Skills for journalists in print and digital media

Archive for the ‘Editing’ Category

Long form narrative critiques available

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A group of editors and writers versed in long-form narrative writing have formed a panel at the Nieman Storyboard to offer critiques and instruction on narrative pieces. Their first critique went up today, on The Real Lesson of the Tucson Tragedy, the Time magazine piece by David Von Drehle that followed the shooting of  Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson.

Given there are eight on the panel, the amount of feedback can be overwhelming. One feels for the writer and editor behind the package. On the other hand, myriad points of view allow for some triangulation, which can be a good thing when dealing with nuances of art. Points repeated or seconded as the critique unfolds may be the place to start for readers looking for clear steps in their own work.

Storyboard editor Andrea Pitzer must have felt the same way about the group’s first effort when it came to volume. She added this final note, responding to a point raised by panel member Jacqui Banaszynski:

Pondering the Roundtable approach, Jacqui Banaszynski notes that there are pluses and minuses to so many editors putting their fingerprints on a story. This kind of scrutiny is always a little unfair, as it can never take into account all the time and reporting pressures that happen in real life or the demands incumbent on a given newspaper or magazine. Our hope, however, is that seeing each editor’s take will help readers think about how stories work and ways to make them as good as possible.

Nieman Storyboard is part of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard’s growing online arm, and is devoted to the art of storytelling in all mediums.





Written by mroberts8

02/01/2011 at 6:39 pm

Data visualization as “story”

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There are a lot of discussions about how best to present data effectively on a newspaper web site. One of the most intriguing of late, mentioned by Mindy McAdams in her Teaching Online Journalism blog, is this academic study from Edward Segel and Jeffrey Heer at Stanford University, titled, “Narrative Visualization: Telling Stories with Data.”

Segel and Heer set out to:

“…further our understanding of narrative visualization by analyzing and contrasting examples of visualizations with a story-telling component.We then generalize from these examples to identify salient design dimensions. In the process, we hope to clarify how narrative visualization differs from other storytelling forms, and how these differences introduce both opportunities and pitfalls for its narrative potential.”

Through a variety of good examples and their own analysis, one of their conclusions is the value of making data interactive, even in the context of a larger story. Let the story unfold, they say, but provide opportunities for readers to stop and work with the data.

“Generalizing across our examples, data stories appear to be most effective when they have constrained interaction at various checkpoints within a narrative, allowing the user to explore the data without veering too far from the intended narrative.”

One implication for multimedia story forms and training reporters and editors to plan them more effectively is to factor into a storyboard not only the right data to include, but how to make that data accessible and interactive in a way that does not interrupt the story.

Here is one example, a playful way to compare economic indicators among a set of cities that puts complex data in chart form for easy reference. It’s from a series on key economic indicators and what they say about the future of the Phoenix economy. The interactive chart was created using Adobe Flex.

Written by mroberts8

01/22/2011 at 1:04 pm

Storytelling 7: Writing that shows, lets readers feel

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Once your have your themes, main character,  timeline and story frame, it’s time to start writing. When attempting a “narrative” of any kind, the old advice about writing to show, not tell, becomes crucial. For most people, especially journalists used to writing hard news, this is usually impossible in a first draft. Much of the attention to show versus tell will come in revisions. So a skill to cultivate in storytelling is the ability to see those places where the writer has blurred the timeline or digested events and is sharing conclusions rather than a scene.

A primary goal in storytelling is to elicit feelings in a reader. This is done by providing stimulation that the reader processes and which give rise to feelings. If the writer (and thus the story) does that processing ahead of time, and delivers conclusions rather than stimulation, the reader is left out of the process. The piece becomes a recitation of information, like a regular news story. The viseral power of a well told story is lost.

Here is a short example I like to use in training programs, from a series by Sue MacDonald called “Christopher’s cancer,” published years ago in the Cincinnati Enquirer. It was the story of a young boy’s fight against cancer. Here are two versions of the same short passage, the first draft followed by the revision:

Grit and determination remained with Chris to the end. On April 5 – just 13 days before he died – he donned a tuxedo and stood during his sister’s 40-minute wedding ceremony, refusing several times to obey Barry’s hand motions to sit in a wheelchair strategically placed behind him.

“Shanna asked me to be in her wedding, and I wasn’t going to mess things up for my sister on her wedding day,” he said afterward.


On April 5 – two weeks before he died – Chris donned a tuxedo for his sister’s wedding. With slow, awkward steps, he escorted his mom, Debbie, down the aisle to her seat. He stood during the entire 40-minute ceremony. Watching from his pew, Barry signaled several times to his son to sit in the wheelchair an usher had placed behind him. Chris refused.

