Articles about "Narrative journalism"


At annual narrative conference, storytelling’s power remains as it changes

It begins with “once upon a time.” The stories she tells and wants to tell through “Frontline” all start that way — as stories. There’s journalism embedded inside that phrase, Raney Aronson-Rath told Poynter in a phone interview. And for Aronson, deputy executive producer of “Frontline,” one of her once upon a times happened in Taiwan.

Aronson was just 22, a young reporter attracted to journalism through economics and politics, watching democracy unfold in Taipei. She couldn’t get at the big political stories, though. There was a senior reporter for that. So she found another way. Aronson started spending time with a group of young Taiwanese. They’d vote for the first time, their parents never had that chance. Through them, she told the story of mainland China and Taiwan.

Before then, it never occurred to Aronson that she could tell a story about real people that would resonate beyond just those people and their lives. But it did.

After that, “I just wanted to do narrative storytelling with journalism inside.”

Aronson is a keynote speaker for the Power of Narrative conference at Boston University April 4 through the 6 (Poynter is a co-sponsor). The conference, in its 16th year, has its own story.

‘It was in the air’

As a young writer, Mark Kramer, director of the conference and writer in residence at BU, was drawn to narrative storytelling. That was true, too, as a reader. News stories were typically plain-voiced with civic facts. They felt de-selfed to him, he said in a phone interview with Poynter.

When he read that a young man was arrested for burglary, he wondered, how did that person feel? He wanted to know about him, “and his brothers and his mother and his school teachers and what happened and those were never in the story.”

While the narrative journalism movement started with Tom Wolfe in the ’70s, Kramer said, by the ’90s it was taking hold as an appropriate voice for institutions that once used “group voice.”

“It was in the air, people were telling stories to explain what had previously happened in institutional voices,” Kramer said.

In 1998, he thought up a narrative conference that would bring together people who worked in medicine, psychology, academia, anthropology, history and journalism.

“Journalists rushed to the conference,” Kramer said, “while other people ambled.”

That year, the conference featured a number of voices, including Rick Bragg, Anne Hull, Tom French and Susan Orlean. Four hundred and fifty people attended. The next year, 1999, the conference geared more toward journalists.

In 2001, the conference moved to the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. By 2002, 1,000 people attended.

As times became harder at newspapers, Kramer said, editors and publishers realized getting people to read engaging stories may get them to read the rest of the news.

“Hence for a half dozen or so years, the conference was packed and the typical conference-goer was a daily reporter whose way was paid by his or her newspaper,” said Adam Hochschild, a journalist and co-founder of Mother Jones now teaching journalism at UC Berkley Graduate School of Journalism, in an e-mail to Poynter. “Mark’s conference was definitely the premier one on this subject, but other conferences and training programs on narrative also thrived…”

“Then, of course, newspaper owners realized that nothing was going to stem the decline of print readership, big layoffs began, and they largely stopped paying reporters expenses to attend conferences like this one,” Hochschild wrote. (He’s also a keynote speaker this year.)

Kramer’s last narrative conference was in 2006, and he left Harvard in 2007. The conference returned to BU, and he got involved again in 2011. Now, it’s rebuilding and refocusing, from long-form and print to multiplatform storytelling for print, digital and more.

It’s a meeting point, Kramer said, a center of action in narrative journalism as it grows and changes.

But at the heart of narrative and the conference “is a concept that informing the public involves telling true stories,” he said. “And stories don’t only involve a sequence of events, but they involve a storyteller.”

‘Shakespeare would be great on Twitter’

New York Times reporter David Carr is among the planned speakers. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Speakers at this year’s conference include names from print and online establishments, such as David Carr, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Dan Barry and David Finkel, journalism educators and people from radio, documentary, publishing and graphic novels.

The conference itself focuses on narrative across platforms. That’s necessary now for anyone working as a journalist, Hochschild said, and there are exciting ways to apply storytelling principals to many forms.

“Good stories are good stories,” he said, “and we can all learn important lessons in technique from them no matter in what medium they are told.”

Aronson’s seeing that shift herself at “Frontline,” where through partnerships and collaborations they’ve started exploring different ways to tell stories. Sometimes it’s a long documentary. Sometimes short. Journalists now have to be flexible, she said, able to tell strong stories and open to how best those stories work.

“When you’re paying attention to what the story is, it will tell you what the right form is,” she said.

Roy Peter Clark, Poynter’s vice president, a faculty member and a speaker at this year’s conference, agrees. Narrative endures, he wrote in an email to Poynter, but how it’s delivered has changed.

