August 20, 2012

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.

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I serve as an Editorial Product Manager at NPR, where I work with member stations to develop niche websites. Before coming to NPR, I worked…
Matt Thompson

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