Does Longform Have a Woman Problem?
Don’t get me wrong, Longform is great. The time and effort and skill that go into the best pieces of magazine journalism deserve more than their week or month on the newsstand, their few days at the top of the website. I never understood who bought anthologies of longform non-fiction writing, and while that type of book may now migrate to the iPad, I can’t see many more hardcovers coming down the pike.
Longform (and its close counterpart, Give Me Something to Read) seems intended to remind one of the classics, direct me to new good things in magazines I would never read (like GQ), to curate (of course) the vast mass of online journalism new and old. If I had an iPhone I am sure I would use it even more, as I am told it and Instapaper are all you need to fill a subway ride.
But. But. I couldn’t help but notice how few pieces by women are on the site.
Twelve pieces on the home page right now, one by a woman.
Twelve pieces on the second page right now, two by women.
Twelve Editor’s Picks right now, two by women.
(Apologies if I have missed some due to gender-neutral first names.)
When I started thinking about this post Longform had subject areas at the top of the page, but these have now disappeared. (Too bad, since they helped me weed out the foreign policy pieces.) And they would have been helpful in identifying where more stories by women are hanging out. As I recall, there were only two stories filed under Architecture, as I recall, one submitted by me: Joe Morgenstern’s gripping engineering tale “The Fifty-Nine Story Crisis.” The other Elizabeth Kolbert’s reconsideration of Buckminster Fuller.
Mitigating and explanatory factors for the lack of women are fairly clear. There are more men practicing longform journalism, historically and in the present, than women. (Smaller pool.) Women may be more likely to write about the “soft” subjects, culture, personality, media, in which Longform seems weak. (Editorial bias.) Women buy more magazines so general interest magazines, the focus of the site’s attention, have to target men in order not to turn into women’s magazines (Field bias.)
But even within that field the selection seemed sketchy. Why no long profiles of important thinkers by Larissa MacFarquhar (instead: David Chang)? Why so few celebrity profiles (many written by women) from the days when celebrities actually said something to Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair? I don’t see much parenting on there—Annie Murphy Paul, Jennifer Senior—an incredibly polarizing and popular topic. Does criticism count? Ada Louise Huxtable on the Ground Zero debacle. This is not an exhaustive list, these are writers I know and like and read regularly.
This isn’t really a big deal for Longform now. It is a pro bono site the New York Observer compared to broccoli. But if everyone online is a curator, it becomes more and more important to state your criteria. I pick on them because it is one I visit, but the questions raised seem important for other aggregators. Give Me Something to Read says it is “An editorial selection of the top articles bookmarked on Instapaper.” So it is their curation of a form of popularity contest?
I want to understand the filter, and we should all be asking for more transparency. If they are just taking suggestions from the Twitterverse, that should be clear. If the editors of these sites have a blind spot, they should fix it now. Or, as I am sure someone will suggest, I should start my own site with my own filter (which, in a sense, is what Twitter feeds are for). There is only a real problem if they succeed, as surely they hope they will, inclusion could become an imprimatur. If Longform starts to define digital longform, their current definition seems to include too many writers and topics out. If this is the way we archive now, we need not to redouble past biases.
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