Jacqueline Banaszynski: Mid-year report

By Jacqueline Banaszynski on December 4, 2009 0 Comments Ideas

A Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper reporter recently murmured to a feature-writing colleague: “What we do … is dead.” He was lamenting what he fears is the end of storytelling in newspapers – the kind of lengthy, intimate, literary, dramatic narratives that were his specialty. 

Jacqui Banaszynski
Jacqui Banaszynski

There has not been an accounting of the specific effect newsroom cuts have had on such stories and storytellers. The drastic reductions have not spared any corner of the traditional newsroom. But there is reason to speculate that stories – pieces that seek to provide emotion, experience, context and connection beyond straightforward information – might take a greater proportional hit.  Many of the masters of the craft are being bought out or pushed out. The resources of time, money and creativity needed to develop pieces of intimacy and depth are less available as staffs are stretched to cover civic and breaking news, or shifted to online operations.

Indeed, some perceive the Web itself as a threat to such storytelling. As print gives way to digital, as news organizations rush to become 24/7 information centers, as early research indicates that online readers tend to skip and scan rather than linger, the questions loom:

  • How will stories make the transition from print to digital?
  • As multi-media rises, what will happen to the quality and form of the written narrative?
  • Will the news organizations of the future find a reason and a way to support the sort of storytelling that became a hallmark of American journalism in the last quarter of the 20th century?

It’s gnarly questions like these that haunt every newsroom I’ve visited in the past year, and that put the Pulitzer Prize narrative writer in a funk. While grassroots efforts are sprouting up to protect or create investigative journalism ventures, no such movement has yet emerged around storytelling. Even some of the country’s most successful magazine writers fret about their future.

And yet …

  • A veteran reporter and photographer at La Presse in Montreal team up to create their own mobile journalism unit. They zip around the city filing a flurry of updates on the Web. Along they way, they are creating a story that unfolds in real time, like life, and then regathering it at the end of a string to build a master narrative.
  • A talented young reporter/writer who left her newspaper works as an editor and aggregator for a digital startup in Boston by day. But on her own time, she scours her community for “small stories” that she puts on her own Website (www.thesmallstory.com).
  • The co-founder of the surprisingly successful BlogHer.com says that online journalism, including blogs, is “all about narrative.”
  • The St. Petersburg Times launches a new online feature http://www.tampabay.com/untold/ that uses words and images to tell “untold stories.”
  • Slate.com wants its writers and editors to devote at least a month each year to produce a long-form piece, convinced that their most loyal readers crave such depth and will read it online.

In the last three months, as I have hunted for a focus to “the future of the story,” I have dug up countless questions with no firm answers. The editor of The Boston Globe’s boston.com says stories that work online are all about subject – the topic drives the interest; he hand-picks stories from the day’s news and builds headlines designed to “push” those stories out to the viral Web. A respected writing coach and teacher suggests that stories may need to be crafted in serial or chapter form, specifically written to fit a Web page without requiring a scroll or a click. MU Journalism graduate Brian Storm produces dazzling multi-media documentaries published on www.mediastorm.com -- drawing much of his content from more traditional journalism.

My project seeks to identify examples of the best stories and storytellers in transition from old forms to new. Because digital journalism remains a daily experiment – one that can’t begin to keep up with technological advances – there can be no definitive answer about the future of the story. Rather, this is a time for discovery.

I will spend the second half of my fellowship immersed in that discovery, searching out and interviewing a range of high-end storytellers who are playing with new models and methods. I will produce my own storytelling around these New Storytellers, perhaps on a Website or through a blog, perhaps through an “Actors’ Studio” type series of interviews. The goal will be to lay the groundwork for work that grows and endures well beyond the fellowship year, including a possible Story Summit in the fall of 2010. I hope to do some of this work with the help of a small team of students who are passionate about the subject, and to continue to work with our research scholars to identify a research question that can help inform the bigger question.

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