Skills for journalists in print and digital media.

Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category

Storytelling 4: Microcosm, telling details, and meaning

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Sometimes the point of crafting a “story” is to bring an issue or trend into focus via the experience of one person. They become a microcosm of a larger subject. This approach can be very powerful. The trick is to be very clear from the start just what part of their overall experience is the story.

Too often, editors and reporters venture down this path with the notion of “putting a face on the news.” Done badly, this can amount to little more than some emotive quotes, long passages of general background and biography, and a hazy focus about just what the “news” is supposed to be in this tale.

Working with microcosm still means having a sharp focus going in. And that comes from solid reporting on the issue, the numbers, the trends. Know what you want to show, based on facts. Then find the person who lives that experience. The big mistake at this point would be not having all the facts and trends in hand, grabbing someone who seems to be involve in the subject, and just accepting their experience as telling.

And its important to note here that emotion or reaction is not enough. Very easy to obtain. But great stories that work in a microcosm vein are about experience — action, choices, struggles, changes — not just feelings associated with that experience.

Example: In a story about how the working poor are dealing with cutbacks on state supported health care, reporting reveals people have far less contact with doctors and less access to medication. Your subject can easily be quoted about how this feels. Or, you can show something:

Robert Wilson sat on the couch in his family’s Eastwood apartment with a notebook and pencil. No matter how many times he added or subtracted, the result was the same: There was not enough money to buy prescription medicine for his two daughters and his diabetic wife.

Wilson makes $9 an hour with a small waterproofing company. The job does not offer health insurance, and Wilson cannot afford the $8,000 a year on private insurance for his family. He qualifies for Medicaid coverage for his two children. But he risks losing that coverage if he works overtime. And without overtime, he cannot make ends meet each month.

Every month, Wilson scratches numbers on his pad trying to figure out a way to buy medicine for his wife or pay doctor’s bills and the bank loans he has taken out to cover emergency care.

Robert and his wife Kathy recently shared a bad cold. She got a 10-day antibiotic prescription from a hospital pharmacy. He couldn’t afford his own, so they shared hers.

Two things about this short example.

Instead of just sharing random facts and experiences about the plight of the Wilson’s, the focus, based on earlier reporting, was on access to doctors and medication. The reporter knew the subject well enough to see it in the Wilsons’ lives and capture the facts, action, and choices in a notebook.

Then, by selecting only telling details per the subject, the passage shows how that abstract trend — less access to doctors and medication — plays out in one person’s life. A quote on how all this feels could be included later on. But the use of telling detail, in both dramatic and summary narrative, is how good storytelling engages the reader’s senses and sensibilities, conveys information and meaning, and elicits a reaction.

Storytelling 1: Touching shared emotions

Storytelling 2: Chronology is your best friend

Storytelling 3: Pick a main character

Telling description


Written by mroberts8

February 22, 2010 at 4:57 pm

Storytelling 3: Pick a main character

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Good stories usually revolve around a main character. As you begin to frame and report a piece with an eye toward storytelling, settling on a main character is an important early step.

A main character can be a single person, a group of people, or even an organization. In selecting a main character you are simultaneously settling on a point of view and a theme or premise.

Point of view does not mean an opinion, but rather a perspective, a vantage point, a central focus through which the story unfolds. In classic story structure, a main character encounters a complication, grapples with the complication, and then resolves the complication. So the selection of a main character is also the selection of the complication and storyline.

Imagine a movie about a big family wedding. Many possible storylines are contained in that situation. If the main character is the bride, perhaps its a story about balancing family pressures with her fiance. If the main character is the groom, perhaps the story is about last minute fears about commitment. Mother of the bride. Ex-boyfriend. Sister. Even the band. When you select that main character, their complication becomes the center of the story, the foreground, and everything else is of relative value, interest, or attention based on that central focus.

Imagine a story about a controversial pieces of legislation coming up for a vote in your state legislature. You might attempt a setup piece about the bill, its impact, its supporters and detractors. But that story could devolved into a list-like recitation of facts and events. Instead, thinking of a main character, perhaps the story is about the legislator who has pushed the bill through, or the legislator who has led the fight against the bill. Without taking a position on the bill’s value, a good story with either main character instead focuses on the deeper, more universal storylines of how a person tries to prevail, overcome the odds, stand up for values, or whatever that main character’s story might be. Along the way, the factual information about the bill and process is woven into the piece, but is not the story.

