Teaching Examples

Making online journalism — Part 4
November 12, 2006, 1:50 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Storytelling transmits culture. Myths, religion, history and news — all of these are transmitted through stories.

Journalism consists of true stories. The journalist finds a story in the world, discovers its many twists and turns, and then decides how best to tell it to an audience.

A screen with an input device (e.g., a computer, a video-game console, a PDA) allows the storyteller to provide an experience that is interactive and personal. The medium also permits a great deal of depth and complexity (which not every story requires).

The storyteller must keep in mind that these digital devices provide a personal experience. You’re not addressing a crowd or a roomful of people. Your audience is 12 inches (30 centimeters) from the screen. Your audience is one person. He or she is not settled down with your single story container (e.g., a newspaper). Your audience of one is in front of the biggest library ever, with at least a hundred million stories inside it.

Your audience has the ability to jump to a more interesting story in an instant. So you must provide real choices in your story package. Let the users decide and explore. Give up control. Even the traveling poets of Homer’s time switched the elements of their tales around to please the audience of the moment. All stories are modular. In the ultra-linear print format, storytellers enjoyed the illusion that control belonged to them. Linear storytelling reached its pinnacle in the theatrical film. Those are different media. (Their audiences are also different.)

Depth and complexity
Here’s where we see the craft of the storyteller. Anyone can tell a simple story: “My goldfish died”; “The bus came late.” The deeper and more complex a story is, the harder it is to find an effective way to tell it. I think this is because of two journalistic questions: HOW and WHY. In a complex story, we need to explain. We need to address these two questions, usually the hardest questions to answer.

An often-neglected question in journalism is, “Why does this story matter?” Seriously, why should anyone give a damn? In today’s corporate journalism environment, reporters are often covering stories that frankly, no one cares about. So why did people care about brave Ulysses sailing around the sea (just to take one famous story as an example)? Sure, he had a lot of hair-raising adventures. But the stories also tell us about fear, heroism, loyalty, deceit — human traits that all of us can identify with.

When a story fits in with what a person already believes to be true, the person tends to accept the story and enjoy it. When people think a story has nothing to do with them, they lose interest. Fast.

Picking up the pieces
So there you are, the storyteller, about to go forth and gather the bits and details. What pieces do you need? You need to know why the story matters, first and foremost. You need to have a clear idea of why your audience should care about this story. What is the story about?

Next, you need to think about what will persuade them to care. I don’t mean you’re out there doing a public relations job. But if your audience ignores your story, then you have failed, haven’t you? Don’t blame the audience.

You know perfectly well that having a bunch of public officials tell us why we should care is not going to work. That’s lazy journalism, and it’s not doing anyone any good.

The characters in a story make the story. The characters are the people who are affected or changed, hurt or helped, lost or found. Let your audience hear the characters speak. Put us in their shoes. Don’t make them freaks in front of a microphone — people won’t understand your story unless they identify with some of the characters. (Journalists are good at doing this with grieving loved ones. Well, what about all the other stories we tell?)

The places in a story help put the story in context. Show the places with photographs, maps, diagrams.

Objects play a big role in some stories. Show them. And show the effects they have.

Moving the pieces around
Organizing the story in a modular format takes time and patience. Sometimes you can organize a story around time — the WHEN question. But for most stories, that’s not the best choice for helping the audience understand.

Some stories can be organized around WHERE. That can make package design very easy (use a map) — but few stories really work well from a map interface.

The hardest thing to do is to organize a story around themes, or ideas — but usually this is the approach that will work best for your audience. We wind up back at HOW and WHY, the toughest questions to answer.

Whatever organizing scheme you choose, make sure that the modules are non-redundant. Nothing will kill your story faster (and bore your audience more) than repetition.

That said, be certain to identify people and places adequately in each module — because the audience is not going to move in a linear manner from A to B to C. You’re going to provide freedom of choice and allow people to go straight to what interests them most. That means each segment must stand on its own.

Getting their attention
The most important part of the whole story? The intro, the teaser, the lede. Too many online packages begin with weak boilerplate junk text. Why? Because someone waited until the end to throw it together.

What does the audience need at the front, at the beginning, at the very start? A reason to go on. A reason to care. You’ve got to give that to them in about five seconds, or else all your other work was for nothing. The audience will never see it.

… And they all lived happily ever after
People sitting around a campfire, listening intently. Men sharing newspapers in the coffee houses of 18th century Europe. Families clustered around a radio during World War II. The whole world watching television on September 11. Now our stories come to us through new devices.

The power of the telling depends on the medium.

Tomorrow: Teamwork.

Yesterday: Skill sets.

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3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Very helpfull! Thank you! 🙂

Comment by Roel

Cool! I’m a teacher @ Crossmedia Journalism (a study in the Netherlands) I can use your posts within my lessons! (see: cmjk.wordpress.com)

Very very helpfull, keep on going!

Comment by Daphne Dijkerman

Great! Glad you like it!

Comment by Mindy McAdams

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