“Shakespeare remains our greatest writer, but drama delivered in verse is no longer current,” he said. “Mark Kramer and his colleagues have done great work in keeping the narrative conference up to date, attuned to all the tumultuous changes we have seen in technology, multi-media, social networks and all the rest. If he were with us now, Shakespeare would be great on Twitter.” Read more


How two young journalists are highlighting longform journalism written by women

Kaylen Ralph and Joanna Demkiewicz want to help change the under-representation of women in longform journalism.

The two young journalists have created an online and print magazine called The Riveter, which highlights longform pieces and narratives written by women. They crowdfunded the project through a site called Indiegogo and raised $2,000.

A little over a week ago, they published the first print issue of The Riveter. The magazine includes four longform pieces — which are also published on The Riveter’s website — as well as some bonus content, including a photo essay by freelance photographer Alex Potter, who’s based in Yemen; book reviews; an interview with Texas Monthly Executive Editor Pamela Colloff; a book excerpt from Holly Grigg-Spall; and “a Not All-Inclusive History Timeline of Women in Journalism (think black feminist Gertrude Mossell in the late 1800s and Gloria Steinem in the 1970s)” as The Riveter’s site describes it.

I talked with Ralph and Demkiewicz via email to find out more about the project and what they hope to accomplish.

How did the idea for The Riveter come about?

Ralph (left) and Demkiewicz. Photo by Sally French.

The Riveter has been a long time coming. After not one woman writer was nominated for a major writing category in the 2012 American Society of Magazine Editors’ National Magazine Awards, we had the idea of starting a magazine that would provide a platform in which women could actually publish the kind of work that would be considered for such a prestigious award.

We were both juniors at the University of Missouri at the time, but we brainstormed ideas throughout that spring semester before we left to study abroad. Then in March of this year, our university sponsored a panel of writers who were all featured in Mike Sager and Walt Harrington’s new book, “Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists.”

All of the writers on the panel were men and only three of the writers featured in the anthology were women. This did not go unnoticed by the women in the room and there was much discussion over the future of women in longform. Joanna and I decided that day that it was time to pick our project back up, and the following week we bought the domain name.

We’re also collaborating with Mike Sager on an anthology of female longform journalists which will be released early next year. We are looking for reader-submitted ideas of which journalists to include.

Why do you think The Riveter is an important project?

The Riveter is an important project because women’s voices are important. They have to be represented in the important genre that is longform. Both of us are recent graduates of the Missouri School of Journalism, and over the last few months we’ve both wondered, “Where are the spaces for us to exist after graduation?”

Because of our magazine writing education, we wondered, and still wonder, where women writers can go to write longform journalism pieces and narratives that aren’t restricted to beauty, fashion, dating, etc. There’s more to women’s experiences as individuals, as writers, and as a collective than those narrow categories allow. We knew our classmates and colleagues felt similarly. As we looked around in our journalism classes and talked to our friends, it seemed that for every one man, there were 10 women. And we were two of them.

What’s the goal of the project?

The goal of The Riveter, quite simply, is to create a space for women to publish work about whatever interests them. The submissions we’ve gotten so far show that there is no limitation to the subject matter that women writers are passionate about, and we want to bring that important work to the forefront.

We also feel very strongly that writers should be paid for their work. Our goal is to become a brand that can pay writers for the work we accept for publication and we are well on our way to being able to do just that.

Why the emphasis on longform? 

Around the same time that we attended the panel at MU, VIDA’s yearly “The Count” was released. This keeps track of “the rates of publication between women and men in many of our writing world’s most respected literary outlets.” 2012′s numbers were more than disappointing, and it was the final push we needed to create this space.

For example, in 2012:

  • Harper’s had 76 bylines by men and 17 by women.
  • The Atlantic had 176 bylines by men and 47 by women.
  • The New Yorker had 445 bylines by men and 160 by women.

We are both longform junkies, because we believe in the breadth of creativity, narrative, investigation, research, etc. allowed with this particular kind of storytelling. The fact that the VIDA numbers show most longform authors were men in 2012 (and in 2011 and 2010) proves a disconnect when we imagine the capabilities of women as storytellers. Longform is a vital form of communication; we want to make room for the female storytellers who communicate this way.

What will the money from your Indiegogo fundraising effort go toward?

We are budgeting our Indiegogo funds to cover moderate compensation for writers as well as produce the digital and print version of the product that will hopefully help us become self-sustaining. The fundraising is the jump start we need. One of the things we’re most excited about is The Riveter’s multi-platform approach.

Talk a little bit more about the multi-platform approach. 

We’ve recently hired five columnists to ensure that our online content is updated regularly with distinct voices that readers can come to expect. Our first print issue, which came out in July, is available in our Storeenvy marketplace. We have a digital edition for tablet use, also. We’ve gotten a lot of help from Theresa Berens (our designer) and Samuel Ott (our Web developer). The Riveter would not be what it is without their help.

