When the Journalist Is the Story

Following the cue of podcasts and film adaptations, feature writers (and their editors!) are lately making more cameos in compelling longform yarns

For Jennifer Senior’s first feature as a staff writer at The Atlantic since joining from The New York Times in February, she decided to write about her brother’s former roommate, Bobby McIlvaine, who was killed on 9/11. Much of the eminently readable piece trails the whereabouts of a missing diary that McIlvaine’s family—and Senior herself— had obsessed over for years. A passage towards the end jumps out:

At some point, not long after Jen gave me Bobby’s diary, I sent a note to my editor, telling him that I had found, at long last, the elusive Life loves on. I took a photo of the passage and sent it to him.

Amazing, he texted.

But then, three pulsing dots in a bubble. He was still typing.

Magazine features rarely offer peeks behind the scenes of the editing process, but in this case, Senior knew the process had become as interesting as the truths it revealed. “It occurred to me in one rush,” Senior told Off the Record. “‘Oh my God, this should be a Heavyweight episode,’” referring to a podcast in which the host attempts to give his subjects closure on an event they’ve never been able to let go. “[The story] should be about a quest to get the diary, and the center of it should be all about the different ways the McIlvaines grieved.”

Of course, the “story behind the story” is not a new concept. It’s given us celebrity profiles that are more about the writer than the subject and reporting tell-alls like Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s She Said and Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill. But in a climate where big-swing magazine features are increasingly expected to have second lives as movies, doc series, and podcasts, it seems more natural for feature writers and their editors to step into the spotlight. After all, tales of reporters on the hunt for a good scoop — see: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (as played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) in All the President’s Men or Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) in Spotlight — are regular tropes of print-to-screen adaptations.

Senior’s piece was not the only time the editorial fourth wall has broken down lately. In July, Chris Heath barrelled down the rabbit hole to understand the origins of Amazon’s mystery seeds, also for The Atlantic, inviting readers to follow the breadcrumbs and unravel inconsistencies by his side. And in August, New York Magazine’s Reeves Wiedeman and Lila Shapiro sought to finally reveal the identity of an infamous publishing thief, taking us along as the thief toyed with them and their editors grew impatient. Each offered a level of transparency rarely accessible to readers of magazine features, upping the narrative stakes and providing insights into the kinds of editorial and ethical decisions reporters must make when they become characters in their own stories.

Wiedeman said the idea of inserting himself and Shapiro into the narrative didn’t come up until the thief began emailing them directly. “Suddenly we [were] a part of the story no matter what,” he said. “I think that sort of elevated the stakes a little bit.”

Heath estimated that he was about 80 percent finished reporting his story when he discovered a twist that changed everything. After he had settled on a perfectly reasonable theory about where the seeds were coming from, he stumbled upon a revelation that was absurdly mundane and proved his prior theory entirely incorrect. Heath and his editor, Honor Jones, made the decision to retrace his steps, revealing new information in the story in the same chronology he had received it in real life. “There’s nothing staged or fake about my surprise that I’d been wrong,” he said.

There was an unlikely lesson buried in the process—a reminder that sometimes by thinking too critically, we can end up overthinking things. “We’re primed to try and see through conspiracy theories or misinformation,” Heath explained. “We have to be really wary that the ‘smart’ take on it sometimes just might not be right.”

“It’s fundamentally a story about how we form narratives, and that went into how [Chris] structured it,” Jones added. “[It’s about] the resistance to the truth.”

Of course, there are limits to this type of journalism. Serious ethical questions about burdens of proof and undue influence were raised about shows like Serial and The Jinx, in which we’re encouraged to follow along as reporters test out hypotheses in high-stakes criminal investigations. (Though when Robert Durst was finally found guilty of a murder last week, the producers of The Jinx received a good deal of credit.)

Wiedeman and Shapiro, whose story tread closest to the true crime realm of the three, had to be careful to remember that sources can’t always be taken at face value.

“We had to be respectful of the fact that suspicion doesn’t add up to conclusive evidence,” Wiedeman said. Though they did get the chance to interview one of the primary suspects, they made the choice to protect his identity.

Heath and his editor, too, were wary of declaring one single truth. “There’s no way to rule out that somebody in the world wouldn’t have the alternate experience, so we were very careful,” Jones said. “And that also goes to how Chris shows his work in the story.”

It seems we may be seeing more pieces in this style going forward. “We know that our readers are grabbed by riveting narrative yarns that have additional dimensions [and] ways of delivering interesting and original ideas,” Stossel said. As it happens, Heath’s and Senior’s pieces were among The Atlantic’s most trafficked pieces of the summer.