By ROBERT LIWANAG
The digital revolution in journalism means magazines such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic now publish shorter pieces and stories that reflect what’s happening in the news, says the new editor of the journal Literary Journalism Studies.
Bill Reynolds, a professor of journalism at Ryerson University, said that long-form stories published by The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Vanity Fair now rarely exceed 15,000 words, while 20,000 word stories were commonplace for these magazines 10 years ago. He also cited The Atlantic as a prime example of a magazine that has become more focused on web content and changed from an editorial standpoint. Whereas Atlantic writers in the past would write about topics they thought would be relevant in a year’s time, Reynolds has noticed that many current Atlantic stories are about what the public considers relevant now.
Despite the changes, Reynolds said there’s still room for ambitious young writers determined to produce literary journalism.
“As a career, it’s a little more precarious, but I think all careers are a little more precarious now,” he said. “What’s the big distinction between being a long-form writer or a documentarian or an actor, or anything to do with creativity?”
“If you had come in the journalism business five years ago, I’m not sure that you would have known anything than what is available. But if you’d been through the era of relative luxury, you might be bitter about the way things are now. If you didn’t go through it, I doubt you would feel that way.”
With the fall 2014 issue of Literary Journalism Studies, his first as editor, Reynolds says he tried to strike a balance between topics, countries and the genders of the writers. Now, all future Literary Journalism Studies issues will include several academic essays and a scholar-practitioner Q&A.
Reynolds also receives pitches from members of the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies (IALJS) to guest edit special issues. For instance, the issue currently in the works will feature eight essays on female literary journalists, written by six women and two men, and is guest edited by Professor Leonora Flis of University of Nova Gorica, Slovenia. Reynolds has received proposals for issues devoted to Polish and francophone literary journalism as well.
Two pieces featured in the Fall 2014 issue directly address the state of literary journalism in the digital age. The interview with famed Mexican journalist Alma Guillermoprieto, best known for her work in The New Yorker; and the May 2014 IALJS keynote address from Amy Wilentz, author of the National Book Critics Circle Award–winning work, Farewell, Fred Voodoo, are representative of how much long-form journalism has changed, Reynolds said.
Literary Journalism Studies is a scholarly journal published by the IALJS. The association came into existence after a May 2006 conference held at Université Nancy, Nancy, France. The conference was meant to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and its impact on both the American meatpacking industry and immersion journalism.
“There were only about 15 people at the conference,” said Reynolds. “But we all became friends because we shared this interest. We were all surprised because we didn’t think anybody else cared about this stuff.”
Reynolds and his colleagues returned to their respective home countries, but kept in touch by email. They began to look closely at how other small to medium-size academic organizations operated. Core members of the group then set up a constitution and a bank account. The IALJS was created in June 2006 and the journal was established in May 2009.
Reynolds replaces former editor John C. Hartsock, who teaches at State University of New York at Cortland. Hartsock edited the first 11 issues of the journal over five and a half years before stepping down. Under Reynolds’ editorship, the most recent issue from fall 2014 continues the journal’s practice of providing in-depth essays that explore the past and present state of literary journalism.
Lynn Cunningham, a recently retired Ryerson journalism professor, also joined the journal’s masthead as an associate editor and chief copy editor.
Reynolds said that one of the biggest challenges for the journal’s editors is not to rely too heavily on American writers and works studied. That’s difficult, he said, since the predominant type of literary journalism studied essentially began in the United States, and the language of the journal is English. It’s not an insurmountable task, but is more of a mission, he said, as the number in international members of the association suggests more of a pan-global view.