Alexandra Lange from A Bit Late just wrote a thoughtful critique of our selections on longform.org.
Don’t get me wrong, Longform is great…
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.
The short answer to Lange’s question: yes, we do have a problem. There aren’t enough women writers on the site, we want there to be more, and we’re working on it.
The longer answer relates more to Lange’s last paragraph than the title. At the end of this post I’ll address her particular points, but here’s where she ended up:
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.
Until now, longform.org’s filter has been pretty simple: we post four stories every day that we—two straight, white, male, child-less guys living in Brooklyn—wholeheartedly recommend. Our primary filter has been our taste. And our taste has some serious holes.
For example, we have posted 127 crime stories and just 20 about religion. Not sure I like what this discrepancy indicates, but we’ve recommended 26 stories about drugs and only 12 about food. Maybe the best way to understand where our natural interests lie is in a category Lange mentioned: parenting.
There are 16 stories tagged “parenting” currently on longform.org. (FWIW, seven were written by women.) Here’s a quick sample of the topics covered: a father and son lost at sea, a Q&A with Woody Allen in the midst of the Soon-Yi scandal, a profile of the Barefoot Bandit and his mom, coming out in middle school, and what happens to parents whose infants die after being forgotten about in the backseat of cars on hot days. Adventure! Tragedy! No matter what page you look at on longform.org, similar themes come back again and again. Those types of stories just catch our eye.
And when you’re reading as much as we do—we don’t post anything without reading it first—stories that catch your eye have a serious leg up. Lange brought up celebrity profiles—that’s a genre we’ve just never been too excited about. (We get pretty hyped about old Rolling Stone profiles, but the vast majority are paywalled.) One thing we do enjoy: profiles of athletes. Especially ones from Sports Illustrated. Turns out, longform.org has plenty of those.
Where are we light besides celebs? Food. Architecture. Fashion. Visual art. We’ve got a few stories on each of those topics, many of which have come via submissions. It’s not that we don’t like food stories—the ones we’ve posted are stellar—we’re just not engaged enough with the topic to wade through twenty articles in order to find one great read.
We want more of those stories on the site, however. For the past few weeks, we’ve been working on the next version of the site. One of the goals: expand the breadth of topics. To do that right, though, we can’t just make an effort to read more food stories. Instead, we’re bringing on new contributors, the first of whom starts next week, who have their own taste and areas of expertise.
Interested in contributing? email@example.com.
Hope that answers Lange’s transparency question. Here are quick responses to some of the individual points:
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.
A new, improved navigational system is in the works, though. You’ll never have to see another foreign policy story again.
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.
Larissa MacFarquhar: a victim of the New Yorker’s bizarre paywalling structure. Check out her archive. Most of the available (that is, non-abstract) stories are about politics and politicians, a type of profile that holds up particularly poorly. (A profile of Caroline Kennedy from ‘09, for example, doesn’t have much intrigue today. Even Vanessa Grigoriadis’ NY Mag profile of Nancy Pelosi is mostly useful for gallows humor after Tuesday.) But look at the subjects that you can’t read without a subscription, which therefore we can’t put on longform.org: kidney donation, Harley Lewin, Diane von Furstenberg, Edward Albee, Tarantino, Some Divorce Lawyer I’ve Never Heard Of. I’d rather read any of those than the ones that are available.
Longform responds! And in a gentlemanly manner! I look forward to the changes on the site, and to the diversification of their topics. This feels a little like a therapy session, in which the patient already knew what his problem was. I hope the new editors will also explicate their filters, and one will suit me. Indeed, when they describe their taste I think, Yup, that’s not what I want to read. Or write. We all have our blind spots (Blushing a little about the celebrity profiles. Nineties celebrity profiles!).