And, again, a main character in this example could be a group of people (e.g. a coalition of legislators behind the bill or lined up against it), or an organization (e.g. a political party, an industry group, another state or federal agency). All may be part of the landscape, but to craft a story you need to select one, a main character, as the vehicle for your tale. That may be a matter of interest, access, or news value.  In many cases you may have several choices. The important thing is to select one and then report and frame our story around that main character.

Storytelling 1: Touching Shared Emotions

Storytelling 2: Chronology is your best friend

Storytelling 4: Microcosm, Telling Details, and Meaning

Written by mroberts8

February 4, 2010 at 10:06 pm

Storytelling 2: Chronology is your best friend

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The best starting point for planning and writing a compelling story is a good timeline. The timeline is not necessarily a big part of the finished piece. But planning a good story starts with understanding the time frame, those parts of the story that occurred before the start of the time frame (exposition and context that must be worked in), and if necessary where the tale did or may go at the end of the story.

A timeline helps structure early reporting by focusing on a clear understanding of the chronology of events, the cause-and-effect that occurs, and how the timeline may naturally break down into chapters or sections. As Jon Franklin notes, narrative power comes from “chronology with meaning.” Building and studying a timeline is about discovering the patterns and meaning that comprise the story.

This applies to timelines that run over weeks or months, as well as a timeline that may run just a day or less. And that clear sense of chronology also applies to key moments or scenes, so a timeline could involve something as short as a conversation.

Consider the opening of this story about how a mercury spill unfolded at an Arizona high school:

Maylene Byers’ Physical Science class was reviewing a set of articles. Students worked in groups in a classroom located next to a science laboratory in one of several buildings that make up the Agua Fria High School campus.

Two boys sitting in front weren’t paying attention. One was a junior, the other a freshman. They had noticed a plastic bottle on the open shelf next to their desks. They removed the screw cap, looked inside, and swirled around a metallic liquid they did not recognize.

Curious, they poured some onto the floor to see what would happen. The boys liked how the liquid balled into tight beads. The freshman scooped it up from the floor and put it into an empty Gatorade bottle.

Byers walked over to see what the boys were doing. Looking down, she thought the droplets on the floor were small BBs and swept them into her hand. She dropped the mercury into the trash and told the boys to get back to work.

Byers did not realize the freshman still had both bottles of mercury, which he slipped into his backpack. After class, the boys each took a container and went their separate ways, unaware they were carrying a dangerous substance.

Two types of chronology or narrative are at work here. Summary narrative compresses time and summarizes a series of events. Dramatic narrative slows down for a scene that is in the moment, unfolding in real time. In this passage, the summary gives way to dramatic narrative, then backs out to summary. The accuracy of this account — in both forms of narrative — begins with a clear, accurate chronology.

One thing reporters and editors often underestimate in planning and writing stories like this is the amount of time and detail that goes into building the overarching timeline and the chronology of even short scenes. Think of the painstaking detail in flipbook animation and how once the pages are set and flipped the visual chronology comes to life.

And that coming to life is the goal. Stories built on quotes present readers with digested narrative information, second-hand information. Stories built on clear chonologies allow readers to experience information and reaction emotionally. That’s the chemistry of great storytelling.

Story Telling 1: Touching Shared Emotions

Story Telling 3: Pick a Main Character


Written by mroberts8

January 21, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Storytelling 1: Touching shared emotions

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Red West and Souleymane Sy Savane in Goodbye Solo

Going into 2010, I think one thing that will differentiate news sites in an increasingly competitive environment will be the ability to tell good stories. And good stories, no matter the subject or tone, share the ability to show people something about themselves. Stories that resonate with readers work on a two levels.

The tale: A well-crafted account of something happening to a main character. Most work along the classic three-act narrative line of introducing a main character and complication, the main character’s struggle with the complication, and then a resolution.

The touch: Great stories tap into universal feelings, experiences, or patterns that readers identify with on a deeper, emotional level. The struggle of the main character reflects or becomes the struggle of the reader. Great stories touch something deep inside that is witness to our inner selves.

Catching up with movies this holiday season, I was reminded of this after watching two very different movies back to back. The first was Avatar,  James Cameron’s 3D extravaganza with uses impressive technology and special effects to tell the story of a man trying to bridge the conflicts between humans and the Na’vi of the planet Pandora. The second was Goodbye Solo, the story of a poor Senegalese cab driver in North Carolina who begins to worry one of his regular customers wants to kill himself.

