Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The (multimedia) future

This is some fascinating documentary-type multimedia work. It's called MediaStorm, run by a guy (Brian Storm) who used to be multimedia director at MSNBC. Its mission, it says, is to "usher in the next generation of multimedia storytelling by publishing social documentary projects incorporating photojournalism, interactivity, animation, audio and video for distribution across multiple media."

Pretty ambitious, but this clearly seems to be where the best audio/visual storytelling is headed. Check out what they're doing. For example, a sound-slide called "The Ninth Floor" is introduced like this:

"In 2004, anywhere from 20 to 30 young addicts lived on the ninth floor of an elegant narrow building overlooking Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The squatters had turned the sprawling apartment into a dark, desperate and chaotic place."

Once you click on it, it will hook you like a strong narrative does.

Monday, September 29, 2008

One true thing

Now that I'm back from a weekend of sloshing and puddle-jumping in Boston -- more than 5 inches of rain in many places, just right for walking to and from the subway, and across Harvard's campus (yeah, poor me) -- and from having to have my car jump-started by AAA when it quit in Wilkes-Barre after I stopped to eat (and buy Jack Hart's book "A Writer's Coach"), here is the dominant thought that emerged from the gathering of narrative editors at the Nieman journalism foundation:

Times are tough. There's a lot of bad news going around, in everyone's newsroom. And that can throttle the effort to produce good journalism.

Don't let it. You can't let it. There's too much at stake. We have too great a responsibility to our community -- to tell the stories that are the community's shared narrative. As David Talbot, founder of salon.com, said, "A newspaper is important to the lifeblood of a city because it tells the city who it is."

You can dwell on all the reasons why it's harder to do great journalism than it was 5 or 10 or 20 years ago. Or you can acknowledge the difficulties, work to solve problems, and find a way to do the great journalism our community is depending on us to do.

Remember why you got into the business, and get back in touch with that passion. It's still there, and you can still use it, one act of journalism at a time.

OK, here's Jacqui on story editing

This, to me, is part of the pact between writer and editor on big or small pieces of writing -- anything you deem worthy of more attention than a typical daily story gets. It could be the 300-word narratives we did on the 9/11 anniversary a couple years ago, or a full-blowout enterprise-length narrative.

So even though she's titled this 'story editing,' this is a two-way street. A reporter and editor cannot reach these heights without trusting each other and working together toward the same goals.

Here's Jacqui:

"Story editing:

Engages the idea and the writer, before it engages the copy.

Deals with the soul and structure of a story, before it deals with syntax and style.

Answers the question: What is this story about? And then serves that answer.

Happens before and throughout the reporting/writing process, not after.

Transforms the reporter into a storyteller.

Is a partnership of writer, publication and audience.

Uses all the (verbal, visual and multimedia) storytelling tools available.

Requires line-by-line journalistic discipline and rigor.

Honors the writer's voice.

Thinks always of the reader."

Saturday, September 27, 2008

On storytelling

Part of editor/teacher Jacqui Banaszynski's handout today includes a way to think about storytelling that you can use even at the earliest stages of conceiving a story:

Storytelling ...
Is not just how you say something, but what you say.

Is not defined by a genre or type of writing, but by a reason for writing.

Is not written so much as it is reported, experienced, told and shown.

Is not detached and distant, but intimate, immediate and present.

Is not about information so much as the meaning of that information.

Great narrative read

Stuart Warner, writing coach at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, passed this story out today as an excellent example of narrative writing. It's about the death of a toddler, and whether prosecutors would charge the father, and what happened when the case finally went to court.

Read to see how the writer set up the tension in the overall story but also among several characters in it; and how the story keeps its focus on the choices made by several characters and what happened because of those choices.

Great stuff.

Note from Boston

I'm up here at the Nieman conference for narrative editors at Harvard. Keynote speaker yesterday was David Talbot, founder of Salon.com, who is now on to other ventures, all that involve telling stories.

