When I read Philip Lee’s ignorant anti-Twitter rant, Notes on the triviality of Twitter, my first reaction was that I needed to write another anti-anti-Twitter-rant rant.
But I’m getting tired of those rants (maybe you are, too). I previously noted how Leonard Pitts, Edward Wasserman and Paul Farhi wrote foolish things about Twitter without bothering to learn what they were talking about. Do I repeat myself just because Lee has echoed their whining, or could I find something new to say?
Lee did say lots of ignorant things about Twitter, but they are things I’ve addressed before, so I won’t dwell on them here. He has tried Twitter out (barely, 34 tweets in nearly a year), which the others noted above had not.
I want to address Lee’s concern about Twitter and storytelling:
My concerns about Twitter journalism reflect my concerns about the future of professional story tellers. Writing is a serious business. Tweets are trivial. We need writers, and journalists to be applying all their energy and brains to what we do, which is to tell stories. The stories will be the salvation of the journalism business.
I admire Lee’s passion for storytelling. In addition to saying lots of ignorant things about Twitter, he passed along this quote from Joan Didion:
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. . . . We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual expreience.
Lee’s passion for stories, and his fear for the future of storytelling, made me think of a recent conversation with Jacqui Banaszynski, a Reynolds Fellow at the University of Missouri. When I visited Mizzou last month, I chatted briefly with her about her fellowship project. Jacqui, a Pulitzer Prize-winning storyteller, is taking on The Future of the Story.
Both in our conversation last month and in an interview for the Reynolds Journalism Institute web site, Jacqui worried for the future of storytelling and mentioned Twitter as one of the forces changing our storytelling landscape. Unlike Lee, Jacqui didn’t lash out at Twitter. She expressed valid fears about whether smaller news staffs will commit to the kinds of stories where she made her mark. Like Lee, Jacqui has barely dipped her toe into the Twitter waters, with just 33 tweets.
Jacqui asked for some of my thoughts on her project and I promised to get back to her, so here I go.
I am a huge fan of long-form narrative journalism. I wrote a 200-inch story for the Omaha World-Herald back in 1997, when you could do such things at a newspaper (it was rare even then). But I do have to admit that the video epilogue I did last year made it even better.
I gladly attended three different Nieman Narrative conferences. I developed a full-day seminar on narrative writing myself, with sessions on gathering details, the storytelling process, narrative elements and structure and short narrative. The Gazette emphasized narrative writing when I was leading the news staff. I mourn the recent loss to newspapers of such great storytellers as Ken Fuson and Tom French. I’m delighted that recent Pulitzer Prizes have honored such great story tellers as Lane DeGregory and Anne Hull.
I hope great journalists keep writing long stories in newspapers for generations to come. But my key point to Philip Lee and to Jacqui is that great storytelling predates newspapers and it will continue if newspapers die. Stories are how we share the human experience and storytelling is not dependent on technology or business models.
Three years ago, I led an American Press Institute seminar on storytelling. While we focused heavily on innovations in storytelling, I made a point of inviting N. Scott Momaday, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and also a Kiowa master of the ancient art of the oral story. He was spellbinding and listening to him underscored for me that the power of storytelling is in the story itself and in the act of storytelling, not in the medium. Great storytellers adapt to the media they try and the tools they use.
My grandmother, Francena H. Arnold, was an accomplished novelist, author of Not My Will and other Christian fiction. I’m proud of her work, display her books on my shelves and credit her with whatever inherent writing ability I might have. But my fondest memories of Grandma are the oral stories she would tell. As a young boy, I would volunteer to “help Grandma do the dishes” after dinner. That meant she would do the dishes and tell stories while I listened in fascination with a towel that never got damp.
We’ve had great stories long before newspapers started publishing great stories. In addition to the oral traditions, storytelling had its roots in cave drawings and epic poems. The Apostle Paul found letters work well for stories. Eventually the novel form developed, then the short story. In journalism, we have had a variety of story forms, from the inverted pyramid to the martini-glass to the multi-part series to the long narrative to storytelling graphics and alternative story forms. Film became a great vehicle for storytelling and the popularity of YouTube underscores the power of stories in smart videos (actually, TV ads demonstrated that long ago).
Songs make great story vehicles as well. In my short-narrative workshop, I cite Don’t Take Your Guns to Town, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and Johnny B. Goode. French likes to use Eleanor Rigby in storytelling workshops.
Digital tools give us more ways to tell stories, as StarTribune.com showed with its powerful 13 Seconds in August story package on the collapse of the I-35W bridge, as nola.com showed with its Last Chance project on Louisiana’s vanishing coastline and as the Des Moines Register did with its Parkersburg tornado map. (Please add links to some of your favorite multimedia packages in the comments.)
So I say to Philip Lee: Don’t sell the power of stories short. You haven’t learned yet how to use Twitter well, but Ron Sylvester tells riveting live stories of courtroom drama using Twitter. Just last week, I followed Terry Branstad’s announcement that he was considering a run for governor by following Charlotte Eby‘s tweets. I’ve used Twitter to tell the stories of many unfolding events and seen other journalists do the same thing, as well as seeing fascinating stories take shape in the aggregation of tweets from multiple sources, journalists and the public. A compelling story unfolded on Twitter from millions of sources in the #beatcancer meme. (And any journalist knows the facts you gather give any true story its power, and I’ve blogged again and again on the value of Twitter for gathering information, especially on breaking news.) I follow Twitter links daily to excellent examples of longer storytelling, and the more people who read a story, the greater its power. Also, as my Tweeting wisdom of the ages series of posts illustrated, many of the most memorable quotations of our literature and culture fit easily in tweets.
And I say to Jacqui Banaszynski: Yes, the story has a bright future. If the narrow-minded business people who run newspapers can’t save the vehicle that has delivered so many great journalism stories, then great storytellers like you will help us develop and learn new tools.
Whatever our tools and platforms, people will tell stories.