You can email Ralph and Demkiewicz submissions, ideas and questions at Read more

1 Comment

Longform journalism morphs in print as it finds a new home online

As technology has renewed attention to longform journalism with platforms, apps and sites like Instapaper, Longreads, Byliner, The Atavist, Kindle Singles and The Longform iPad app to name a few, I wondered: Does longform journalism still have a place in print?

Rethinking how we define longform

What do we mean when we say longform journalism? Is it defined by length, by quality, by the time it took to write it? Some journalists say the way we define longform journalism — particularly in print —  needs to change.

Oregonian Senior Writer Anna Griffin says that because of limited resources and a smaller newshole, “longform” no longer means a 200-inch story.

“The days of a big, four-column double truck in a daily paper are over. You can find a way to write longform, but you have to be much more judicious about how long it’s going to be,” Griffin said by phone. “There is magic to a really great 50-inch feature that we’re learning to appreciate. But even 50 inches has become a hard thing to get.”

Neil Brown, editor of Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times, says he’s become increasingly concerned with the phrase “longform” — particularly given that print longform stories are so often accompanied by multimedia online.

“Does longform mean only a written, narrative story, or does it include the whole multimedia package? If you define ‘longform’ only by the written story, then I think that’s a flawed way of looking at it,” Brown said by phone. “The problem with the part before ‘form,’ is that — if storytelling is reduced to length only, I think there’s always going to be a limitation.”

Emphasizing quality over quantity

On Sunday, the Tampa Bay Times launched a new version of its “Floridian” section — home to its narrative and longform stories. The Floridian is now a monthly magazine that’s inserted in the Sunday edition of the Times.

Previously, it was a weekly insert and a daily at one point. Contrary to what people might assume, Brown says, this doesn’t mean the Times is going to publish fewer features or longform stories in print.

“We’re actually raising the bar a little bit,” he said. “If you look through the Tampa Bay Times over the course of a month, I don’t believe you’re doing to see any sort of fall-off in our commitment to enterprise journalism.” The previous Floridian section was four pages; the first edition of the new Floridian is 16 pages.

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Lane DeGregory, who joined the Times in 2000, says she thinks the paper will continue to publish the same sorts of longform narratives that first drew her to the news organization.

“It just means that now more of my work will appear in places other than Floridian,” DeGregory said via email. “Instead of having a weekly deadline for meatier feature stories, I will have more time to work on ones that will run in the magazine — and I’ll spend less time looking for quick, small features to anchor the bottom of the features section.”

Brown said that having a monthly magazine gives writers and editors more time to produce quality content, and that makes more sense for the Times. Ultimately, it could also make sense for advertisers, too.

“We understand that most newspapers have gotten rid of their weekly Sunday magazines. This is a monthly, which gives us a better shot,” he said. “There is not much ad support for magazines in the Sunday paper. That said, we’re all hoping to get out of the chute strong and hope that advertisers recognize that these are very well-read sections.”

Brown said that after the Times’ newly redesigned website launches, the Times plans to create a more robust online component to the new Floridian. Based on reader response, he’s found that there’s room for longform in both print and online.

“I don’t think it has to be either or,” Brown said. “I think there was a little bit of an instinct to think that longform journalism was only the stuff of print. We’ve found longform journalism can work digitally as well. I reject that it’s an either or.”

The success of online efforts such as the longform science magazine “Matter” shows there’s an audience for longform online. But of course, some readers still like consuming it the old-fashioned way.

“I don’t think it’s anywhere near as effective online, because when we go online, we are all so accustomed to hopping from one thing to another so quickly,” said author Adam Hochschild. “And then there are all those damned links online.”

Preserving print longform, charging for it online

The Virginian Pilot publishes longform journalism online, in its newspaper and in booklet form. Every summer since 2005, the Pilot has published a serialized longform series. Some have run for as long as 14 days.

Staff writer Diane Tennant, who was once on the paper’s now defunct narrative team, thinks it’s necessary to run the series in print.

“We’re not going to go completely online, simply because some of our readership don’t use computers,” she said by phone. “We have very loyal older readers who want it in print, and they’re still going to get it in print.”

In addition to running the series in the paper, the Pilot reprints each series as a 8 ½ X 11 booklet. Virginian Pilot Managing Editor Maria Carrillo said each of the booklets has sold thousands of copies. They started out as $7, then went up to $10. The latest booklet — based off a series that Tennant wrote on the Project Mercury — was nearly 90 pages long.

“We do make money on these reprints; it’s a nice little business. But more importantly, readers really get drawn in,” Carrillo said via email. “We hear from them about how caught up they are, how they can’t wait for the next installment. They look forward to these stories every year.”