Someone asked if there's a future for traditional long-form journalism, i.e., narrative, whether it be in newspapers or wherever. He does, he said, because "readers do like that campfire feeling or bedtime feeling of being swept up in a great story. ... It's hard-wired in people: Tell me a story. If you can hook a reader like that over time, you really own them."

I'll try to post more thoughts from the conference today and tomorrow if I can.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

For editors (and writers too)

Tom Jenks, an editor at Narrative magazine, wrote on the death of Rust Hills, a longtime editor at Esquire magazine. His job, of course, was different than ours in many ways; the quote relates to fiction (thus the word 'literary'.) But I like the spirit of this quote, of what it says about teamwork and respect and humility:

"The editor serves writer and reader, and if the material is literary, then the task is its own reward. Right-minded editors experience themselves as fortunate to dwell at the intersection of chance, where art can occur and meet appreciation. Without the writer’s work, the editor scarcely exists, and if the work is worthwhile and if it gains recognition, then the editor may accurately say that good news for one is good news for all. Something wonderful has entered the world."

So: Help each other do good work, don't worry about who gets the credit, and take your reward from the fact that you've helped put something meaningful in front of our readers.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Words to carry with you

This from a New York Times story on Gary Smith, the terrific Sports Illustrated writer whose pieces immerse you in the story and usually blow you away. What he says about taking judgment out of your approach to a story and trying to deeply understand your subject seems, to me, to be what we should strive for in our best work:

He doesn’t gloss over anyone’s sins, but how can he muster such empathy for all of his subjects?

“I really want to understand stuff, go on a journey,” he says. “Bringing a judgment to the subject, there’s no journey.”

Even the diver whose hubris killed his wife? The moralizing coach who falsified his credentials? The teenage basketball player who committed sexual assault?

“The more they let you in, the more glimpses you get about why they are the way they are, the harder it is to see them all one way,” he says, opening up at last. “Each person’s life is a problem to be solved, and I try to get a grasp of what problem they’re solving. You’re doing stories about people who do extraordinary things, and that usually comes out of extraordinary pressures and frictions. That’s what I try to understand.”

Gary Smith links:

Blindsided by History: Fifty years ago segregationists trying to keep black students out of Little Rock Central High inadvertently broke up one of the country's greatest football dynasties.

Remember His Name: Even as a boy Pat Tillman felt a destiny, a need to do the right thing whatever it cost him. When the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11, he thought about what he had to do and then walked away from the NFL and became an Army Ranger....

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

How many kinds of narrative are there, anyway?

With Robb Montgomery in here yesterday talking about all kinds of narratives -- graphics narratives, voice narratives, etc. -- and us talking fairly regularly about true narrative stories, here's my take on the differences:

This is not a definition to exclude all others, but, as we've learned over the past two years in our storytelling focus, true narrative is a story with a beginning and end ... a conflict that is resolved ... a story told over time, usually chronologically, which allows the story to unfold as it actually did ... and a story that is reported so that you have the dialogue, scenes, action, tension, timeline and so on that you need to effectively tell the story.

A true narrative story is not a passage of descriptive writing, or an anecdotal lead that contains six grafs of narrative writing, or a piece of dialogue within a broader conventional story. And a true narrative story is most certainly conceived, planned, reported and written differently than news stories or feature stories or profiles or any other type of story we do.

They are emotionally and intellectually pleasing to read and experience, because human beings love stories, and in fact have used them and relied on them for centuries as a way of recording what happens in their lives and communities, of recording history, of passing on culture, and as entertainment; and because it is satisfying to have an experience in which someone you like or can identify with faces a problem you can see yourself facing, and finds a way out of it.

When Robb about other types of narratives -- say, graphics narratives, voice narratives, video narratives -- he's broadening and stretching the meaning of the word to include snippets of stories, or complete stories that aren't necessarily conflict/resolution, or layers of stories (like the text that would accompany a video.) Ideally, those 'other narratives,' say, text in a video, would not simply be for the convenience of the video's producer or just haphazardly included; the text would be written with the aim of telling in a different way, or reinforcing, the story being told by the visuals.

