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Online storytelling: Seeking new forms, presentation

By Paul Eisenberg

08.24.99

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Good leads on fair stories will serve online journalists well for some time to come, but the way in which they tell those stories today will not, several prominent journalism educators and practitioners say.

Storytelling in online journalism should evolve into something different, "but we really haven't figured out what form it should take," says Christopher Harper, professor and Roy H. Park Distinguished Chair of Journalism at Ithaca College, formerly with Newsweek and ABC's "20/20."

"When radio started, people read newspapers on the [air] and that didn't work, and radio developed its own writing style. We read radio [writing] on TV and TV [eventually] developed its own storytelling technique. Right now (on the Web) all we're doing is using old storytelling techniques, and I'm grappling (with) how do we develop new ones," Harper told freedomforum.org.

Storytelling in Web journalism is "still TV circa 1949," concurs Lamar Graham, a professor and director of the Digital Journalism Program at New York University and a former senior editor at Rolling Stone.com.

Historically, says Graham's colleague Mitchell Stephens, professor and acting chair of NYU's Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, this is about where the Web should be on the media timeline. Stephens noted author Marshall McLuhan's 1964 remark that "the 'content' of any medium is always another medium."

"I don't think there's any form of communication that doesn't go through this period of stumbling around and imitation before the new forms are developed," Stephens said.

Stephens, author of the rise of the image the fall of the word, says the Web's break with a mostly print-based form of communication will likely be as sharp as those that involved radio and TV, but "one factor that hovers over this question is whether the Web isn't just going to turn into a distribution medium for television. I see that as likely."

"Given the choice, people would rather watch moving images than read it in print. [The question will be,] How is the Web going to be different from your TV, not from your newspaper or magazine?" Stephens said.

Graham agrees that when bandwith technology makes superior video possible online, people will want to see it. But he says that "even in the long run, the Web is going to be largely text-based. When it comes to navigating, text is still a pretty powerful medium," he said.

And when it comes to the future success of storytelling in Web journalism, "navigation is the single most important element," says Mary Norman Jacobson, managing editor of FACSNET and a former reporter for The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Ky. "You could write the most brilliant, insightful, relevant and vibrant story in the world, but if no one can move through it clearly and quickly, you've just wasted your time," Jacobson said.

"In online, we also have to consider the user at a new level," she said. "The user has the option of jumping around to different places in the story. What does that do to the notion of narrative? It's a fascinating development in journalism because the effectiveness of the communication depends on the choices of both the storyteller and the user."

Through packages or "Web specials" and hyperlinks, many news sites are giving the user better choices, Graham says. "You see all these major news sites moving to Web specials — "Crisis in Kosovo," "The Struggle for Iraq," "Guns in America" — where the latest news is only the latest update. With the newspaper each day you have certain boilerplate (that) you drop into [a continuing] story to bring it up to date. On the Web you can do that by pointing to other things. You see less boilerplate," he said.

"If you look at a site like suck.com they use links in a really elliptical way," Graham continues. "The New York Times on the Web will use a link effectively like a quote or citation, but at suck.com you have to click on that link to get what that story is talking about. That's a different kind of storytelling: You're all annoyed when you get to a footnote when reading a book, but that's what we expect on the Web."

"Editors and writers need to think of their stories as almost three-dimensional," Chris Fruitrich, deputy editor of USATODAY.com, told freedomforum.org. "We don't just read left to right, top to bottom, but also story to photo or brief to video. We were very successful during the JFK Jr. story using a simple navigation bar on the right side of each page that told readers how to see more stories, view the photo gallery, see graphics with details for the wreck, experience audio and video clips or even send in their own feelings of loss or read those from others.

"We have to show readers what's there so they can make their own choices. We are in a completely new kind of media, and for now, one in which the readers are telling us they won't tolerate any fluff," Fruitrich added.

