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Literary journalism finds new platforms

Byliner, the Atavist and Virginia Quarterly Review take the form into the future.

May 15, 2011|By David L. Ulin | Los Angeles Times Book Critic

"The more we thought about it," Genoways writes in an email, "the more it seemed to open up the form: It could be as long as we wanted, it could take advantage of the numerous photographs shot by eyewitnesses, and it opened the possibility that the piece would be seen and commented on by readers in India.... And the last of these was the unexpected revelation of what the online format promises. We were inundated with comments from India — and, most excitingly, started receiving materials that could be added to Jason's account to refine the timeline and enrich the storytelling."

The format question is important, whether for the iPad, Kindle or the Web. Each allows certain enhancements: interactivity, access, multimedia content. Assignment Afghanistan, which remains Web-based, augments three long pieces by journalist Elliott Woods with video, slideshows and an interactive timeline of U.S. involvement in the region, to which the material on the site is linked. The Atavist, on the other hand, features what Ratliff calls "layers of information," videos, maps and other "digital extras" woven into every piece, to which a reader can link by clicking on the text.

The challenges are twofold; for Ratliff, the necessity to think about "how to structure all this information and not let it get in the way of the story," and for Genoways, "the danger of letting new toys drive the content." In the case of the Atavist — which last week released its fourth story, David Wolman's "The Instigators," an account of the revolution in Egypt written through the filter of a small group of activists — this means thinking about each piece three-dimensionally from the moment it's assigned, to build something dynamic, "not an artifact," that can work either as straight prose or enriched text. Genoways writes that Assignment Afghanistan has a similar intention "to make sure that the multimedia lived up to the long-form narratives that Elliott had already written.... As long as you strive for that level of quality, then I don't think it matters whether you're designing for an iPad or a print page."

What makes all this exciting is that it is both forward- and, in the best sense, backward-looking, "a new venue," as Ratliff puts it, "for an old plan." That's the idea behind the Byliner website, which later this spring will launch an online archive — what Tayman calls "a discovery platform for narrative journalism" — featuring access to more than 25,000 pieces going back more than 100 years.

On the one hand, it's a resource, invaluable for readers, writers, teachers, anyone with any interest in the form. Yet even more important, it's an attempt to build the basics of a new infrastructure, to create a context for both Byliner and other journalistic outlets, whether digital or in print. "It's a little bit of a frontier," says Bryant, referring to both the archive and the Byliner Originals, which, he hopes, will eventually appear every few weeks. "What we're hoping to build is an ecosystem, in which this kind of work can thrive."

david.ulin@latimes.com

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