This was my penultimate session at what has been a scintillating and immensely exciting Auckland Writers Festival. For the ideas discussed, the questions asked (though mainly by the chairs) and the people met.
The moot for this discussion, which involved Russell Brown (aka the editor of Public Address, pictured left), Jolisa Gracewood (aka @nzdodo) and Simon Wilson (editor of Metro), was ‘is long-form writing dying in New Zealand because all of the writers have gone to the echo chamber that is twitter?’
Simon Wilson began the discussion by talking about his editorial in Metro in 2013 which raised some hackles and made some feathers fly, called ‘Stop Tweeting and Do some work.’ He made his argument, stating that twitter can be such a time-suck that it stops you doing a) what you ought to be doing and b) what you want to be doing, and cited the black hole of twitter debates. He made the point that print media is dying, because young people don’t have the attention span. Later on he noted a study of online behaviour which proves that people’s attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to 5 seconds when deciding what to read.
It is, as Simon Wilson states, hard to get people to pay something to read something; no matter your interest, you can get good, and professional writing free, on your phone. Simon sees Twitter as good for spreading truths, but notes that not only is this not the only way to do so, we have to fight for writing, to keep it. He says, to encourage people back to media, “long form writing needs to become intensely entertaining, and by the best writers.” And it’s not that he doesn’t think writers should tweet – but he thinks that they should write. The challenge is this: twitter is easy, writing is hard. More writers need to choose hard.
Russell Brown runs Public Address, New Zealand’s most popular long form blog, which is helped by voluntary subscriptions, rather than web advertising. He believes writing on the internet has been a boon for the written word. Before 1995, nobody who wasn’t a professional was writing for an audience – the internet obliges you to write, and sharpens your communication skills. “Twitter suits people who can write well,” he said, “It is not easy to be cohesive and relevant in 140 characters.”
The heart of the dilemma for people who write is: if you want to make a living out of your writing, you must be in print. And to write for a publication is to stick to their word limits, and be paid what they pay. A lot of publications won’t publish long-form writing – a column is 6-800 words; while the internet is infinite. Russell says the best paying freelance long-form gig in town is writing for the NZ Drug foundation’s magazine – they pay 80c a word; but they aren’t trying to make money from it.
Simon (right) mainly uses freelancers, and says that long-form writing in particular has to be sharp. The hook has to be in the first paragraph, if it isn’t, he will push the piece aside for one that is. At the comment from Russell that we are all suffering now a degree of ADD, due to the plethora of digital options, Jolisa argues that this has all happened before – while the likes of Oscar Wilde didn’t have twitter, they had coffee shops, parties, pamphleting.
Russell finds that on his blog Public Address, it is possible to keep people on the page: just have long pages. While 350 words is said to be optimal for blogs, long form is certainly possible, and certainly desirable tackling topics like those that Public Address does.
Russell points out that just because something has appeared on the internet, it is not valueless. Likewise, if it has appeared in print, it is good to repeat it digitally, as Metro does with some of their columns. Russell believes that Metro does in the right way.
The panel agreed on the whole that the standard of columns at the moment in NZ is poor, and Jolisa (added that a lot of magazines and papers in New Zealand don’t sound like NZ. She asked, why are we not putting bloggers into magazines? There are great voices online, she says, and this is why around 50% of Tell You What was sourced online. At the chair’s question about whether twitter starts the creative process, Jolisa says maybe, but it depends on who you follow. Simon Wilson adds that being clever on twitter may give you the ability to do other things, the dopamine hit from a twitter success gives you enough joy of recognition to stop you wanting to write longer forms.
Simon says that good non-fiction writing has literary qualities, and that people haven’t giving up writing and reading, but it needs to remain commercially viable. Alongside this is public funding – Pantograph Punch, for instance, is funded by Creative NZ.
This session gave me a lot of food for thought. I run twitter and facebook accounts on behalf of Booksellers NZ, as well as our website and this blog. Twitter for me, is a way to connect with the wider world, and find long pieces that I may otherwise not be aware of. It acts as a catalyst to further reading. And this was a very good discussion to attend as my experience of the festival drew to a close.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster, Web Editor, Booksellers NZ