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Are Personal Essays the Future of Digital Journalism?

personalessaysPersonal essays have never been more popular online. Sarah Hepola, Salon.com’s personal essay editor, thinks she knows why: “People have always been drawn to personal narratives. It’s one of the fundamentals of storytelling: Through your story, I better understand my own. As human beings, we like to see others fail and hurt and triumph.”

It’s not just random blogs that publish these confessional articles anymore. Digital (and some traditional) news sites are getting in on it too. Salon is a perfect example of such a site. Since its inception in 1995, it has gained a reputation for being a reputable source of information about news, politics, pop culture and everything in between. But it’s that ‘in between’ category that, in recent months, has really gotten the public’s (and the Internet’s) attention. Personal essays now garner hundreds of comments a piece. Controversial topics (and click bait headlines) have become the norm. And it’s not just Salon — outlets like The Daily Beast, Time and Slate all use similar tactics in the race for traffic.

“A few factors intersected to make personal essays a really appealing format for us, starting in about 2008: The recession slashed our staff and freelancer rates (reporting is expensive), and the demand for constant content left us scrambling to compete with huge aggregation sites like the Huffington Post,” Hepola told 10,000 Words. “Add to that the rise of blogging, so that more people than ever were writing about their own lives.” Suddenly, personal essays were a huge part of Salon’s site. Hepola understands the negative reaction towards the genre, yet resents the accusations it gets.

“I get tired of the accusation that personal essays are self-centered and navel-gazing,” she said. “Believe me: Seven thousand-word narrative pieces can be self-centered and navel-gazing, too. What matters is good writing and powerful storytelling.”

But what about the other accusation about personal essays — that they are simply easy click bait? Although Hepola claims Salon tries to steer clear from controversy-laden material, she is honest about the realities of her job.

“I would be disingenuous to pretend that my only job is to lift the human spirit,” she said. “Ours is a numbers game. My job demands that my stories generate traffic, and I have certainly run many stories because they were ‘clicky,’ as we say, though I hope they offered something else along the way. I try to provide more than empty calories.”

In the end, Hepola says she’s not worried about personal essays replacing traditional journalism.

“I do think some of the anger toward personal essays stems from a larger anxiety about what it might be displacing,” she said. “Even if the personal essay is replacing long form narrative journalism, it’s not out of the question that both could serve the same ultimate goal: To broaden our understanding of the larger world.”

What do you think? Should personal essays be considered journalism? If an essay is well researched, does that give it credibility? Sound off in the comments below.

– Aneya Fernando

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