Good stories are important and interesting

Writing coaches Roy Peter Clark and Chip Scanlan are quoted in the Elements of Journalism as believing that effective newswriting can be found at the intersection of civic clarity, the information citizens need to function, and literary grace, which is the reporter’s storytelling skill set.

There are many things journalists fail to do to engage the audience:

  • Time is frozen
  • Character is missing
  • Stories lack meaning
  • Relevancy is assumed
  • Storytelling is predictable
  • Limited use of digital media to amplify storytelling

One of the keys to engagement is finding ways to fix these problems.

Unfreeze time

People are active, they are doing things – have your stories show that. Jack Hart, the former managing editor and writing coach at The Oregonian says 15-30 column inches is a reasonable length for a narrative that can be produced in a day. The idea is to follow a character through a complication and show how they resolve it. Think of a narrative arc: the complication is introduced, then the action unfolds, the character has a revelation, the character resolves the complication.

Develop character

Too much journalism fails to develop character. The people are cardboard, names and faces fit into a journalistic template: the investigating officer, the protester, the conservative Republican, the liberal Democrat. Often, just a little more reporting can provide the kinds of details that avoid stereotypes and provide an interesting dimension to the people who inhabit your stories.

Tell the audience what it means

This is more than just decoding the latest zoning issues or the tuition increases. Tell your audience why the world works the way it does, why a certain trend is happening, why an event is or isn’t taking place. Don’t shy away from being an authenticator that provides clarity.

Prove relevancy

Readers view the news through the lens of their lives and filter the content based on their interests and concerns. Though journalists may think, in fact may know, that something is “news,” declaring it so doesn’t make it true to the news consumer. Relevancy should not be assumed. We need to prove it.

For example, how do you make local connections to the Asian economic market? The Portland Oregonian did it by following an Oregon potato from harvest until it was sold as part of a large order of French fries in a McDonalds in Singapore.

Data is also effective. As an isolated incident, a smash and grab from a parked car probably won’t rise to the level of “news,” except to neighbors on the same street. But if crime-against-property statistics reveal a rash of “larcenies from an auto,” the “incident” becomes representative of something that’s happening in many neighborhoods, and as such, is news.

Experiment with storytelling

This is more than just dropping the journalist’s favorite crutch, the inverted pyramid and telling stories. This is about thinking of stories differently. Maybe a graphic or map is enough to tell the story. Maybe a photo will do the trick. Maybe the characters themselves can write, or speak, in their own words.

Use the Web

Use the Web to enhance the power of storytelling and make the story more personal and interactive. Video and audio make the reader an eyewitness. Comments, forums, and other crowdsourcing feedback allow citizens to interact with the news. Maps help readers see where an event occurred and also their proximity to it. And a calculator allows users to translate big, abstract, numbers to his or her very personal situation.

This guide, like many of the others in API’s Journalism Essentials section, is largely based on the research and teachings of the Committee of Concerned Journalists — a consortium of reporters, editors, producers, publishers, owners and academics that for 10 years facilitated a discussion among thousands of journalists about what they did, how they did it, and why it was important. The author, Walter Dean, was CCJ training director and former API Executive Director Tom Rosenstiel who previously co-chaired the committee.