Consider how storytelling has evolved through the centuries in art and literature: oral storytellers, epic poems, myths, legends, parables, fables, fairy tales, tall tales, campfire stories, ballads, sonnets, tragedies, comedies, mysteries, biographies, novels, short stories, free verse, comic books, operas, soap operas, animated cartoons, situation comedies, TV commercials, and on and on.
Storytelling in journalism has evolved, too: inverted pyramid, news briefs, columns, reviews, charticles, timelines, series, Q&A’s, narrative journalism, and on and on.
In a recent blog post, Jeff Jarvis committed journalistic heresy, questioning the use and future of the article, the most common product of newspaper journalism. “An article can be a luxury,” he wrote.
Jarvis’ post prompted responses from Mathew Ingram, Frédéric Filloux and Jonathan Glick, which prompted two more blog posts and a Facebook response from Jarvis (under the Facebook comments tab at the end of the Ingram piece).
Clearly, Jarvis has struck a nerve. He has been misunderstood, in part because the article is so fundamental to our understanding of journalism processes. In his most recent entry on the subject he wrote:
First, far from denigrating the article, I want to elevate it. When I say the article is a luxury, I argue that using ever-more-precious resources to create an article should be taken seriously and before writing and editing a story we must assure that it will add value.
I appreciate the debate Jarvis has sparked, though I am heading in a different direction from his entries or the responses. I think article and story are too often used interchangeably to describe those strings of text that are the rapidly diminishing lifeblood of newspapers. I view the article as a collection of facts, the answers to those five questions starting with W. As journalism has evolved, this form of prose has most certainly become a luxury, even an anachronism.
The article is seldom the best way to do what it does best. Newspapers publish so many articles because they employ so many reporters and because they have not restaffed, redesigned or retrained to tell the day’s news in other ways. (Same with TV, which does similar formulaic news reports.)
Even before newspapers’ business model began to collapse under the force of digital disruption, we learned that many articles worked as well or better as graphics or tables, organizing those facts with a better structure for their content than the paragraph. As Dan Conover correctly notes, the answers to those W questions actually work better as structured data. And, as I’ve noted, databases have great potential economic value for news organizations.
Amy Gahran suggests that reporters, rather than leaving so much of the information they gather unpublished, should publish “small, discrete story modules” from which users could construct the articles that suit their needs, as if building with Legos.
These are excellent suggestions to help journalists consider better ways of presenting these basic facts that are the fodder of most news articles.
I distinguish articles from stories by the qualities of storytelling. A story is not constructed simply as a string of information. It has a narrative arc. It is built around those story elements we learned in 8th grade: plot, character, setting, theme. It uses literary devices such as dialogue, action and scenes. It has a conflict and a resolution (or at least a quest for resolution, since so many journalism stories are not yet finished). It builds to a climax.
I cherish journalistic storytelling. I have written a 200-inch newspaper story and I have blogged here with advice for narrative journalists. I am pleased that as this discussion about the value and future of articles is unfolding, other editors are discussing storytelling techniques editors at Nieman Storyboard are discussing the craft points of an artfully told story, Stephanie McCrummen’s compelling tale of a pay stub tossed some 70 miles away by an Alabama tornado.
Journalists resisting change like to cite such stories, as well as the big investigative projects, when the campaign for preserving some core of traditional journalism in whatever lies ahead. I love those parts of journalism’s past, and I hope they can adapt well enough to survive into the future.
But if journalism evolves beyond my favorite pieces of its past, we can still tell profound stories. Storytelling is evolving with digital tools, just as it has evolved in writing, video and graphics. While the McCrummen story is gripping, I think Brian Stelter’s tweets and the Des Moines Register map are just as powerful ways to tell the story of a tornado, maybe more powerful.
Digital journalists tell stories through a variety of tools and techniques today: Interactive graphics, curation, liveblogs, lists, time-lapse photography, annotation and a host of others. Perhaps the news article and the text narrative will survive in some form in journalism. But if they fade into journalism’s history, storytelling and journalism can still survive and thrive. (Update: I added annotation to the listing of forms above on July 8.)
If the epic poem has vanished (or nearly so), does that diminish Homer‘s epics? We can appreciate a storytelling form that has passed while still enjoying what evolved and survived.