Blog posts and articles on narrative journalism pinged around the Halloween weekend like eyeballs at a zombie food fight—and according to Washingtonian.com, an actual fight broke out at The Washington Post. While the Post’s Henry Allen (a Pulitzer winner for criticism) was reportedly knocking down and punching a younger feature writer over a disagreement related to a charticle-style piece, Dan Conover addressed a different Post piece from last week and took a hard look at narrative journalism’s predicament. Steve Buttry compiled several bloggers’ posts on the future of story, and Deborah Potter defended Twitter while telling a story in 76 characters.
Can’t we all get along? Here are some things I’m hoping we can agree on:
Yes, Virginia, true stories will continue to be told, even if only by a small set of highly-skilled journalists. Perhaps this is the elephant in the room and needs to be acknowledged in every post, but I’m not sure anyone is out there arguing that on principle, news should never be conveyed as a story or that storytelling journalism is finished.
Print readers best understand and remember the facts of an article when they are provided in story form. There haven’t been many studies, but those that exist have generally indicated the same thing, at least for American and European readers. And their results echo what has been found in advertising and public service campaigns—narratives get people to buy in and to store the information in their brains in a place it’s more likely to be accessed later.
The digital revolution (and even Twitter) is not killing narrative journalism. If readers were willing to flock to long-form narratives online, we’d see more narratives running on more sites.
Narrative that exploits its subjects or tricks readers is not good narrative. Everyone is suspicious of the type of narrative that Dan Conover describes in the third comment on an October post about narrative.
Things we need to debate and ponder:
What does “narrative journalism” mean in a digital era? Classic print narratives favor a literary, word-and-text-based approach, and I love them. But narrative storytelling is not limited to print journalism—and never has been. Buttry makes a point about a video epilogue he did years later for a print piece, showing how digital narratives may work differently, and in some cases even better, in formats that do not hew to the model of print literature. So, what news narratives will that future include? Throwbacks to old-time radio serials? Role-playing news games, graphic novels, or somehow-narrative charticles? We probably won’t know for a while, but that search is the point of Nieman Storyboard—preserving and protecting the best of traditional narrative journalism while looking to the future of storytelling.
Just because traditional narratives may be the best way for people to retain information does not mean all readers want to read them. Recently at the Nieman Foundation one of this year’s fellows, who is a narrative journalist, took issue with a discussion on how to get more people to read long-form stories online. Why, she asked, should organizations spend resources pushing text narratives on readers if readers aren’t responding? I like to think there’s a way in which traditional long-form stories and the digital universe can merge to attract readers, but it’s important to keep readers in the equation.
We need to do a better job figuring out what stories merit narrative projects. In his remarks at AASFE, Tom Hallman mentioned that narrative has a future if it connects with readers via stories that matter to them. The narratives that reporters tell us have received millions of online hits or generated cards, letters, and hundreds of comments are almost exclusively those that do what the best literature does: immerse the reader in another life and reveal something about the human condition. Few of them are centered on a news event, though most still have a token news hook. Many of the best, of course, also manage to provide a human frame for a larger societal issue. Some narratives that do not meet classic literary standards still connect deeply with readers.
Print narratives may not have much of a future as a solo vehicle for news. Former Washington Post Magazine editor Tom Shroder said as much in an interview last week. In this fast-cycle era, it seems riskier to work a long news narrative project in isolation and then unveil it. On a related note, as Nieman Lab’s Josh Benton wrote, it may be best for news organizations to also provide summaries or highlights of their long-form stories, beating the aggregators at their own game and reaching their readers who wouldn’t normally read the long piece.
If a news organization cultivated reporters to learn to turn around news stories as short narratives on a tight time frame, I’d like to think those stories would get tremendous response. But to do that, you have to be able to violate the Benton curve of journalistic interestingness. And I’ll admit it: short news event-based narratives are the watercolors of the journalism world. They are terribly hard to do well.
On a side note, I do disagree with Conover’s eloquent post in places. For instance, he uses global warming as an example of how readers would benefit from fewer narratives. I think that Elizabeth Kolbert’s award-winning series from The New Yorker*, which became the book Field Notes from a Catastrophe, shows how narratives can include facts on an issue of vital journalistic importance. Many of the non-narrative news stories on climate change I read are among the worst reporting I see today—a reporter on a deadline is looking for a climate change critic and includes a fringe naysayer rather than thinking of a more legitimate angle from which to be critical (business, regulator, etc.).
I think that there are still stories on every subject that can benefit from narrative treatment. Large stories, like climate change, that don’t pivot on breaking news or a single news event may in fact be the best candidates for narrative projects.
However, given the weekend’s newsroom fisticuffs, it’s clear that narrative journalism faces a turbulent existence as it moves from long-form elegance into its unknown future. But how do we revise our expectations and think creatively about the possibilities to get from here to there?
*corrected from the original post, which attributed the series to The New York Times