Skills for journalists in print and digital media.

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

Rating database pages

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ASNE’s Freedom of Information Committee has been studying how newspapers  make data available to online readers. The new report, by Pete Weitzen and Nora Paul, offers good examples across the country and its own sortable database on good databases.

Weitzel and Paul spotlight “…a dozen database pages that impressed us and that we believe provide good models. We also highlight some of the more interesting, useful and unusual individual database features we came across, and point to several media sites that have done a particularly good job presenting open records resources and freedom of information links.”

Among the dozen examples are data pages at the Arizona Republic, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Roanoke Times, Sacramento Bee, St. Paul Pioneer Press — overall a good range of newspaper sizes and diverse communities.

Written by mroberts8

February 2, 2010 at 6:27 pm

Q&A: Effective A1 story pitches

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QUESTION: I think I have good story ideas. But I have trouble getting my pitches past the A1 editors. How can I write better budget lines so they take a chance on my stories? — R.K., California

Bad story pitches — as expressed in budget lines — usually come in two forms.

Take a look: A too-short budget line written something like, “Acme School District unveils its new budget for the coming school year. We take a look.”

Full story: A too-long budget line that begins in the past and recounts in excessive detail all that has happened leading up to this particular story.

Both usually fail to clearly state the news at the heart of the proposed story and the impact of the news. A1 editors study budgets from several departments looking for stories with broad appeal. They want to avoid routine process stories or stories of interest to a narrow audience. Impact is a first important measure of appeal. Impact might a matter of precedent (e.g. first; last; biggest), scale (e.g. in dollars, people, geography), universal experience (e.g. something many people or organizations face), or human emotion, as in a story about a death or courageous act or happy ending.

If you have a good story, articulate the news and its impact in clear, concise terms that someone unfamiliar with the subject can grasp. Avoid jargon and vague references. Cut to the chase. Think of how a freelance writer might frame the pitch to the New York Times for regional play.

In the school example above, A1 potential might be how drastic a cut is expected, or that the district has struggled for years and this could put them under state control, or what the loss of a band program will mean to the students. If you have some preliminary information, put it in the pitch.

In the second example, a little context goes a long way. Do not recount the long history of the district or delve into other issues unrelated to the budget. This may be how you think about the story, the subject, or your beat, but the people studying budgets just want the essence of today’s story pitch so they can quickly compare to other contenders.

And if possible, update the budget line. Maybe send an update e-mail to your online and print editors. Once the kernel of the story is clearly stated, it is easier for people to become invested in your story and work with you to shape it.

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Written by mroberts8

February 2, 2010 at 5:26 pm

Rating local news sites

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Tough to keep up with the comings and goings of local news sites.

Michelle McClellan at the Knight Digital Media Center is taking a shot by sorting through the long list kept by Knight Citizen News Network. Working through the list, she intends to measure sites “…against criteria that indicates they are primarily a news site that is updated regularly, are accessible and transparent to readers, and are working on a viable business model. We’re also looking at how these sites use social media and other interactivity to engage their users.”

She finds many start fine but then fade quickly. So far she’s rating good sites as “promising.” Her first selections range from sites staffed by professional journalists to residents reporting on themselves. Among them, the Voice of San Diego, Twin Cities Daily Planet, and The Rapidian (Grand Rapids, MI)

UPDATE: Second list of sites rated.

Written by mroberts8

January 28, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Realistic multimedia training

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Ellen Weiss, VP for News at National Public Radio, recently described lessons learned the past two years as NPR ramped up a more ambitious radio + online model.

High on her list:

Be realistic about how much multimedia you can handle and train for. Writing is multimedia when you are a broadcast organization.  NPR brought its training back to reality — away from video and to things people could take back to their jobs: how to take a good picture, what’s the mix of writing, blog writing, writing for the web vs. writing for print.

A key concept in developing effective workplace training is “…things people can take back to their jobs.” This should be a consideration in formulating a training plan (Weiss’ point here), in training design, and in the critical reinforcement that must follow training. Why?

Training plan: Start with a sense of where you want to end up. What kind of things do you want people to do, as opposed to know. Break it down by department or job description. A good plan should encompass what skills need to be taught and who needs to learn them for immediate use back on the job.

Training design: A common mistake is to cram too much into a single training session. With a focus on the job, craft each session by completing this sentence: By the end of this session, participants will be able to _____ (do what?) Keep in mind each session should not only demonstrate the skill, but give participants a change to practice and receive feedback. So even something as apparently simple as “…how to take a good picture..,” from Weiss’s comment above, may take several one-hour sessions to convey the step-by-step skills required back on the job.

Back on the job: In many industries, training effectiveness is measured in how much new skills transfer back to the job. A great training session is not enough. Managers need to plan on coaching and reinforcement to bring new skills into regular use. This can include shadowing, formal feedback, metrics on output, consistent praise for success. Training plants the seed for new skills, but on-the-job reinforcement nourishes and cements their use.

More on this topic: Training on the edge of change. How to build a training module.

Written by mroberts8

January 22, 2010 at 6:29 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

Indirection in writing, and how to fix it

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Eleanor Gould Packard was for over 50 years a grammarian and proofreader at The New Yorker.

Her passion as an editor was the pursuit of clarity. When she died in 2005, New Yorker Senior Editor Deborah Garrison said, “Eleanor’s understanding of grammar goes deeper than stuff like making sure subjects and objects agree. It’s about the architecture of the sentence and the paragraph. And it’s about the architecture of the thought behind the sentence and the paragraph.”

One of Packard’s pet issues was “indirection,” defined as “the practice of obliquely insinuating new information into a narrative as if the reader already knows it – a technique feature writers often use to jam facts into tight space and achieve a knowing tone.”

Newspaper writing is full of “indirection,” and is one of the primary reasons readers turn away from newspaper stories. An awareness of the damage indirection can do in a story should be part of every writer’s and editor’s set of language skills.

Examples of indirection:

“The 36-unit apartment building burned in just two hours.”

“Acme Real Estate, the Tristate’s third largest commercial real estate firm, will purchase Allied Real Estate.”

“The hard-hitting third baseman, twice voted MVP of the Central Valley League, went hitless in the struggling ninth-place Cardinal’s weekend doubleheader.”

To remove the indirection, each sentence could be broken up so the information is delivered in a simple, logical order, closer to how people speak.

“The apartment building burned in just two hours. It had 36 units.”

“Acme Real Estate will purchase Allied Real Estate. Acme is the Tristate’s third largest commercial real estate firm.”

“The hard-hitting third baseman went hitless in the Cardinal’s weekend doubleheader. The struggling team is now in ninth place.” (The “twice voted MVP of the Central Valley League” is not only indirect but irrelevant in this context.)

Unfortunately, jamming information into tight spaces is what newspaper reporters and editors do. Some do it in an effort to pack more stuff in limited space. Some do it to achieve that knowing tone. In either case, readability suffers and we have given readers one more excuse to stop reading.

Attention to indirection, particularly in the opening paragraphs of a story, can be a very valuable part of the revision and editing process. The immediate benefit is improved clarity. Ideas are clearly stated. Sentence length tightens. Non-essential information is pruned. Comprehension and reader satisfaction can only go up.

And clear writing lays bare the “architecture of the thought.” Another way to say this is that brevity reveals both weakness and strength. If the thought is a good one, it will shine through. If not, then peeling away the husk makes it easier to spot and fix the problem.

Written by mroberts8

January 20, 2010 at 4:02 pm