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Is the long-form wine article dead?

22 comments

And if it is, what are the consequences for readers’ comprehension of wine?

That journalistic story length is getting briefer and punchier is obvious. Some credit (or blame) MTV for shortening the attention span of an entire generation. Others point to the success of USA Today “for synthesizing news down to easy-to-read-and-comprehend stories” that almost never “bounce” to a second page; this has forced other newspapers to shorten their own articles.

The same thing is happening at Wine Enthusiast. Nearly ten years ago, I wrote an article on Sonoma County that was 5,280 words long (!!!). Nowadays, I’d be hard pressed to get permission to write something half that length, and if I did, I’d consider myself lucky.

We see short-form writing everywhere we turn. Magazines, such as Wired, US or Details, love dense-page formats that cram loads of information into short, text-rich haikus, often accompanied by photographs. Social media compels short, creative bursts of writing: Facebook limits posters to 420 characters, while Twitter’s 140 has becoming a standing joke.

Wine writers of prior times didn’t overly worry about word length. Provided they had an understanding publisher, they were encouraged to write leisurely, to make sure they got their points across. George Saintsbury credited his publisher at The MacMillan Company for “his request for a big book,” which resulted in his classic “Notes on a Cellar-Book” (1933).

As Wine Enthusiast shortens our story lengths, it is actively seeking more material for the magazine’s website, whose content, of course, also is punchy and easy to read. Indeed, there’s something almost old-fashioned and fusty about a long wine article, the kind you still find in some print publications. I remember a 5,000 word-long article Steve Pitcher once wrote, in Wine News magazine (does it still exist?), on Sauvignon Blanc. Can you imagine 5,000 words on Sauvignon Blanc? In Wine Enthusiast, when I do have the opportunity to write a longish (2,000 words) article, I’m encouraged to chop it up into easy-on-the-eye blocks, with breakout boxes in different colors. And the text must be peppered with “sub-heds” in order to avoid the appearance of monotony.

I point these things out, not to complain, but to illustrate reality. It is what it is; readers have less patience nowadays for long-form articles on wine (or anything else, for that matter). They no longer, we are told, care much for books. And the Internet, as I have pointed out, is not amenable to the long form. All this is a given, but what does it mean for the comprehension of wine, especially by a younger generation, not to mention generations to come?

Can wine be understood in sound bites?

My concern is that this short attention span phenomenon in American culture is undermining people’s ability to think critically about issues, including wine. We see things in a nativism (one might even call it know-nothingism) that’s rampant in America. I suppose, ultimately, a trivialized knowledge of wine is not as important to the nation’s future as a trivialized knowledge of history and science; but it is no less troubling.

Media experts understand that this abbreviating of the news takes its toll. “Long-form journalism is as crucial as ever to informing the public…and encouraging creativity and even artistry among news producers.” This is from a recent post on the New America Foundation’s blog on media.

The challenge, the post adds, is that “Finding effective ways of packaging and sharing these stories is just the next opportunity for innovation.” It’s up to publishers–including self-publishers on the Internet, such as bloggers–to figure out how to preserve long-form journalism in a way that gets information across adequately. But it’s also up to readers, perhaps especially young ones, to realize that to retreat to a world of 3-second sound bites and 140-character tweets represents a dangerous step backward, into tribal isolation and ignorance.

What do you think?

  1. While it is unfortunate that writing is going more short-form, I do not think that long-form wine writing is dead. While those long articles are few and far between, they are that much sweeter to find and read. As long as the writing is good, bring on the longer articles!

  2. I have a large interest in long format articles, especially in print publications. If I pay for the publication than that should indicate I am interested in the topic and want to expand what I know.

    Steve, you have been a big advocate of Santa Barbara wine. For me, I would love to follow a long story that details your experiences there and the people you have met. A 1,000 word essay makes it hard to share anything very in depth.

    I do like short to the point articles as well, but they are better suited to a format like this blog. In published form, I prefer a National Geographic to a National Enquirer any day.

  3. It seems to be happening everywhere, sadly. Fortunately for the person seriously interested in wine (as opposed to scores, soundbites and prices) there is the Anglo-American publication World of Fine Wine, which is replete with long articles as well as shorter ones, and is unquestionably the best wine journal in the world. http://www.finewinemag.com/ Unfortunately it’s expensive, partly because serious journalism doesn’t actually attract all that many readers or advertisers. But surely worth it. (I should declare some sort of an interest, as a fairly frequent contributor, which is an enormous privilege; but I have also been a paid-up subscriber for many years.)

