Tag Archives: Slate

A death in prison

Marion Berry 4-29-14
Marion Berry in a 2014 prison photo

I got word this week that Marion “Marvin” Berry has died in prison at age 44. Berry was incarcerated for 29 years and five months, since the age of 15, when he and another 15-year-old, Gary Brown, were arrested on charges of kidnapping, raping, and killing 26-year-old Cathy O’Daniel.

I wrote about the case in the first installment of my series for Slate on crime victims. In that story, I focused on O’Daniel’s mother Linda White and her brand of radical forgiveness, which she has shown toward Berry’s co-defendant, Gary Brown.

Berry never experienced the kind of turnaround and redemption that Brown earned for himself. Instead, his years in Texas prisons were marked by trouble. Just five years into his 55-year sentence, he got another 12 1/2 years tacked on for possession of a homemade knife. After more fights with other prisoners and guards, and incidents of self-mutilation, Berry’s minimum sentence stood at 64 years. If all went well — and, with Berry, it never did — he was due to be released in 2051.

A Texas prison spokesman, Jason Clark, confirmed to me in an email today that Berry died at the Bill Clements Unit in Amarillo, a prison that houses prisoners in solitary confinement or requiring mental health care. Clark wrote:

On March 27, 2016, Berry was found unresponsive in his cell. Staff began life saving measures as he was taken to unit medical. EMS arrived on scene and unit medical briefed them on the situation. A physician later arrived and pronounced the offender deceased at 8:37 pm. The preliminary cause of death was natural causes.

White was the first to let me know of Berry’s death, when I coincidentally reached out to say hi and to ask if she’s heard lately from Brown. Texas’ victim-notification policies had served their purpose, and she received a letter promptly giving her the news. Speaking of Berry, White wrote in an email, “His was a very sad life, to say the least.”

As for Brown, he has remained out of touch with White, which was how I ended the story when it was published last June. When I arranged a meeting between White and Brown, and for months afterward, Brown was doing all he could to fulfill his promise to White to live a law-abiding, productive life after his release from prison. I expect and hope that is still the case. No matter what, he’s done far more than his partner in crime to turn bad into good and to show that some lives can be redeemed.

For the rest of my series, go here.

Introducing my Slate series

The series I have been blogging about here since starting work on it last year has finally begun to run at Slate today. Here is the series-starter. There’s no set schedule for when the remaining five stories in the series will appear, but Slate editors and I hope to get the remaining installments published in fairly short order. I’ll post on this blog when each story gets published. I’ll also post links on this page to each of the stories as they are published.

You can follow new posts on this blog by email or by following me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google Plus. See the links on the left of this page to sign up for any of those.

Slate also has done something new with my series: an email alert from Slate itself as the series progresses. Go the end of the story to sign up.

During the year in which my Soros Justice Media Fellowship funded my reporting on the series, I blogged here about the works in progress as well as the themes I was exploring in my reporting. If you’re new to this blog and curious about the series (and have ample time to kill), please dip into those posts for more background on where my work has taken me.

I hope the series prompts discussion. Slate‘s comments board and my Facebook page seem the easiest places for that to occur, but you can also post comments on this blog or on any of the other social media sites.

In another post, I tell some of the broader themes I’ll explore in the series.

Snippet from a survivor’s story

About three years before her murder, Marilyn Sage Meagher with her daughter Kelley.
About three years before her murder, Marilyn Sage Meagher with her daughter Kelley.

I just hit “send” on the fourth installment of my series of seven feature stories about crime victims for Slate. I won’t predict when the series will run — all my past predictions have turned out to be wildly optimistic — but the lack of visible progress is merely an illusion! I’m happy with how my work of the past several months is coming together into stories about people who defy conventional wisdom about who victims are and how they should react.

In reviewing my notes and recorded interviews, I ran across a snippet of one conversation I want to share here. In this conversation, I’m interviewing Kelley Watts, who’s talking about the murder 21 years earlier of her mother, Marilyn Sage Meagher. Her uncle (the “Johnny” she refers to in the conversation) is John Sage, who founded Bridges to Life, a group that takes crime victims into prisons to counsel prisoners on empathy and responsibility. Watts had never before spoken to a journalist about her experience, and my meeting with her was arranged hurriedly shortly before I arrived in Houston. So I knew too little about her when I sat down to talk to her.

We talked about the services she did or didn’t receive as the survivor of a murder victim — this happened just before she headed off to college as a freshman — and during that discussion it slowly dawned on me why she knows so much now about psychology.

