Slow Journalism Digs Deeper

Five years ago, Time Out journalist Rob Orchard found himself waking up to a morning routine that he needed escape from. He felt overwhelmed by the hourly barrage of sensationalized headlines, hollow quotations, and hurried reporting that came across both haphazard and unethical.

Journalism, by and large, felt like a shell of its former self.

So he decided to act. The 22-year-old reporter began dreaming up a publication of his own, one free from the constraints of the 24-hour news cycle. The publication would pride itself on being “slow,” employing both proper time and respect to tend the stories that demanded attention.

Pushing against the crassly consumerist culture that permeates journalism and the magazine world, Delayed Gratification was born. It’s a quarterly publication dedicated to stories that never made the limelight, and providing thorough coverage to those that only captured our attention spans briefly.

Little did Orchard know at the time that he would be giving rise to an entirely new movement in print, aptly dubbed “slow journalism.” BTR got the chance to talk with the young director and hear some of his insights into the media at large.

BreakThru Radio (BTR): Tell us a little bit more about the idea behind slow journalism. What is it exactly, and how did you get the ball rolling on Delayed Gratification?

Rob Orchard (RO): Slow journalism is really a kind of response to what was happening in the media five years ago when we first launched the company. There was massive decrease in investment and huge job losses that had been going since the previous decade. A lot of money was falling out of the industry, and people were desperately trying to counter the decrease in readerships and decrease in advertising levels, which meant there was a new additional emphasis on digital.

BTR: Which is where our modern, easy-to-access, 24-hour online news cycle came from.

RO: Yes. The new model that people were suggesting for digital was that you would try to get as many people as possible, ideally millions of people, to come through your sites and your apps to get content for free. Of course, you’d have to find some way to monetize that.

What we saw with the new models that were building up was that it was very difficult in that context to provide good journalism. It kind of militated against journalism, and the sort of journalism that it promoted was very fast, very snappy, very short–kind of kneejerk journalism.

Particularly in the news area, journalists were being forced to write stuff and turn things around very quickly without much time for context or analysis. We thought that was a real recipe for disaster.

BTR: So you decided to slow everything down.

RO: In the same way that the slow food movement was a reaction against fast food, and in the same way the slow travel movement was against getting on a plane and suddenly arriving in Australia without seeing anything in between, slow journalism was a reaction against super fast news reporting. We were trying to provide something that would take its time to give proper context and analysis.

To crystallize this, we decided to make an experimental magazine called Delayed Gratification. The idea behind Delayed Gratification was that it would look back on the news every three months, with the benefit of hindsight, and instead of trying to be first to breaking stories we would be last to breaking news.

BTR: Do you think the public has lost its demand and interest for well-researched and reported articles, or is it just that the field has moved past this kind of writing?

RO: I think the appetite is still there, but a bit more niche than perhaps it was five years ago. In the same way that almost everybody you know might have a Spotify account, but many of them will also have a record player. I think you can see merit in both approaches.

Five years ago, we were all incredibly in love with digital still. It was so exciting. We were just getting our smartphones and still working out the possibilities of social media; it seemed like digital was the future. People were saying print is dead, it’s all over.

But I think what we’ve really seen over the last five years is the limitations of digital and information overload. We started to realize that we actually do want something a bit more considered. We like those long-form features. We like print, in some contexts. Print is actually a very good way of presenting news.

BTR: How do you go about curating the content for the publication, deciding what’s actually important when there’s such a circulation of white noise?

RO: Once the dust has settled after three months of news, we decide to look back. You get really good at spotting what’s just some PR spin or a storm in the teacup with no genuine impact. Ninety percent of the stuff that’s coming at us is just kind of nonsense. We have so much space to fill that it’s not surprising.

We try to pick out the stuff that’s important. We’re either looking to tell people stories that they haven’t heard, or have heard already, but haven’t heard the follow up.

For instance, we’re working on a big story at the moment about the earthquake in Nepal. That was a huge story, and had massive coverage back in April, but how many stories have you read that have actually gone back to Nepal since–following up to see what’s happened to people five months down the line?

BTR: How does hindsight or the retrospective aspect of looking back at the earthquake play a role in the kind of reporting you guys do?

RO: What we like to do is send journalists back several months later and find out how the story has progressed since the media spotlight’s moved on. What you often find is that the people we interview have a very different take on the stories several months down the line than they did at the time–which is only natural. Your first reaction to anything is very rarely your settled reaction to it, once you’ve figured out what’s going on and what the context is. We like to find an additional story by going back to a big event after everybody’s stopped covering [it].

BTR: I’m curious as to the deadlines, since you guys aren’t running on a fast pace journalism route that everybody else is. Is there really a deadline, or is it as soon as you get the story and it’s beautifully executed, that’s when it’s ready?

RO: In the beginning, when [we] were working really hand to mouth, we realized we can have this philosophy of “it’s ready when it’s ready.” It’s a journalist’s dream, but actually for our early subscribers it was very confusing. We’ve gotten much more regulated since then. We work on a three-monthly deadline. We try to work ahead as well. We’re commissioning a load of big stories right now that are going to come up three or four issues down the line, so that we can work on some of that longer form, investigative stuff.

It’s a longer deadline. I’ve worked on weeklies, monthlies, and quarterlies, and it’s always the same. No matter how much time you get, it’s always a panic towards the end.

To hear more of our interview with Rob Orchard, tune into this week’s episode of Third Eye Weekly.