Will emphasizing emotion sell more journalism? New, old media vets say yes

Capital New York | The Guardian | The Buttry Diary | The Audacity of Despair | The Anniston Star

At Poynter's TEDx conference last Friday, Jessica Hopper pointed to Spin and The Chicagoan as magazines that asked what they can do better than the Web. Spin stepped back from news, emphasizing photography, the feel of the book and rangy cultural features; The Chicagoan is sold without advertising in pop-up newsstands. (She also had kind words for Rookie.)

Signing a noncompete agreement with the ever-newsier quarters of the Web seems like a plausible strategy for narrative journalism (though: GOOD magazine, which made a beautiful print edition in addition to a kicky Web property, laid off most of its editorial staff Friday). Joe Pompeo reports on the planned launch of Narratively, a one-story-a-day website "devoted exclusively to in-depth narratives about New York," its would-be founder, editor and publisher Noah Rosenberg tells him. It might be surfing a wave, Pompeo writes:

Not long ago, the proliferation of A.D.D.-enabled websites like The Huffington Post and Business Insider seemed to augur a future in which most digital journalism would be served up in small bites rather than five-course meals. But the increasing number of new, usually small entries in the long-form field has challenged the orthodoxy of dominant digital content practices like iterative blogging, aggregation and ubiquitous slideshow assemblage.

If I had the time, I'd totally make a slideshow to illustrate that point, showing the front pages of Byliner, Longreads and the Kindle Single store, all of which Pompeo cites as examples of the small moons exerting pull on the tides of Web readership.

Writing in The Guardian, Mark Hooper says websites that publish print magazines are capitalizing on the desire for permanence, too. McSweeney's founder Dave Eggers tells him the Internet egghead coop is animated by readers' needs for different ways to consume writing:

"It's our admittedly unorthodox opinion that the two can co-exist, and in fact should co-exist," he announced via a rare public foray into email. "But they need to do different things. To survive, the newspaper, and the physical book, needs to set itself apart from the web. Physical forms of the written word need to offer a clear and different experience. And if they do, we believe, they will survive."

Which is great for magazines and webzines, but could such a bifurcated approach help newspapers, which aren't much fun to hold and can look messy on one's coffee table (trust me)? Digital guru Steve Buttry says embracing the differences between stories and news could change the newspapers work:

But let’s be honest: Most of the content we publish isn’t stories. It’s news. It’s facts. It’s information. Let’s respect the pure, traditional story – the narrative string of paragraphs – by reserving that form for real stories that have story elements such as plot, character, setting and theme.

For news, facts and information, let’s tell stories as they unfold: a tweet here, an update there, a database, a video clip, a timeline, a slideshow, a conversation, a list. Let’s master the tools of digital storytelling and learn to match our tools and techniques to the circumstances.

And in The Anniston (Ala.) Star, publisher H. Brandt Ayers says his papers are "doing OK financially, not great but we’re making a profit" and that their emotional connection to the communities they serve will keep them going. Ayers quotes a speech he gave a couple years back:

“As long as there are mothers to cry at their daughters’ weddings, as long as there are fathers to swell with pride at their sons’ exploits on the football field, as long as people fear crime, are suspicious of local politicians, cheer for the economic boost of a new industry, want to know what’s for sale at the mall or mourn the death of beloved citizens, as long as people want to share with others, there will be a need for someone to connect them."

So, yes, we are changing, but in the most important ways we are the same. Unless Congress repeals human nature, newspapers in some form will be around and citizens will want to buy them.”

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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