Give a listen:

Why we tell victims’ stories

In her smart, informed take on the latest in Rolling Stone‘s shameful University of Virginia rape-story scandal (which I blogged about here and here), Hanna Rosin at Slate writes about the relationship between “Jackie” and RS writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and about crime victims and journalists generally:

Jackie told the Washington Post that she felt “manipulated” by Erdely. She said that she was “overwhelmed” by sitting through interviews with her and asked to be taken out of the story, but Erdely said it would go forward anyway. Jackie said she “felt completely out of control of my own story.” Erdely has implied that she made an agreement with Jackie that she would tell her story but not try to contact her assailants. Rolling Stone explained in their [sic] statement today: “Because of the sensitive nature of Jackie’s story, we decided to honor her request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.”

Such agreements are apparently not uncommon. In survivors’ groups, advocates advise victims to strike these kinds of deals with reporters so they don’t lose control of their own stories, or anger their assailants, both of which they consider paramount to healing. But this creates an impossible situation for journalists: Ask too many questions and you lose your source. But don’t ask enough and you end up in this situation, with a story that’s falling apart. (Third and very legitimate option: Kill the story.) Late Friday, Dana also tweeted that Rolling Stone should have “either not made this agreement with Jackie,” or “worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story.”

Either I’ve been lucky or sheltered, but for some reason I’ve never been confronted with this demand in my work. Nor have I had a victim, before or after publication, turn and run. Both scenarios, though, deserve scrutiny because of the implications they hold for the kind of work I do and care about: narratives about crime victims that seek to teach about how the system really works.

Like most journalists seeking to interview victims, I often start with groups that advocate for victims or provide services to them. I have faced a variety of requests and demands — for a helper to attend the interview; for a grant of anonymity to the victim; for other time-and-place conditions on how the interview gets conducted to maximize the victim’s comfort — but no one has ever asked what other reporting I’m doing to tell my story, much less sought to extract a promise like this. For all the reasons that Rosin explains (as I have in my previous posts), that simply cannot fly if we’re to maintain our independence and standards of verification and fairness.

That’s not to say that the situation is ideal. I’m compromised from the moment I seek help from that advocacy group or service provider, because they’re seeking to advance their agenda in choosing the “right” victim. If that agenda seems to be simply spreading the word that a problem exists, or letting the public know the realities of the victim experience, then we’re in sync. But it might well be more complicated than that.

For example, in writing about victim-offender mediation in cases of violence and other serious crimes, I negotiated with the Texas victim services agency to connect me with a victim who had recently gone through the process. The agency, I knew, walks a political tightrope in Texas in not coming off as soft on criminals. So, in what struck me as an obvious bit of stage-managing, the agency chose a woman who — unlike many victims who go through mediation — had no interest in forgiving the man who molested her. She was an articulate story subject and she reflected a reality for many victims, so I was fine with what the agency engineered. But then I injected an added measure of transparency for my readers by pointing out the thought that went into the agency’s choice:

Back in the Austin conference room where we’re watching excerpts from the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, [Diana] Owen chokes up, calling the abortion “the worst thing that ever happened to me.” Tall and slim, dressed much more elegantly than the 21-year-old on camera, she says she emerged from that prison meeting long ago with a weight lifted from her — but with resentment intact. As the victim-services handlers who accompanied her for my interview cringe or chuckle nervously, Owen reacts to a comment about [prisoner Michael] Money’s personal growth since the mediation: “As far as his own personal salvation, it’s not my fuckin’ business, you know? Whatever.”

Clearly this is not textbook, peace-and-love restorative justice. But just as clearly, the officials now in charge of Texas’ victim services provided access to Diana to make a point: They’re not a bunch of peaceniks, and their service is, no matter what, victim-centered.

That’s a remedy for that sort of reporting issue, but the only remedies I can imagine for what Rolling Stone faced is to walk away from Jackie as an example for the story or to push harder for her to agree to talk without that condition.

But why do we journalists do this in the first place? Why do we need to find the Jackies and the Diana Owens and turn their experiences into fodder for our stories? Hard though it may be for outsiders to understand, the journalists who do this sort of work — while they undoubtedly care about their work getting noticed — couldn’t care less about the magazine’s sales prospects (and, indeed, there’s no rational case to be made that this sort of high-minded storytelling about policy is anything but a drag on magazine earnings). Instead, what we care about is opening readers’ minds to an experience they don’t fully appreciate until they read a finely crafted narrative. When done right, a story’s intellectual core is supported by tons of background reporting — after we’ve consumed piles of dry, statistic-laden reports and analyses, and then talked to scores if not hundreds of advocates, experts, and victims in search of themes and examples — and the dramatic example is the enticement to learn about an issue.