The Pilot allows only subscribers to access its annual series online — an interesting approach given that the site’s not behind a paywall. “The reasons are twofold,” Carrillo said. “We do want to encourage people to buy the reprint and we also want to make subscribers feel like they’re getting something special for being subscribers.”

Taking better advantage of the Web

As more papers switch to paywalls and some adopt a three-day-a-week printing schedule, they would do well to think about where longform fits in the equation. The Times-Picayune has been trying to take a hybrid approach since reducing its print frequency.

“Compelling stories have to find their place both in the printed publication and what we do in our various other platforms online. That’s been our guiding thinking,” Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss said by phone.

“Does printing three days a week bias us in favor of longform journalism? To some extent. But we see the paper as a mixture of enterprise and non-enterprise journalism, whether it’s breaking news or political news or traditional forms of journalism.”

The Oregonian’s Griffin wonders what a reduced print schedule will mean for longform. The paper, which is owned by Advance, will likely go to a three-day-a-week schedule in the near future.

“We’re waiting to see what three days a week actually looks like. It feels like we’re in limbo right now; I think we’re all so busy trying to keep our heads above water that we haven’t gotten used to making use of the space and technology that we have,” Griffin said. “My hope would be that as we get more digital and our audience gets more digital, we can use the blessing of space that is the Internet to run more longer pieces when the stories merit them.”

The journalists I talked with said they want to find a home for longform journalism in both print and online because they believe the content is valuable.

“I think the underlying truth that we all recognize … is that readers still want a good read,” Griffin said. “They still count on newspapers to explain the world to them, and you can’t always do that in 15 inches. As we rise up from the ashes of what was, I think you’re going to see some papers doing very cool things with whatever the platform looks like.” Read more

1 Comment

New longform science journalism site ‘Matter’ launches today

Matter, a site that publishes longform stories about science and technology, launched today. The site, which will publish one story per month, is open to people who sign up as members. For 99 cents, they’ll get access to monthly stories, along with ebook and audiobook versions of the story.

Members are also invited to online question and answer sessions with the site’s editors and writers to find out more about the reporting that went into each story.

The site launched with a story about Body Integrity Identity Disorder, which affects people who want to remove some part of their bodies — often a limb or two. Anil Ananthaswamy profiled a man who has the disease and accompanied him when he got his leg amputated in Asia. The 7,700-word story explains a complicated disorder through the eyes of someone who suffers from it.

“This story was put together by great people who worked hard and went the extra mile to do a level of reporting you don’t find in too many places,” Matter Co-Founder Bobbie Johnson said via email.

But will people be willing to pay for it? Read more


How the Internet is giving the quest narrative new relevance for journalism

From Odysseus’ journey home to Mario’s mission to rescue Princess Peach Toadstool, the basic template of the quest narrative has been used again and again to command our attention. Joseph Campbell famously dubbed it the “Monomyth” — the one story to rule them all — ascendant across every human society, in every age.

Ever since journalists moved beyond the inverted pyramid and into the world of narrative, they’ve found themselves in the inescapable thrall of the quest. When Gay Talese turned Frank Sinatra into a sniffling, irritable Everyman trying to vanquish the common cold and reclaim his untouchability, he joined a long line of narrative journalism structured, in essence, as a quest. And for good reason — the format remains hugely popular.

After Atul Gawande employed the quest format in the New Yorker to explore why health care costs differed so widely among similar cities, his piece quickly became required reading in the White House. It was “one of the most influential health care stories in recent memory,” according to Kaiser Health News.

When Adam Davidson and Alex Blumberg adopted the form to investigate why the world economy exploded in 2007, they ended up producing one of the most popular public radio stories ever. In her manifesto on what makes great radio, Planet Money’s dynamo reporter Chana Joffe-Walt cited the quest narrative as one of the series’ tried-and-true storytelling tricks — overused, perhaps, “but only because it’s so damn effective.”

But these are all works of long-form journalism, which conventional wisdom has long considered antithetical to the real-time information flow of the Internet. In a world where solid endings and coherent story structures are dissolving into a neverending stream, does the quest narrative still have power?

In fact, I’d argue the Internet may be giving the quest new relevance.

The quest moves online

I’ve long made the case that to understand Internet time, you can’t just look at what happens every minute, with new information zooming around chaotically. You have to look at the full picture of how narratives unfold — and that can take place over months, or longer.

Kickstarter, for example, is one of the new darlings of the Internet, yet campaigns on Kickstarter take eons in our conventional understanding of Internet time. Each campaign is a quest distilled to its simplest form — a clear protagonist (the project creator) with a straightforward quest object (the amount to be funded).

