Finding Excellent Nonfiction in Long-form Journalism

How to find engaging, rigorous nonfiction texts through long-form journalism.

By Elijah Ammen

'journalism' in the dictionary

A topic of much hype and even more hysteria over the Common Core ELA standards has been the increase of nonfiction texts to the supposed detriment of fiction texts. This is one of the things that Common Core has tried to explain in the Myths vs. Facts section of their website by stating essentially what every good English teacher has always known—our ability to read a diverse range of genres and styles only makes readers stronger. Reading nonfiction strengthens the understanding of fiction, and vice versa. 

But while we might have always acknowledged the importance of nonfiction, we are now asked to be more explicit in our instruction than we have been previously, and to have longer nonfiction texts. Finding lengthy nonfiction texts at first seems limiting. Our brains automatically jump to newspaper articles or nonfiction-as-literature, ala Night or In Cold Blood. There is, however, a middle ground of nonfiction that is relevant, rigorous, and easily accessible.

Exploring Long-form Journalism

Long-form journalism is essentially extended journalistic articles on a variety of subjects. While the original sources are varied, from The New York Times or Wired, many sites aggregate the best of the articles into one site. One of the best sources,, compiles and archives the best long-form journalism, updating the articles regularly. All articles have to be over 2,000 words to be considered by the editors, giving these articles the length needed for extended analysis that the average news story would not have. In addition, the articles tend to be about broader subjects with more of an author's voice than the hard news of a daily paper. 

If your classes are not quite ready for the length and depth of long-form journalism, there are a variety of ways you can build their background knowledge to prepare them for more rigorous texts:

  • Introduction to Journalism: For lower grade levels, you may need to scaffold up, starting with a lesson like this one. You discuss what journalism is, the difference of formats, and how to write a lead using the 5 W's. 
  • Journaling with the News: If your class is not yet ready to jump into long-form journalism, try keeping a journal of current events in the news. This helps readers become familiar with the styles of journalism, and can be used to contrast with other texts, such as fiction or instructional texts.
  • Journalism Unit and Culminating Project: You can pick and choose activities from this unit where the groups explore the connections of journalism to other careers, as well as the different types of journalists. Group roles are assigned as if students were members of a journalistic team, and everyone contributes to the culminating project.

Dilemmas Journalists Face

Once learners have adequate background knowledge, long-form journalism is a great way to not only explore different subjects, but the concepts of a free press and the ethical dilemmas that journalists face:

  • Anonymous Sources in Journalism: This NY Times blog is a great discussion piece for the need for anonymous sources in journalism, along with the problems that may create. A great tie-in would be the recent events of WikiLeaks and the ongoing trial of Bradley Manning, who released military secrets to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. This is also the subject of a recent documentary, We Steal Secrets, and an upcoming movie, The Fifth Estate.
  • Verifying Sources in Journalism: In a time of boundless information and opinions just a Google search away, young learners often have trouble deciphering trustworthy and untrustworthy sources. You can use this concept to help readers "think like a journalist" and evaluate the credibility of what they read. This lesson goes through multiple steps that help a reader think through the responsibility of a journalist to fact-check his or her sources.
  • Journalism and the First Amendment: Freedom of the press is one of our core First Amendment freedoms, and this unit helps explain all of the freedoms through the lense of journalistic freedom. For a higher level of rigor, consider a Philosophical Chairs, Socratic Seminar, or Fishbowl discussion contrasting the freedom of the press with the limitations in place for public safety in situations like wartime. (See this lesson for a discussion of wartime censorship.)