Column: Slow Journalism: Just the thing for an August afternoon
Like every other right-thinking person, I begin every vacation with an earnest resolution to unplug from the internet: no Twitter, no Facebook, only occasional peeks at email. We spend too much of our lives overwhelmed by information; summer getaways give us a chance to take a breath.
Then, like many people, I fail to keep my promise. The iPad beckons; my fingers twitch. The lure of the news, especially in this noisy time, overcomes my wavering desire to dive into a trashy novel.
So this year, I aimed for a more attainable goal. Instead of the literary equivalent of a crash diet, I decided to improve my reading by focusing on the best journalism I could find. The idea was to displace the Twitter fix with more nutritious stuff: less junk food, more healthy snacks.
I quickly discovered how much I’d been missing. There’s a vast amount of good reporting and writing out there, and it rewards a reader’s attention more than almost any social media feed. There’s even a new name for it: Slow Journalism, a label borrowed from the Slow Food movement that began in Europe a decade or so ago to push back against the tyranny of fast food.
Most online news outlets rely on speed and buzz to grab readers. Slow Journalism heads in the opposite direction, aiming for great writing at whatever length a subject requires.
A good (if extreme) example: Paul Salopek is walking from Africa to South America and writing about it for National Geographic. He began his 24,000-mile trek in 2013 in Ethiopia, where humans apparently first emerged 200,000 or so years back, and he’s following ancient migration paths through Asia toward Alaska and eventually, Tierra del Fuego. He plans to cross the Bering Strait by boat.
After six years of walking he’s still only halfway; he just finished crossing India, and is now somewhere in Myanmar. You can’t get much slower than that.
Salopek has often found himself sharing the roads with refugees and migrants. “The total number of destitute, uprooted people in the Middle East now scrapes five million,” he wrote. “If you think this exodus won’t touch you, you are a fool.... The world’s refugees and migrants don’t demand our pity. They just ask for our attention. Me they pitied because I walked on.”
In a more traditional vein, take the New Yorker, a home of long-form narrative journalism for almost a century. Recent issues include Ben Taub’s gripping story of a Guantanamo prisoner released after 14 years when it became clear he wasn’t a big fish after all, and a charming piece by historian Jill Lepore on the strange personal life of Herman Melville.
You can also find Slow Journalism in a good newspaper — like this one.
Two weeks ago, in Column One, Joanne Faryon told the compelling story of a man on life support known to his attendants only as “Sixty Six Garage,” and how — after two years of reporting — she helped bring his real name to light. Before that, we published “The Man in the Window,” Paige St. John’s gripping four-part profile of the Golden State Killer who terrorized California neighborhoods in the 1970s and 1980s. (I didn’t read it until this month; one advantage of the internet is that good stuff stays online.)
Surprise: Those are all traditional media. Slow Journalism is a new label, but it isn’t really a new idea. Good organizations have always invested in adventurous stories that go beyond the daily news. Even Salopek’s trek is an update of an old idea; when journalist Henry Morton Stanley famously found the missing Dr. Livingstone in Tanzania in 1871, he was reporting for the New York Herald.
In Slow Journalism’s current renaissance — a backlash, in part, against the Twitterverse — new outlets have sprung up as well.
One is Longreads, a donor-supported website that collects Slow Journalism from everywhere and commissions work on its own as well.
In recent weeks it has featured Connie Bruck’s profile of controversy-seeking law professor Alan Dershowitz from the New Yorker, but also a lovely piece from Guns & Garden (a magazine not on my regular reading list) on efforts to save loggerhead turtles, starring a 259-pound beast nicknamed Voldemort. “He was starving,” his rescuer recalled, “and he was really pissed off.” Among its in-house projects: a long serial on Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the anti-federal government crusade he helped spawn.
Farther afield, there’s the Browser, a British cousin of Longreads; its editors promise “to surprise and delight you with pieces you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.” Recent editions include a history of the boom in vegetable-based meat substitutes (“Most baby boomers are going to stick with their beef ... but Gen Z will find the stuff as embarrassing as Def Leppard and dad jeans”), and a 4,000-word essay on Jewish family quarrels.
Have more suggestions? Send them to me, and I’ll post the best on latimes.com. Summer still has some quality reading time left.
Meanwhile, I’m heading to the beach with a tote bag of articles I haven’t gotten to yet. Happy reading!
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