More and more, writers and publishers are being counseled to go digital: we must learn a broader set of skills (not just writing), we must be able to present to video, edit an audio file, and charm on social media. Serendipity has enabled me to develop most of these skills throughout my career (perhaps not the charm). But here’s the thing: I like to write. To write is what I want to do. There are times when I worry that my future may involve more multimedia than words (such as at the Future of Digital Publishing event I went to last week). These times can create a mirage of doom and gloom for the future of long form narrative writing. But talking to Hattie Fletcher, Managing Editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine (CNF) has settled my anxiety. The magazine keeps it real with a healthy respect for both the power of words, and the benefits new media can bring.
If you don’t know about CNF, then your writing and reading life is about to change. To me it is the Mecca of the best non-fiction reads, and the kind of writing I can only ever aspire to. It celebrates the power of narrative and storytelling. It’s writing that stays with you, that makes your soul sing.
The magazine was originally published in a journal format with a focus on essays. In 2010 it expanded to magazine format and introduced articles on the creative non-fiction genre. It has since embraced some aspects of e-publishing and continues to explore new media. But thanks to a recent reader survey, CNF isn’t going digital anytime soon. ‘We have a lot of readers who are interested in having a really nice physical object that they can hold onto. We don’t think of it as a throwaway magazine. It’s a little bit closer to a book,’ says Fletcher.
Things like video are a long way off. ‘So far there are enough people who do just want [words],’ says Fletcher. She acknowledges that some readers may enjoy more multimedia, and cites a brief foray into podcasts by the magazine. As a reader herself though, Fletcher says she seldom engages with the multimedia extras in digital magazines, ‘I wonder sometimes how many people really do,’ she says. So do I.
CNF’s approach to new technologies is refreshingly pragmatic. ‘We’re a tiny organisation. And so it’s a question for us of what the benefit in doing this is, and what we can actually work into our process,’ says Fletcher. A great access-point for writers is to submit ‘tiny truths’ to CNF’s daily Twitter contest (via #cnftweets). ‘We get a lot of people who come in new to the CNF tweet contest. But there’s a core group of die-hards who’ve been doing it since the start. And they’re looking out for each other,’ she says. Unlike multimedia extras, this kind of engagement in new media has benefits.
‘For us as a publication social networking has been great. It’s really helped us get closer to our readers and the community, and have closer contact with the people who are reading the magazine,’ says Fletcher. Making this direct contact with readers is an asset for publications struggling on small budgets. But Fletcher isn’t certain that it’s a must for writers to join the social media babble.
‘I think it’s something related to a person’s temperament,’ she says cataloguing writers who excel as equally in social media as they do in a room full of people, ‘They’re just intuitive networkers anyway.’ And while social media can be useful for journalists in finding sources Fletcher says, ‘the flip side is that it can be a huge time-suck. There are people who probably Facebook more about writing than they actually write.’ (If you missed it, there’s a great article in the Guardian by Ewan Morrison who, like Fletcher, questions the value of social media to writers).
Hail the voice of reason from Hattie Fletcher - but don’t be quick to label her a Luddite. In fact she sees many opportunities for the future of long form in new media.
‘On the one hand we have the incredible shrinking attention span because everything is quick. [But on the other hand] you see things evolve technologically that have helped. Definitely Byliner, Longform and Longreads [have] all helped provide a better home for long form,’ she says. It could be argued that pieces between 5,000 and 15,000 words fell into an uneasy middle ground during the era of print. But Fletcher says that, ‘in some ways it’s a really good time to be a long form writer because you have more potential ways of reaching an audience.’
Included in these events will be the launch of the latest issue of CNF which is on the theme of Australia (Leah Kaminsky was guest editor).
The magazine will be making announcements soon about its digital future – so follow @cnfonline on Twitter if you’re interested in getting updates.