Story time not only for kids

5 Mar
Truman Capote

Truman Capote sitting comfortably. He is one of the most well-known narrative journalists. Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

Everyone loves a good story. Or so we’re told. There once was a time during the 20th century when people adored narrative journalism – with its long stories, character development and various scenery. It changed the perception of the journalism industry for readers and writers alike. Change; it is an all-too-familiar word in journalism, and perhaps it is the reason narrative journalism is becoming a dying art form. Let’s hope not. Journalists like Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson and Gay Talese made a living by using their unique storytelling abilities. Magazines and newspapers, particularly the New York Times and the Washington Post, featured stories with elaborate detail and development.

Then, the journalism industry changed yet again, paving the way for digital journalism and online news consumption, ever changing the way readers obtained their information. Sites such as buzzfeed.com, Gawker and huffingtonpost.com are taking away narrative journalism’s thunder, featuring shorter, simpler stories that are more reader-friendly. In today’s society, clicks and online traffic determine the success of an online news outlet, thus essentially making long-form narrative journalism a thing of the past. The shift to digital journalism is jeopardizing the future of narrative journalism. Outlets do exist for readers to get their hands, or eyes, on narrative journalism stories, but the revenue is not there.

In “The Sequester Is Terrible For Traffic,” McKay Coppins, a staff writer for buzzfeed.com, says there is little demand for the recent sequestration headlines, simply because people do not understand the concept and do not want to spend their time reading about it.

Sam Stein, political editor for the Huffington Post, says, “I’d give you a quote about the traffic generated by sequestration stories, but will anyone click on your sequestration-related story and read it?” Coppins included in his article that “a poll found that just 27 percent of Americans have heard a lot about the mandatory spending cuts to take place next week.” As it relates to narrative journalism, today’s readers do not want to engage in a lengthy, lack-luster story that might do nothing but confuse them and waste their time. For example, a scoop about Paul Ryan blaming spending cuts on President Obama received around 4,000 page views, whereas a story about how government contractors are responding to the cuts received nearly half as many views.

“The biggest problem, though, is that the sequester fight basically defines the kind of political story that is only of interest to the people who are paid to be interested,” said Gabriel Snyder, editor of The Atlantic Wire. “There are lots of people interested in politics. There are far fewer interested in political theater.”

If the interest is not there, people will not want to consume news, let alone pay for it.

“It’s clear we need a new business model when it comes to media, but it’s been unclear what that model will be,” says NPR Planet Money’s Zoe Chace in the story, “Can Andrew Sullivan Make It On His Own?” This is the center of conflict for digital journalists. Sullivan is attempting to reach out to his followers to earn enough money to keep his blog going. No one knows how to make money online. Of course, money is generated by clicks, but what leads to those clicks?

“You can get even more viewers, more traffic, volume, volume, volume… and how do you get volume? Two words: celebrities and sideboobs,” says NPR’s Robert Smith.

Will readers pay for online news stories? That is the million dollar question, no pun intended.

In “OurBlook Roundup: Journalism Will Survive in Digital Age” by Sandra Ordonez on pbs.org, Ordonez gathers quotes from journalists trying to solve the industry’s problems. As it relates to journalism in the digital age, some journalists believe the style of reporting has changed.

“To date, newspapers have, for either the strangest or most inexplicable reason, chosen to either downplay or ignore their strengths: Reporting and writing. Newspapers have a virtual monopoly on those two attributes. ‘Aggregating,’ and its tedious synonyms, is not reporting nor is it writing; it’s cutting and pasting,” says Bruce Austin, professor and chair of the Department of Communication at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Austin makes a valid point. In today’s digital age, many reporters are taking content from other journalists and pasting it onto their sites in hopes of their content receiving more clicks and more revenue. There is not nearly as much original reporting as there was many years ago, and the digital format is to blame. Journalists today may be lacking the creativity and/or the raw ability that journalists possessed in the past. Narrative journalism is a great example of those two characteristics, but it seems to be fading away.

In his blog post, “Verification doesn’t threaten narrative journalism,” Director of Community Engagement & Social Media at Journal Register Co. Steve Buttry discusses his own journalism experiences and reflects on narrative journalism.

“Verification in narrative doesn’t have to grow from suspicion, just from a commitment to learning the story and getting the facts right, even those details,” Buttry says.

In this respect, narrative journalism may indeed by in trouble. Because of the digital age, journalists place less emphasis on getting the facts and details right, which Buttry says are important components in narrative journalism.

“See, here’s the point about narrative journalism: Your first job is to learn the full story, wherever it takes you,” Buttry says.

Buttry talks about the Manti Te’0 hoax and how that presented a great opporunity for narrative journalism. Many writers did not take advantage of it.

“Narrative journalists learn and tell stories, and the sportswriters who swallowed the story of [Te’o’s] girlfriend’s death didn’t bother to learn the story of the girlfriend they thought existed and as a result failed to learn and tell the story Deadspin told about their gullibility,” Buttry says.

While the future of journalism appears to be strictly digital and much lies in question, there is always room for quality storytelling. After all, there are many stories waiting to be told. It is just a matter of finding a journalist dedicated enough to present them.

What are your thoughts about narrative journalism itself and its role in the digital age?

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