Thursday, 17 April 2008

The 'story' is dead

I don't think I meant to do this ... but you know how it is.
Two talks this month: the first to the University of North Texas (via a 128bit ISDN videophone - how retro is that?), the second to a group of early to mid career BBC journalists at a thing called the SON&R Centre in Bristol, a learning enterprise dedicated to sharing best practice.
At both, we were talking about multimedia news ... and both came soon after the launch of the new BBC News website and soon before the launch of the new BBC multimedia newsroom (I wrote about that here in the UKPG).
Maybe it was all the fault of that piece in which I wrote:
"... the idea of “the story” becomes meaningless ... “the story” is defined by an output deadline: “What can we find out and illustrate in the time we’ve got left?” There never was anything special about that particular iteration of those facts and that illustration, though we became very good at creating the illusion that there was.
And with “the story” goes the idea of an account being “complete enough” to put to air (why stop there?), of the fine balance of voices (there’ll always be another nuance, another voice) and the 24-hour-news cycle (whose 24 hours?)."
Anyhow, the idea that 'the story' is dead seemed to have wormed its way in there ... mostly because the concentration of thinking around UGC/citizen media, mobility and personalisation didn't seem to me to be getting at the essence of the transformation we linear journalists need to make to get to multimedia-/multiplatform-land.
Partly too, though, because this piece on Paul Bradshaw's blog back in September 2007 had taken root, followed up by Ed Roussel's talk at DNA 2008 - both, all, seemed to be pointing in the same direction. And so did the ideas underpinning the new, sleek, clean BBC News website.
The death of 'the story' - or at least we journalists' construct of 'the story'.
Which was how and why I came to two talks about 'Storyfinding and Storytelling' with the same opening line. 'The story is dead. Get over it.'
Since then, this in the New York Times echoing this from Loic Le Meur both articulate a truth we're all starting to see in action. News finds people - sometimes from Big Journalism, sometimes not (if you're under 25, usually not). And when it finds them - whether through BJ's alerts like Paul Bradshaw and Ed Roussel describe or by that weird wired osmosis that finds our teenage children without them apparently turning anything on - they don't quite respond to the carefully polished 'stories' we linearites cherish so much.
So far so obvious. But think about it for a mo. If you're one of those formerly known as the audience it's no big deal. But what does it mean for the stuff we journalists produce?
Thing about 'the story' is that it was the glorious evasion that enabled journalism. No-one can ever know 'the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth' still less convey it to anyone else. But 'the story' absolved us journalists of the need even to try. 'The story' never was anything more than one subset of facts that we could bind into a coherent narrative to get us around the information asymmetry. 'I just tell stories.'
'Stories' are great for excusing irrational agendas and teamed with deadlines they create the need for false balance while creating the illusion of completeness. And 'storytelling' is wonderfully teachable, what with four w's and inverted pyramids and all that.
'Stories' have been good to journalism - all the greater truths (Watergate,Thalidomide, the Iraq deception) have been accessed, initially at least, by 'stories'. But they've done it a lot of damage too - mostly springing from the assumption that if the storytelling is good, you can get the attention of an audience not intrinsically interested. Fine - but for every Seymour Hersh story that gets through the mesh of indifference many thousand sensational half-truths swim through too.
But here's the thing: journalists have always been far more entranced by 'the story' than audiences. Less than a quarter of newspaper readers claim to read to the end of a story, even one they're interested in ... and of those, over two thirds don't read every word.
And a pattern's emerging on the web that audiences are tending to use a 'story' as a prompt to find their own background and context and history and consequences and discussion. They'll all pot out at different stages in 'the story' ... but pot out they will, rendering redundant the careful polish we journalists have put on our storytelling. But think about it. Why should they suffer our choice of background and context?
I used a phrase that caught some of this which my audiences seemed to like: 'navigable narration.' I don't think it does the whole job ... but it does start to get across the problem we have.
At one level - we journalists can't escape the story as the unit of currency if for no other reason than one thing follows another and the conscious bit of the brain works in a linear fashion. At the same time, it's also got to be our job - surely - to understand our audience's need to navigate around our narratives and, crucially, to navigate back to our narratives when they themselves become the context, history and background for the next story.

3 comments:

Andy Dickinson said...

I've been saying the exact same thing to my students for the last few months as we talk about online story construction. I've differentiated between story and article though.

The story is what is happening - the angles, issues and development. The article is the page, package or piece that captures one element of it for your audience.

Adrian Monck said...

People will always need parables, but they might be in the process of finding different preachers...

dr droock said...

The real challenge is to reach that 25% of readers with the "Sy Hersh" stories. They will need to be told in the language of the audience. But the issue is the care, intelligence and focus he brings to bear.

The advantage of linear thought is that it usually has the constraint of logical thinking.

@matt thompson's blog, newsless.org he quotes a Vannevar Bush piece written in 1945 that I think gets it just right "Find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record."


the link is http://www.newsless.org/2009/03/wikipedia-foretold/