The long-form journalistic quest also has its online analogue in the gradually unfolding investigation. Talking Points Memo pioneered the format online with its Polk-Award-winning U.S. attorney scandal coverage. More recently, TPM alum Paul Kiel, now at ProPublica, applied the strategy toward investigating the foreclosure crisis in the U.S. housing market. It was a classic long-form quest unfolding in real-time.

First, ProPublica journalists laid out their ambitions and called for stories from their audience, following especially strong leads and capturing powerful impressions of what people were experiencing around the country. As developments in the story emerged, the reporters encapsulated them, pursuing the most interesting questions that arose. They occasionally partnered with other journalists to pursue side quests. Then, they wrapped up a couple years of reporting into a traditional long-form story.

Why the quest works

The simple genius at the heart of the quest narrative is this: you hook your audience with the stakes of the quest, not the outcome. You’re selling your audience the question, not (primarily) the answer.

If you can paint an arresting picture of why the quest object matters, if you can invest your readers/users/listeners in your protagonist’s mission and his fate, they’ll follow you through all the winding twists and turns of a proper epic tale.

Think about one of the classic epic serials you love — Lord of the Rings, say, or Harry Potter. Do you remember the sense of disappointment you felt when it was over? That’s the magic of the quest –  done well, you actually don’t want it to end. The longer you follow the winding threads of the story, the more invested you become in the quest object.

And that’s the main reason the quest works so well online. Jakob Nielsen, a digital usability expert, once likened attention on the Internet to a fuel-driven vehicle:

It’s as if users arrive at a [Web] page with a certain amount of fuel in their tanks. As they “drive” [i.e. scroll] down the page, they use up gas, and sooner or later they run dry. The amount of gas in the tank will vary, depending on each user’s inherent motivation and interest in each page’s specific topic. Also, the “gasoline” might evaporate or be topped up if content down the page is less or more relevant than the user expected.

With so much stuff on the Internet competing for our attention, our fuel tanks run dry pretty quickly these days. It’s difficult to sustain the attention necessary to follow a nuanced story unfolding over time. A well-executed quest breaks this pattern; it’s a source of renewable attention. The more attention you give, the more storytelling you want.

How it works for journalism

The reason the quest works so well for journalism in particular is that journalists can employ a deft and simple trick: turn themselves into the protagonist, and make their question their object. Recall Gawande’s question in the New Yorker: Why does health care cost so much more in one city than it does in another city just like it? Once he hooks you with that question, Gawande puts the spotlight on himself and his effort to find an answer:

From the moment I arrived, I asked almost everyone I encountered about McAllen’s health costs—a businessman I met at the five-gate McAllen-Miller International Airport, the desk clerks at the Embassy Suites Hotel, a police-academy cadet at McDonald’s.

For the rest of the story, Gawande travels around McAllen, Texas, chasing possible answers to his question the way Harry Potter chased Horcruxes. Could it be drinking and obesity? No. Is it the state-of-the-art quality of the city’s care? Nope. Malpractice lawsuits? Probably not.

Each of these mini-quests deepens your understanding of the overarching question. By the time he finally arrives at the rather nuanced answer he’s developed, you know enough to really get the nuances.

There’s an extra-special bonus for journalists, too: the format significantly aids transparency. Think about those “how we reported this” tidbits that can make a typical long-form investigative piece deadly dull — phrases like “according to a report published by Dartmouth’s Institute for Health Practice and Clinical Policy.” Because he’s the protagonist of the quest, those elements of attribution and transparency have become elegant parts of the narrative:

To determine whether overuse of medical care was really the problem in McAllen, I turned to Jonathan Skinner, an economist at Dartmouth’s Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, which has three decades of expertise in examining regional patterns in Medicare payment data. I also turned to two private firms — D2Hawkeye, an independent company, and Ingenix, UnitedHealthcare’s data-analysis company — to analyze commercial insurance data for McAllen.

When you mash up the quest format with a journalistic mission and the Internet, you also gain the ability to actively involve your users in the quest as it unfolds, as Kiel and his colleagues at ProPublica did. That sort of direct involvement has two excellent benefits: it further deepens users’ investment in the quest, and it allows the journalist to crowdsource acts of reporting that would be near-impossible otherwise.

How to ace the quest

I’d be remiss if I said this was straightforward and easy to do. Using the quest format is not going to make up for a lack of storytelling polish or an uninteresting objective. If Kickstarter shows us the essence of how quests play out online, then this compilation of failed Kickstarter projects will probably be a helpful reminder that success is not simple.

It’s especially important to get a few key elements right.

