When National Book Award-winning novelist William T. Vollmann went to Japan this spring to report on the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant from inside the contamination zone, he did what any journalist would do. He bought a dosimeter to chart the radiation. He took "Cold War-era iodide tablets," which made his tongue tingle and left him with a rash. He decided to ignore statistics or official statements in favor of his observations, his conversations with survivors, his impressions: a kind of overview. "The stunning capacity of the Japanese official to say absolutely nothing," he writes, "is matched only by the absurd degree of trust that his public places in him."
This is what literary journalists have always done, look for the story behind the story and find a narrative of their own. Think of Norman Mailer, writing about the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, or Joan Didion in Haight-Ashbury, or Denis Johnson, reporting from a 1990s Rainbow Gathering, that kinder, gentler Burning Man where he discovers that not only is he part of "a Peter Pan generation nannied by matronly Wendys like Bill and Hillary Clinton," but that he is as complicit in this as anyone. It's journalism as personal revelation, journalism as exploration, which is also what Vollmann has in mind.
And yet, there's a difference — for when his piece on Fukushima, "Into the Forbidden Zone," came out last week, it did not appear in a magazine, as had those earlier efforts, or even in print at all. Rather, "Into the Forbidden Zone" is the second release from the San Francisco-based Byliner, a digital publisher of narrative journalism, which made a splash last month when it debuted with Jon Krakauer's "Three Cups of Deceit," an extended inquiry into Greg Mortenson's bestselling "Three Cups of Tea." Krakauer's investigation ended up on "60 Minutes" and became an instant digital sensation, spurring a national conversation about Mortenson and his work. In the process, it may also have helped legitimize a new distribution model for literary journalism, a form that, over the last several years, has been widely considered to be at risk.
This sense of risk, of course, is a reaction — to loss of revenue and shrinking space in print. Literary journalism requires resources, and according to "The Story So Far: What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism," a report issued this week by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, "Journalists must be prepared for continued pressure on editorial costs."
For Byliner, however, as well as other digital platforms such as the Atavist and Virginia Quarterly Review's Assignment Afghanistan, the flip side of risk is opportunity. "I wasn't quite as Chicken Little-ish as some others," says John Tayman, Byliner's co-founder and chief executive, and a former editor and writer for Outside, Men's Journal and Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine. "I knew readers hadn't gone away."
Byliner co-founder and editorial director Mark Bryant elaborates: "Fewer magazines are doing it, but where it is, it's being done well and well-received." For Bryant, an a-ha moment came when, as editor of Play, he noticed that the stories most viewed online tended to be longer features — exactly what conventional wisdom suggested readers disregard on screen. "People were actually reading them online," he says. "This is just before tablets. So for all the teeth gnashing, there was clearly a real need, a real desire, for this kind of work."
For Tayman and Bryant, who publish for the Kindle and other platforms — as well as Evan Ratliff, who around the same time began to develop the Atavist, which publishes literary journalism for the Kindle, iPad and Nook — the rise of the tablet has been a key, offering what Bryant calls "a larger environment and medium in which to publish." All three describe their ideal title as something between a book and a magazine piece. "They're swifter to market than books," says Tayman, "and more meaty than magazines." Ratliff agrees. "It would be better if we had a name," he jokes. "Maybe 'mook'?"
Even as Byliner and the Atavist were in the planning stages, Virginia Quarterly Review began to experiment with narrative journalism in digital form. In November 2009, Jason Motlagh's "Sixty Hours of Terror," a 20,000-word "tick-tock account … [of] the Mumbai terror attacks," notes editor Ted Genoways, appeared as four extended posts on the journal's blog.
"The more we thought about it," Genoways writes in an email, "the more it seemed to open up the form: It could be as long as we wanted, it could take advantage of the numerous photographs shot by eyewitnesses, and it opened the possibility that the piece would be seen and commented on by readers in India.... And the last of these was the unexpected revelation of what the online format promises. We were inundated with comments from India — and, most excitingly, started receiving materials that could be added to Jason's account to refine the timeline and enrich the storytelling."
The format question is important, whether for the iPad, Kindle or the Web. Each allows certain enhancements: interactivity, access, multimedia content. Assignment Afghanistan, which remains Web-based, augments three long pieces by journalist Elliott Woods with video, slideshows and an interactive timeline of U.S. involvement in the region, to which the material on the site is linked. The Atavist, on the other hand, features what Ratliff calls "layers of information," videos, maps and other "digital extras" woven into every piece, to which a reader can link by clicking on the text.
The challenges are twofold; for Ratliff, the necessity to think about "how to structure all this information and not let it get in the way of the story," and for Genoways, "the danger of letting new toys drive the content." In the case of the Atavist — which last week released its fourth story, David Wolman's "The Instigators," an account of the revolution in Egypt written through the filter of a small group of activists — this means thinking about each piece three-dimensionally from the moment it's assigned, to build something dynamic, "not an artifact," that can work either as straight prose or enriched text. Genoways writes that Assignment Afghanistan has a similar intention "to make sure that the multimedia lived up to the long-form narratives that Elliott had already written.... As long as you strive for that level of quality, then I don't think it matters whether you're designing for an iPad or a print page."
What makes all this exciting is that it is both forward- and, in the best sense, backward-looking, "a new venue," as Ratliff puts it, "for an old plan." That's the idea behind the Byliner website, which later this spring will launch an online archive — what Tayman calls "a discovery platform for narrative journalism" — featuring access to more than 25,000 pieces going back more than 100 years.
On the one hand, it's a resource, invaluable for readers, writers, teachers, anyone with any interest in the form. Yet even more important, it's an attempt to build the basics of a new infrastructure, to create a context for both Byliner and other journalistic outlets, whether digital or in print. "It's a little bit of a frontier," says Bryant, referring to both the archive and the Byliner Originals, which, he hopes, will eventually appear every few weeks. "What we're hoping to build is an ecosystem, in which this kind of work can thrive."