Robb is also talking about inviting readers/users to create their own narratives ... which can mean nothing more than information on a topic they discover by fooling around on your web site for an hour one day. In other words, he's not saying readers/web users are going to write our Sunday enterprise narrative story. He's saying that by using the info we put out, and that others contribute to our site, they essentially create a personal story.

For example, we could do Utterz at the fair and we could ask fairgoers to do them too. Then someone goes on their computer and listens to, say, half a dozen. They've just created their own personal narrative of the fair. It's not a true narrative, and it's not necessarily the story we offered them, but it's their story nonetheless.

One big thing to remember, I think, is that there is not only room for both kinds of narratives in what we do, there's a need for both. People are going to want to create their own stories by using bits of information we give them in various forms (the soldier death map, or posts on the biz blog, or fair Utterz). But people also are going to want us to make sense of things -- major events like the guy who got stuck on the spike fence, daily-life events like the woman who lost the scarf her dear friend had given her, and so on -- through storytelling. They want and need us to, in a paraphrase of something Hoover said yesterday, go out and find stuff out and come back and put it in a story to tell people things they didn't know before.

There is always going to be an audience for that.

And a P.S. -- Robb Montgomery says "the web is about small talk. Small talk leads to big talk." That fits right in with our focus on Felix Feneon this year -- essentially, the narrative story in three lines. That's one way to think about writing for the web -- make a little say a lot.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

One page per day?

Now that he's released another book, novelist Philip Roth has given us a little more information about his writing process. In an interview with NPR, the author of "Goodbye, Columbus," "Immortality," "Sabbath's Theater" and a host of other masterworks said he puts in a long days writing.

On an average day, he produces one page. On a good day, maybe three. On a bad day, nothing. And that's one page before secondary revisions begin.

That floored me. Just think about the amount of copy you produce and the rate at which you do it. Perhaps it's why he's a genius.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Ben Bradlee on the future of newspapers

A shout-out for good stories during an interview with Jim Lehrer.

'I'm just so happy I'm alive'

I imagine Hurricane Ike will provide the basis for a few great stories in the coming weeks and months. Here's one from the Washington Post about spending the night in Galveston. Considering it was filed at 7:05 a.m., I think it's pretty impressive.

Joel Achenbach writes about unanswered rescue calls, British storm chasers and the release people had to sign before they could check into a Holiday Inn.

Friday, September 12, 2008

On the hurricane theme ...

I've read Erik Larson's "Devil in the White City" (serial killer loose at the Chicago World's Fair
around the turn of the century) and "Thunderstruck" (cops chase murder suspect
with help of the newly invented wireless). Enjoyed both.

On my nightstand is Laron's book on the deadly hurricane that hit Galveston in 1900.

And of course Galveston is getting hammered again right now ...

Anyway ... this is sure to be a good read, and it's in the news, so thought I'd put it out there.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Highly recommended reading

"The Ghost Map" by Steven Johnson is one of the best books I've read in some time. It's part detective story, part scientific discovery, part historical narrative about how a couple of guys in mid-1800s London figured out what was causing a cholera epidemic, and how their discovery affected science, sociology, cities and other aspects of our lives.

And it's a terrific read -- characters, cliffhangers, converging plotlines ... the whole deal.

NPR's race in York: audio storytelling

I haven't listened to this whole thing yet, but Chris Glass reports that it's great audio storytelling, in which a true story unfolds in audio, as opposed to just a string of interviews spliced together.

NPR hung out with several people in York, getting to know them a bit, and then did a series of interviews with them to examine, as the hosts say, not whether these people were going to base their vote for president on the candidate's race, but rather on the racial experiences of the voter himself or herself.

The series kind of kicks off here.

If you want to go straight to the audio, try these links for the first report and second report.