Financial Times digital leader Robin Kwong at The Power of Storytelling conference in Bucharest

Financial Times digital leader Robin Kwong at The Power of Storytelling conference in Bucharest

The Financial Times is not typically linked with literary or narrative journalism. But Robin Kwong, head of digital delivery for the global news organization, is pushing to expand the approaches to traditional news in ways that get disaffected readers to re-engage and to give complex stories a more personal appeal. He has his team of creative producers are driving some of the most innovative journalism in Europe and beyond, and redefining the possibilities for the future of the craft.

Kwong spoke about his work at this year’s edition of The Power of Storytelling conference in Bucharest. Despite his title, he said his interest is not to create the most technologically advanced journalism, but to wed digital media with what he calls “emotional storytelling.” He wants journalists to be better able to communicate the complicated, emotional truths that shape our increasingly troubled world.

For other reports from this year’s Power of Storytelling, see Longform podcaster Max Linsky’s five rules for effectively awkward interviews.

His drive is based partly on facts — research shows plunging levels of trust in the media around the world — and partly on the personal as Kwong watches the divisions that are tearing at his native Hong Kong and his adopted city of London.

“I don’t think it’s overnight that people of Hong Kong decided that journalists have become incompetent or evil, or that we no longer know how to do our jobs, that we can’t verify the facts and report, and tell you what is happening in a fair way,” Kwong said. “I think it’s more that society has become so polarized and people have become so caught up in what is going on that they feel like maybe it really is war of a sort.”

This war-like mentality shows in data. The Reuters Institute found that over the last five years, across multiple markets, trust in news has gone down by a full 10 percent. Kwong wanted to understand the reasons behind that precipitous decline.

Robin Kwong

Robin Kwong

“People avoid the news because it has a negative impact on their mood — it makes them feel bad,” he said. “They try to avoid the news because it makes them feel helpless. And it’s only after those two reasons that they get to avoiding the news because they can’t trust it anymore.”

That has prompted Kwong to think about how journalists need to respond. His solution: integrating emotional journalism into his team’s traditional news and enterprise reporting.

“We need journalism that remains very grounded and rooted in rigorous, factual truth,” he said. “But we also need journalism that honors and speaks to people’s emotional truths. (…) We need journalism that doesn’t just provide facts as a service, but also provides empathy as a service.”

With this reality in mind, Kwong and his team search for creative ways to reach not just people’s minds, but their hearts.

  • Journalism as a game

The Uber Game is a free computer game that lets you simulate life as a full-time Uber driver in San Francisco, trying to make a living in the gig economy. The team at FT interviewed dozens of drivers and collected detailed data about their actual costs and income to make sure the game is firmly rooted in reality.

“We tried to combine the stories and emotional truths of what it’s like to be in the gig economy with the factual truths of the economics of the system,” Kwong explained.

The game gives players a week to earn a certain amount of money, but it faces them with several dilemmas along the way: For example, they can either go home at 7 p.m. to spend promised time with their kids, or work a few more hours to make their dollar goal.

It was a success: More than half a million people played the game for an average time of 20 minutes (versus the average time spent on a traditional FT article, which is just over a minute). But it achieved more than that.

“Beyond the analytics, the reason it was a success for us is because of the feedback we’ve received,” Kwong said. “People have come up to me to say that after they’ve played the game they began to empathize a little bit more with the Uber drivers they encountered. The next time they stepped into a car they were a bit more interested in that person in the front seat. We’ve also had drivers come up to us saying that playing the game made them stop and think about their place and role within the system.”

Since then, Kwong and his team launched two new games: “Dogging Trump’s Tarrifs,” about the U.S.-China trade war, and “The Trade-Off,” about being a CEO split between purpose and profit.

  • Journalism as poetry

After the success of The Uber Game, the FT dared an even bolder experiment by producing a poetic monologue about The Irish Backstop. The backstop is a contentious point between Great Britain and the European Union over how to handle the future border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in a post-Brexit world.

“We wanted to explain what this is to people, but we also really wanted to convey the fact that it’s not actually just an abstract concept,” he said. “The Irish border is a real place, with real people living on both sides of it, with a real and often fraught history.”

FT commissioned Irish poet and playwright Clare Dwyer Hogg to write a poem about the feelings the Irish Backstop evokes, based on journalists’ reporting and what politicians have been saying about the issue. Then they enlisted Irish actor Stephen Rea to perform a reading of the poem, which they filmed with him standing on the troubled border.

  • Journalism as a documentary movie

The Financial Times also combined journalism with theatre and film. In a recent experiment FT Standpoint shot a fictional news program from the year 2050 that outlines the horrible consequences of the climate crisis: 50 degree Celsius temperatures (122 Farhenheit in Doha, Manchester and Austin, making it impossible for people unable to stay outdoors for more than an hour each day.

The FT had a very specific vision for this piece: “We think of it as the visual, video equivalent of an opinion piece that you might read in the newspaper,” Kwong said. “It definitely has a point of view to it, but it was really important that we worked not just with a writer from the Royal Court Theatre in London to help with the scenarios and script, but with climate scientists.”

The result: All the temperatures and consequences featured in a haunting bit of sci-fi were based on scientific projections of what will happen if countries don’t take immediate and substantive action to combat climate change.

Kwong said that issues like Brexit and the climate crisis require emotional storytelling. They are topics for which facts exist in abundance, but people don’t want to engage with them because they’ve already formed an opinion or become so fatigued that they tune out.

Kwong acknowledged that emotional storytelling can also be used in less than honorable ways — by advertisers to lure customers, by politicians to lure votes, by governments to spin propaganda. But when used for good, it is a potent journalistic force.

“Emotional storytelling is really powerful because it affects cognition,” Kwong said. “It opens us up to certain facts or closes us off to others. It’s why I think it’s extra-important for journalists to grapple with all the complexities of trying to use emotional storytelling in our work — even though we might not always get it right.”

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