  4. twentygauloises says:

    I’m convinced that the long form article is decreasing as people read more and more online, i.e. on a screen, and not in paper format, and I agree it’s corroding the ability to think critically or in a developed way about complex subjects.

    As an erstwhile publishing professional, we conducted quite a lot of research which indicated that readers preferred printed products for narrative reading, like novels or wine books, and electronic material for quickly researching or overviewing materials, e.g. finding out the difference between Barbera and Barbaresco.

    Perhaps the rise of the e-reader (with eye-friendly screen, like the Kindle, not the iPad) will help usher in long-form writing in electronic media?

  5. I loved your first two paragraphs – then I scrolled to the bottom to find the Comment section so that I could tell you that.

  6. A blog post has no story length constraints. Just sayin’. ;-)

  7. Like Colorado Wine Press, I don’t think that long-form writing (wine or otherwise) is dead. There are still excellent publications with LONG essays. With wine, we’ve got the World of Fine Wine, all of Mike Steinberger’s stuff in Slate, the occasional pieces in Spectator and Enthusiast, etc. With non-wine writing, I’m always impressed by the writing in GQ, Vanity Fair, and the Atlantic.

    That said, the trend is definitely toward shorter writing. But perhaps that means the world was full of lazy writers in the past — it’s hard to condense into 600 words what you think you need 1500 words to say. And the end product is almost always better.

  8. Sadly, the cultural impact of tweets, text messages, soundbites etc. are, in my opinion, stages in the process that started with superficialization, aimed toward the general public, of education, news and general reading material. Fewer and fewer people have the desire (or the ability)to read and digest any article of length or depth.

    I hate to sound so harsh but we ARE becoming a nation of idiots.

  9. Jonathan Swinchatt says:

    If you read books, see: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Nicholas Carr. Deals specifically with this issue.

  10. I take a book, usually a novel, with me when I go into any retail store. I read in the check out line. Some paperback novels are pretty thick. Several time I have had cashiers say to me

    …’are you gonna read the WHOLE book?’….it must be good!’

    I have also had folks see me reading and say

    …’I haven’t read a book in years’.

    I blame it on instant coffee and microwave ovens.

    You can condense a book or a story or information, you cannot condense experience, knowledge or wisdom.

  11. Carlos Toledo says:

    Steve wrote:”My concern is that this short attention span phenomenon in American culture is undermining people’s ability to think critically about issues, including wine. We see things in a nativism (one might even call it know-nothingism) that’s rampant in America.”

    Right. Well written as ever, and i agree on 90% of what’s written..now the stones are to be cast:

    Why can’t you ‘public’ people think that more people in the world besides those who live in the USA also read you? There are few writers i can think of who will write columns aware that anyone in any country will be reading them aside from the folks from the huge papers (FT, NYT, WPost, The economist) and this guy is cnnsi tennis writer Jon Wertheim). There must be others, but for now i’ll keep this short.

    Steve, the same phenomena you describe happen in everywhere as well. Blame TV, remote control, and nowadays the internet for this very poor concentration span children and adults alike have.

    But life’s logic isn’t it? The same people who can’t read more than 200 words are the same ones who will never wait for stunning 3 years to age a wine, let alone 10 years or so. They want EVERYTHING NOW…. Language courses promise instant learning. Food that takes more than 10 minutes to prepare is slow food. SMS must be replied within 3 minutes upon receiving.

    Anyway, next time you write about ‘american’ culture or ‘american’ habits, remember that:
    1) we behave the same way everywhere provided the conditions of air temperature and pressure are the same.

    2) people from other countries are habitues of your great blog. Write with us in mind too.

    Best wishes.

  12. The more Americans know about wine the less they feel the need to read about it. Today, Americans are far more comfortable with wine than we were four decades ago. Wine is grown in about every state. In the past, many of us found a long piece educational and helpful. Wine was being introduced to us; we had to catch up. Now, we need less of an introduction and a long piece, for many Americans, is yada-yada-yada.

  13. Au contraire – the internet is uniquely suited to the long article because there is no space constraint as there is in, say, a magazine.

  14. Steve,

    I agree, our attention spans are shortening. Unfortunately, it’s not just wine writing. Good article.

