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Home > Publications > Quill > Always a storyteller


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Friday, February 2, 2007
Always a storyteller

Commentary by Tom Hallman, Jr.

Despite the changes sweeping our industry, it’s critical that we don’t forget that the foundation of this business remains storytelling, no matter how we do it: video, online or print.

That point was hammered home to me during a dinner recently. I was at an event where I sat at a table with Bob Zaltsberg, editor of The Herald-Times in Bloomington, Ind.

Naturally, talk got around to the state of journalism. As an old-timer, I was curious about what advice Zaltsberg would give a young journalist. It turned out to be an appropriate and revealing question, one based on reality, not theory. Zaltsberg said his paper had just hired a reporter to cover the basketball beat at Indiana University.

The assault on journalism’s core — the newspaper — changed the way the paper decided who to hire. So much so, Zaltsberg said, that the paper asked applicants questions they wouldn’t have considered asking just five years ago.

The paper started with 120 applicants. A knack for writing and storytelling helped winnow the hopefuls to 12.

“Storytelling is going to matter for journalists, no matter what platform,” Zaltsberg said. “That’s a key now. They need to know how to tell stories.”

The paper then sent the applicants a list of questions that Zaltsberg said would have been unheard of a few years earlier.

“We wanted to deal with things going on in the industry,” he said. “We wanted to know if they had been involved in video work, if they knew about the readership impact study and how they could use principals of that report in their work to attract more readers.”

The answers, Zaltsberg said, were critical.

“The fight for our journalistic lives gets more intense every year,” he said. “The readership decline is no secret. When we got the answers from the 12, we cut to six and called them. We talked to them about storytelling, and less about how they would go about reporting individual stories, something we would have done in the past.”

And that should be a clue about what you need to start doing. Your clips will get you in the door, but you have to have more than that. What is a story? If you don’t know the answer, start learning and be able to define it succinctly. How do you focus a story? How is reporting for a story different than reporting a news article? What is the point of the story? If you can’t answer those questions, you likely won’t make that first cut.

The word “narrative” can be tossed around so casually that the meaning can be diluted. Reporters say they want to write “narrative” but upon questioning can’t explain what that means. Narrative isn’t a label slapped on a standard feature that simply opens with a scene-setting lede.

A story takes readers on a journey. The mysteries, questions and answers are revealed throughout that journey. Putting it together requires in-depth thinking at each stage of the process: reporting, structuring and writing. The story doesn’t rise and fall on the writing, although that’s obviously important, but with the thought behind the story.

That’s why so many “narratives” are little more than feature stories on steroids. You can read them and know pretty early where it’s going. Not so with a real narrative.

You have to get to the heart of the story. Only then can you figure out how to best tell it, in print or online. That’s the thinking Zaltsberg seeks.

“Storytelling is what we want our reporters to do,” he said. “But we can’t just tell a story in print any more and be effective. Our circulation increased 2 percent, fantastic in the industry. Our page views increased in one year 130 percent. More and more people are reading our stories on the Web.”

That, according to Zaltsberg, is both a blessing and curse.

The Web isn’t one-dimensional. The storyteller can employ a multitude of tools to take the reader/viewer on a journey. But if the storyteller can’t articulate what the story is about at the outset, the choices are only confusing. The newspaper template that is so easy to fall back on — scene-setting opening, a few quotes and a scene-setting ending — might not work on the Web.

The key will remain having the ability to know what the story is about, and then deciding what tools to best use.

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