This year marked some major changes at Storyboard: new website, new editor and new narrative territory. Our most popular posts of 2014 reflect some timely– and timeless– themes. Most notable is the flourishing passion for audio storytelling. No fewer than four of our top 10 posts involve some sort of story, discussion or analysis of radio or podcast narrative. At the same time, readers remain interested in classic print pieces, with our well-established Annotation Tuesday feature drawing attention for its deconstruction of three magazine articles, two of them several (or more) decades old. And there’s no expiration date when it comes to sound writing advice, as evidenced by the digital resurrection of a pair of past essays by two masters of the craft.
Here are our top 10 posts (mostly, but not slavishly in order) for 2014:
The most-viewed post by many thousands of clicks was our October interview with “Serial” executive producers Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, which isn’t surprising given the runaway success of their “This American Life” spinoff podcast. In its first season, the 12-episode narrative, which concluded today, explored the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Lee and subsequent conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed.
In this excerpt from our chat, Koenig, who also hosts the program, talks about the gap between the audience’s expectations and her purpose as a storyteller:
“The popularity of this podcast, I was unprepared for. I think a lot of that is the fact that it’s a crime. It’s a murder case. I had not banked on that’s what people are responding to. It’s not our great idea and our wonderful storytelling; it’s just that people can’t resist a murder mystery. I really did not appreciate that until now. I’m afraid there probably is some of that out there, where it’s just a caper. And that’s fine. I think that’s not our interest, though. That’s not our intention. I think our intention is more complicated and probably more subtle, and maybe too subtle.
It’s funny because I keep thinking for all these people who are like, “Does she know the ending? What’s the ending? How’s it going to end?” To me, when I’m watching “House of Cards” or “Downton Abbey,” or whatever it is, I don’t want to know the ending. To me, the pleasure is in the story, right? So I’m always a little bit like, “Wait, don’t you guys just want to stick with me? Why are you trying to get ahead of the story? Isn’t the pleasure in having it lay out? To me, that’s what I like. So I don’t relate, honestly, so much. I really don’t. I’m sad when it gets to the end of those series. I just want it to keep going.”
Listeners worried about how to replace their “Serial” fix may have accounted for the strong interest in Nieman fellow Gabe Bullard’s list of recommended replacement podcasts. His top three?
“The Memory Palace.” This is my ultimate “high reward” podcast. It’s short and infrequent, but the storytelling is among the best available online.
“Judge John Hodgman.” Writer and actor John Hodgman (“The Daily Show,” those Mac/PC ads) adjudicates petty conflicts between friends in this People’s Court-style podcast. Many humor podcasts consist of funny people (or people who think they’re funny) riffing and hoping for laughs, but this is smarter and, at times, surprisingly heartfelt.
“Gastropod.” In each episode, Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley look at issues related to the future of eating. This is new, but with its focus on reporting and sharp writing, it’s quickly become one of two food-related podcasts I always listen to (the other is “America’s Test Kitchen,” from the same people who make the TV and radio shows).
Also in the top half of our year-end list is another audiocentric story, an examination of the podcast renaissance by Cynthia Graber. Graber, whose article also appeared in our sister publication Nieman Reports, writes:
Today, podcasting is making a comeback, in part because the technology—smartphones and audio recording programs—is easy to use. According to the Inﬁnite Dial 2014 study, the latest from Edison Research on consumer adoption of digital media, more than 60% of the American public has a smartphone. (This increases to 80% of the 18- to 34-year-old demographic.) Apps like Stitcher encourage seamless podcast listening, and websites like SoundCloud make embedding and sharing audio a snap.
The result: Thousands of podcasts are available on iTunes, with an offering for seemingly every interest—from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “StarTalk Radio” to “Common Sense” with Dan Carlin.
