September 7, 2007

Q: What are alternative story forms?

A: They’re tools that quickly engage a reader’s attention: a timeline, a checklist, a fact box or a graphic — anything that doesn’t fit the standard model of most newspaper narratives. You’re reading one right now in this Q&A.

Q: Do they help readers understand and remember what they’ve read?

A: Yes.

Our recent EyeTrack study showed that, on average, our 600 participants read deeply into story text they chose to read. The subjects were tracked as they read one day’s edition of their local newspaper or news Web site.

We were able to capture precise eye movements with tracking equipment as we noted patterns of reading, where they entered the page and more. But the equipment could not measure comprehension or how much a reader retained.

We wanted to see if story form helped people to understand and remember specific facts from a story. To do this, we created prototypes to be read by each respondent, allowing us to compare the effectiveness of story forms.

Readers were given one of six different versions of a story about bird flu. Three were in print, three were online. Each version included identical information fact for fact, but the design and story structure differed.

When a reader finished reading one of these prototypes for five minutes, he or she answered questions about the story.

We found that alt story forms like a Q&A, a timeline, a fact box or a by-the-numbers box helped readers remember facts presented to them. Readers of prototype 3 — the most visually graphic version, without a traditional narrative — answered the most questions correctly.

Q. How did alternative story forms do in the live eyetracking of the daily publications?

A. They drew a greater amount of visual attention, compared with regular text in print — far more attention than would have been expected given the number. The visual draw was particularly powerful in broadsheets. Alt story forms accounted for only about 4 percent of the 16,976 text elements available to be seen in the broadsheet newspapers looked at during the study, but they received more than their share of attention.

Q. Does this mean all stories should be told using alt story forms?

A. No. But the effectiveness of ASFs for handling numbers and information at a glance shouldn’t be ignored. Use the right tools for the right story.

Alternative story forms seem to work best with fact-laden stories, providing a way to handle numbers, time, location and juxtaposition references in a simple, comparative way. An explanatory graphic can take a reader into a situation that would be impossible to photograph. A Q&A, timeline, fact box or by-the-numbers list can give information at a glance. Photographs capture moments. Long-form narrative seems best for telling compelling, emotional stories about events in someone’s life.

To choose the form that works best for the story and for the reader, newsrooms need to get daily conversations going with people at all points in the writing and editing process. The overall percentage of alternative story forms in most daily newspapers and Web sites is very small –- in some publications, they are used only once or twice a week. I believe that the more strong examples put in front of editors, writers and visual journalists, the better. The most effective stylebooks have examples of story forms that work, with clear guidelines for how to create them.

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Sara teaches in the areas of design, illustration, photojournalism and leadership. She encourages visual journalists to find their voice in the newsroom and to think…
Sara Dickenson Quinn

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