Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Further thoughts on the redesign, narrative, and data-heavy stories

Brad sent out a thorough, helpful note about our upcoming redesign and what it's intended to accomplish. Some of the language of his note -- particularly about narrative and data-heavy stories -- may have been a little confusing. He and I just talked about this, and we're on the same page, and I wanted to add some (hopefully) clarifying thoughts here.

This line -- 'The problem is that many stories fail when they try to deliver too many numbers, dates or facts in narrative form.' -- is not talking about true narrative; it's referring to more traditional news and feature stories. Narrative, as we know from our work here, is its own thing, with its own set of reporting and writing requirements and skills. It's not something we do a lot of, because it takes time and effort to do it right.

That's not to say that we shouldn't consider even true narrative in alternate forms. (We've pointed out some on this blog over the past couple years -- here, here and here to pick a few). But the focus on alt-story forms is more to re-think our approach to some of the more routine daily stories that we do, the quick turnaround types that are common and thus can be overlooked or passed off as boring by readers.

My second thought also grows out of the same sentence noted above, regarding 'numbers, dates or facts.' We're not talking about banning investigative pieces, or declaring that no one can ever write a budget story again because budget stories have to be in alt-story form.

What Brad is trying to get across is: Let's approach those types of stories to see how they can best be told. If a budget story is better told visually than in 18 inches of text with a breakout, let's do it. If the enterprise piece can benefit from a large graphic that can deliver some of the newsy stuff -- thus potentially giving the reporter a bit of elbow room to write his or her investigative discovery with the needed context and depth -- let's pursue that.

And, actually, this is all stuff that we're already doing. The redesign is an opportunity to reach some new levels of planning, thinking, focusing and executing stories and story elements.

If you want a great example, look at this past Sunday's paper and Teresa's earthquake story.

As Brad noted (in an e-mail to me earlier today), Teresa reported the hell out of that story to provide the content for the graphic as well as the elements (2 short stories -- including one alt-form -- and a breakout). Teresa, Carrie and Brad took what could have been a traditional 60-inch enterprise piece and created an informative work of art on the front page. That was the approach to the story from the beginning.

In that case, that approach really worked. In another, the choice might be different. The key is to keep applying this kind of thinking into our work -- what's the best way to tell this story? -- as we go forward.