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.
It’s more than just a combination of text, photos, audio, video and graphics. Stories are fashioned through narrative structures, devices and techniques designed to draw the audience into the characters and events.
Inspired by the writing coach Jack Hart, who created “A Storyteller’s Lexicon” for The Oregonian newsroom, I decided to write out a multimedia storytelling vocabulary and some examples of how various news projects employ them.
Here are some of the common approaches and elements found in engaging multimedia news stories.
Anecdote – A personal account of a series of actions. Example: Julio Diaz shares his experience of being robbed in a surprising, two-minute anecdote. (StoryCorps.org audio)
Contiguity – How all of the media elements on a page or website work together. The best multimedia pieces combine text and visuals in meaningful ways and avoid extraneous elements. Example: The Highrise Project is a series of interactive documentaries about urban residential buildings that pays particular attention to the integration of text, images, video, sound, design and animation. (National Film Board of Canada interactive documentary)
Dialogue – Conversation between two or more characters that allows the audience to see and hear characters interacting with one another. Example: The back-and-forth between two adult daughters and their father who has Alzheimer’s disease helps provide insight into a family’s struggle to hang on to memories. (StoryCorps audio and photo)
Dramatic question – An overarching question posed at the beginning of a story; audience wonders how it will end. Example: An award-winning 2007 article by columnist Gene Weingarten starts with a question, “If the world’s great violinist performed incognito in a Metro station, would anyone stop and listen?” (Washington Post article and video)
This semester, I am trying something new in my advanced multimedia journalism course. In addition to studying examples of interactive journalism, completing a series of online trainings and tutorials, and conducting their own multimedia reporting assignments, my students will be reading Susan Orlean.
I selected Orlean’s book Saturday Night, which was first published in 1990 and was reissued this year, as one of the primary texts. Saturday Night is a collection of magazine-style feature articles that start with the question, “What makes Saturday night so special?” In her attempt to answer that question, Orlean travels the county and cruises in muscle cars in Indiana, polka dances with seniors in Maryland, interviews homeless people on the Lower East Side, and spends the night in a missile silo in Wyoming.
So what does The New Yorker-style narrative nonfiction have to do with multimedia journalism?
I’m planning to use the book in several ways to help students explore aspects of digital storytelling.
Most of the subjects in Saturday Night are pretty ordinary, but Orlean’s eye for detail and skillful prose creates wonderfully vivid portraits of everyday life. My students’ assignments will have a similar goal: to find surprising and compelling stories about people and events that rarely make the news.
Insight into the Reporting Process
Orlean is a rigorous reporter and researcher, even when she is writing about a waitress or a babysitter. Also Orlean’s use of the first person provides occasional glimpses into her own process and how she interacts with subjects. My students are always wanting to know how a reporter finds a particular story or conducts herself when she’s doing a story.
Narrative Structure and Techniques
When I think back on own journalism education experience – in a time before the term “multimedia reporting” was invented – I learned the most about the art of storytelling in my magazine writing classes. We studied writers like John Hersey, Gay Talese, Jimmy Breslin, Joan Dideon, Calvin Trillin and Lillian Ross. We learned how to structure a story, set a scene, select the most telling details, and incorporate quotes and dialogue. I’m hoping to bring a feature writing sensibility to the students’ practice of multimedia journalism.
My students’ assignments incorporate text, photos, audio and video. A key challenge is understanding when to use a particular medium to tell the story in the most engaging way. I have created several exercises in which students will brainstorm how they might translate one of Orlean’s profiles for the digital age. We will storyboard an article and discuss how it might be presented as an interactive feature on the web. Students will apply those concepts to their own work.
A Source of Inspiration (I hope)
This is an experiment. I know that many of the techniques of magazine writing do not translate to gathering audio or shooting video. Students will have three minutes to present a story, not 5,000 words. And many of the cultural references in Saturday Night are dated (i.e., in the future “people will eventually work from their homes via computer workstations and modem hookups.”) However, I’m hopeful that a book like Saturday Night is still capable of inspiring the next generation of journalists.
At the end of the semester, I’ll post an update of what I learn.
I’ve been hunting for resources that might help in adding mobile reporting assignments to my exiting courses. Here is a round-up of some guides, tips, articles and advice from instructors and journalists in the field.
In the post, Stelter’s reflects on his experience of trying to cover the aftermath of the tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri in May. Due to unreliable Internet and phone service, Stelter did much of his reporting using social media – texting, tweeting, and posting photos via Instagram.