I wouldn’t do this work if I thought the means to that end required hurting victims. Every victim I’ve ever talked to wants to tell his or her story. When I work with those who are inexperienced at talking to reporters, I take extra care to explain how the process works and what they can expect from me along the way. Sometimes they want to see the story before it’s published, which I refuse to do (it’s generally frowned upon in journalism because it suggests a source has approval rights over how she’s portrayed). But, when they’re especially worried about that portrayal, I can promise the next best thing: a thorough explanation after I’ve drafted the story of facts and meaning that I understood from their interview.

Time and again, when the telling of that story triggers tears (as it nearly always does) and I apologize for putting them through it, they reassure me that they chose to speak out. As one mother of a murder victim recently explained when I reacted to her tears:

It’s OK. It’s part of my life. I’m not ashamed of it.

It’s a privilege to be entrusted with telling her story. No matter what comes of the Rolling Stone debacle, I hope for the public’s sake that there will always be victims willing to share their knowledge with writers; and writers able to tell those stories truthfully without compromising their ethics.

Project update: hours of audio

It’s been a little over a month since I last posted about my work in progress on my Soros Media Fellowship project, a series on crime victims. I had hoped by now that the first installment would have been published by Slate, but first I missed my self-imposed deadline and then changes at Slate delayed us further (the series originally was to be edited by Dahlia Lithwick, but now it’s being overseen by Slate’s deputy editor, John Swansburg). I’m not complaining — this is the nature of this work, especially when dealing with long stories and big projects — and I’m certainly not lacking for things to do.

Which brings me to the point of this post, beyond simply noting that I still can’t predict exactly when the series will go public (but soon!). When I’m not reporting on the six remaining stories (and updating the first installment as it sits in a queue) — tons of reading for research, talking to people who work in this field, lining up and conducting interviews, setting up my next road trips — I’m transcribing. And transcribing. And more transcribing.

Because I record most of my interviews and the scenes that I observe in the field, I’m left with lots of transcription work afterward. Even if I could afford to farm that work out, I wouldn’t because of the value I get from listening to the recordings. As I replay them and take notes, I jot down ideas and notes in the various story outlines. This person might be quotable on this point in this story. This idea needs to be explored in that story. And so on.

The transcripts themselves are not really transcripts. They’re paraphrased notes and observations — as I listen, I’m reminded of what I saw as the words were spoken, and I refer back to my handwritten notes for more observations of what I saw — and then exact quotations only in cases when I think I might end up using a quote. Along the way, I note the elapsed time in the recording, so that I can easily find a specific passage again. I tend to overestimate what might end up useful to me later on, in part because I hope to turn the project into a book after my Soros year is over. So, if a conversation is particularly helpful to my stories, a one-hour interview might take three hours to transcribe. From my weeklong trips in Texas and California, and from dozens of phone interviews since May, I have more hours of recordings than I can count. And nearly every day I add to them.

That all adds up to a mighty backlog. So, while I wait for my new editor’s thoughts on part one and the plan for the rest of the series, I stare and type.

Sounds awfully exciting, I know. Actually, the good news is that I find my subjects’ voices, words, and messages inspiring, even on rehearing. I hear things I didn’t notice the first time, or need to be reminded of when I finally get around to transcribing sometimes weeks or months after the fact.

I’ll give you a taste of what I mean from an interview I’m transcribing this morning. The person speaking is David Guizar, who lost two brothers to street violence in South Los Angeles and now devotes his life to helping survivors and working on gang intervention and violence prevention. Here are two brief snippets from my talk last month with Guizar at his home.

In the first excerpt, he talks about the trauma of losing his brother when Guizar was only 10:

Then Guizar speaks of his reaction at age 39 when another brother was murdered, and he faced a choice in how to respond:

When I tell Guizar’s story, I’ll explain how his and his family’s experiences in two separate murders many years apart colored their perceptions of justice, both bad and good, and how Guizar channeled his emotions in a more positive direction the second time around.

