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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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.


The web’s “c” word: Five better monikers for web content

November 28, 2008

I hate the term web content.  Hate it.  There are TV shows, book chapters, newspaper articles, symphonic movements, poetry verses, stanzas, lines, couplets, and more. On the web, we throw everything together and call it content. And I am fit to be tied. Sure, execs and administrators love to say, “The web is where it’s at,” without funding it. At the very least, they could dignify the collection of words, pictures, video, audio, blogs, vlogs and microblogs with a better name than content.

Might as well call it hodgepodge. Brochure leftovers? Pasted and “re-purposed” from magazines, memos, and brochures, this static web content boasts no rhyme, no reason and no life.

With that, I’ll offer up a little reason if not rhyme with my top 5 alternatives for the dreaded “c” word:

1)      Web Ingredients: This requires a recipe, for example, combine  a dash of exposition, a touch of anecdote,  and a smattering of bullet points, then pour them not into a 13:9 baking dish but a tidy little 4:3 video and a 250-word feature.

2)      Web Packages: Feature story, video, audio and FAQ all boxed together and gift-wrapped just for you.

3)      Multidimensional web presence: Okay, so corporate it makes me wince, but every office has its king of buzzwords. A multidimensional web presence allows you to “leverage” your “position” combining  elements of narrative.  Some words, some  audio, a video or two and a blog? Instead of always telling people how you are, why not let them tell you how they see you? Word of mouth travels fast. Might as well let them describe the good and bad about you – to you on your blog. Might as well make your case via video and teach people using podcasts. Then you’re “leveraging” your “positions” using several “platforms” and reaching a “cross-section” of your  “demographic.”

4)      Web Masterpieces: Look, the web’s about being fast, cool, edgy, even if you’re selling antibiotic ointment. Could archeologists someday be mining caches of servers trying to decipher and restore aging, yellowing html code? Clean code might never land in the Louvre. But your web site is your canvas. Take care and time to be sure the right lighting, the ideal nuance, the perfect brush strokes tell your story. Treat your site like a self portrait. It might not hang in a museum or get translated by archeologists, but success on the web means telling a gripping story today.

5)      Web Storytelling: A narrative has everything life does. Character, conflict, triumph.  Think of your web site as your story, a personal one or that of a company or organization. What stories can you tell to illustrate your favorite themes or your brand? A few pictures, a few words, some talking pictures? What’s the best way to tell your stories? What conflicts have you triumphantly overcome? Tell those stories… Show the world who you are.

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