Here are some things I like about his experience and blog post:
It’s About Reporting
Stelter covers TV and media for the New York Times and was traveling to Chicago to cover the final episode of the Oprah Winfrey show a few hours after the tornado hit. On the plane, he decided to delay his trip and go report on the devastation of the small town. He lacked preparation and experience, but he followed his instincts.
It seems like an obvious choice, but on the night Osama bin Laden death was announced rowdy student-led celebrations broke out on my college campus, I observed a range of responses from my journalism students. Some continued to study for exams. Some stayed in their dorm rooms and followed it on Facebook and Twitter. And some grabbed cameras and went live on the campus TV station to report the story.
Old Advice for New Media Reporting
Many of the things Stelter lists as his lessons learned sound like a nagging journalism instructor or an Intro to News Reporting textbook. Carry extra pens. Bring backup batteries. Avoid the pack of reporters. Wear sturdy, comfortable shoes. McDonald’s has WiFi. All obvious, but essential, advice.
Using Social Media as a Reporting Tool
With his cell phone, Stelter was able to send out short bursts of texts and photos. He tweeted and snapped photos as a form of note taking, but also to relay that information to others.
I parked a block from the south side of the hospital and approached on foot, taking as many pictures as possible, knowing I’d need them later to remember what I was seeing.
I started trying to tweet everything I saw — the search of the rubble pile, the sounds coming from the hospital, the dazed look on peoples’ faces. Some of the texts didn’t send, but most did. Practically speaking, text messages were my only way to relay information.
And because he created this record of online information, it could be easily incorporated into the overall news coverage. A link to Stelter’s Twitter feed, which has more than 60,000 followers, was put on the homepage of NYTimes.com.
Revisiting Tweets to Create a Stronger Story Stelter’s tweets from the scene tell their own unique story. There are concrete facts, descriptive scenes, and quotes from survivors and rescue workers. But Stelter also notes the limits of this kind of reporting and storytelling. He writes that it would be helpful to have an editor “rewriting the reporters’ tweets and reworking them into the live news story.”
He also writes:
I believe it’s true that ‘my best reporting was on Twitter,’ but only up until a certain point on Monday, probably around 11 p.m. local time. After that point, with a more stable Internet connection, I was able to file complete stories for NYTimes.com, not just chunks of copy.
At that point, Stelter could incorporate his reporting into a front-page story that provided a richer overview of the events, not just brief snapshots.
“What I Learned in Joplin” also has a simple, yet effective, story structure. Stelter begins with an anecdote that contains concrete and vivid details. And then he has a moment of reflection (“What I Learned”) when he explains the point of the anecdote. He repeats this refrain – anecdote and moment of reflection – seven times in the blog post.
By revisiting his tweets and experiences, Stelter turns even “a stream of consciousness” blog post into a compelling narrative.
The standard conventions of print news writing are tried and tested. The narrative structures of digital and multimedia journalism are less so.
“That’s why innovation in a newsroom isn’t just learning how to shoot and embed video or using Twitter to cover a live event,” Ronald Yaros wrote in American Journalism Review. “Innovation must also include developing, testing, and using new story techniques that keep audiences engaged.”
To better understand and teach multimedia storytelling, I’ve been hunting for narrative metaphors and structures for online news.
Here are three resources on the subject that I have found useful:
Alternate story forms break down information by theme and organize stories into chunks that can be scanned and understood easily by readers. Suitable for the web and often for newspapers and magazines, alternate story forms include:
The online course itself is a nice example of the use of alternate story forms. It employs tightly written text boxes, interactive exercises, and animation. And it that allows the user to explore the information in a non-linear manner.
Multimedia is often defined as the use of various elements: text, audio, photos, video, graphics, and animation. But a group of researchers at University of Maryland define multimedia journalism as a cohesive experience.
They analyze how a webpage or website combines media to create a narrative environment for the user.
To explain their findings, researchers developed the P.I.C.K. model. It focuses on:
Personalization – How content in a multimedia story relates to the user’s needs and interests.
Involvement – The degree to which technology enables users to participate with choices, responses or content.
Contiguity – How text, words, graphics, and animation are presented together.
Kick-outs – Minimizing anything that competes with the users’ attention and compels them to go elsewhere.
The goal is to move beyond simply throwing together text and video and understanding how everything works together. One finding is that text is still key in explaining how all of the story elements relate to one another.
Data visualization is the display of complex information through graphics and animation. It has become a standard way to display election results, geographic locations, and complex statistical or financial data.
