June 29, 2021

About a decade ago, the term Fifth Estate was all the rage. If the Fourth Estate was the traditional news media, then the so-called Fifth Estate comprised activists, bloggers, citizen journalists and entrepreneurs who, at their best, helped to inform the public and enrich civic discourse. The term Fifth Estate began to evaporate (perhaps because of a bad movie by that title) at a time when social media and their influence — good and bad — spread like kudzu.

If you merge the Fourth Estate with the Fifth Estate (no, you would not get the Ninth Estate!) you have about two-thirds of the group I have been calling public writers. There is a missing one-third in the equation: all those who write in the public interest from institutions of government, business, nonprofits, transportation, education, health care, the arts and others.

I have worked with many public writers during the pandemic and have discovered that most have the same aspirations. They want to improve in their craft and sharpen their sense of mission and purpose. As writers, they want to learn these four things:

  • How to make hard facts easy reading.
  • How to make important things interesting so that readers will pay attention.
  • How to find an authentic writing voice that, while distinctive, is in harmony with the enterprise they represent.
  • How to tell good stories in the public interest.

The rest of this essay is devoted to that last item — storytelling.

What makes a story good? That question becomes increasingly important in an age of pandemic, social unrest, economic decline, insurrection and disinformation. What follows is an attempt to answer that question, distilled from many conversations with journalists and public writers.

1. We share a collective sense that storytelling is so important that it can feel like a value or virtue. What does that mean?

I’ve heard a theory that suggests that human beings need stories to remember, that we may not be able to remember anything as little kids until we have been exposed to stories. Part of my own sense of memory is that I reach into a dusty file in my brain for the name of an old song or the author of a book. But I also envision my past as a kind of narrative, a movie in which I am the main character. God or Charles Darwin or both gave us a brain of a certain size. That brain gave us language. Language led to stories, a form of human expression that can be delivered, miraculously, as either fiction or nonfiction.

2. What makes a good story “good” and a bad story “bad?”

This is a crucial question. In spite of the power and value of stories in our culture, I believe that narrative itself is morally neutral. A story is a kind of contraption, to paraphrase the poet W.H. Auden, with a person inside. If that person is guided by noble purpose, there’s a greater chance the story will be good. But genocidal tyrants use some of the same strategies of craft that responsible writers use for the public good. And we will argue, of course, over what constitutes a noble purpose. My advice to writers is to have a stated mission for every text they write.

3. What is the difference between a story and a report? Are there some qualities or characteristics stories share across media platforms?

This distinction is clear — at least in my head. We call too many things we produce “stories.” Many of them are reports: information delivered so that others can act on it. The purpose of a story is not to convey information, but to convey experience. A report tells me how many gallons of oil are polluting the Gulf. A story transports me to a boat where old fishermen are working to save the shoreline.

Whatever media platform you work from, you are not creating a story unless you are helping the reader or viewer or listener feel what it is like to “be there.” That effect can only be produced from tested strategies: details that define character; action delivered in a sequence of scenes; dialogue, rather than simple quotes or sound bites; a purposeful variety of points of view.

4. The internet has the capacity to present or archive stories that are infinitely long, so why do we tend to talk about the value of “short” stories when we think of writing online?

The internet has given us many things, but not more time, so we’ve had to create good ways and bad (multitasking) to manage our lives. We know from radical narrative experiments that stories can be delivered in very few words, as can reports. In that sense, I see writing online as more like writing for a magazine than anything else. In general, newspaper length has been fairly homogenized. The short stories seem too long, and the long ones too short. Books are long form by definition. But most contemporary magazines want to balance a lot of short, bright, interesting, edgy items, with stories or investigations of significant length.

5. What are the dangers in a community when certain storytelling voices are privileged over others? How can an organization promote stories that are inclusive rather than exclusive?

It is fair to say that traditional news media privilege the voices of a too-narrow band of stakeholders. This is not to say that the poor, for example, are always ignored. I could make a case that most of the stories I see are framed from the margins between rich and poor, or establishment and anti-establishment, from Wall Street, Main Street, and the Back Street, but not often enough the Side Street.

