While studying journalism at the University of King’s College a few years ago, Rob Csernyik enrolled in a creative nonfiction class.
The terms “creative nonfiction,” “literary journalism” or “new journalism”—which refer roughly to journalism reported using literary techniques such as memoir, inventive narratives, and criticism—often elicit thoughts of the journalists who popularized the genre in the mid-20th century: John McPhee, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and Joan Didion, among others. In his 2005 book, The New New Journalism, Robert S. Boynton, the director of New York University’s literary reportage program, heralded a fresh crop of magazine writers who’d brought literary journalism into the new millennium, namely Jon Krakauer and Susan Orlean.
What stands out about the writers listed above is that they’re all American. And the same thing stood out to Csernyik, an entrepreneurial English literature major from Sydney, N.S., when he saw the dozen or so readings his professor had chosen for the class to examine that semester at King’s.
“We noticed on first glance there weren’t any Canadian publications or authors,” says Csernyik, now a 31-year-old freelance writer and barista based in Montreal. Csernyik was shocked to not see anything from Toronto Life, Saturday Night, The Walrus, or any other Canadian publication, and he never quite forgot that.
In 2013, five years after Csernyik graduated from Bishop’s University, in Lennoxville, Que., he opened a small home décor store in Cornwall, Ont. The store failed, so he moved the business 45 minutes down the highway to Brockville, Ont., but the business didn’t fare much better, so Csernyik began scouring the Internet for longform journalism not dissimilar to the kind he’d fallen for in university.
He scrolled through Longform.org, a popular American website that compiles noteworthy works of writing that suit its eponym, and with his business failing once again, Csernyik decided to pursue journalism.
He moved to Halifax to complete the one-year journalism program at King’s College, and he soon netted a work placement at the Globe and Mail’s business desk in April 2017. He then interned at the Edmonton Journal/Sun during the summer, and worked for CIM Magazine, a mining publication based in Montreal, for three months afterwards. Now, Csernyik is a research intern for Maisonneuve, in addition to freelancing and barista duties.
But even as he started writing, Csernyik couldn’t get his mind off of reading. He’d frequented feature-writing aggregation sites, but wanted to create one to support Canadian journalists whose work he’d wished he’d seen in university, and whose work he’d hoped readers would appreciate. He spent so much time on Longform during his retail days, that he figured he should start a site of his own in January: he called it Great Canadian Longform, a curated collection of Canada’s best longform journalism.
“At that point, you’re making a movie. You’re directing a play—it’s a production, with three acts and special effects. So you have to ask yourself: is it worth it?”
The way Csernyik saw it, there were dozens of Canadian publications consistently putting out longform journalism worthy of attention. Some, like The Walrus or Toronto Life, reach a wider audience, while others, like the Atlantic Canada publication The Deep, are just starting to make their mark. Major newspapers like The Globe and Mail have also caught Csernyik’s eye for their feature-writing proficiency, singling out “Black on Bay Street,” Hadiya Roderique’s November 2017 feature on being a Black lawyer in Toronto’s legal community. “That’s one story you have to sit down and commit to. It was fabulously written, it was an interesting issue, and it sparked a huge discussion,” Csernyik says. Some readers saw themselves in Roderique’s story, while others felt empathetic or were exposed to an issue they likely didn’t even know existed. To Csernyik, it proved again why longer stories, written with inventive elements, were worth reading, writing, and encouraging.
“For someone who loves longform journalism, that was so exciting,” Csernyik says. “That story gave me a lot of hope.”
Longform journalism has indeed been popular online, contrary to what logic might suggest. A 2016 Pew Research Center study, conducted with the Knight Foundation, found that readers spend an average of 123 seconds engaging with articles over 1,000 words long, compared to just 57 seconds with those that don’t reach that plateau. “People are spending more time on longer stories than on shorter ones, suggesting that engagement can expand to meet the demands of a more in-depth piece,” a summary of the study concluded.
But 123 seconds isn’t that long, and many publications decided video was a more profitable option than the written word. While some publications and media entities, including Mic, Vice, and MTV News, took on a “pivot to video” strategy in 2017, many media strategists, like Heidi Moore in the Columbia Journalism Review, quickly theorized that video wasn’t a panacea, lending support to what many longform enthusiasts already understood.