A great resource for exploring the subject is Journalism in the Age of Data, a video report and website created by Geoff McGhee. It includes interviews with journalists at the New York Times, MSNBC, and BBC, examples of how newsrooms are collaborating on projects, and websites for beginners like ManyEyes and Flare.
It also presents an overview of the research of Edward Segel and Jeffrey Heer from Stanford University, who study the narrative structures of online news data visualizations. Their research analyzes dozens of examples currently employed by online news organizations and looks for common narrative devices and story elements.
They identify seven basic narrative genres in data visualization:
They also describe how newsrooms are adopting the storytelling techniques of film, graphic design, animation, and video games to cover the news.
Breaking Journalism Down: Work, Authority, and Networking Local News by C.W. Anderson – An analysis of Philadelphia’s news eco-system from 1997 to 2009. It isn’t published yet, but Anderson was kind enough to send me a draft.
Mediactive by Dan Gillmor – How to become a more active and informed media consumer and creator.
You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifestoby Jaron Lenier – This best-selling book begins with the line: “It’s early in the twenty-first century, and that means that these words will mostly be read by nonpersons – automatons or numb mobs composed of people who are no longer acting as individuals.”
History of Newsby Mitchell Stephens – Because the original news platform was a drum.
You have pages of notes, hundreds of photos, and hours of audio and video. Now what?
Turning raw material into a cohesive and compelling story is the main challenge for a multimedia journalist. Often we have a sense that there is a story buried in there somewhere if we can just locate the essential elements and fashion them in narrative. As a teacher, I’m always looking for ways to help my students identify the building blocks of a story.
Here is some simple, yet effective, advice on how to structure a story from three storytellers and educators:
“Anecdote and Moment of Reflection”
Ira Glass, the producer of the radio and television documentary show This American Life, says that every great audio or video story has two elements: an anecdote and a moment of reflection.
An anecdote is the sequence of actions that builds the momentum and raises questions to be answered. Stringing together a series of actions (this happens, and then this happens) makes the audience feel that they are moving toward a destination.
A moment of reflection is the point when someone clearly says, “here is the point of the story.”
Often a reporter will have one of the two elements, Glass says, but both are needed;
Your job to be ruthless and to understand that either you don’t have a sequence of actions that works or you don’t have a moment of reflection. And you are going to need both. In a good story you are going to flip back between the two… and that is the trick of the whole thing is to have the perseverance that if you have an interesting anecdote that you also can end up with an interesting moment of reflection that can support it…and that together it will add up to something that is more than the sum of its parts.
“Find the Arc of the Story”
Like a feature film or a book of fiction, a short piece of multimedia journalism can still have a story arc with a clear beginning, middle and end.
Mindy McAdams, who teaches online journalism at the University of Florida, says that the first question a reporter should ask when creating a multimedia piece like an audio slide show is “what do you intend to communicate?”
This might be the most common mistake that journalists make: Often we give little or no thought to this question and its answer. Much of the time, we go out and cover an event, and then our (text) story is simply what happened and who was there. In the time-honored tradition of humans telling stories to one another, this is at the low end of the scale — unless the event was, say, the Battle of Troy (which was rather more exciting than the average charity fund-raiser).
Once the reporter knows what she wants to communicate with the story, McAdams suggests finding the opening and closing of the story. A strong and clear beginning is essential to hook the audience. Then a piece should make a direct track toward the conclusion with the ending clearly in mind.
A solid, satisfying ending has two parts. They can be called the climax and the resolution, and even though that sounds a bit overblown for a two-minute story. I think you’ll tell a better story if you think of the ending in those terms. The climax is the destination, the place you’re taking the audience, in a straight line from the opening. It will come near the end of the story, but afterward, you also need to provide closure. Make it feel complete. That’s the resolution.
“Someone Does Something Because”
The Common Language Project is a nonprofit multimedia journalism organization that focuses on international reporting and journalism education. In one of its tutorials, Sarah Stuteville of CLP urges reporters to frame their stories as “someone does something because.”
For example, she writes;
Think of your story as someone does something because. You should always be able to sum it up in that skeleton, fleshing it out as your story develops:
• Some guy starts a school in India because it’s a good thing to do.
• Sam Singh starts a school in India because he’s from there and wants to help the community.
• Sam Singh, a retired top executive for Dupont Corporation, founds a revolutionary vocational school for girls in rural India because he sees the need for development in rural communities in a country where the elite and the ‘technological class’ are moving fast and growing rapidly, often leaving the people – and potential – of rural communities behind.
In other words, the story should have character(s), action, and a motivation for those actions.
And the difference between a series of sound bites and a real story is the combination of all these elements.