Four Pronouncements about Storytelling in Journalism

We had only one heartbreak during our wonderful summer and early fall in Kettle Falls, WA — we were unable to have a daily newspaper delivered to us. The Spokesman-Review of Spokane had recently cut costs by ending home delivery in our area. Given that we were 20 miles from the nearest store, we could get the paper only on the couple of days a week when we went into town.

Heartbreak might seem like too strong a word, but not for lifelong, die-hard newspaper readers. On our trip back to Florida, we sampled many newspapers along the way, and happily were able to pick one up at most of our RV stops.

newspaper.jpeg Meanwhile, discussion continues about the health of newspapers — or lack thereof — as well as the role of storytelling, not only in print journalism, but in the new digital formats that are enhancing the presence of newspapers on the Internet and possibly keeping newspapers alive.

Here are four (somewhat) recent pronouncements about storytelling in journalism:

When storytelling is reduced to content, ideas die. These were the words of Gary Goldhammer in an impassioned blog entry called The Last Newspaper. Goldhammer imagines a character, Daniel, who has purchased the last newspaper ever to be published and is answering questions from curious onlookers and telling them about how “what they now refer to as ‘content’ used to be called ‘stories,’ delivered by trained individuals known as ‘storytellers’ and ‘journalists.’”

He goes on to rail against content:

Stories are personal and transformational. Stories have definition and character. Stories are history personified. … But content is cold, distant. Content is a commodity — a finite consumable of fleeting value. Content is artificial intelligence.

Goldhammer has a kindred spirit in This American Life’s Ira Glass, who said in a keynote address to the American Library Association: “most journalism makes the world seem smaller and stupider and less interesting” [because it tries to eradicate the narrative.] But we live in a world where stories provide hope.”

Narratives ask us to invest in characters, was the pronouncement of Daysha Eaton, based on a talk she attended by Celeste Freemon, who teaches literary journalism at UC Irvine and is a senior fellow for social justice/new media at the USC Institute for Justice and Journalism. Unilke Goldhammer, who seems to think good storytelling can take place only in the print incarnation of newspapers, Freemon’s talk and Eaton’s blog entry recognize that narrative that invites investment and characters can be accomplished in digital forms.

In fact, storytelling is essential to new forms of journalism, which is pretty much what Amanda Michel, editor of distributed reporting at the investigative outlet ProPublica, says in an article about her on the Columbia Journalism Review site by Megan Gerber. “Journalism Plus” is one term these new forms of journalism (Robert Scoble coined the term, reports Josh Halliday in InJournalism magazine.) Medium is immaterial to those who espouse Journalism Plus. Halliday quotes student editor Greg Linch: “Journalism is not about the medium — it’s about the story. Audio and video helps the subject tell [his or her] own story. Multimedia storytelling allows us to do better journalism.”

So what are some of these new forms, and how well do they tell stories? Some examples:

  • A College Media Online Journalism Contest 2.0 offers clues by way of its categories of winners: audio slideshow, breaking news video, video package, data (best use of data, best use of mapping), interactive package design, interactive graphic design, overall design, use of social networking sites, community engagement, innovation, breaking news package.
  • Telling stories with Google Maps, as described by the Readership Institute: “Not enhance stories by adding maps, but tell stories using the maps.”

The Readership Institute, in the person on Rich Gordon, also lists what it takes to tell a good story online: The story needs to be visual, interactive (as in, the user is in control of the storytelling experience, interactive (as in, users can interact with the content), structured, multimedia, technology-driven, navigable, user-generated, personal, usable, and a team game.

Final pronouncement: Readers are looking for meaning. This statement was part of heartfelt talk by Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Hallman of The Oregonian, as excerpted by the excellent site Nieman Storyboard. In his talk, Hallman struggled with the changes in how he now tells stories and how, in his opinion, his Pulitzer-Prize-winning story would have been ruined with an online component. Part of the struggle is that editors prescribe shorter, more disciplined stories. That’s not easy, Hallman said, but stories can still be told in short form; in fact — because readers are looking for meaning — storytelling will be the salvation of newspapers. One writer who is using a very short form to convey meaning to readers, as well as invite them to invest in characters, is Brady Dennis, who writes a series called 300 Words. He won an Ernie Pyle Award for human interest for these 300-word stories.

In an interview with Dennis by Michael Weinstein on the Poynter Online site, Dennis says, “I believe that each person not only has a story to tell, but that each person has a story that matters.” He suggests that a good writer need not struggle with long-form vs. short-form storytelling: “I learned it doesn’t take 3,000 words to put together a beginning, middle and end. A good story is a good story, no matter the length. And sometimes the shorter ones turn out [to be] more powerful than the windy ones.”

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A Storied Career explores intersections/synthesis among various forms of
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Kathy Hansen, PhD, is a leading proponent of deploying storytelling for career advancement. She is an author and instructor, in addition to being a career guru. More...

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The following are sections of A Storied Career where I maintain regularly updated running lists of various items of interest to followers of storytelling:

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