A caution flag

The controversial racetrack fatality involving Tony Stewart hits close to home in two ways: I live close enough to that track in Canandaigua, New York, to hear the whine of the cars’ engines on a quiet night. And, given my interest in criminal justice journalism, I was shocked and primed to comment on fans’ rush to judgment, on both sides, in the hours after Stewart’s car hit a competitor as he exited his vehicle, evidently to confront Stewart. Here’s the comment thread, one of many I’m sure, that set me off with the competing views of reality — all expressing absolute certainty about whether it was an assault or accident — based on this video.

But I held back because I know absolutely nothing about NASCAR and sprint car racing. And I wanted to see how knowledgeable reporters would check their facts, inject needed context, and explain what needs explaining. Now, Slate’s deputy editor, John Swansburg, has stepped ably into that role with this careful early analysis of knowns and unknowns. His article, posted about 16 hours after last night’s incident, is just the sort of pause everyone should take when talking about one man’s lost life and another’s reputation and liberty.

After explaining how the cars handle, Swansburg includes this critical quote:

At least at this hour, the most persuasive statement I’ve heard came from Kasey Kahne, a NASCAR driver who has also driven sprint cars and owns a sprint car team. “I truly don’t understand how in the world it happened and exactly what went on there,” Kahne told ESPN’s Marty Smith. “There’s only a few people who would. There’s no media person that can and there’s no fan that can. There’s too much you can’t see.”

The local sheriff, by the way, could take some of this advice as well, seeing as how he just stated fairly unequivocally that his investigation already seems headed toward exonerating Stewart, which seems terribly premature. (UPDATE: Perhaps the premature-exoneration spin was the newspaper’s, and not the sheriff’s. In a print story on Monday, August 11 — which I could not find online — the sheriff was quoted as saying he had not yet found evidence of a crime but vowed “there are no foregone conclusions made at this point.” That message, quite different from earlier reports, is exactly the right message to send at such an early stage.)

As the facts get sifted, the next round of questions should concern how the law works. What would be the charges if Stewart deliberately ran Kevin Ward over? What if a jury were to find Stewart lost his temper and gunned his car only to scare Ward? Or if it was just a careless mistake? How would criminal or civil liability be affected by Ward’s decision in the heat of the moment to walk onto the track?

I’m forever amazed and appalled at folks’ propensity to make snap judgments about such matters before they could possibly know the essential facts. We can’t stop Facebook and YouTube commenters from doing what they do. But at least we can count on professionals like Swansburg to hit the brakes and remind us why it’s not as simple as it seems.

My new gig

The news is finally out and official: I am proud to have been chosen as a 2014-15 Soros Justice Fellow. This one-year program allows me to pursue the kind of work I am most passionate about — a series of reported narratives providing the crime-victim perspective on criminal justice reform — with the luxury of exclusive focus that would be financially impossible otherwise. I am grateful to the Open Society Foundations’ Justice Fund for the financial support and to the editors of Slate, who agreed to publish the fruits of my labor over the next year, for their editorial support.

As I report and write the stories that I proposed for my fellowship, I will use this blog to share peeks at the works in progress and bonus material that doesn’t make it into the published pieces. As each of the seven planned narrative features gets published at Slate over the coming year, I hope this blog and my other social media sites — my Facebook page, Twitter feed, and the others linked from the left rail of this page — serve as a starting point for a discussion about the issues I hope my work illuminates. At the same time, I’ll continue to use the blog and those social feeds for the kinds of posts I’ve written for the past couple of years: as a spotlight on the interests of crime victims, the debates over criminal-justice reform, and the narrative journalism that documents all of that.

In that regard, I am pleased to announce that my posts will find new readers thanks not only to my exposure on Slate, but also to a deal I’ve struck to publish the blog at The Marshall Project (the blog will be echoed here, so you don’t have to move if this is where you like to read it). I don’t know exactly when that will start, as The Marshall Project gears up for its launch this summer.

So, lots going on. I’ve created a new category of blog posts on the series I’ll produce. I have a working title, but I need to work it out with my editor at Slate closer to the time of the first installment, scheduled in July. For now, let’s just call it the Slate Crime-Victim Series. In the coming days and weeks, I’ll post some overviews of the reporting and research that informs the series’ overall message about the crime-victim experience. To read past posts that hint at the direction my reporting will take, check out posts tagged or categorized under victims, restorative justice, and trauma recovery.

Thanks for reading and for spreading the word to other readers who might like to come along for the ride over the next year.