  • Start with a great question or mystery. Great journalism very often does. Remember, your first goal as a quest-maker is to fan the flames of your audience’s curiosity about the issue you’re covering. Talk to friends who lack a natural passion in the subject, and see if you can develop a hook that really interests them.
  • Make each twist in the story count. An epic quest is generally an escalating series of smaller quests, each of which also has to be surprising and interesting. As I recently wrote in a piece for Contents Magazine, my friend (and fellow Poynterite) Robin Sloan’s Kickstarter project of July 2009 was an excellent illustration of how to do this well. Many of his project updates were delightful nuggets in themselves, perfect fodder for his backers to spread to their friends and followers. (Kickstarter just published a thorough behind-the-scenes case study of how Robin did it. Highly worth a read.)
  • Orient your audience more than you think you need to. How many times did J.K. Rowling remind Harry Potter’s readers about his tragic origin story? A lot, that’s how many. It’s crucial not to lose your audience in the twists and turns of your epic tale, or to turn away new potential followers by leaving out crucial backstory.

Online, we’re still figuring out what the ideal quest looks like. The rules of the game are far from settled, and technologies and user behaviors are still shifting rapidly. How might a journalistic quest unfold on Facebook or in a mobile app? (If you’ve seen this happen, please dish in the comments!)

You might just consider it your quest to figure this out.

Matt Thompson gave a talk on this subject at the Confab content strategy conference in Minneapolis earlier this year. If you like slide decks and you liked this piece, you’ll love this. Read more


Jack Hart offers tips for writing better narratives

There is no editor or writing coach in America who has done more to encourage good storytelling than Jack Hart.

After a distinguished career as a journalism professor at the University of Oregon, Jack reverted to the newsroom of the Oregonian, where he nurtured some of the best narrative writers in journalism, and became a writing coach with a national following.

Jack has compiled all that know-how into a new book, “Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction,” which deserves a spot on your book shelf right between “Writing Tools” and “Help! For Writers.”

What I like best about Jack’s book is the recognition that stories are different from reports. It is one thing to imagine yourself as a storyteller. It is quite another to fulfill all parts of the process with narrative in mind.

During this week’s writing chat, we talked with Jack about his new book and his tips for narrative writers. We hope you’ll join us with your thoughts and questions.

You can replay the chat here:

<a href=”″ mce_href=”″ >Jack Hart offers tips for writing better narratives</a> Read more

1 Comment

New Read it Later data show more people are saving ‘longform videos’

Read it Later
Apps like Read it Later have made it easier for people to save not just longform articles, but longform videos. New data released this morning show that video saves on Read it Later increased by more than 138 percent from January 2011 to January 2012.

The median length of Read It Later’s top 1,000 saved videos was nearly 30 minutes. Of the top 1,000 videos, 32 percent were more than five minutes long. Read more


What do we mean by ‘longform journalism’ & how can we get it ‘to go’?

A Kickstarter project run by two journalists raised $50,000 in just 38 hours last week and has raised a total of $87,297 so far. The goal of the project, called “Matter,” is to “publish a single piece of top-tier long-form journalism about big issues in technology and science. That means no cheap reviews, no snarky opinion pieces, no top ten lists. Just one unmissable story.”

The project raises interesting questions about what constitutes longform journalism. We know that technology has renewed attention to longform journalism in recent years. But it’s also changed how we think about it.

Do we define longform by the quality of the writing? By the amount of time it took to write? By the research it entailed? Or do we define it by length? The longform journalism site Longreads, for instance, asks people to “post their favorite stories over 1,500 words.”

These conceptual differences matter, says New York Times science reporter Natalie Angier. When I asked her about the “Matter” Kickstarter project, Angier said she’s been wondering what people mean when they say “longform” journalism. She tends to equate it less with length and more with depth of reporting.

“Even as the editors have cut back on the column inches they’ll allot to my work (or anybody else’s), I continue to treat every piece I write as though it were an in-depth feature,” Angier said. “I can’t imagine writing about science any other way.”

A writer or site that continuously produces quality content drives people come back. But given how fast news comes at us these days, and how many choices we have on the Web, quality longform stories can easily get lost.

Mark Armstrong, founder of Longreads and editorial adviser of Read it Later, says that when it comes to content on the Web, “it feels like we’re living in a Hot Dog-Shooting Terrordome.”

In a story published earlier today, Armstrong said publishers are faced with a “seemingly unsolveable problem” — how to embrace the increasing demands for content without losing sight of their commitment to quality.

“But there’s a bigger challenge for the media business,” Armstrong wrote. “How can we change the ecosystem and evolve to a model that puts renewed attention on quality over quantity?”

Crowdfunded projects like “Matter” are one possible solution. But beyond that, Armstrong says, news sites need to find more ways to make content portable.

“Let people take content with them, and they will soon value it more highly than if it is shot at them,” Armstrong said. “Content creators will be rewarded with a longer social lifespan for the stories and videos they work so hard to create. And that ultimately lifts the value of a media brand.”

