Posted on January 21, 2007
Journalism stories: A multimedia approach (Part 1)
Last week I wrote a bit about the idea that journalists tell stories:
It’s about stories … which stories? And why?
This is turning into something of a mantra among many in the journalism field, as they emphasize that this fact remains the same, in spite of all the upheaval going on in journalism today: We tell stories.
I would add that these are true stories. And finally, while they might often entertain or amuse, our best stories are intended to help people understand the world they live in. Not merely to inform, to convey facts like strawberries in a basket, but to enrich and nourish the public’s understanding of why things are as they are, and how and why things might change.
So how should we approach stories today, in our changing field?
The example I flung out last week was the minimum wage debate in the U.S. right now. Hardly a “sexy” story, and not very visual, either.
1. Start with a written list of questions.
And not only your own questions. Make a list of everything that various people in your community might not know or understand — or might misunderstand — about this story. Write the questions out. Writing them (or typing them) is important.
2. Take some time. There is no big rush.
Approach the story at this stage as if you had all the time (and all the personnel) you could possibly need to tell the largest, longest version of this story. Why? One of the ongoing problems in day-to-day journalism is that we act as if everything is breaking news. Very little that we cover is actually breaking news. The minimum wage story has been important in the U.S. for my entire lifetime. Just because Congress had a vote does not make this story breaking news.
3. Chunk the story in advance.
Brainstorm about discrete story modules that would address the questions on your list. Clump the related questions together. For example, questions about why a capable adult does not have a better-paying job; separately, questions about how many people would be affected by an increase in the minimum wage (both workers and employers).
Right now this does not sound very different from a normal story process, does it? But keep in mind, we have not interviewed anyone yet. We haven’t made any phone calls. We have probably searched the Internet a bit, and I hope we have chatted with a few of our friends and family members outside the journalism business. (If we haven’t, then how good is our list of questions? Forgive me, but we don’t know what other people think unless we ask them.)
About these “modules”: The idea is to satisfy the curiosity of anyone who comes to this story, regardless of what he or she is curious about. So a module is a device to answer a certain cluster of questions, to meet a particular type of interest. People can dive straight into any module from the outset, and they can ignore all the other modules if they want to. They can explore the modules in any order.
4. Finalize a very small set of relevant modules.
Ideally you can format this story as a set of three to six modules. Figure out how to reduce the number of modules to as few as possible. (Use the five W’s and an H if it helps.) Yes, I know this sounds like writing a series for the newspaper or producing a multi-part special report for TV. But so far, you have not done any reporting. And these are not separate “stories.” They are all aspects of one story.
You’re going to determine the shape of this story before you start throwing time and money at the reporting. Last night’s traffic accident probably is not worth this treatment, of course — but a story that has recurred since 1938 (when the U.S. instituted a national minimum wage) is worth it.
You will have at least three modules, or else you haven’t thought hard enough about this story (or the story is too minor for this treatment). I would estimate that most substantial stories require four or five modules.
(As much as I admire washingtonpost.com’s Being a Black Man, it does not work to tell us the story. It’s a library, an encyclopedia, an overflowing cornucopia — not a story. It could have been one story, multifaceted and complex, yet also approachable and accessible. That’s not how they chose to handle it.)
5. Plan the reporting needed for EACH module.
Now that you have your modules, you can start to discuss what makes the most sense for creating each module. What kind of reporting answers the questions within that module?
For example, to answer questions about why many capable adults do not have a better-paying job, conduct a series of interviews with people who currently make minimum wage. Then add in the insights of employment counselors who work with low-income families.
To answer questions about how many people would be affected by an increase in the minimum wage, create information graphics that show the proportion of workers and, separately, the proportion of employers. (Naturally, these should be specific to your region or state, unless you are The New York Times, The Washington Post or USA Today.)
Tomorrow I’ll describe four modules that would tell this story.