The art of storytelling

When death-of-newspaper doomsayers start in on the wailing, the main thing they decry is the loss of investigative reports, and of the threat to democracy this poses. I’m not too worried about this, though. If anything, the openness of the Internet and the many ways (and cheaper ways) to disseminate information now will lead to more things being uncovered.

But one thing I am worried about, and which doesn’t seem to get much attention, is the dying art of storytelling. (Another thing I’m worried about is the lack of appreciation for the culling job actual printed newspapers are forced to perform with the news, so readers don’t have to wade through absolutely everything out there.)

As the emphasis shifts to the immediate, with being the first to get a breaking story up on the website, and this is done within a workplace that’s already suffered job cuts, the emphasis shifts away from the crafting of the story. Not just that, but it shifts away from the crafting of the product.

After a colleague of mine visited my blog, he wrote this to me:

What I liked about newspapers when I started this gig was that it seemed like a craft on many levels. There was the crafting of stories; there were not a huge amount but enough reporters to cover all bases, to get the meat and potatoes stuff done plus the analytical, critical stuff that is, or was, the lifeblood of newspapers. It also is a craft in the sense that you are taking a blank page and creating something for people that hopefully matters to some of them. In that sense, I used to feel like it was the Gutenberg press all over again, creating something from nothing. I also used to be fascinated by the skill/craft of putting the thing together, the pasteup with wax on a sheet of paper, the huge camera taking the PMTs, the hammering of plates on a press. In another world I see myself as a platemaker hammering stuff on a press, turning some knobs and whatnots, pushing the button and watching the press roll.

This nostalgic view of the paper business has its place. The printed newspaper that showed up on people’s doorsteps had a certain weight to it — both literally and figuratively — that the digital news doesn’t have. With that weight came responsibility, to get it right, to service the readers with fantastic writing.

The news isn’t just regurgitating (or linking to) news releases. It’s not attending a city council meeting and blogging about the proceedings — not without the added direct questioning of those council members and the addition of backstory and outside comments. The news is a story, and after readers get their fix on the latest breaking news, they need to be talked to in an engaging way, or they won’t come back, because they can get breaking news wherever they like, really (Twitter, anyone?).

In a more optimistic vein, maybe this means that after the chaos of the transition, after the deaths of some newspapers and losses of many, many jobs, what will emerge online will be a leaner, meaner writing environment. I already have noticed which sites I spend the most time on — sites with only quick summaries get a quick glance; sites with some original thinking and writing get my attention. If I’m not a big anomoly, hopefully it’ll be those sites that survive.

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