Haley Cullingham, a senior editor at Hazlitt and a former editor at the Ryerson Review of Journalism, was disappointed by the “pivot to video” boom. “I want to be clear—discovering new ways to connect with an audience is wonderful, and it’s not wise to resist them outright, but it’s also important as a publisher or editor to remember that you have to trust and respond to your audience and not throw away a good thing because you want to get ahead of some often imagined dramatic shift,” she says.
Hazlitt publishes long essays, in-depth interviews, and reported pieces, and some of its most well-received works seem like stories that nobody knew they needed. “But there’s also that feeling you get when you’re reading something written by a really wonderful writer, when you stop worrying about the length and just end up immersed in the piece,” Cullingham adds.
Cullingham stressed that there isn’t a dearth of Canadian longform writing; if stellar work goes unnoticed, she says, it might have to do with the fact that many independent outlets don’t have the resources to promote it as much as they’d like to while also paying writers and staff fair fees.
Some magazines, like The Walrus, rely on creative funding models to afford to run long, in-depth, well-researched articles. The Walrus Foundation is a charitable non-profit with an educational mandate focused on supporting “Canadian writers, artists, and ideas; creat[ing] forums for conversations vital to Canadians; and [to] train Canada’s future leaders in journalism, publishing, and the non-profit sector,” according to the magazine’s website. That funding has given The Walrus latitude to explore expensive longform, while notable feature-heavy magazines like Saturday Night and Toro folded years ago.
“There aren’t many [Canadian] magazines left who are willing or, rather, able, to do it, so I think the resources for longform are maybe disappearing,” says Carmine Starnino, The Walrus’s deputy editor and a founder of Maisonneuve, which was established in 2002 as a non-profit as well.
Starnino estimates that between 60 to 70 percent of The Walrus editorial budget is allocated for the production of longer stories, which he classifies as those which exceed 4,500 words. And for a story to merit such a treatment, Starnino says it must be deserving of the canvas on which it’s being created, as well as the considerable editing, fact-checking, and artistic resources being used to actualize it.
“At that point, you’re making a movie. You’re directing a play—it’s a production, with three acts and special effects,” he says. “So you have to ask yourself: is it worth it?”
In Starnino’s experience, the magazine’s best-read stories are consistently its longest. But while he insists that valuable, well-done longform writing is being done in Canada, the genre is distinctly American in its scope, its riskiness, and its ambition.
“At this point in time, the best magazine writing is being done in the U.S.,” Starnino says. “That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of great writing being done here.” The difference, he says, is that in the U.S., longform is a main concern: “It’s not quite the same here.”
Starnino says sites like Csernyik’s are always welcome, but their existence raises interesting points about how Canadians view themselves and stories that represent them. “One of the things that frustrates me sometimes about being in Canada is that you have to peg influences by countries, and I don’t know if writers think that way or should think that way,” he says. “I think the writer’s job is to measure themselves against the best work that’s being done.”
Starnino and Cullingham believe it’s worthwhile for journalists and consumers to seek out writing from both Canadian and American publications, and Starnino doesn’t feel guilty about pointing to Americans as inspiration. “The easiest way to harm yourself as a writer is to start second guessing who your influences are,” he says.
Csernyik, too, admires American writers and publications, notably Texas Monthly—a publication recently troubled by ethical issues with a tradition of strong longform writing—but saw an opening to create a compendium of stories written by Canadians, for Canadians, and about topics Canadians care about. He takes suggestions from a still-tiny social media following, and hopes the site will highlight work from small, independent magazines along with mainstream ones. “I don’t want to sound grandiose,” he says. “But in a way, I feel sort of like a librarian, or a curator, pulling together different exhibits and different volumes.”
And in Csernyik’s digital library, Canadian names like Guy Lawson, Alicia Elliott, Kyle Edwards, Brett Popplewell, Jana Pruden, Desmond Cole, Eternity Martis, Eva Holland, Michael Lista and Omar Mouallem, as well as countless writers yet to come, can hopefully reach readers looking to read exactly what his site promises: Great Canadian longform journalism.
“It’s not always easy to find it yourself,” he says.