Drink from the criminal-justice firehose: 20 blogs that matter

This is a blog about the journalists writing about crime and criminal justice reform. So, rather than tweet out an answer to The Marshall Project’s question seeking names of “favorite bloggers on criminal justice issues,” I’ll post my answer here with a few caveats.

Following this issue requires the proverbial exercise in drinking from a firehose. I’m trying to be selective, but keep in mind I could generate a list of nearly this quality with another 20 bloggers/writers.

My bias is toward original reporting, so while my list isn’t exclusively focused there, it’s never far from the center of my attention. Another asterisk on my answers: What exactly is a blogger anymore? Now that many news sites adopt a blog format, the genre has lost much of its original meaning — a good thing, in my view, as the technology isn’t what matters. There are journalists, policy analysts and advocates, academics, and interested bystanders all contributing something to the conversation. When that “something” is original, informed, deeply researched or reported, and written well, then by definition it matters. And, while I care at least as much about reported narratives that illustrate the realities of crime and reform, I’ll stick to the assignment at hand by focusing on writing that more closely resembles blog commentary and analysis.

So enough with the throat-clearing. Here’s my list of bloggers (whatever that means) I follow because of what and how they write about criminal justice issues:

The Crime Report. I’ve said it before. But, until The Marshall Project delivers on its promise to build a hub for reporting on criminal justice reform, this news aggregator and producer of original reports — affiliated with the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice — is the best show in town.

Andrew Cohen is in so many places at once — CBS, The Atlantic, The Week, and more — that the only surefire way to keep tabs on him is via his Twitter feed. Informed by both a strong pro-reform point of view but also by original reporting, his commentary and reports are as provocative and informative as they are voluminous. The quality of his reports, considering the volume, is simply breathtaking. He tosses off stories like this one two days ago so routinely that I think he’s redefined my full-time job as “reading Andrew Cohen.”

Radley Balko’s The Watch, hosted by the Washington Post, keys off his book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, but it’s broader on the issues than that. Take his latest post, a detailed, research-filled rebuttal to law-savvy editorial writer Charles Lane’s challenge of his views on drug legalization.

Sentencing-law expert Doug Berman’s Sentencing Law & Policy, and his newer blog on marijuana policy, keep me up on research and news. The comments on SL&P are worth reading, too.

Pacific Standard magazine, which produces a robust menu of original content online as well as what’s in print, regularly calls attention to new ideas in the research world. Here are its posts on crime.

Justin Peters’ Crime blog at Slate is on hiatus while he writes a book about Internet activist Aaron Swartz, but it’s worth waiting for its return. Less crime-centric, but well worth a read when they focus on it (and even when they don’t), are Dahlia Lithwick, Emily Bazelon, and their guest writers for Slate’s Jurisprudence column.

If there is a purer expression of push-back to the reform movement than Crime and Consequences, I haven’t seen it. Tough-on-crime, pro-prosecution advocates Bill Otis and Kent Scheidegger regularly counter the enthusiasm of their policy foes. Plus, their Criminal Justice Legal Foundation staff produces a helpful stream of “news scans.” You don’t have to agree with them, but it pays to hear all sides.

In the same vein, the group Right on Crime produces this blog highlighting its research and activism: an argument for reform from a conservative point of view (which, delightfully, sounds a lot like the liberal point of view because the reform movement has been breaking down ideological barriers, er, left and right).

James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University criminologist and expert on mass shootings, writes Crime & Punishment for the Boston Globe and writes occasionally for USA Today.

Reuters’ Alison Frankel is all over the white-collar crime scene.

The Innocence Project’s blog does a good job of keeping up with wrongful conviction and other prison-reform issues.

North Country Public Radio (in far-upstate New York) produces Prison Time, a strong, worthwhile series on prison and sentencing reform that’s updated via this blog.

Leading restorative-justice advocate Howard Zehr and his circle of colleagues produce a sporadic stream of posts on research and experiments in their field.

This is another sign of my Texas obsession, but Grits for Breakfast is a must-read.

Solitary Watch is produced by the great reporter James Ridgeway and others.

The Standdown Texas Project tracks reform in that state and others.

Vera Institute’s Current Thinking focuses on reform-minded research.

The thinking and research behind Mark A.R. Kleiman’s important book When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment shows up in The Reality-Based Community blog now and then, as well as in his Twitter feed.

