- The Fragmented Story of Immersive Longform Storytelling
You might be able to blame the entire longform-journalism explosion of the last decade on the release of a DVD box set of The X-Files. Stick with me here. Prior to the box set's release in 2000, fans were tied to network schedules and VCR (videocassette recorder) timers. New episodes of shows dropped only during the colder months. Revisiting old episodes required catching reruns or hitting a friend's carefully curated tape collection. Nothing was served up on demand.
But then came The X-Files. While commercial DVDs had been available in the United States since late 1996, no one had smashed together twenty-four episodes (plus a few behind-the-scenes documentaries) into one package. Suddenly, an entire season of a show could be gobbled up in one Red Bull-fueled sitting whenever you wanted. The binge revolution had begun.
At least that is one of the theories in David O. Dowling's book Immersive Longform Storytelling: Media, Technology, Audience, which breaks down the rise of digital longform journalism in all its iterations, from podcasts to Netflix binges. And he may be right. That X- Files box set, along with subsequent other innovations, changed how we consumed media. Fan-service documentaries, when paired with complete seasons of shows, primed the pump for episodic documentaries like Making a Murderer, which required both audience patience and inventive storytelling. Because we had been trained on complex TV shows with multiple story lines, like Lost and Game of Thrones, burning through Tiger King was second nature. [End Page 110]
The same goes with audio. Radio shows such as This American Life and the 2002 launch of WNYC's Radiolab rebuilt audio storytelling, taking deep dives into topics while playing with sound, journalistic interjections, and literary journalism formats. The result was the explosion of podcasts like Serial, S- Town, and all their various true-crime copycats.
And then there is the massive shift in text-based storytelling. The 2000s were dominated by intellectual snacks—clickbait that pulled you in with eye-grabbing headlines but generally failed to deliver on its promise. Then came a confluence of events: the rise in mobile technology; faster broadband speeds; advances in content-management systems and graphic design; and a change in internet currency away from counting clicks to time spent on page. Combined, those advances laid the foundation for narrative packages such as the New York Times' 2012 story "Snow Fall: Avalanche at Tunnel Creek," which immersed readers in text directly paired with visuals and videos—an experience that recalibrated multimedia journalism altogether.
According to Dowling, all these changes in journalism were not just about innovation. They were also a reaction: "At the core of this turn toward longer, more complex works is a demand for context and analysis, precisely the kind absent from the Twitter-driven news cycle predicated on headlines and speed" (76). Consumers and users wanted depth. They wanted to see the web of connections. They wanted story.
Dowling shows how those wants eventually gave rise to the slow-journalism movement, which eschews quick deadlines and perpetual updates, for patience, and where being "the last to report a story is to be more accurate and thorough" (84). It spurs on websites like Longreads and the literary nonfiction communities on Goodreads. It sparks the second wave of podcasts. It pushes news organizations into immersive virtual reality (VR) storytelling. It even leaks into content marketing, where documentaries like Star Wars: The Evolution of the Lightsaber Duel serve as both content and commercial.
It is a lot to take in, which may be why Dowling broke the book up into seven distinct chapters, each focusing on a particular medium or mode of delivery. One chapter focuses on social media and online reading communities. Another, on interactive online documentaries. A third, on ondemand TV.
But this separation does the cultural shift that has occurred in journalism a disservice. Rather than use the tools of longform journalism to [End Page 111] make all those intricate and often unnoticed connections between the...