To cover a community well, you must hire a representative cross-section of the society. But that’s not enough. If we wait until that happens, we won’t see the inclusion we need soon enough. And the burden of creating diverse workplaces and communities should never be borne by writers of color alone. The storyteller, of whatever background or ideology, must develop skills in covering the world of the other. We sometimes do this more often with foreign correspondence than we do in covering our own communities.

6. What are the benefits when a story is told about a group by a member of that group?

The benefits include being able to see stories invisible to the rest of society; gaining access to sources and key places that generate news; developing deep cultural and historical knowledge that avoids mistakes and crude generalizations.

7. What are the cautions?

A member of the group sometimes has to fight expectations from other members, with pressure not to report on that group in a negative manner.

8. What happens when I am asked to “parachute” into a country, community or neighborhood that feels unfamiliar, or even foreign to me?

Anyone who has ever traveled to another country more than once knows how different our perception of a place and people can be the second time around. Journalists parachute into places all the time — for good reasons — but the result can be a distorted or simplistic version of the life and times of that community.

On the other hand, the savvy outsider learns how to find guides and translators in a new community, listening posts. The best of these writers develop a double vision that helps them understand a community not just from the point of view of the members, but also with the fresh perspective of an outsider.

9. Where are exemplary stories coming from these days?

The elite places include the New York Times, The Washington Post, National Public Radio, The New Yorker and The Atlantic. But that represents the low-hanging fruit. Good writers today must find dozens of places where good stories are told. This will help them develop the skill and versatility they need.

Excellent documentaries are available from streaming services. The podcast has become a popular and profitable form of storytelling. Nonfiction writers must immerse themselves in long-form storytelling — especially fiction and cinema. Done the right way, this will not be an invitation to the writer to make stuff up. It will be a healthy dipping into the well of narrative in a way that helps the writer understand human character and the world.

10. What are the benefits and limitations of the anecdote as a storytelling and reporting tool?

The anecdote has become increasingly controversial. Readers and writers tend to embrace the anecdote — or little story — as a way to encapsulate that part of the world they are covering. The little story, if well chosen, represents the whole.

But we all know that anecdotes can be chosen for their dramatic power rather than for their representational value. And we know that every politician has a cache of anecdotes they can use to support their own narrow political biases. Reporting based on data analysis is stronger than ever. Every data point hides or reveals a potential story.

11. What is the relationship between the story, the storyteller, and the reader or listener? How can we take advantage of that knowledge in the interest of public service?

A wonderful literary scholar named Louise Rosenblatt wrote that although the writer is the one who produces a text, it is the reader who turns the text into a story. In other words, all good stories are triangular and transactional. This knowledge comes in handy in a world where so much information is gained online, and where users expect the ability to talk back to the author. But we still must define what constitutes a healthy transaction so that the triangle doesn’t become a Bermuda Triangle.

12. How can storytellers make a buck?

How can anyone make a buck? All boats sink on a low tide, right? I think the good news is that stories can exist in more forms than ever, and be delivered in many more ways than ever. What might have been a single newspaper story 25 years ago can now be adapted to many different formats for a rich variety of audiences. Mark Bowden wrote “Black Hawk Down” as a newspaper series, with a strong web presence. It became a television documentary, then a book, and then an award-winning motion picture. Today something similar might be delivered as a Netflix series or an Apple podcast.

13. Can you outline again the essential differences between reports and stories?

  • The report delivers information in the public interest; the story is a form of virtual experience.
  • The report delivers the Who; the story develops Character.
  • The report tells you what happened in a summary; the story tells you what happened in a sequence of scenes.
  • The report tells you where something happened; the story turns the where into a setting.
  • The report lets you know when something happened; the story offers a fuller chronology.
  • The report, with difficulty, informs you why something occurred; the story explores not a single cause, but several possible causes.

To repeat, it is not just the journalist who creates stories in the public interest. All public writers have a chance, whether they are a feature writer for the newspaper; or a blogger specializing on city hall; or a former journalist, now working for the police department or the board of education.

It was just announced that 40 journalists and other newsroom workers took a buyout after the once great Chicago Tribune was purchased by a hedge fund. That loss to journalism and the community is incalculable. But, hey, they are not dead. Some will find work at another journalism shop; some will work independently; some will change careers; and, yes, some will use their talents to share news and information from institutions that help build community and strengthen democracy. There are so many stories waiting to be told.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
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