This is isn’t exhaustive. My own RSS feeds and social-media likes and follows constantly grow and change as the writers do the same. (They’re about to grow even more, now that I have new names to check out from the growing list of replies to The Marshall Project’s query.) For now, though, this list isn’t a bad place to start if you’re trying to follow the action in this arena.

Search for an historical footnote

Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 6.52.19 AMThe Atlantic‘s James Bennet riled the Interwebs recently with his complaint about overuse of the term “longform journalism.” Indeed, a host of curators and publishers of it have fetishized it a bit lately. I agree with Bennet that long isn’t a virtue in itself. But, as a counterweight to the mindless link-bait that many sites traffic in, and a refutation of the myth that no one reads anything of substance anymore, especially in digital form, the cult of longform strikes me as at least a hopeful sign — especially when it celebrates literary, narrative nonfiction that springs from deep, original reporting.

Slate has made notable strides in that direction. Just last week, for example, it started a series of feature stories called Altered State: Inside Colorado’s Marijuana Economy. And now there’s this by Slate’s executive editor, Josh Levin, “The Real Story of Linda Taylor, America’s Original Welfare Queen.” As what Levin calls “the embodiment of a pernicious stereotype” peddled most famously by Ronald Reagan during his bid to rise in national political prominence, Taylor turns out to be far more interesting than Reagan imagined. More to the point, she deserves her bad reputation, but for much more serious crimes than welfare fraud. Her preferred targets were helpless individual victims, not just a bureaucracy and taxpayers.

When Levin set out to find whatever happened to Taylor, he walked into a fascinating historical crime narrative that he tells with skill, and at the length it deserves (about 16,000 words, by my rough count, plus multimedia extras). It’s not easy to keep forward momentum in a narrative with such serpentine qualities, but Levin — and the chapter-driven design — manage it well. Even better, he uses the story of her miscast fame to make a point about politics and policy. As a myth, Linda Taylor did great damage to social programs. As a criminal, she deserved a punishment far more tangible than infamy.

This kind of original reporting is expensive to produce. Note that Levin is on Slate’s payroll, not a freelancer trying to get paid by the word. Aside from occasional success stories in the e-singles market and experiments in crowdfunding, the digital realm has not been a lucrative market for this sort of journalism. The only surefire way that can begin to change is to condition readers to congregate where writers are telling stories like the Linda Taylor saga. Then, perhaps, advertising and subscription money will flow.

Readers and priorities (2m to read)

An innovation at Slate that I just noticed tells me how long any given article will take to read. It appears alongside the titles of stories listed in the “Full Slate” table of contents. I love this not just for how it helps the reader, but also for what it says about the necessity that journalism balance meaning with utility.

A common excuse readers give for not reading: “I don’t have time.” They might say this about reading particular long books or long-form magazine pieces. They might say it about developing a news-reading habit in general. On the surface, they’re saying their schedule is already too packed to fit this in at the moment. But really they’re saying they are unwilling to reorder their priorities. In the standard diet of sleep, eating, working, commuting, family and social time, exercise, and recreation/relaxation, the thing you wrote doesn’t matter enough to slot into any of the obvious places. If they’re watching cute-cat videos or so-called reality TV shows instead of reading the narrative that took you six months of obsessive research, reporting, writing, and editing, then clearly you’ve failed to grab and hold their interest enough that they would consider dropping or delaying one of their priorities.

Even if they’re slightly interested, one of the first questions that pops into the readers’ heads: How long will this take? Put another way: How much do I care? How much do I really need this?

After I wrote a Kindle Single, which weighed in around 20,000 words, or roughly one-quarter the length of a standard nonfiction hard-cover book, I found myself assuring friends and strangers alike, “You can read it in just a couple of hours.” Part of me thought that sounded like a lame sales pitch. It’s almost as if I’m saying, “This doesn’t have to matter that much to you; it just has to matter a little.” But so what? It’s a sales pitch that hits where it counts because it’s what any potential reader will wonder anyway. And it sounds a lot better than saying “This will be about twice as long as the longest magazine article you’ve probably ever read.”

I’ve never written or edited anything without regretting having to cut certain material. Even after throwing characters, facts, background, and tangents overboard for their obvious irrelevance to the story at hand, other details that clearly do matter to the story must be cut anyway, just to make that story more accessible to more people; shorter, less confusing, less demanding. Time is a big part of that. Video players do this as a matter of course. Now, I hope, others will follow Slate’s lead and include this more often with text articles. The reader wonders it anyway. Why not just come out and tell her?