Slate Magazine’s sabbatical: a new model for web storytelling

January 31, 2009

News in the paper is as sad as news about the paper. In 2008, American newspapers cut 15,554 jobs, according to a tally kept by St. Louis Post-Dispatch graphic designer Erica Smith on her “Paper Cuts” blog. Smith tallies more than 2,000 cuts already in 2009. Smith’s effort opened Robert Hodierne’s essay in the American Journalism Review about how journalists are finding work outside the newsroom in PR, liquor stores and even yoga.

This morning, the front page of my local paper  featured a story about painful local layoffs, an LA Times piece about the deepening recession, and a feature about a mother-son funeral. The only psuedo-bright spot? A piece about Rep. Peter Defazio, D-Ore., blasting the stimulus package as too heavy with tax cuts.

We’re riding a broadband connection to hell. Or not.

Maybe these are just unusually difficult growing pains, a sort of economic adolescence, as technology reshapes the way journalists tell stories. The sooner newspapers adopt new models, the better. Case in point? Slate Magazine.  The online pub, owned by the Washington Post, has always been edgy. But now, as the New York Observer reports, Slate editor David Plotz will, one at a time, give staffers  four to six weeks to leave the office and turn out a long-form feature, possibly with multimedia components for the web.

So, while the old-school papers are slicing jobs and whining their way into what they depict as a web-only oblivion, Slate, a web-only pub from its start, is sending journalists out to tell long, important stories in new ways. Maybe there’s a bright spot after all. Maybe not all the news about the news is as sad what’s in the paper.

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Newspapers may re-focus on ‘story,’ but online potential endless

December 12, 2008

Just today we learned that the Oregonian will all but end delivery to many parts of Oregon next month, offering same-day delivery only around the Portland area and a couple of other cities. The print product, apparently, will focus on Portland, but the paper’s online presence will continue to have statewide news coverage. There are also rumors that the paper will soon scale back the print edition to three or four times a week.

These changes could force the print edition to focus on longform narrative and news analysis. It’s a reality that matches almost exactly the kind of publication a deputy managing editor and narrative artist at a major western newspaper recently forecast in an e-mail.

That said, I think the future of storytelling is not on ink and paper but on the Web. Online journalism offers a bunch of options for combining media, not just in ways that complement a text story, but in ways where the media play off each other and actually combine to drive a narrative. For example, a writer might frame a story with words, but when it comes time to describe what or how someone said something, a little video of the subject in context and mid-narrative might be more powerful than a writer simply pounding a quote into a keyboard. Illustrating an action in the story with video or audio in way where it blends with the text might be effective. It might jar readers/viewers for a while because the idea would be that they don’t finish entirely one element in a single medium before changing mediums. The story might create a seamless narrative while stitching together various media.

I don’t have an honest grasp of what I’m suggesting or even a good example, although I am sure people are trying it. I just think that electronic storytelling offers ways to combine text, photos, audio and video in creative and powerful ways — more than simple complementary roles — rather ways that work together to tell a single story. I think we’ll see more of this as technology develops. Then again, I might be crazy.


Could Tribune bankruptcy be a good thing for storytellers?

December 9, 2008

Could the Tribune Co.’s demise – along with the slow slide of traditional papers – actually be a good thing for storytellers and storytelling?

Maybe wounds are too fresh to have this conversation. Still, newspapers and their formulaic style of storytelling have been rapidly flipping toward chapter 11 for a while now. When you’re a reporter, you learn how to write the archetype on deadline. The murder story. The-Sunday-afternoon-re-create-Saturday-night-mayhem story. The election story. The court story. The meeting story. And sadly, the layoff story.

And the layoff story is one you don’t mess around with. When I was a green reporter, I turned in my first layoff story with a lead saying that hundreds of local grocery workers “had been sacked.” I picked up the paper the next day to see that what I thought of as my “masterful” lead had been replaced with a plain old straight news special. When I walked in the newsroom, the managing editor, who aspired to curmudgeon status, stopped me.

“Never get cute about people losing their jobs,” he said. “Sacked is a good verb. But not when you’re talking about City Market workers.”

He was right. Lesson learned.

So excuse me if it seems a little crass to suggest that bankruptcies and layoffs in the newspaper industry might actually be healthy for storytelling in the long run. See, the ever-cheapening corporate newsrooms, with shrinking staffs, shrinking budgets and shrinking coverage — the ones j-school profs love to criticize — might actually fall victim to the bottom line. That would leave us to start from scratch. Lauren Kessler, an accomplished author and professor at the University of Oregon, likes to say that to really write well she had to “unlearn” most everything newspapers taught her.

In other words, when she decided that she really wanted to tell stories, she had to start from scratch. And that’s how the long-heralded demise of newspaper titans might actually be a good thing. It might let real storytellers start from scratch.

Layoffs of any kind hurt. They aren’t funny. Good people losing jobs and pensions is awful. I’m sure the Tribune Co. and its papers will limp along in some form for a few more years. Newspapers have, in general, served us well. Their ultimate demise — if there is one — will leave a huge gap. But think of it not as a gap, rather as a giant cyber news hole for real stories, by real storytellers. It’s a chance to start from scratch.