-Willett and Brenda Ann Kenneally in Troy, New York, and Natasha Trethewey and Josh Cogan in Gulfport, Mississippi), but it also turned into several amazing radio segments for WNYC’s Studio 360 and some incredible audio slideshows that exist solely on the web. That project got off the ground because of a pilot program called Public Radio Makers Quest 2.0, an initiative of the Association of Independents in Radio funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
What I find hopeful about those projects is that they represent a convergence of nonprofit organizations–print, television, radio, and multimedia storytellers working with altruistic funders like MAC AIDS, Pulitzer, and CPB. At a time when journals are threatened and support for journalism is dwindling, these initiatives seem vital and exciting to me–evidence that great storytelling can be carried out on the web as easily as any other medium.