As I try to find what form of nonfiction writing suits me best, one thing I haven’t considered is how different forms of prose reflect different value systems. They’re not just different ways to structure thought, but different lenses through which to view the world and different ways to live life.
I began to reflect on this idea after hearing Richard Just, the editor of The New Republic, speak in defense of magazine journalism. He emphasized that “magazine journalism requires space: you simply cannot build a convincing and provocative argument in 500 words.” Much of his talk centered on the need for activity, rather than passivity, in journalists: he painted the journalist not as a mere aggregator of information but as an interpreter and an “intellectual crusader.”
Just began his speech with a call to action:
“We, you and I, have to make an affirmative decision that magazine journalism has to live on, even after physical magazines no longer exist,” Just said.
He posited that journalism, like other professions, has a value system, and asked:
“What value system undergirds magazine journalism? What are the values that we are implicitly advancing when writing a magazine piece,” Just asked.
The answer, Just suggested, is threefold: first, uncertainty is crucial to magazine journalism, from the uncertainty a writer faces as he writes a piece, to the questions and criticisms editors and fact-checkers raise when they comb through pieces.
“The result is a stronger argument, a truer story…this is very different than the values that have come to dominate political journalism in the Internet age,” he said. Just noted that online political journalism often takes on a “smugness and stridency that is antithetical to magazine journalism.”
The second value he noted was artistry, saying that “the best magazine journalism rises to the level of literature: it is achingly beautiful to read.” And the third pillar of magazine journalism is a willingness to passionately pursue arguments and ideas: he put it simply when he said that “magazine journalists believe in things.”
He closed by suggesting that “a culture in which magazines are valued is a culture in which thinking is valued, art is valued, storytelling is valued, a culture in which an intellectual form of crusading is valued.”
In the end, the talk didn’t limit itself to the defense of a certain type of journalism, but expanded to defend a certain value system and way of life. A way of life that embraces uncertainty and self-doubt, researched passion about ideas and the artistry of writing is one to aspire to.