Both movies, on the level of the tale, are about an outsider drawn into close proximity with strangers in an attempt to save lives. On the level of the touch, they do not compare. Avatar channels numerous collisions of culture movies, from Dances With Wolves to Alien Nation, for the familiar mix of mistakes, tension, newbie-flops humor, and predictable acceptance such stories usually provide. Goodbye Solo goes much deeper, past the cultural differences  to visceral sensations of loneliness, hope, joy, and uncertainty that comes with being human.

Stories like Avatar are told on a well-plotted surface, with obvious themes, dull blocks of exposition, and heavy-handed emotional billboards to cinch the deal. Stories like Goodbye Solo are told in strings of moments, glimpses, an accumulation of telling details, the “chronology with meaning” Jon Franklin refers to when talking about great narrative.

Telling those kinds of stories requires skills of observation and the ability to report for story as much as for information. This involves capturing action, dialogue, and telling details, and then the ability to recreate the experience (not just the event) for readers to illicit the same emotional response.

Watch for most posts on how to do that in early 2010 in a series on storytelling skills for print and digital journalists.

Storytelling 2: Chronology is your best friend

Written by mroberts8

December 28, 2009 at 9:29 pm

Making the most of multimedia content

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Time Inc. is about to release an e-reader tablet tailored for its stable of magazines. The impressive video demonstration from Sports Illustrated shows off versatile navigation, color images, and even live video.

As high-tech news readers become more common, there is greater pressure placed on the skills and decisions involved in producing multimedia content. This is where systems and methodology are essential.

First among skills is still the critical thinking needed to spot opportunities, frame content, and quickly decide on the best medium for the content. Along the way some standard practices, systems, and strategies emerge.

For starters, try thinking through potential multimedia content to find the best match between medium, form, and content.

–Time: Consider how quickly the content needs to go up, and what is then the best medium  to present the story or information.

— ROI: The amount of effort and resources required to produce versus amount of time it will be relevant content on the Web or reader. Cost versus shelf life.

— Interactivity: Does the content provide a good opportunity for a medium that involves interaction (i.e. clicking through a slide show; polls or quizzes; Flash presentation). Users are drawn and spend more time with content that offers high-quality interaction.

As time goes on and you experience missteps as well as successes, deconstruct the successes to find the elemental makings of good standards and practices that enable you to repeat success. This is one part of successful change management.

Written by mroberts8

December 11, 2009 at 6:41 pm

SEO for reporters and editors

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Search engine optimization (SEO) — the process of improving the volume or quality of traffic to a web site from search engines — for newsroom folks is about building “site authority” (an ongoing profile of reliable quality) and optimizing content as its posted. For reporters and editors that involves the use of keywords related to the content, keywords people will likely use to search for an article.

Few readers “read” a web site like a newspaper, starting on the homepage and paging back to what they want to read. They search, and most (about 70%) search on Google. So the goal is to have stories appear on the first page of a Google search.

The use of keywords in headlines is probably not a new concept in most newsrooms, as its always been part of good print headline writing as well. After attending some recent training in SEO, I came away with a much better understanding of the power of keywords in stories.

There has long been a sense in news writing that repetition is bad. So typical news stories tend to use a variety of terms about the same thing. Here in Phoenix, we might write about the Phoenix real estate market, or the metropolitan Phoenix home market, or the Valley housing market (off the area’s nickname, Valley of the Sun) — all in the same story. This kind of thing happens in news, sports, business and feature writing all the time.

SEO results are better when there is one consistent term that anchors the headline and appears in the opening paragraphs of the story. And a term that contains words a reader is most likely to use in a search. Hearing this in the SEO program, I realized we needed to discuss keywords central to our primary beats and develop an awareness and discipline in using them in the opening sections of a story (about the first 250 words). And we also need to step away from that conventional approach of not repeating terms.

I’ve always felt repetition is a good thing in long or complex stories when readers need all the help they can get to keep central themes and players straight. And now there seems to be a good reason to apply the same care at the start of a story to help more people find it on the web.

As a training or workflow development exercise, an explanation of how keywords affect searches, followed by a discussion and choices on core keywords, could be a quick, simple way for newsroom staff to play a part in an overall SEO strategy.

And check out Google’s free Keyword Tool that allows you to type in a word or phrase and see what other words are most likely to be used in such a search. Web page managers use it to help design the headings and other labels on a web page. Reporters and editors might find it helps with the brainstorming about the best keyword phrases on their respective beats.

Written by mroberts8

December 4, 2009 at 5:30 pm

Problem-Solution journalism in Portugal

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Nice example of tackling the news from another angle in Portugal’s new i newspaper, recently named the European National Newspaper of the Year.

Written by mroberts8

November 18, 2009 at 5:28 pm

Posted in Newstraining, Stories