Annotation Tuesday remains one of Storyboard’s most popular features, with four entries in our top 10. Our first audio annotation (yes, more ear candy!) highlighted a classic “This American Life” story about a young man, his mother, a voicemail and the Little Mermaid. Producer Jonathan Goldstein told annotator Lisa Pollak that he thought the story, which inspired a new award at this year’s Third Coast audio conference, worked because it continues to surprise the listener. Here, a short exchange between Goldstein and his friend Josh Karpati is followed by a discussion of how to create in an interview “the joy of being in it together.” (In the annotations, the annotator’s questions are in red; the author’s answers in blue.)
Jonathan: You have it? You have the message?
Josh: I do not have the message. I have the message in my head. I am telling you a story. All right? What’s going through your head as you do this interview? At every beat I know that certain things are going to set [Josh] off and I know that’s only going to prolong the gratification. It was like, even when he’s about to tell me what the message is and then I ask him, “Oh, you have the message?” And I knew he didn’t have the message, but I also knew he would beat me up for it. And then when he’s just about to tell the message he’s like, “You’re ready?” And I’m like, “Yeah, yeah,” and then he goes, “Oh, one more thing.” And I left that in because I felt like, you’re with him. You’re along for the ride in this wonderful way. This isn’t the first time Josh is telling you the story, but it sounds like it could have been. How do you do that? There’s this idea in radio that the best kind of tape is tape in which something is “happening.” So if there is a feeling of you reacting, being surprised, laughing, it makes it feel — though it’s only a conversation in a studio — like something is happening. And the listener will have a bit more of that vicarious thrill… the joy of being in it together. So you want to find a balance between knowing some things but still allowing room for surprise. And I have to admit, I’m not much of a laugher, which has made my career in radio more difficult. I do not have the free and easy laugh that makes subjects feel like they are the wisest, funniest people in the world. I try to sound like I’m smiling but that doesn’t always come across. I have to do things like say “Wait… you what?” or repeat what they just said to underline it for the listener. And one of the things I love about Josh is that he makes me laugh in a way very few people do and so he makes me a better broadcaster than I am.
Contributor Elon Green annotated Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s essay in The Believer on comedian Dave Chappelle, which was a finalist for a 2014 National Magazine Award. Ghansah made some highly personal choices in reporting and writing her story, among them not approaching Chappelle when she accidentally ran into him on the street, a decision that provoked this exchange with Green:
This decision of yours–to let him go, as it were–was quite contentious! “There was no conversation to have,” you told Longform, because Chappelle had already declined to do an interview. “The point is he’s stated all he needs to say.” Is this the difference between being a reporter and an essayist? I think a reporter would be obligated to be, as you put it to Longform, a pest, while the essayist has the freedom to stay back. But is the reporter obligated to find things if they already know the answer? Plus, I don’t think the story needed it. You need to respect people’s autonomy and their ability to make decisions for themselves. It’s a comment on the entire history of black people in America. We haven’t had autonomy and ownership of things. Here was someone who had ownership of all that stuff, and didn’t have any reason to return again. I don’t think I wanted to see Dave Chappelle, the person who wanted to be pestered; I wanted to see Dave Chappelle, the person who wouldn’t talk to me. And that’s what I got. I was pretty satisfied with that.
Two other annotations also caught the attention of readers. The first deconstructed Mike Sager’s 1989 profile of porn star John Holmes for Rolling Stone. This annotation also unofficially contained the most mentions of the male anatomy in Storyboard history. When the discussion turned to storytelling, however, Sager offered this insight, among others:
I always wrote out loud, but I had to stop eventually because my voice was getting too fucked up. But if you listen to, say, Oscar Peterson playing, he’s always humming over his work. That’s how I write. That shit’s made to be read. There’s poetry in commission. I look at sentences that way. Also, I kind of like long sentences that, by pace and rhythm, give you time to breathe but take you on a different journey. I refer to it as the J-stroke. If you ever went to camp and took canoeing, you know what it is–a stroke with a turn. That’s what I like to do to my readers: fuck with their heads. Everybody thinks they always know where you’re going, and I never want to go there.