“Shanna asked me to be in her wedding,” he said later, “and I wasn’t going to mess things up for my sister on her wedding day.”

This brief passage illustrates a couple things.

Chronology is essential. Let events — the stimulation — unfold in a natural sequence, even down to individual sentence construction. Let the stimulation (sights, sounds, quotes) fall into place so the reader sees the moment take shape. And avoid inserting conclusions or summaries.

In this example, removing the opening sentence of summary (“Grit and determination remained with Chris to the end.”) opens up a blank canvas for the reader. After reading what happened, a reader might also feel things like grit or determination. But there may be other qualities or sensations tripped by the scene, based on the reader’s experience and perspective. Don’t limit the response. This moment of stimulus and response is at the heart of great storytelling. The art is in setting up the experience for the reader.

And one technique that supports that effort is letting chronology rule. By letting the moments come in order — “Chris donned a tuxedo for his sister’s wedding. With slow, awkward steps, he escorted his mom, Debbie, down the aisle to her seat. He stood during the entire 40-minute ceremony. Watching from his pew, Barry signaled several times to his son to sit in the wheelchair an usher had placed behind him. Chris refused.” — the reader is given a better chance to “see” or feel the raw material of the event and then feel a response.

Another helpful technique is to stick with short, declarative sentences much of the time. That makes it easier not to slip into the passive voice, or bend the timeline and interrupt the flow of stimulation building up in the reader’s mind.

Attention to writing that shows versus tells is a large part of a successful story.

Storytelling 1: Touching shared emotions

Storytelling 2: Chronology is your best friend

Storytelling3: Pick a main character

Storytelling 4: Microcosm, telling details, and meaning

Storytelling 5: Subtext and universal experiences

Storytelling 6: Outline the story, frame a chronology

Storytelling 7: Writing that shows, lets readers feel

Written by mroberts8

01/21/2011 at 6:26 pm

Digital readiness

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Michelle McLellan over at the Knight Digital Media Center recently blogged about, “Three signs your newsroom isn’t ready to cross the digital divide.” Unfortunately, the danger signs and solutions she describes reflect a dated misunderstanding of what is already happening in newsrooms around the country.

Her three danger signs and “the fix” for each:

1: The staff still reports to an assignment desk that is focused on print and/or is organized in departments that correspond to the sections of a newspaper. The fix: Newsgathering staff reports to the online assignment desk. Print becomes a production team that draws heavily on the online report for content at the end of the day.

2: News meetings focus on top news for the next day’s paper and meeting times reflect print. The fix: Meetings run by online editors at times that reflect digital publication timetables (like when to serve peak traffic) and focus primarily on online content, traffic and engagement metrics.

3: The top newsroom executives – say the Editor and Managing Editor(s) – are all print veterans who look at online from the outside. The fix: Either the top newsroom executive or the Number 2 has been steeped heavily in online – both the practical and the strategic – for at least five years, if not 10.

The first two are framed via the same print-centric mentality (e.g. desks, formal news meetings) the danger signs are meant to criticize. The third is just bad stereotyping.

The idea of “assignment desks” based on platforms (print versus digital) may have been attempted years ago, if ever, but is not part of the scene now. The assignment function rests in the hands of editors who manage reporters and visual journalists and think about both digital and print publication. In fact, they do not separate the two, but rather think in terms of “continuous coverage” where a story starts online, may evolve through the day, and continue into print as its own unique piece. What is really evolving at many papers is a digital approach that is heavy on breaking news, following by the print component that provides more context and analysis the next day. And this is managed by one “assignment” editor working in both worlds, as well as mobile and maybe even TV.

Similarly, the idea of formal news meetings based on platform is also off the mark. The afternoon news meeting for the next day’s paper survives, but largely as a hand-off between shifts and as a production discussion with the night copy desks. Meetings around content that happen earlier in the day, to manage the flow of news to combined platforms, often happen in short stand-up meetings as needed, versus formal, scheduled gatherings. These are small, quick meetings involving the people who need to act, rather than a gathering of the editorial hierarchy for approval.  The notion that online meetings should serve “…digital publication timetables…” is just goofy, as online (combined with mobile) does not usually plan around timetables, but rather the flow of news. Metrics may detect clear highs and lows. But the idea is to expand the highs, not limit content to those times.

And, lastly, characterizing top editors based on how much they are “…steeped in online…” is shallow and insulting.  As well, the idea that top editors still operate as the all knowing, total control captains of the newsroom is long gone. High-performing teams combine and leverage collective talents. Editors and managing editors need to know how to form and manage high-performing teams.