Leads: One way or another, still relevant
"You have to get the good stuff into the first paragraph or you will lose the bulk of your readership," Fruitrich says. "When I say this I mean the Who, What, When, Where and How AND the critical supporting material that you might leave until the fifth or sixth paragraph of a newspaper piece. That's what the readers need to see first."

Harper says we can go beyond truncating this inverted pyramid. "I wish we could put a bullet in the inverted pyramid for all time. If we keep using it, we will shorten attention spans even more. One possible alternative, Harper suggests, is The Wall Street Journal's approach to telling a story with an anecdotal lead. "The first screen is the anecdote, the next screen can broaden that nut graph with a discussion of how that anecdote applies to a larger group of people, and the third, fourth and fifth screens can hyperlink (the reader) to other parts of story."

The utility of the lead online will depend in part on how the story is packaged, says Kevin Kawamoto, assistant professor of communications at the University of Washington and an occasional contributor to freedomforum.org.

"Some online news stories will be identical to their print counterparts with minor alterations — the insertion of hypertext, for example — and other news stories might really be a compendium of a number of stories in different formats — text, audio, video, graphics, hypertext — that tell a much larger story," Kawamoto said. "The end-user can get as much or as little of the full story as he or she wants. In this case, a lead may be less useful."

"More useful would be an introductory statement of some kind explaining how to navigate through the larger story," Kawamoto said. "The lead is really not as major a concern as the headline. Headlines in new media should be primarily informative — sometimes this may be all the user will see, no lead will be visible — and yet it needs to be compelling enough to click on. In traditional media, the headline and the lead might complement each other, since they are usually simultaneously visible to the reader; in new media, the headline — and sometimes deckline — stand alone and shoulder a much larger burden."

Newsgathering methods change slightly; standards do not
Kawamoto says assembling "multimedia teams" of journalists might be one way to blend innovative newsgathering and storytelling online.

"I was thinking of assembling a three- or four-person [team] of student journalists to cover a story, and then come back and file that story in several different ways: a traditional print article, a radio broadcast, a TV clip," Kawamoto said. "Then, using the 'stuff' from each of those filings, [a team would] put it all together in a Web piece that would utilize print, an audio clip and a video clip."

"They would still have deadlines, need to pay attention to basic tenets of good journalism — accuracy, balance, fairness — and be good storytellers, but they'd have to start thinking more holistically about how to present the story they want to tell," Kawamoto said.

Newsgathering and storytelling are two separate albeit dependent components in the journalist's craft, Jacobson says.

"In terms of newsgathering, online is no different than traditional news media — or at least it shouldn't be. Online should aspire to the same standards and follow the same practices as quality print, radio and television news operations. Checking and double-checking information and sources isn't a task reserved for the newspaper reporter. I think the integrity of online journalism can grow if we rely on solid foundations of classic newsgathering and we are open to the expansive possibilities of multimedia storytelling."

How do you teach online journalism?
Like Kawamoto and Harper, several educators believe that integrating online writing and techniques into their existing curricula with a multimedia, cross-training approach is more effective than trying to isolate a "Web journalism" curriculum or sequence within their schools.

"I don't want to see the Web as a separate curriculum. I want to use all the techniques we use (online) as an introduction to all of journalism," Harper says.

"Take the five steps of how you do journalism — first you need to find a story and [the Web] allows you to find stories in a whole lot of places, like chat rooms. Then, researching the story becomes far easier. I have far more access to information on (the) Web that I ever did at '20/20.' Then you have to report the story and do interviews. The Web allows you to formulate questions, find e-mail addresses. Then there's writing and presentation. That's where different media go in different directions."

Sree Sreenivasan, associate professor of professional practice at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, says the school has been offering cyberspace reporting courses since 1994, but believes firmly in grounding its aspiring online journalists with a solid education in print.

"One thing we strictly believe is that there are differences in new media, print and TV, but just as we force our broadcast students to learn traditional writing, we force our new media students to do about 90 percent of the same curriculum as the print students. Print writing is a great basis for any kind of a career in journalism and we are not wavering from that," Sreenivasan said.

