As Memphis approaches its actual Fortieth Anniversary next month, the editorial staff has been spending a lot of time rummaging in our figurative attic. We’ve started bringing odds and ends downstairs, reprinting at least one feature from our forty-year archives every month, something we plan to continue doing, well, until we run out of good loot upstairs.
This month we found quite an heirloom in the attic, an artifact that, once we dusted it off, remains quite a jewel. The January 1986 story we’ve brought down into our pages this month is an exclusive interview with Shelby Foote, perhaps the most famous twentieth-century author to call Memphis his permanent home. Old-timers here remembered that a Shelby Foote interview was somewhere “upstairs,” but none of us could recall who exactly had done the interviewing, until we looked it up. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that Shelby Foote had been interviewed by Hampton Sides, then a staff writer for Memphis.
The coincidence here is pretty striking. When this interview was done, Foote was well into the middle of his career, while Sides was at the very beginning of his, although the task that gave Shelby Foote his greatest public recognition — serving as narrator of the PBS series directly derived from his three-volume history, The Civil War — was still four years in his future in 1986. Hampton Sides, on the other hand, was just getting started, he too later becoming a national success, with titles like Ghost Soldiers, Blood and Thunder, Hellhound on His Trail, and In the Kingdom of Ice published in the first two decades of this century. Books written by Foote and by Sides have probably spent more weeks on the New York Times’ nonfiction best-seller list than those of all other Memphis writers combined.
It seems only fitting, then, to include both in this issue of Memphis. Those of us in the city-magazine business have always felt a kinship with nonfiction authors. After all, the most significant difference between a superbly written nonfiction book and a superbly written magazine article is the number of words generated. The same kind of organizational skills are required for both tasks; both require the same ability to distill large amounts of what often seems random information into a coherent narrative that informs, excites, and entertains the reader. Not to demean those who labor hard to write books, but good nonfiction oftentimes is simply good magazine journalism writ large.
In the magazine trade, we call these kinds of stories “long-form journalism,” generally stories that take 3,000 or more words to tell. Given that we all now live in an era of hyper-instant information retrieval and delivery, it’s hard not to wonder about the future for this kind of writing. However, I don’t really have concern for long-form journalism at the national level, or in large urban markets like New York or Los Angeles. Indeed, this is something of a golden age for thoughtful magazines which tell long stories, as any subscriber to publications like The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker could tell you. By and large these are prospering, in print and on-line, as are large-circulation “national” newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post, papers that are healthy enough to continue investing in long-form journalism in their pages.
But I do worry about the future of long-form journalism out here in “Fly-Over America.” Outside the top ten or twenty media markets, daily newspapers are struggling to adjust to the new media landscape; in that battle for survival, fewer and fewer publishers find themselves with the resources to commit to significant stories that require length, time, and resources.
If anything, that has exaggerated the importance of city magazines all across America; in many cases, they are the only outlets that continue doing long-form journalism in their markets. This has always been a strength of magazines like ours; I for one am impressed by how magazines like Portland Monthly, St. Louis, and Indianapolis Monthly continue doing such good work. And while we’re proud you’re reading us, be sure to take a look at other city magazines when you travel. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.