It seems, then, that the definition of longform can’t be limited to length or even quality. Increasingly, longform stories need to have staying power, and we need more tools to give them a greater lifespan. In keeping with the hot dog analogy, we need more “take-out” bags for content, Armstrong said.

Read it Later, which has more than 4 million users, enables people to save stories from their computer, smart phone or iPad, and makes them available for offline use. Read it Later data shows that, on average, users keep a video or article in their queue for 96 hours before marking it viewed. As this study shows, that’s a pretty long time compared to the life span of stories shared on Twitter.

The more we can give readers tools to control how and when they engage with content, the easier it will be for them to read content that may require more careful attention — either because it’s long, in-depth, or both.

Readers have a hunger for visionary thinkers and big ideas, Angier said. Whether or not people will pay for this content is a little less clear.

“People want substance, and insight, and optimism with a forebrain, and again where can you turn for any of that but to science? But will people pay to read long, provocative, beautifully crafted science stories? And will ‘Matter’ pay writers a living wage to meet that desire? Consider me a hopeful skeptic.” Read more

A Pakistani man walks past graffiti, "Osama Bin Town" which people woke up to early Friday May 6, 2011, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, over a wall near the house, where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was caught and killed by a U.S. military force of SEALs. (Anjum Naveed/AP)

Schmidle defends sourcing in New Yorker’s ‘Getting bin Laden’ story, while narrative editors suggest improvements

In his recent New Yorker piece, “Getting Bin Laden,” Nicholas Schmidle shares a powerful account of what happened the night that Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. The details in the story, however, didn’t come from the SEALs themselves but from others who had debriefed them. Several readers have since criticized Schmidle for not being clearer about this in the story.

The criticism renews attention to the challenges narrative journalists face when they rely on second-hand accounts, and it raises questions about what they can do to let audiences know more about how they got their information.

Schmidle, a freelance writer who’s written a book about Pakistan, doesn’t think he led readers astray.

From the cover flap (‘Nicholas Schmidle talks to the people who planned the mission to find out exactly what happened that night in Abbottabad’) to the language inside, at no point did we mislead the reader into thinking that I had, in fact, interviewed SEALs directly,” Schmidle told me via email. “It would be unusual, in an article about a highly classified subject, for the reporter to list who he did NOT speak to.” (New Yorker Editor David Remnick has made a similar argument.)

But it’s not a matter of listing who Schmidle didn’t talk to; it’s a matter of describing in greater detail the people he did speak with. Readers want more information about who reporters interviewed so they can judge for themselves how credible a reporter’s sources are.

Attributing sources, verifying second-hand accounts

Tom Huang, assistant managing editor for Sunday and enterprise at the Dallas Morning News, says that when it comes to sourcing, the same standards should apply for narratives and reports. (Reports typically answer the five W’s and are written in language that’s unloaded. Narratives, by contrast, are “a form of vicarious experience, a virtual reality that transports us from the here and now to some distant place.”)

Huang advises journalists who are relying on second-hand accounts to find other people who can help verify the information.

A Pakistani man walks past graffiti, “Osama Bin Town” which people woke up to early Friday May 6, 2011, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, over a wall near the house, where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was caught and killed by a U.S. military force of SEALs. (Anjum Naveed/AP)

“I think you can try to find people who’ve had similar experiences and just ask them, ‘Does this ring true?’ In the SEAL story … you could ask former SEALs, ‘Do these recollections ring true? Do things like this seem to happen?’ ” Huang said by phone. “Any additional perspective you can get as a reporter to get a sense as to whether your source is reliable is a good thing.”

Schmidle indicated in a New Yorker live chat that while he didn’t talk to any of the SEALs involved with the raid, he talked to several other reliable sources to verify the information he was given.

“While I’ve said that I did not speak to any of the 23 SEALs who were on the ground in Abbottabad that evening, the notion that I didn’t talk to any SEALs — or other experienced JSOC operators — for this story is simply wrong,” Schmidle told me, noting that every detail in the story was vetted and cross-checked.

The White House, Schmidle said, had announced that SEALs’ names were off-limits to reporters, so he knew from the start that he couldn’t speak with them directly. This information would have been helpful to include in the story — especially for readers who aren’t aware that SEALS don’t typically talk to the media about their work.

To Schmidle’s credit, he did cite many of his sources, but he could have been clearer about where some of the information came from while still protecting the anonymity of the sources he chose not to identify.

Jacqui Banaszynski, who worked for 30 years as a reporter and editor before becoming Knight Chair in Editing at the Missouri School of Journalism, said Schmidle’s piece was “important and very impressive” but would have benefited from more attribution.

“It wouldn’t have to mess up the narrative,” Banaszynski said by phone. “It wouldn’t have to slow down the tension, the forward movement of this piece, or in any way undermined the power of the story he obviously deeply reported. I think it would have actually helped.”