These danger signs are over a decade behind the curve in digital content delivery and newsroom management, not a good sign for a “digital media center” devoted to”…helping good journalism and good journalists thrive in the Digital Now.”

Written by mroberts8

12/29/2010 at 9:03 pm

Beats crumble, and few take flight

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Nieman Reports’ new Winter 2010 issue opens with a tough look at the loss of strong beat coverage and the appalling consequences for journalism. Much of this will not be news for editors and reporters who have been struggling with diminished resources and rising demands for coverage. They know the result is a sham, thin stories and large pieces of the community that go without coverage.

In one article, former New York Times reporter David Cay Johnson, who won the 2001 Pulitzer for Beat Reporting and now teaches at Syracuse University, puts it bluntly:

Far too much of journalism consists of quoting what police, prosecutors, politicians and publicists say—and this is especially the case with beat reporters. It’s news on the cheap and most of it isn’t worth the time it takes to read, hear or watch.

During the past 15 years as I focused my reporting on how the American economy works and the role of government in shaping how the benefits and burdens of the economy are distributed, I’ve grown increasingly dismayed at the superficial and often dead wrong assumptions permeating the news. Every day in highly respected newspapers I read well-crafted stories with information that in years past I would have embraced but now know is nonsense, displaying a lack of understanding of economic theory and the regulation of business. The stories even lack readily available official data on the economy and knowledge of the language and principles in the law, including the Constitution. What these stories have in common is a reliance on what sources say rather than what the official record shows.

Stories built on quotes. No context. “Conflict” stories rather than explanatory or investigative stories. Reporters dependent on sources to tell them what is happening, rather than sources being held accountable for the facts assembled by the beat reporter. In many newsrooms, even the parameters of a given beat are vague and the coverage goals unspoken. Beat mapping discussions are a crucial beginning.

The issue also takes a look at new twists in beat coverage in Sports, the science beat, and in a fun group article four members of the Community Engagement Team at TBD share thoughts on their own emerging beat, one that is about engaging the community.

Beat mapping: How to focus and drive a beat.

Written by mroberts8

12/14/2010 at 9:35 pm

Beyond galleries to quality slideshow content

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Chadwick Matlin contributes to the growing set of forms and approaches when it comes to online slide shows. The random stream of images and dead end captions of basic photo galleries have given way to more structured slide shows that tell stories, convey complex information, and add great value and user traffic to new web sites.

Writing in the latest Columbia Journalism Review, Matlin sketches seven types of slide shows, including the “Listicle” and the “Essay.” Plus he’s enough of a realist to toss in the “Sex Show,” a form every web site manager and paranoid newspaper editor is well aware of, usually involving cheerleaders, fashion shows, nightclub parties, Miss Hooters contests, or some other variation on soft porn and high traffic. (What’s your version or war story on same?)

Readers like slide shows because they control the medium via clicks, the content can be powerful, and the topics are endless. Web site managers like them as each slide can represent one ad view. Done poorly (or cynically) and they will destroy your credibility. Done well they take digital news presention in new and interesting directions with minimal technical requirements and as showcases for traditional journalism skills — great images and tight writing.


Written by mroberts8

12/02/2010 at 1:38 am

Posted in Editing, Multimedia

Print perspective in the digital age

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Rem Rieder, writing in American Journalism Review, arrives late to the realization that traditional morning-after hard news stories seem stale in the wake of real-time online coverage hours earlier. He observes, correctly, that:

With instant access to information available for so many people, an old-school hard news story looks pretty silly the following morning. In a world where so much information is widely available in real time, it’s imperative for news organizations to provide added value: analysis, perspective, context, narrative. And to make it interesting. Otherwise, what’s the point?

That’s been the case for years now.

The alternative for newspapers is “continuous coverage,” meaning a stream of coverage from the first short online post on through a growing package of online news during the day to the next day’s print story or package that provides the analysis and perspective. For newspapers trying to remain the number one news source in their communities, this has been the game plan for some time.

To build this kind of approach into the culture of your newsroom, it is important to settle on a set of online approaches that everyone is familiar with and can turn to as news unfolds. This can include the basic tools and clear standards and practices as to how to use them. There is also an editorial function, an aggressive but still  measured approach to rolling out the news through the day online. Then, most importantly, it also means breaking off someone, or allowing the primary reporter the time, to report and write a print story that takes the basic news and explores impact and context.

Done well, continuous coverage provides readers with the emerging facts as news happens online and then provides the perspective and wrap-up the next morning in the paper and online.

Written by mroberts8

12/02/2010 at 1:23 am