Counter-programming: Talking with The Atlantic’s Scott Stossel at VQR’s writers conference

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Atlantic editor Scott Stossel (left) talks during a panel on magazine writing with (left to right) journalist and short fiction author Wells Tower, VQR contributing editor Delphine Schrank, and VQR deputy editor Paul Reyes. Photo: Graelyn Brashear Atlantic editor Scott Stossel (left) talks during a panel on magazine writing with (left to right) journalist and short fiction author Wells Tower, VQR contributing editor Delphine Schrank, and VQR deputy editor Paul Reyes. Photo: Graelyn Brashear

The Virginia Quarterly Review hosted its first-ever writers’ conference last week, a four-day retreat at the Boar’s Head full of workshops and public panels with a host of big names in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, including Atlantic editor Scott Stossel, journalist and short story writer Wells Tower, Pulitzer-prize winning poet Claudia Emerson, Slate senior editor Dan Kois, and more.

Writing can be an isolating craft, said VQR editor Ralph Eubanks, and the conference—a new venture for the 89-year-old UVA literary magazine—was a way to pull together published and unpublished authors of all stripes and get them talking.

“It’s been interesting to watch people come in who don’t know each other, who are from these varied genres, and watching them find commonalities and start to share things with each other,” he said. “It’s building our next generation of contributors.”

C-VILLE sat in on one of the long weekend’s half-dozen public events, a panel on magazine writing moderated by VQR deputy editor Paul Reyes and featuring Stossel, Tower, and VQR contributing editor and former Washington Post reporter Delphine Schrank. Stossel (who, in addition to his day job at The Atlantic’s helm, recently published a best-selling memoir, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind), sat down with us afterward to talk a little more about the intersection between narrative news and technology.

C-VILLE: Long-form journalism is having a moment, which is sort of funny to the publications for whom it’s always been the bread and butter. What do you think is behind that, besides the technologically obvious? Do you think the quality of long form—stuff with a news bent that has a narrative—is better these days?

Stossel: I think some of it is better, but I actually think it’s a combination of a few factors. One important thing is that as social media has grown in importance, stuff that’s shareable does better. And we find a lot of it is long form, but it has relatability. That’s sort of a vexed word these days, but it’s been great for our long form stuff. There was a period—2009, 2011—when everyone thought that all anyone wanted to read was Huffington Post-style reviews and aggregation of other stuff. And people do want to read that. But I think there’s also a kind of craving that maybe people weren’t aware of at first, but now has become more apparent, for long-form storytelling, stuff that has a lot of reporting and thinking and editing invested in it. It’s almost like counter-programming. Everyone’s on Twitter and Facebook in this sort of short attention span theater, and yet, we find pieces that are 12 and 15 thousand words actually do better.

I think people must think, ‘Well, this must be a big deal.’ Partly it’s The Atlantic brand, and that’s true for other brands who make long form their stock in trade. You invest the time and space and energy to do something at eight or 10 or 12 or 15 thousand words, well, we must think it matters.

And then partly it’s just the technology…even pieces we published a year ago or 10 years ago, using Facebook we can resurface some of our best stuff. And something will resurge to the top of our most-read things.

And not everything has succeeded…there’s always an appetite for really good storytelling, but readers wanting to read it and there being an appetite for it and there being a business model to support it are not necessarily the same thing. Journalism is a horribly inefficient process if you’re looking at it from a business perspective. A lot of it is digging up dry holes to discover that there’s no story there until you find the right one. And then people…will look and say, ‘These silly cat posts took no money to produce and they generated a ton of traffic, so why don’t we do that?’

C: You talked about building The Atlantic’s brand online, which is something you’ve been involved with since you started at the magazine in the ’90s. How do you manage that today, when the brand is everywhere, and you have so many disparate voices—staff and freelancers, editors, people managing print and web—how do you build that voice? We struggle with it, even with our little Twitter feed.

S: We struggle with it too, but it’s a really fun and ongoing conversation. I think the one thing that really worked to our advantage in ways that were both substantively important and superficially useful as a marketing thing was the fact that we’d been around for so long. There was already this sort of gee whiz quality to people saying, ‘Oh look, The Atlantic, which is this ancient, venerable thing that has its roots in the 19th century is suddenly on Twitter and Tumblr and doing all this stuff online.’

We needed to get out there. But what does that mean to be The Atlantic on Twitter, and The Atlantic on mobile devices? We don’t know that we have the right answer, and we realize that because consumption habits change so quickly, and on the business side, advertising needs change quickly. It’s a lot of constant experimentation, but trying always to think about what’s within the bounds of our brand. If Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or Nathaniel Hawthorne were alive today, would they be tweeting? It’s sort of a silly question, but not entirely. We don’t want them turning over in their grave, out of respect for them, but also because our core brand proposition and editorial sensibility is rooted in this long history. So how do you remain true to those principles, that editorial sensibility, while doing things…they could never possibly imagine?

There’s also this idea of being driven by ideas. But what’s the new idea we’re advancing here? How is this changing the conversation? How will this change what people think about something? What’s the new idea here?

C: Can that translate well to a smaller market and a smaller publication?

S: Absolutely, and in some ways, it should theoretically be easier. You’ve got a community that’s immediately going to react to it, whether its a question about city council or a question about zoning or a question about town gown conflict. If you can come to a forum where debates play out, and there’s good storytelling and interesting profiles, absolutely.

A lot of magazines say this, and we say it and mean it, and sometimes do it: How can we inflect the national conversation in a productive and constructive way by getting people to think differently or take action? It’s much easier, I would think, on a local level to get people to engage, because you probably have a better sense of who all the relevant players are.

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