Alex Blumberg’s “And What’s Interesting…” Storytelling Test

I recently stumbled upon a 2005 article by NPR radio producer and journalism instructor Alex Blumberg that offers some great advice for determining if a reporter is on the right track to a good story. I’ve been using it regularly in the classroom. It’s simple, concrete, and has helped my students focus their reporting.

Blumberg calls it the “and what’s interesting” test. He writes:

You simply tell someone about the story you’re doing, adhering to a very strict formula: “I’m doing a story about X. And what’s interesting about it is Y.”

So for example… “I’m doing a story about a homeless guy who lived on the streets for 10 years, and what’s interesting is, he didn’t get off the streets until he got into a treatment program.” Wrong track. Solve for a different Y.

Y = “… and what’s interesting is there’s a small part of him that misses being homeless.” Right track.

Y = “… and what’s interesting is, he developed surprising and heretofore unheard of policy recommendations on the problem of homelessness from his personal experience on the streets.” Right track.

Y = “… and what’s interesting is, he fell in love while homeless, and is haunted by that love still.” Right track.

Y = “… and what’s interesting is, he learned valuable and surprising life lessons while homeless, lessons he applies regularly in his current job as an account manager for Oppenheimer mutual funds.” Right track. In other words, who the hell knows what you might find out. Just don’t settle for the story you already know. Find the exciting or surprising or unusual moment, and focus the story on that.

Here are some other takeaways from the article that I’ve found particularly helpful for students:

  • Don’t confuse a location or premise with an actual story.
  • In order to find a story, you need someone to talk to and a situation to discuss.
  • Trust the first question that comes to you. Figure out what question you want to answer or what story you want to hear. If the question seems obvious, chances are it’s a story.
  • Just because something is a story or takes the form of a story doesn’t mean it’s an interesting story.
  • Don’t pursue a story just because it’s story you’ve heard before. In fact, do the opposite. Look for the story that is the most surprising and unexpected.
  • People often tell you the boring part first. Sometimes they think it is exciting or think it’s what they are supposed to tell a reporter. Dig deeper. If you are bored, your audience will be bored.
  • Everyone has a story, but it’s not always that interesting or something you can adapt. If you don’t have a story, find someone else.

Tracking the “Slow Journalism” Movement

The Slow Food movement began in the 1980s when a group of Italians protested the opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps. Today, the official Slow Food organization boasts more than 100,000 members in 132 countries.

The Slow Food mantra is “good, clean and fair.” Proponents believe food should taste good, production should minimize harm to the environment and health, and that workers should be paid fairly for their labor. They also hold that we are all co-producers of food, not merely consumers, based on the choices we make.

So why am I writing about Slow Food on a journalism blog? Recently I’ve stumbled across numerous references to the phrase “Slow Journalism” and people who are calling for a similar movement in the news industry.

In a 2007 article in Prospect magazine, Susan Greenberg defined Slow Journalism as:

“…essays, reportage and other non-fiction writing that takes its time to find things out, notices stories that others miss, and communicates it all to the highest standards.”

In a 2007 lecture at the City University in London, David Leigh of The Guardian said:

“Slow Journalism would show greater respect for the craft of the reporter – a patient assembler of facts. A skilled tradesman who is independent and professionally reputable. And who can get paid the rate for the job. A disentangler of lies and weasel words.”

Last fall, the University of Southern California’s Getty Arts Journalism program held a forum on the topic (watch a video here), which it defined as:

“…a growing practice of journalists sharing resources and caring less about beating their competition to the big story than about practicing social justice.”

In June, Paul Bradshaw, publisher of the Online Journalism Blog, used the term Slow Journalism to describe his crowd sourcing reporting project called Help Me Investigate:

“Investigative journalism is about more than just ‘telling a story’; it is about enlightening, empowering and making a positive difference. And the web offers enormous potential here – but users must be involved in the process and have ownership of the agenda.”

I’ve read articles by those who think that the decline in the newspaper and magazine industries is  killing any hope of a Slow Journalism movement, and articles by those who believe the Web is the ideal place for a media revolution to take place.

Still, it hasn’t reached anything approaching a movement. At a forum on the topic, one proponent joked that it was the first time he’d been sober when talking about Slow Journalism in public.

What is Slow Journalism?

I haven’t found a coherent definition of Slow Journalism. If you have, let me know. People seem to be using the term in various ways as they struggle to figure out what the future of journalism might look like and what they imagine it could be.

Here is a run at a working definition given what I’ve read and heard.

