The New York Review of Magazines

Going Long

By Frederick Dreier

On the icy morning of Dec. 22, 2005, New York City firefighter Matthew Long pedaled his road bicycle along the streets of Manhattan toward the department’s training facility on Randall’s Island. At 52nd Street, a 20-ton bus carrying employees of now-defunct brokerage firm Bear Stearns turned unusually wide, striking Long. The bus wheels snapped Long’s pelvis and leg, and the bike’s handlebars skewered his abdomen like an aluminum fishhook. He lay motionless under the bus in a slick of blood.

“I was told I was conscious under the bus,” Long says. “I don’t remember weeks or months from before it. I only remember what was told to me.”

Long does remember a day one year later when Charles Butler, the managing editor of Runner’s World, interviewed him at a Starbucks in Manhattan. Before the near-fatal accident, Long was a passionate endurance athlete who competed in Ironman triathlons and clocked a marathon time of three hours and 14 minutes. Butler had heard about Long’s story and wanted to know if he planned to run again.

At the time of the meeting, Long was unable to walk without crutches and was still undergoing surgeries to repair his left leg. He had spent five months in a hospital bed after the accident. Surgeons had sliced him open to repair his abdominal wall, coat his stomach in cadaver skin and insert titanium rods into his shattered leg. He still was using a colostomy bag.

“I told [Butler] if everything goes well, I’d be happy to run a lap around Central Park some day and then retire and go have some pizza,” Long said. “It wasn’t much of a story. It was going to be a little piece about some guy running six miles and then drinking beer with his buddies.”

The two maintained a loose correspondence over the next eight months. By early 2007, Long’s body had made remarkable progress, and he had graduated from crutches to running shoes. His running goal had also progressed, from one Central Park lap to all 26.2 miles of the New York City Marathon. Long phoned Butler with the news. This was no longer a little story about a man, Central Park and pizza.

Long’s story became one of the most successful journalistic projects in Runner’s World’s 44-year history. Butler followed Long for more than a year, and the ensuing 9,000-word article was the longest story in the March 2009 issue. It was also a major hit online. featured the entire story, accompanied by six individual documentary videos, shot during Long’s recovery. As of this writing, the web package has generated more than 72,700 page views from about 18,000 unique users. Visitors to have played the Long videos a combined 108,710 times. According to editor David Willey, those numbers are big for the site.

“On one hand, this is a story that’s a great example of something print is best at — showcasing great storytelling with amazing photography and layout,” Willey said. “But it showed us how we could tell the story in a different way on [the Internet.] The video picked up so much that didn’t come through in the story. Do we need to do that with every story? No — but we can pick our battles.”

Within the publishing world, it is widely accepted that cyberspace is a poor home for long-form journalism. Many simply believe the human eye prefers paper to the screen. In his 2007 report titled “Hamlet’s Blackberry: Why Paper Is Eternal,” for the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, media critic William Powers writes: “Everyone knows that reading on screen is still a different experience from on paper — more taxing, less conducive somehow to extended concentration.”

“When it comes to delivering news, screens work well for short-form reportage and commentary that can be read quickly,” Powers argues. “But for long stories and essays requiring sustained attention and focus, readers still gravitate to paper, where they can settle down and find that snatching of serenity.”

That opinion is generally accepted in the world of active-lifestyle magazines. Magazines such as Runner’s World, Backpacker and Outside cater to enthusiasts of a sport, and explain sport’s culture and nuances — as well as training secrets and reviews of products — to those who participate. The websites they have created are as individual as the activities they cover. Each of them, however, has put an emphasis on shorter stories, not long features. The preferred content at these sites is best described as service journalism: product reviews, tech tidbits or training advice.

“The key is to keep things short — the absolute best use for the web is to offer instruction,” said Steve Madden, vice president of digital product development at Rodale, which owns Runner’s World and Bicycling magazines. “I can write 2,000 words about how to change a flat tire and still not get the point across, or watch a two-minute video of a mechanic changing a flat tire. There’s no comparison.”

The migration of eyeballs from print to screen has brought innovation to these shorter, service-oriented stories. At, readers can scroll through 700-word advice columns written by aliased bloggers such as The Gear Junkie, The Adventure Adviser and The Eco Adventurer. At, a “Gear and Bike Review Finder” lets visitors read detailed critiques of the season’s latest and greatest racing bicycles before they make a purchase. At, wannabe camp cooks can learn to prepare their own teriyaki beef jerky. emphasizes service journalism as well. Visitors can search out popular running routes in cities across the country, learn how to stretch calf muscles properly and ice an injured knee. The site offers detailed training plans written by professional coaches for running races ranging from a “5k” to a marathon; the prices range from $20 to $40. Readers can also buy into the $130 Runners World Challenge, which provides a training plan, access to the magazine’s online community forum and a chance to race with the magazine’s editors in a marathon in Richmond, Va.

