Podspotting: 5 lessons from “Longform”
Podcasts soundtrack your road trips, liven up your commutes, and number in the unimaginable thousands. Each week, Podspotting brings you interviews, commentary and general gabbing on some of the best and most fascinating dispatches from the new audio frontier.
If you have a spare moment or two—a long train ride to work, an hour-long lunch break, or a lazy Sunday afternoon—then Aaron Lammer and Max Linsky, the men behind Longform, would like to share a story with you.
Well, more accurately, stories. There’s the one about the two American astronauts stranded onboard the International Space Station without a ride home, more than 300 kilometers above the surface of the Earth, after the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia. There’s another about the prolific (female) Texas bank robber who dresses as a (male) cowboy for her heists before making a tragic last stand. And there’s the one about the 14-year-old who achieved nuclear fusion—the youngest person to ever do so.
That’s just a start. Since 2010, as the founders of Longform.org, Lammer and Linsky, both 31, have shared more than a 1,000 nonfiction stories from outlets ranging from old-school institutions like Vanity Fair to digital outlets like Gawker and The Awl. The site serves as an easily navigable, endlessly fascinating repository of the very best examples of longform journalism, a nearly bottomless treasure trove of great writing.
In August, alongside fellow cohost Evan Ratliff, the journalist and cocreator of the multimedia publishing company Atavist, they launched the Longform Podcast. A weekly discussion with some of the writers behind Longform’s best stories—from Esquire’s Chris Jones and Texas Monthly’s Pamela Colloff to The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates—the podcast features smart, wide-ranging conversations. Though it’s likely to be of particular interest to aspiring writers and journalists, Lammer and Linsky are trying to craft a podcast that appeals to a broader audience.
“Just to be totally transparent, WTF with Marc Maron was a big influence on us,” offered Linsky, in a Skype conference call with Lammer. “I don’t think people who listen to that show listen to it just because they’re stand-up comedy fanatics, or comedians themselves. I think there’s a certain interest in how people do their jobs and how they develop. I don’t think our show is as entertaining (as WTF with Marc Maron) because we don’t have comedians on it, but there’s people beyond the professionals who are still interested in how the job of writer and journalist works.”
And although that job—and the entire notion of longform journalism—is one that’s often seen as imperiled in an age of online slideshows and short-form blog posts, since founding Longform Lammer and Linsky have seen more and more outlets take on the kind of in-depth, 2,000-word-plus journalism that was once largely the province of traditional media.
“Aaron and I talk about this a lot but I think we really are in something of a golden age for readers,” Linsky said. “There’s more great writing available, for free, and in your pocket, then there’s ever been in the history of the world.
“With the podcast, we kind of demystify the bylines and the process a little bit. Whether it’s Gawker or Vanity Fair, these stories come out incredibly polished, and you don’t get a sense of what it took to produce them. I think at its core, that’s what we’re trying to to: get the process to a point where how these stories were created is not so mysterious.”
With that in mind, Podspotting asked Linsky and Lammer to share some of the lessons they’ve learned so far. Think of it as Christmas gift for all the writers out there—advice on a range of subjects that every writer and reporter will have to do battle with at some point, from two men who have sat down with some of the best the world has to offer.
1) Procrastination: Everybody does it.
Max Linsky: “I’d say procrastination has come up in almost all of our interviews. It’s actually been pretty heartening to hear these veteran, incredibly talented magazine writers talk about how hard it is for them to actually get going on their stories. The flipside to that is that lot of the folks we’ve talked to have described the moment that they’ve finished a story as stressful, too. The sense of satisfaction lasts for about a minute. And then they’re almost immediately filled with dread about how they’re going to find another story again.”
2) Breaking in: It’s hard to do, so be persistent.
Aaron Lammer: The biggest thing I’ve heard so far, the real theme, is failure. The most consistent theme across all of the episodes is that, for everyone, constant failure comes before any real success. A lot of people have said, ‘I lived on kill fees for five years. I busted my ass trying to get assignments and it was years before I even got something.’ Particularly for people who are on the older end; I think there’s less kill fees out there now than there were at one point. And among younger people, we hear a lot of ‘I wrote something for free, and it was an interesting moment when I realized I put months of my life into something and got no money from it.’ I try to take a nonjudgmental view of writing for free. ... Some people have written for free, and it’s led to great things for them. But other people have written for free and felt used, like they got a bad deal.
ML: One consistent theme is definitely immense struggle and trial and error. Another is that most of the people we’ve talked to knew they wanted to be doing this kind of work. It was a very clear goal in their minds. I don’t think you can really get through the first part without the second part. It’s tough to get through the crap if you aren’t really, really passionate about doing the work.
3) Finding stories: There’s no silver bullet for discovering great stories.
AL: That’s something where I’ve found the most diversity of how people do it. There’s certainly people who just seem to have an uncanny knack for it. For other people, there’s certain times when they accidentally find a story and it’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, where you’re like ‘I was investigating this missing painting but I uncovered a murder mystery!’ Some people are just able to find these stories with several dimensions, and there’s a lot of ways that happens. … We had one writer on who just followed a bunch of local RSS feeds and tried to pick up on stories that were fascinating or weird or like there’s something more behind them.
ML: I think people have a lot of different approaches. One common theme is that people seem to put themselves out there, whether it’s sitting on RSS feeds every day, or going pretty far down the line on stories that ultimately don’t work out. People have all kinds of different methods. Jonah Weiner said something to me about how it’s important to have friends who aren’t on the Internet all day. If everybody is online all day they’re all seeing the same shit. If you have some weird friends who just know about weird stuff … that’s turned into some stories for him.
4) Pitching: If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.
AL: One thing I know is, we’ve talked to people who wrote amazing stories that started as a rejected pitch from someone else. So I’ve definitely learned that someone rejecting your pitch does not mean that it won’t, ultimately, be a success. That’s something that’s been echoed by a lot of the people we’ve talked to: the piece that defines them, that put them on our radar, was something they had to shop around a lot, and that they had little support for.
ML: I’ve also been struck by how many of these pieces are assigned. I think one of the places that the podcast can go, and I know Aaron’s really interested in pursuing this, is talking more to editors. It’s been interesting how, for people who are on staff at these magazines, how many of these iconic pieces that they’ve written were simply assigned by an editor. … When we think of great journalists writing these stories, we think of these guys just sitting outdoors on a cliff, watching the waves crash against the shore, thinking of something brilliant, but often times it’s just someone at a desk in New York just telling them to go do a story.
5) The reporting process: You need to know when, and how, to listen.
ML: I think it’s a universal truth that these people we’ve talked to on the podcast are all fantastic listeners. And almost all of them can speak at length about listening and about how you get people to talk and open up. Most of them seem to take the approach that they need to give a little bit of themselves to the people they’re interviewing, in order to have their subjects give anything back.
AL:: What’s really struck me is that all of the people we’ve talked to, the personality type that’s necessary to succeed is somebody who naturally gravitates towards interviewing and research. You can be a procrastinator and you can occasionally fail, but if you don’t have the desire to do the research and the reporting, you probably won’t succeed. Most of the people we talk to are obsessive about research. They overresearch stories and, if anything, spend way too long on them. I haven’t talked to anyone who’s like ‘You know, I wish I could outsource my reporting and just do the writing.’ Everyone is very passionate about the first-person process of collecting information.
Photo via @Longform/Twitter