Slow Journalism…

  • Gives up the fetish of beating the competition.
  • Values accuracy, quality, and context, not just being fast and first.
  • Avoids celebrity, sensation, and events covered by a herd of reporters.
  • Takes time to find things out.
  • Seeks out untold stories.
  • Relies on the power of narrative.
  • Sees the audience as collaborators.

What Does Slow Journalism Look Like?

Naka Nathaniel, a former New York Times reporter, has talked about his work with Nick Kristof as one example for the future journalism. For several years, Nathaniel and Kristof traveled the globe covering stories of famine, conflict, war, and environmental destruction. Nathaniel shot photos and video to accompany Kristof’s columns, but they didn’t see their work as the end product.

After a 2006 reporting trip to Chad to cover the genocide in Darfur, Nathaniel and Kristof posted their reporting –  articles, columns, photographs, video, blog posts, reports, background material, and links to Human Rights organizations  — on NYTimes.com. Then they invited readers to use their reporting to continue to tell the story in new ways. They received essays, poems, letters and works of fiction from readers. In addition, Winter Miller, an assistant to Kristof, wrote a play based on her travels in Sudan.

In other words, the reporters picked a story that mattered, covered it in depth, and then turned it over to readers and others to make it better.

But using the definition and example above, I don’t think Slow Journalism is only for the New York Times or large news organizations.

There are many wonderful examples of smaller projects with similar approaches; things like the Common Language Project, StoryCorp and 6 Billion Others are ones that quickly come to mind.

Can It Happen?

Despite the funny name, none of this seems particularly radical. The values of Slow Journalism sound a lot like the advice I received from my journalism teachers and editors. It is the kind of work many of my students aspire to, but fear they might never get a chance to do.

For me, the question isn’t if we need Slow Journalism, but how — given the realities of the news industry — we can make it happen.

Producing journalism that is “good, clean, and fair” takes time and effort. Seeing the audience as co-producers requires a new mindset and a willingness to experiment. And perhaps it requires a rethinking of the definition of news.

Brian Storm, founder of the multimedia company MediaStorm, (who hasn’t used the term Slow Journalism as far as I know) has argued that if news organizations gave up on producing “day-to-day, perishable content” then  it could open up the possibility of doing “more in-depth, more investigative, and more robust” journalism.

“People are asked to do less with more and not given the time,” Storm said in an interview. “Time is the greatest luxury in journalism.”

A Few Good Reads… And a Long Listen

Here are a few of the more substantive parts of my media diet this week:

Joy of Less by Pico Iyer (NYTimes.com “Happy Days” blog)
Iyer says that “the crazily accelerating roller-coaster of the 24/7 news cycle has propelled people up and down and down and up and then left them pretty much where they started.”
Many of the  reader responses to Iyer’s article are worth reading as well; better than the average message board.

How Google Trained Your Brain by Douglas Rushkoff (Daily Beast)
In this review of the new search engine Bing, Rushkoff argues that “while Microsoft engages with us as consumers, Google treats us as producers.”

Should Creative Writing Be Taught? by Louis Menand (New Yorker Magazine)
“The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop is the most renowned creative-writing program in the world. Sixteen Pulitzer Prize winners and three recent Poet Laureates are graduates of the program. But the school’s official position is that the school had nothing to do with it.”

The Watchmen (This American Life)
The radio show puts two reporters on the task of finding the regulators who were supposed to be overseeing the finance industry. Great reporting performed by asking a lot of people one obvious question, “Aren’t you responsible?”

Does the World Really Need Another Blog?

No. But apparently I do.

My name is Mark Berkey-Gerard. I am a college journalism teacher. I teach online and multimedia journalism courses at Rowan University in Southern New Jersey.  I spend a lot of my day teaching students how to do “techie” things.

But my real passion – and my real challenge – is helping students become better storytellers and helping them learn how to use technology to create forums for authentic interaction and conversation.

So I’ve created this blog to:
•    Flesh out my own ideas about journalism, new media, and education.
•    Offer resources (links, articles, books, people, tutorials, workshops).
•    Open up my teaching approach to my students.
•    Invite others – journalists, teachers, students, and anyone who cares – to offer their own insights and ideas.

The title of the blog is inspired by the writings of educator James Carey, who thought of journalism as a kind of collective campfire storytelling. “Conversation not only forms opinions, it forms memory,” Carey wrote. “We remember best the things that we say, the things the we say in response to someone else with whom we are engaged. Talk is the surest guide to remembering and knowing what we think.”

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