Banaszynski pointed out that early versions of stories about bin Laden’s death changed as new information came in, making it even more critical for Schmidle to be transparent about who he interviewed. By being more transparent, he could have helped assure readers that he was reporting the definitive account of what happened.

It’s not too late for the New Yorker to add more sourcing information to the story, but Schmidle said there are no plans to do so.

Various options for sourcing information

There are workarounds for journalists who don’t want to bog down a narrative with attributions. Some news organizations include “source boxes” in stories to indicate who reporters talked to and how they got their information.

For instance, “The Girl in the Window” — a St. Petersburg Times Pulitzer Prize-winning story about a young girl named Danielle — includes a source box that says: “The opening scene and others were reconstructed from interviews with neighbors, the detective, Danielle’s care manager, psychologist, teacher, legal guardian and the judge on her case. Additional information came from hundreds of pages of police reports, medical records and court documents.”

Other news organizations use footnotes or annotations. In a story about an army medic, Atlanta Magazine’s Thomas Lake included a link to a separate page listing who he interviewed, the documents he used, and the events he witnessed.

Ideally, narrative writers would like to witness the scenes they write about instead of recreating them based on sources’ memories or second-hand accounts. Memories, as we know, aren’t always reliable.

“I think some narrative writers — and I can’t speak to Schmidle — try to write as if they’re in the heads of the people they’re writing about,” said Huang, who’s also an adjunct faculty member at Poynter. “I think they need to be very cautious about that. We can describe what people do, and we can have people talking about what their intentions and motivations and feelings are, and we can have other people judge the character of that, but it’s very hard to describe precisely what a person is thinking at any given moment.”

It can help to include words such as “recalled” and “remembered” because they remind readers that the information is based on sources’ memories.

Some of the words in Schmidle’s piece raised questions for readers. He wrote that the story was based on the SEALs’ “recollections” — an interesting way of putting it given that he didn’t hear the SEALs’ recollections first-hand.

When I asked Schmidle about this, he said recollections can be relayed in a variety of ways — through first-hand interviews, but also through transcripts, photographs, audio recordings, internal memos and debriefing sessions.

“There are multiple ways to access someone’s experience besides interviewing them,” he said. “That’s part of the challenge — and excitement — of reporting and writing narrative nonfiction.”

Still, Banaszynski said she thought Schmidle’s use of the word was misleading.

“A pull-back on that word, or an extra half sentence — ‘recollections given in debriefings to officials’ — would have helped me know where that reporting led him,” she said.

Being transparent, proving credibility

Journalists have talked for years about how to handle attributions in narratives. Ben Montgomery, a narrative writer at Poynter’s St. Petersburg Times, said the Jayson Blair scandal forced journalists to reassess how much they should tell readers about the reporting process. Many narrative writers began to reveal more details about where they got their information — and they were recognized for doing so.

“Enrique’s Journey,” a heavily footnoted series, won the Pulitzer Prize the same year as the Blair scandal. The Pulitzer board said the story was “exhaustively reported.” Some stories that had been previously in the running for the prize but weren’t as well-sourced were criticized for not including enough attribution.

“The Pulitzer judges were saying: Prove it. Readers were saying: Prove it. And many feature writers responded by showing their cards more often, with footnotes or how-this-story-was-reported boxes or writing that revealed where the information was coming from,” Montgomery said via email. “You saw those efforts in the writing, right down to how journalists chose their words.”

Montgomery attended a narrative conference around the same time as the Blair scandal and recalls hearing The Washington Post’s David Finkel say that narrative journalists had lost some literary freedom and that they’d have to work hard to earn it back. Montgomery remembers Finkel saying that narrative journalists shouldn’t use more active verbs, but more truthful verbs.

Schmidle’s piece, Montgomery said, seems to signal “a movement away from those constrictive rules. It’s not a bad thing, I don’t think, but it comes down to the relationship between readers and publications.”

Journalists like Schmidle, who go to great lengths to tell powerful stories, owe it to themselves and their audience to explain how they got the story.

“I like to peek behind the curtain to see how really gifted journalists do their work,” Banaszynski said. “But I think the public wants to peek behind the curtain, too, and we need to let them.” Read more


New York Times begins weekly showcase of its best long-form journalism

The New York Times
Starting today, New York Times editors are picking the week’s best long-form journalism and packaging them into a “Long Story Shortlist,” posted on the Times Magazine’s blog. They’ll include one pick from the Times’ archives, too. (This week’s archive pick is a story from last fall about British tabloid hacking.) People who follow the #Longreads hashtag on Twitter can find the picks that way. || Related: How technology is renewing attention to long-form journalism. Read more