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The long form


 

This corner has developed a special interest in long-form political journalism, produced hard on the heels of major political events. Here are the day’s main examples of the form.

1. The New York Times comes out of the gates with a dainty amuse-bouche of 4,500 words. Highlights:

• Everything changed when John McCain said “the fundamentals of the economy are strong,” several hours before another leader in another national election said the “fundamentals of the economy are strong” and nothing much changed. Context, we see, is everything.

• The Obama campaign was flawless in every way, a message the Times reporters deliver a dozen different ways. “Ice-cold disciplined about the execution of his campaign message,” McCain’s campaign manager says mournfully.

• But it wasn’t that perfect, and the Reverend Wright business caught the Obama troops by surprise. Which it probably shouldn’t have.

• The whole Muslim thing was super-scary to the Obama campaign. “I spoke up and joked, ‘Well, yeah, he’s a Sunni,’ one campaign guy says. “Nobody laughed; I mean, nobody. It was incredibly instructive to me, ‘Hey, they’re really worried.’ ”

• Obama indulged heartily in the media-buy trick of rolling out sunshiny, positive messages to the national press corps, while buying “bruising, sometimes misleading” ads in local markets.

2. But there is nothing anywhere that compares to Newsweek‘s issue-long post mortem, which the magazine has done in every presidential cycle since 1984. The Newsweek packages — written by Evan Thomas with contributions from a team of reporters who follow the campaign for more than a year and are offered exclusive access on the condition that their work will not be published until after Election Day — are, obviously, the model for the slightly-more-modest thumpers Maclean’s has run after the 2006 and 2008 elections and the last Liberal leadership race. Chapters 1 and 2 (of 7) of the Newsweek opus are already up; a teaser piece offers highlights from the entire thing, including:

• Both campaigns’ computers were expertly hacked by a “foreign entity” seeking information that could compromise a new president;

• Sarah Palin was an even bigger spender than anyone has heard before now;

• Threats against Obama’s safety spiked in late September and early October;

• McCain’s team debated telling him before the last televised debate that he already had no more chance to win. They decided against it;

• The McCain campaign was terrified of facing Hillary Clinton as Obama’s running mate;

• Obama’s private answers to Brian Williams’ debate questions were a lot funnier than the ones he permitted himself to deliver on teevee.

There is a constant debate in newsrooms about whether readers have any patience for long discussions of politics. And of course, a hell of a lot of readers don’t. What we’ve found at Maclean’s since we started giving it a try, however, is that there are always enough readers who will follow us as far as we want to go in such discussions.


 
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The long form

  1. “What we’ve found at Maclean’s since we started giving it a try, however, is that there are always enough readers who will follow us as far as we want to go in such discussions.”

    Count me among them. Your analysis and summary of the candidates and the issues in the Canadian election was exactly what a voter wishing to become fully informed of the issues from a (as much as possible) objective point of view would want. Detailed analysis beyond glib one liners and poll-driven reporting. Everything as well that makes journalism truly relevant to the political discourse of the country.

    Only one problem with that issue of Maclean’s.

    I did not receive it in the mail until after I voted on election day. Not quite relevant at that point in time.

  2. “The fundamentals of the economy are strong”

    When McCain said it, he was identifying himself with an incredibly unpopular incumbent president, while reinforcing the “out of touch” stereotype. At the same time that the economy was supposed to be “strong”, the Fed was involved in unprecedented moves involving mammoth amounts of money to prevent a national banking disaster.

    When Harper said it, he was projecting his brand of not-unpopular “leadership”(TM), and trying to portray the opposition leader as a panicky chicken little. At the same time, the Bank of Canada was not doing anything drastic on its own, Canadian banks were not collapsing, and Canadian mortgages were not going sour in droves.

    So a different reaction to the same statement on each side of the border is reasonable.

