The story is dead. Long live the story

What's the story

Image by Kaptain Kobold

What’s the story?

It’s a common question in journalism. But like so many things is the ‘story’ about to go?

Kevin Marsh has been pondering (and his pondering is worth noting) how his ‘announcement’ of the death of the story is coming back to bite him. It started in and article he wrote for the UKPG where he pondered on the way digital had made stories infinite:

Indeed, the idea of “the story” becomes meaningless – a learning-challenge-and-a-half when “the story” has been journalists’ major currency

Eek. If Kevin says the story is dead then obviously people will listen – and they have. And so in his blog post, Kevin is pretty bullish about the death of the story.

At one level – we journalists can’t escape the story as the unit of currency if for no other reason than one thing follows another and the conscious bit of the brain works in a linear fashion. At the same time, it’s also got to be our job – surely – to understand our audience’s need to navigate around our narratives and, crucially, to navigate back to our narratives when they themselves become the context, history and background for the next stor

Now, I couldn’t be happier that someone with clout is talking this way. I’ve been bashing my head against this one for a while. But I wouldn’t be so quick to ditch the ‘story’.

Article not story

As Kevin rightly says, what we know as a story in journalistic terms has ‘served us well’. But do we really mean story or are we really talking about an article or a package. Perhaps we need to take story back for what it is – the story – and not a description of the unit of publication.

The story of ‘Watergate,Thalidomide, the Iraq deception’ is not in the (admittedly Pulitzer prize winning) articles or reports. Its in the issues, lives and dynamic of the events. The journalism is a snapshot.

I’m talking a lot about the difference between a story and an article with my students at the moment. The first years, for example, are working in groups to cover a story. Between them they have to find a story and then decide what angle or issue each is going to cover in an article. I’m encouraging them to immerse themselves in the story, get inside it before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys).

In the same way I hate giving word counts, I hate to think that they are simply fitting a story in to a deadline. As Marsh says in his UKPG article:

The thing is, “the story” is defined by an output deadline: “What can we find out and illustrate in the time we’ve got left?” There never was anything special about that particular iteration of those facts and that illustration, though we became very good at creating the illusion that there was.

Everyone has a story to tell

Getting everyone to see that illusion – the journalists new clothes – is a daunting task and perhaps an pointless one. It’s also worth noting the importance of deadlines. But in maybe the positive here is that in recognizing that the story is more than the article we write, it might encourage the media to engage more with those who are part of it – those in the community with stories to tell – earlier in the storytelling process.

5 thoughts on “The story is dead. Long live the story”

  1. Great post, Andy. It immediately got me thinking about the epics of pre-writing cultures … the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Sundjiata story from Mali, the Yugoslavia folk tales studied by Milman Parry. Before we had TV, before we had books, the wandering storyteller would visit your town and entertain people by telling these very, very long stories.

    Because it takes several days to tell one of these, the story is structured in episodes. (Think of Charles Dickens and how his long novels were originally serialized in magazines.) Each episode had to be interesting and complete in itself.

    So even though I enjoyed your post, I think Kevin Marsh is dead wrong.

    Humans have based learning, culture and education on the story for thousands of years. The story format might change (telenovelas, for example), but the fundamental unit of story will not.

  2. Thanks Mindy. I forgot about the serialization thing. Funny isn’t it, that people used to gather in the local inn to have newspapers read for them.

    I just want people to stop equating the story with the structure and article. It’s much richer and broad than that.

  3. Yeah, Andy, the story is a long thing, not a short thing. A story is made up of many anecdotes and many scenes. A lot of characters, too, in most cases. And subplots!

    Just because we in newspapers always called a little 10-inch-long report “a story” does not mean it really WAS a story. “A report” is probably more accurate. Now, that’s not to say a report can’t be PART OF a story. It probably is.

  4. “Just because we in newspapers always called a little 10-inch-long report “a story” does not mean it really WAS a story”

    Exactly. And i hope we can salvage the word before people put a nail in its coffin :) Lets make those articles story chunks.

    I agree a report can be part of the process of telling a story – each a compelling narrative on it’s own. But a story is something that can be massively energised by new media. Community, crowd sourcing, multimedia all of those elements. But the breadth and depth are the key story telling drivers. All those sub-plots to explore.

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