Still holding strong in this year’s Top 10 from 2013 is the annotation of the iconic Gay Talese story “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” a cornerstone of the New Journalism movement. Here, Talese spoke to Green about his approach to note-taking:
Do you have a photographic memory? I go over stuff so much, and go over it again and again and again, that I can remember it forever, almost. A couple of years ago, you told Chris Jones, “I don’t take notes in front of people.” Right. So what techniques to do you use to remember such a complicated scene or extended dialogue? You’re describing — in great detail — movement, wardrobe and the location of the various parties. This strikes me as something that would be difficult to capture even in real time. Every night, if I don’t sneak notes in during the day going to the bathroom or something — which I do — I go home and before I go to sleep I write down notes from the whole day, what’s in my mind.
Jill Lepore, who has a new book out about Wonder Woman, is a sort of Wonder Woman herself, as both a Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer. In her Q-and-A with Storyboard, she discussed the parallels and divides between her academic and journalistic careers:
You know it’s easy to bash academic writers, but it’s completely unfair in the sense that academics aren’t writing for those readers. They’re writing for other academics and specialists and that’s all to the good and what they should be doing. That’s an efficient way to advance the production and distribution of knowledge within a field, within a field of inquiry. There’s nothing wrong with that.[W]riting for a different audience is really fun. To the degree I have the capacity to do that, I owe it entirely to my editor at The New Yorker, who is just an incredibly brilliant editor and has taught me more than I could possibly hope to ever really learn and digest.
But thinking about how to take a complicated body of knowledge that particular historians have, bring it onto the page in a way that will reach a reader that does not have that body of knowledge but does not want to be spoken down to in any way because they’re a very, very smart person, and bring it to life by respecting that these people lived lives and they’re not to be used, they’re not fodder for our cannons, they’re real people who lived and died and they deserve every bit of the truth and dignity of the lives they led and not to be put to some political use in our particular moment in time. Nonetheless, to have a story have a kind of resonance with the current moment because we’re all human and because we face struggles in common, struggles over time, that’s like the most fun jigsaw puzzle.
Highlighting Storyboard’s value as a timeless resource, two “vintage” essays on craft sparked renewed interest. In excerpts from his 2010 lecture at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, Vanity Fair writer Bryan Burrough offered this practical advice about avoiding writer’s block:
So at the beginning of the first day, when I get the assignment, I start two files on my desktop. Let’s say the story is slugged Mayborn. I start Mayborn.reporting and Mayborn.writing. Everything I gather, obviously, goes in Mayborn.reporting, but unlike a lot of people I don’t wait to the end to start filling up Mayborn.writing. I start immediately. I write up every single thing I get in Mayborn.writing because I’ve found that I block, badly, badly, badly. And so, what I do is, let’s say I get a nice interview with George. I’ve got eight grafs, I write it up. It makes me feel good to be able to look and see that I’ve already got stuff written. Everybody knows that the worst part of any narrative project is the early stuff, when you don’t really have the confidence that you’re going to get enough to do it, and you panic, “I’ll never be able to do it.” We all have this. And I feel so [much] better about myself, when I can say, “Look. I have eight paragraphs.”
Readers also revisited a 1997 essay by University of Illinois journalism professor and former Washington Post staff writer Walt Harrington about intimate journalism, which he describes here:
The kind of journalism we end up doing is shaped by the way we think about our mission. If we think that a vital part of our job is to uncover, describe and evoke the texture, tone and meaning — the warp and woof, as people say — of the everyday lives of our readers, then the crucial role of intimate journalism comes suddenly and inevitably to the fore. This kind of journalism often gives up something in breadth and on-high authority in return for something gained in evocation and humanity. It is not “news you can use,” as the modern catchphrase goes, but “news you can feel.”
And, finally, evidence that no list is complete without its own list of lists, last December’s list of “Top 10 Top 10 lists” anchored the No. 10 spot on our Top 10 of 2014 list (follow that?). This round-up gathered recommendations for reporting and writing resources from around the Internet in 2013.
Who knows? Maybe this year’s top 10 posts will make the 2015 list.