  3. Here’s what you received before election day:

    • Exclusive interview with Harper; Coyne’s essay on the nature of leadership; Geddes and Wherry’s cover story on the women’s vote, by far the most prescient major piece of campaign coverage in the campaign’s first week (Sept. 22 issue);
    • Cover profiles on Harper (5 pages), Dion (4 pages), Layton, (3 pages), Duceppe and May (2 each) (Sept. 29);
    • Coyne on the economic challenges no party was addressing; Geddes on the Liberals losing their strategic focus; Wherry on Ignatieff; John Fraser on Newfoundland as a ‘have’ province; and one of the three substantial cover packages we ran on the global economic crisis during the campaign (Oct. 6);
    • Wells column on Harper’s haphazard foreign policy; Coyne column on Liberal and Conservative appeals to economic class; masterful Coyne dissection of Conservatives’ carbon cap-and-trade policy; Geddes analysis of NDP strategy; Patriquin and Gohier on the complex influence of Roman Catholicism on Quebec politics (Oct. 13);
    • Julie Couillard interview; Coyne on the substantive similarities in major parties’ platorms; Geddes on the Tories taking flak on the economy; Wherry on Garth Turner taking flak from Lisa Raitt; Wells interview with Dion; Patriquin on the Tories in Quebec (Oct. 20).

    I won’t belabour the two years’ worth of political coverage and commentary that came before the writ drop. But you were welcome to read all of it while it was being published, Ted.

  4. Paul I think Ted was making a more general point about the problem we have in this country of newsweeklies arriving on store shelves and in mail boxes several days after publication.

    Take for instance my experience with The Economist is published on Thursday. When I lived in Kingston I received it no sooner than Wednesday. One time there was a holiday Monday, I didn’t receive it until the following Monday. It doesn’t make any sense.

  5. Your analysis and summary of the candidates and the issues in the Canadian election was exactly what a voter wishing to become fully informed of the issues from a (as much as possible) objective point of view would want…. I did not receive it in the mail until after I voted on election day. Not quite relevant at that point in time.

    Don’t pass the buck or anything. Although I must admit, I’ve never heard someone blame a laggard mailman for his unawareness during a federal election. Bonus points for originality.

  6. If your reading is accurate, Peter, all I can say is there’s a limit to what’s within our power. Ted works 400 feet from one of the best magazine stores in the country.

  7. We’re such ingrates. We really don’t deserve Macleans.

    Seriously, I didn’t bother because this election was a sham; it was sprung on us in an opportunistic fashion and was an end-run around the events that should have been allowed to be appreciated fully in order for Canadians to make decisions about substantive issues. If anyone in the media wasn’t talking about that, it really wasn’t worth it.

    And given the low voter turn-out, most Canadians seem to have agreed.

  8. Olaf, if I’m not mistaken, Ted was referring to the post election (ie Oct 16th) edition. So, I’m not sure what your point was.

    Bob Woodward has been accused by some of saving all of his good material for his books, rather than reporting them in real time on the pages of the Washington Post. I’m not sure if this was along the same lines as Ted’s comments, although it seems that the response it received was interpreted that way.

    As for me, I had lotsa polls so I could determine what was going on in the midst of the campaign. To process.

  9. “Paul I think Ted was making a more general point about the problem we have in this country of newsweeklies arriving on store shelves and in mail boxes several days after publication.”

    Peter – you are right.

    “Ted works 400 feet from one of the best magazine stores in the country.”

    Paul – And I subscribe to Maclean’s for home delivery because I like and support the magazine and for all of the reasons you listed. Plus one: your writing too. So lighten up. What gives? Every time I comment you have to jump down my throat. I thought I was supporting you on a buggaboo you’ve raised many times about your own industry.

  10. Thanks for the heads up, Paul. I always look forward to the Newsweek opus but wasn’t expecting it until next week. I assume they start writing it well before now. I read the first two chapters and they have stopped right where it gets interesting.

    The NY Times article is lame, didn’t learn much from it. The NY Times did a decent article a couple of weeks ago specifically focused on McCain with on the record quotes from staffers who talked about why the campaign wasn’t doing well. I thought it was odd they agreed to go on record before the election was over but that seems typical of McCain campaign as a whole.

