Conference info

Meera Selva and Rachael Jolley on presenting stories to different cultural audiences

Rachael Jolley, Editor of Index for Censorship, and Meera Selva, from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, sit down to discuss writing for a global audience, the art of a successful pitch and the state of journalism.

“People find it really difficult to think about a global audience,” Jolley says. “Everyone is so used to thinking about it from their own perspective. Often the stories people are pitching they have a knowledge in, but it’s a story that ‘s already out there. Stories need to make sense to people in France, Argentina, Spain. You might know that this is the minister for education, but does your audience? You need to be able to take a step away.”

They discuss how important it is to think outside of your social and cultural bubble. They keep referring to how pitches need to look outside of their own perspective and look at their story from an external perspective and whether the story still stands up.

They say it’s important to make it clear, ‘why are you the person telling this story?’. “in your pitch, you have to explain precisely why you’re telling this story. You don’t necessarily have to be from that community at all,” Salva explains. “You could offer a comparative perspective; it could be that you’re politically safer to report on the issue. For example, you could go to Russia, and then have the safety of being able to again leave. You have to quite clearly express this in the pitch.”

Discussing the opportunities for freelance, Jolley asks Selva whether she thinks that a decrease in staff jobs is a good opportunity for freelancers. Selva is hesitant towards this.

“Yes, there’s opportunity, but there’s a risk,” she says. “Budgets are being cut, and this is why there’s more opportunity for freelancers because there are fewer people being employed as staff writers. In a healthy world, it’s a mix of both. Falling budgets are good for anyone. But I do think that there’s the opportunity for freelancers to reach more editors. In the digital age, there’s more opportunity to catch editors attention.”

She goes on to speculate that the very thing that was accused of ruining our attention spans, is the very thing that is liberating longform journalism. “There’s no point in regurgitating the short bits off of social media. Is the world of journalism moving towards long form because they can get so many short snippets of news from social media?”

They both see social media as a place for opportunity. They open up the discussion to the audience, with many speaking about how they have been able to interact with editors online, how they’ve been able to share their work to wider and more global audiences, and the opportunity to find work online.

Salva also talks about how social media helps you build a “personal brand”, which she says is even more important in many ways to global audiences. “Your citizenship matters to global audiences; If you’re British that’s how you’re going to be perceived. You need to define it so people don’t define it for you. Create the image that you want someone in a foreign country to have of you,” she says.

Returning back to the matter of longform journalism, it’s good news, Jolley says.

“We’ve always been an advocate of longform journalism at the Index on Censorship,” Jolley explains. “We think that the world has swung round with us. Four years ago everything, had to be 400 words, we were told that everyone has the attention span of a flea. It’s really interesting how this has changed.”

Words by Juliette Rowsell

Conference info

Jonathan Shainin on what makes a good long read

Longform journalism is a big operation within the Guardian, with the Long Reads department producing around 150 articles each year.

Editor Jonathan Shainin – speaking at Well Told on Friday 1 March – estimates that more than 500 long reads have been produced since its inception in 2014.

Each story “involves an investment”, he explains, comparing the process as similar to that of documentary-making, along with writer contracts and expensive commissions to consider and justify.

But Long Read stories bring something new to the table. Much like the BBC produces both the News at Six and Newsnight, the Guardian’s Long Reads team and general news desk both have a vital role to play, he argued.

“We’re a little bit like a film production studio that sits within the paper… It’s a different form, but holds an equally valid place in journalism”.

Tips for longform journalism pitches

Having read and published hundreds of longform stories in recent years, Jonathan has plenty of tips to impart when pitching a deep-dive article.

One to avoid in particular, is anniversary pitches. When Guardian Long Reads was first set up in 2014, he received countless pitches for stories to mark the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And five years later, he received the same pitches again.

But an anniversary is not cause for a story, he argued: “If it was a good story it wouldn’t matter that it’s the 25th anniversary,” he said. “The story should be its own justification.”

Every longform article also needs to have a greater social and cultural meaning he added. Jonathan referred to an article by Sam Knight (who spoke earlier at Well Told) about what will happen when the Queen dies – also the most read Guardian Long Read ever – as an example of a story that goes deeper than may first appear, diving into the “fucked up psychological relationship we have the monarchy”.

In addition – as is a generally-accepted rule in good journalism – he reiterated the need to find stories that will capture the public imagination and take root, and get that across in the first few lines of the article.

“Writing longform articles in a newspaper is about discipline,” he said. “The headline has to be clear on what this is, about, it’s got to have a flicker of the story in the first paragraph.

“It’s like a movie trailer, you’ve got to get it into the beginning to give people an idea of how to read it.”

Looking ahead

From a statistics point of view, the future of longform journalism looks bright. The Guardian has an in-house analytics tool called Ophan, which is used to track engagement with its articles.

Jonathan said that longform stories tend to defy the theory of short attention spans online.

The execution of these pieces means that they continue to do well despite behavioural trends, he added. “You take more time on the story, you put more effort into it, you spend more money. There’s an idea that there’s a value in the detail.”

Words by Juliette Rowsell