“We’ve found the most important role of the web is to build community, and you do that through instruction,” Willey said. “Not many people really want to read a 9,000-word story online.”

That said, many active lifestyle brands also pluck longer feature stories from the magazine and place them online. A handful of these stories find similar success online. According to Chris Keyes, editor of Outside, the magazine’s archived profiles of members of the 2006 U.S. ski team scored big numbers online in the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

In January 2008, Bicycling ran a 9,400-word magazine feature, titled “Broken,” on its website. The piece, which told the story of Ross Dillon, a Sonoma, Cal., man who was killed in 2007 after colliding with a speeding Mitsubishi, called attention to bicycle fatalities and the rights of cyclists in hit-and-run accidents with automobiles. According to numbers from Bicycling, the story netted about 12,200 unique visitors in its first month, a number on par with the website’s best-performing service pieces.

“We don’t put all of our magazine content [on the website], we try to pick and choose,” said Loren Mooney, the editor-in-chief of Bicycling. “Print is still the best way to cozy up with a good, long story.”

So why did 75,000 people read Matthew Long’s story on a computer screen? Butler believes that the video segments provided an easy point of entry to the story. The clips tracked the stages of Long’s recovery, from his physical therapy sessions to his actual race. In one clip, Long trots along in Central Park, his stride shortened by a painful limp, as a string of runners speed by. In another, Long’s physical therapist strains to stretch the shortened muscles in his injured left leg.

Butler said he devised the idea to film Long after watching him jog around the running track at Randall’s Island on one of his first training jogs. “He was running with the New York skyline in the background,” Butler said, “and you can see how slow he is going. His stride does not look good. It looks painful.”

But Long’s story connects with the reader on a higher plane, even without the moving images. Butler opened his story with Long preparing for his November 2008 marathon, which turned into a seven-hour trek from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge to the finish line in Central Park. Butler wove scenes from the race with others from before and after his collision with the bus. His detailed account of the accident showed just how close Long actually came to dying, and how frantically two doctors at New York Presbyterian Hospital worked to save his life.

His body was also mangled with a compound fracture of the left tibia and femur, a compound fracture of the left foot, a fractured right shoulder, a fractured right hip, perforated abdominal walls, a torn rectum, extensive pelvic nerve damage, and a crushed pelvis.
“His chances for living were five percent,” [Dr. Soumitra] Eachempati says. “Maybe even less than that.”

And Butler’s year of reporting unearthed complex emotions from within Long. As his reporting progressed, Long’s alpha male demeanor melted away. During the first months, Long preferred to talk about his running training, his physical therapy and his recovery. As Butler’s relationship with Long progressed, the firefighter gradually let down his guard, and a more vulnerable side appeared. He discussed his bizarre attachment to his colostomy bag. He admitted to wishing he’d died on the operating table.

“His insides were destroyed, emotionally he was destroyed,” Butler said. “This guy came back from so many issues, it became a story that people could relate to.”

The online success of a well-reported and compelling story like Long’s could be a sign that the era of shorter-is-better website writing has an end. Perhaps our T.V.-shortened attention spans are lengthening, or maybe readers simply appreciate free content. If a story turns pages in print, after all, why shouldn’t it do the same on a website?

Ted Genoways edits The Virginia Quarterly Review, which regularly posts long-form stories on its website, including features on the 2008 terrorist bombings in Mumbai and the 2010 parliamentary elections in Iraq. The Mumbai piece wowed Genoways with 750,000 page views — a huge leap for a publication with a print circulation of 7,000. Genoways believes the magazine’s readers now expect longer investigative pieces online.

“I think people are far more accustomed to reading things on a screen than they were a decade ago,” he said. “The [Mumbai] piece showed us there is an increasing audience for the kind of writing we’re doing online. We’re trying to build a reputation with that readership.”

Butler has continued reporting and this fall will release a book about Long’s recovery. Long said the book caps off several years of personal transformation, from his initial meeting with the editor when he was hesitant to tell his story; he didn’t want to sound like a tragic character searching for sympathy.

He said his improving physical state spurred his ability to open up. After the accident, he could not participate in physical activity for nearly a year, and as a former top-level athlete, this enforced idleness sent his emotions spiraling downward. Once he was able to lift weights and run, his mood improved.

“Being active was taken away from me, so mentally and emotionally I was dying,” Long said. “The further I got out from the surgeries, the more I saw the worst times were behind me, the more I got comfortable with Charlie.”

Long still walks and runs with a pronounced limp, but he has regained enough strength to run additional marathons and compete in Ironman-length triathlons. He works part time for the New York City Fire Department and tours as a motivational speaker on the side.

“I still don’t remember what happened [under the bus],” Long said. “I wish I could just spin back time and have it reversed. But a lot of good things have happened to me since that accident.”

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