    I think Ted was bitching about not receiving your version of Newsweek’s post mortem before election took place, which is really stupid. Also, it’s not like there was no election coverage in Macleans during campaign until the issue before election day but you have already pointed that out.

  11. I am sure that the Newsweek will be lively and entertaining for some. But if there is anything I learned from closely watching the US election, it is to not trust a g**damn thing that the media, and the old media, in particular says anymore. Unabashed, giddy and shameless advocacy for Obama in a way I never thought possible. They surrendered any last pretense of objectivity during this campaign, and I expect that going forward, thye will bend over backwards in their writing in order to continue to justify that choice.

  12. Long-form is the best! Between the Maclean’s blog posts, in their short sharp shock intensity, and the Maclean’s articles (longer the better), I’ve completely lost patience with, say, Globe editorials (as a form) – they’re too long to put hair on your chest, too short for any sustained description or argument. I think you guys have a winning formula, keep it up!

  13. Ted works 400 feet from one of the best magazine stores in the country

    Ok, I’ve gotta know – what is the name of “one of the best magazine stores in the country”? Because I’m having the devil’s own time finding a really, *really* good one.

  14. I’ll embarass myself with an injection of suburban cavemanry, but long form journalism works for commuter train. Papers are good the morning in, but reading 1 long story on the way back matches the mood better.

    So, there’s a target market.

    For the publishing dates, its frustrating to be sure. Cynically, I’d say they have no incentive to move up the arrival date because a core of subscribers would likely buy a copy on those “key, key” news weeks just to get it a few days earlier. I’d bet 5% of retail sales are exactly for that phenonmenon.

  15. Jason, I don’t even know the name of it, but it’s the sprawling store at Yonge, a block up from Front St in Toronto.

    Ted, I misunderstood your email, though I wasn’t the only one. I’m sorry, and I do feel like a jerk. I actualy do have a nifty solution to your woes with Canada Post, and I’ll send you a note about it tomorrow.

  16. Sort of off-topic, but does anybody know what the best magazine store in downtown Toronto might be? I’m looking for a really obscure magazine…

  17. Aha!

  18. Incidentally Mr. Wells, I thought the Macleans election postmortem was the most entertaining and insightful piece of political journalism I’ve read this year. Great job to you and your colleges.

  19. The one at the foot of BCE Place (or whatever it’s called now) @ Yonge & Wellington, right? Gotcha. Thanks.

  20. Paul – no problem.

    The magazine store Paul is referring to is The Great Canadian News Company, located on the ground floor, Yonge Street side, of Brookfield Place (formerly BCE Place), which is at Yonge-Front-Bay-Wellington block and is the site of the famous Allen Lambert Galleria.

    And the magazine store is indeed one of the best – for finding magazines. It’s cramped so it’s not exactly a great shopping experience.

  21. Hey, is Ted the Canadian equivalent of Madonna or Britney? Seems so. We now know where you live.

    Or Wells has a great database of commenters addresses that only the DNC would envy.

    Scary.

  22. …the old media, in particular says anymore. Unabashed, giddy and shameless advocacy for Obama in a way I never thought possible.

    Paul, what is your take on the whole media-in-the-tank argument? Personally I find it old and tiring. Didn’t Tom Flanagan admonish Canadian conservatives for whining about the media? I’m not saying no one in the media is biased, but making blanket statements like ‘all the media was for Obama’ just seems sad to me.

  23. Well, for what it’s worth, we found out in this last election that all the media — except for the Star — was for Harper.

    Has there ever been such a windfall of endorsements before?

  24. Trent, all accusations of bias are accurate from the point of view of the person levelling them. If somebody says I’m biased and I say I’m not, all I’m doing is confirming their suspicion, because that’s precisely what a biased hack like me would say.

    I toyed last month with the idea of adding a fifth rule to my list of Wells’s Rules: The hardest place to spot bias is in the mirror. But then I decided short lists are almost always better than whatever you want to add to them.