    -Peter

  15. Long form still works when the author has something to say. Jeff Lefevere can write long form and I’ll hang on every word, even on a blog. Why? He always has something new, interesting, and actually researched to tell me. The problem isn’t the length, it’s that blogs tend to be just vomited opinions, and wine magazines seem to have been writing the same formula story for years now, with pictures, dates, and names changed month to month. “In 20__, the three children, _________, ________, and ______, took over the winery operations. The oldest, _________, is the winemaker, while ________ handles operations and ________ moved to New York to take care of American marketing. Since they took over they switched the winery to organic/biodynamic/magic methods, and have seen results, based upon recent reviews ….”

  16. Au contraire – the internet is uniquely suited to the long article because there is no space constraint as there is in, say, a magazine.
    I once wrote a 10,000 word piece, “Some Like It Hot” for ApAm.com on rising alcohol levels. This was designed to be literally an exhaustive piece on the topic, i.e. required reading for anyone wishing to write about this area, and particularly to direct writers to who wished to interview me personally.
    After that, it was unlikely anyone could contribute anything fresh to the topic, and it sort of vanished from conversation. I was very pleased.
    Thank you for your stimulating piece on this topic. I love my 2,000 word allowance at Wines and Vines and really couldn’t get along with anything shorter.

  17. Agree with much that I have read here. I spent the vast majority of my career in publishing. Article length, for most magazines, is decreasing, and text and photos are being rapidly replaced with video, for popular consumption. As more media is consumed on screens (especially mobile phones) this will continue. I think less people, in the near future, will have the attention span to sit through a long lecture or read very lengthy articles. Because of the incredible access to information, at your fingertips, I know that this generation can find information easier I am just not sure they will understand it as well.

  18. Steve,

    As usual, a very well written piece, and one that is obviously sparking a lot of conversation.

    Let me start by stating that there is no clear cut answer here – as some have said, we are dealing with a society that is more adept at dealing with sound bites these days instead of drawn out messages; alternatively, people still do read novels – so there still is some hope.

    My answer . . . it depends (-: Just as with wine, balance is the key. As David points out, a good article (or book) will keep you hooked based on the subject matter AND the writing style. Should either not be that good, there is no reason to have an extended piece. But when things align and everything is ‘in balance’, people will read – and enjoy – a longer piece.

    Keep on blogging – and hopefully I’ll run into you in a few weeks at PS I LOVE YOU in your backyard!

    Cheers!

  19. Steve,

    Interesting point to dust off and bring out of the closet. I don’t want to admit how many years I have been in the magazine business, but clearly remember things changing around USA Today launch era as magazines rushed to redesign to give quick, up front, bite size bits not so much to manage to effecient ad/edit ratios for economic reasons, but to be able to lean towards a wider range of content as opposed to fewer, more in depth pieces. The pendulum never really swung back. But, the whole affair seemed to be driven by reader fancy and not so much by economic whims of editors and publishers…as I recall.

    So far in most consumer studies, the web has not become a place where the freedom from physical space limitations has changed reading preferences or habits to longer form consumption…with readers spending less time on any one site than they do with any one physical magazine, on average. Magazines are still a personal time out for readers….not so much the web which continues to be a search and destroy mission.

    My sense is that consumers drove the change to bite size journalism, economics have made it hard for publishers to revert, and its all just a bit of a shame….the e-books that Jeff has interestingly served does not really point to any real trend shift and is a glass half full or half empty scenario….are these short form books or long form articles? I tend to think the former.

    One more thing, I can’t buy into David’s position that blogs are online writers tend to produce long form vomit and all mags are tired. There has always been good and bad media and journalists, it is not the medium. Its just like wine.. do your research and pick. I still enjoy many authors and their work in new and traditional media….including you and Jeff.

  20. I keep threatening to have one internet-free day per week to catch up on proper reading and just generally smell the roses. I’m going to do it one of these days!

    Great piece.

  21. Steve,

    Thanks for a good post, I enjoyed reading (all) the paragraphs and all the comments so far. To try and answer your question: I believe the long wine article is NOT dead, it is just changing, and change is always a little uncomfortable. A mere few years ago, all it took to produce a gripping wine article was a trip to distant wine region, a few appointments and a decent camera (plus the writing skills of course). Those of us longer in the tooth remember sitting for hours leafing through the Encyclopedia Brittanica and tend to disrespect today’s technologically savvy youngsters. I think the young generation is just fine, they just have more tools than we did at that age.

    As the world around us changes, we all have less time to just sit down an read (maybe I should try to take a book with me next time I go to the grocery store?). There is plenty of room for the long wine article today, it just needs more work than just scraping the surface (blogs and such are very effective at that). As an avid reader, I can tell quite fast if an article is fluff or if it holds substance. Substance will always have a place in writing.

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