Saturday, November 3, 2007

Storytelling and hard news

I've talked with some of you, including those at the writers' group meeting last month, about something I want us to continue to work on, and that is marrying storytelling with hard news.

In broad terms I'm talking about a story in which you are breaking news and for which you could easily write a classic, traditional hard-news lead and story, but instead you tell a story while unmistakeably delivering the news. We've consciously tried this twice (there may be other examples out there) with both of the enterprise pieces on military death investigations. They are here (Melissa Nann Burke's "Fatal Flight") and here (Michele Canty's "Marine's death was avoidable.").

In these cases, the lede, as well as the first 3-6 grafs, are crucial, because you have to engage the reader in a story, but you are not writing an anecdotal lead, so you must also deliver the hard news without softening its edges or waiting too long to deliver.

But the body of these stories is also crucial. Ideally these stories do not, after the first few grafs, become recitations of facts contained in the report or gleaned from interviews. The facts are delivered as story, as something that is unfolding in front of the reader; they should have a sense that they are not reading an after-action report, but are watching the action happen. We tried to do that, in part, with beginnings and endings to sections and with transitions.

A focus on marrying storytelling and hard news does not mean we're abandoning the idea of a well-crafted hard-news lead and story. But I do think telling a story while delivering hard news is a high calling and a great way to engage readers on important stories.

Any thoughts on this approach from anyone? We can surely refine our efforts here. Check out these stories and let us know what works and what doesn't, and how we can do this better.