  25. Why is everybody so biased against bias?

    FWIW, I find the media is consistently anti-Trotstyist and anti-Legitimist. I’ve tried writing letters to the editor about it – let alone the seemingly endless stream of blog comments I’ve left to that effect. And I don’t intend to stop. But each day brings fresh proof of the conspiracy to keep the Bourbons off the throne. Go ahead and do a google search for “Louis XX, rightful king” and see what you get: nothing on CNN, nothing from Margaret Wente. It just bugs me that they won’t admit it.

  26. The media shows how it is biased not only by what it reports but why what it doesn’t report. In the most recent Scientific American there is a story on attempts to quantify bias. For example when Clinton was President, falls in his approval rating were unlikely to be reported, but increases in approval were. The opposite occurred with George Bush.

    I guess what irks me is when the media trys to maintain the facade of balance.

  27. Terry86, I couldn’t agree more! Look at the Bourbons! They’re basically never mentioned in the media at all. And why? Three words, my friend: House of Hapsburg.

  28. I think the long form/short form thing partially depends on medium. Long, long columns you have to scroll down to read on a screen get wearisome after a while. And PDFs are even worse, which is what a lot of long-form stuff gets presented with when it comes from an academic setting.

    But long-form political journalism as ink-on-paper remains an excellent read.

  29. And, no, the media is not biased against conservatives. Far from it.

    It’s not biased against liberals necessarily either, though; it’s more that reporters, editors, and owners tend towards a certain set of biases and viewpoints informed by their common experiences and common interests. And those tend to be somewhat center-right, since the guys with the most influence tend to have enough money to be quite interested in “conserving” the status quo.

    (That, and most are lazy as hell and scared mindless of policy, so they write as much ridiculous horserace nonsense as they can get away with. Our host is a rare exception on that front.)

  30. Demosthenes

    Of course the Canadian msm is heavily slanted liberal, to believe otherwise is naive. Even our Conservative party is Liberal in all but name.

    If there were more than a few con writers/ reporters, there would be more discussion about reducing Fed spending, dismantling our health care system, abortion, gun control … etc.

  31. Except, as the Western Standard and National Post increasingly demonstrate, those kind of stories don’t interest the Canadian public.

    Capitalism in action, jwl. Thought you’d be appreciative.

  32. Of course, jwl. The Asper boys should dump all those squishy wet typists that Selley and NNW keep forcing on us and devote their “opinion” pages to Fraser Institute “research” pressies.

    The world would be a far, far better place.

  33. T Thwim

    I don’t disagree at all. Had similar conversation with Mike Moffat a few weeks ago about how many conservatives like to bitch and whine about liberal msm but do nothing to help support con publications. It is infuriating.

  34. Excellent. So now that we agree that a paper with a conservative viewpoint is not we;; supported in Canada, we must therefore suggest that the mainstream in Canada is more to the left of that.

    Since the centre is, by definition, what the mainstream wants, we are left with the conclusion that the media is not liberal at all, but rather, is centrist.

    Just not *your* centre.

  35. Sisyphus

    I believe arguments are the only way to achieve good policies but the overwhelming focus of msm is liberal shibboleths. I think UK has a much healthier media environment because the various left/centre/right views are represented by respectable papers and proper arguments can be had.

    We got nothing like that here in Canada. Why are there no columnists arguing for the nationalization of the oil or auto industries, or eliminating single payer health care in favour of everyone for themselves. It is anti-intellectualism at its worst.

  36. “we must therefore suggest that the mainstream in Canada is more to the left of that.”

    Don’t agree entirely with this. Media not doing well recently so they are not representing the mainstream very well or else their financial results would be much better than they are.

    And I know the mainstream is well to the left of me but there are millions of people out there whose beliefs are not being represented. If you are liberal in Canada, than you have a nice selection of news sources that you will enjoy. If you are con or dipper, you get to suck lemons.

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