Jerry Lanson, chair and associate professor of Journalism and Public Information at Emerson College, agreed with other educators in saying, "I don't want to see an online journalism sequence. I want to see online journalism as the stitching or glue of the curriculum."

His hope for Emerson, where he arrived six months ago after years at Syracuse University and the San Jose Mercury News, "is for students and faculty to have enough training in technology so that they understand it without becoming consumed by it."

"What I'm going to propose to my faculty is that our students start out with one or possibly two classes that [deal with] storytelling and link that with a course that makes us think somewhat differently — a visual literacy class, for example — [allowing] the linkage of journalistic skills with delivery."

Lanson would also like all of the school's students to work together on a Web publication that might ultimately publish weekly. "You've got presidential primaries coming up. It would be logical to have a Web production class that is building a site, [incorporating] student stories in a form that expands how broadcast and print students do it."

Graham says that in the online journalism course he teaches at NYU, he tries to get his students excited on the first day by directing them to a site where 24-year-old Justin Hall has posted many details of his life for the last five years. Graham has his students click through the site's many links and later recount in class some of the stories they found. Invariably, they all come back with different stories.

"I point my students to [the site] not because it has anything to do with journalism, but (because) it has everything to do with how narrative is evolving on the Web [in a non-linear way]," Graham said.

Online storytelling tips from experts
Many of the educators and practitioners who spoke to freedomforum.org for this story offered journalists some dos and don'ts of online writing, reporting and storytelling.

  • Get to the point. "Our average online news reader is coming to us for less than 10 minutes and is reading about six to 10 pages. What they look for is targeted information and what I call instant gratification," Fruitrich of USATODAY.com says. "They won't wade through longer stories that don't have a solid point built into the first paragraph. Information on the Littleton, Colo., shootings drew more than 4 million page views in the 24 hours following the first bulletins. The main targets of readers were the constantly updated news briefs that linked off our home front (half a million page views on two of those pages alone) and photos. The photo gallery scored almost 2 million page views in that 24 hours. A sidebar: The readers clicked on fewer than 150,000 'full story' pages during Littleton's first 24 hours."

    "Writers, editors, and designers should focus on trying to keep everything on the 'top screen' ... that is, nothing below the scroll, except in the case of full stories. Readers also don't like to scroll, and if you force them down a page to find links, etc., you are likely to lose them," he added.

  • Move beyond wire content. "The Web is turning more and more into a redistribution mechanism for wire content, and it looks like the winner is going to be who does the most interesting things with it. That includes infographics, interactive features, streaming video, etc. Use charts, use photos, use sound, but add some value to the wire stories or Yahoo! will swallow you whole," said Lee Clontz, interactive producer for CNNSI.com.

  • Don't play games with dates. "One of the single most frustrating and problematic habits I see in online reports are dates and date stamps," says Jacobson. "On FACSNET I'm implementing a style standard of month-day-year in every date citation. Even worse are sites that don't include ANY date."

  • Use first-person narrative judiciously. "Students seem to think that the Web gives them the right to write more in a first-person voice," says Graham. "That may be true and may bring the 'journal' back into 'journalism' to some degree. But I tell them to resist that impulse, because the news is still about newswriting."

    Harper agreed that a traditional journalistic outlet should restrict use of the "I"-word while storytelling, noting that he may have used the word twice during his more than two decades as a journalist. But during some recent pieces he has written online, he believes "a personal relationship with the user is more common and you're going to get an immediate response, citing one instance when he related an experience with his 7-year-old daughter to online readers.

  • Assume your reader has the same time pressures you do. "We ask our students to think in terms of experience, not word count," says Sreenivasan. "How long does it take to look at all the video, listen to all the audio? You can't just say, 'Do an 800-word story' anymore. We ask them to think about time."

    Jacobson notes that "sometimes Web folks have a tendency to apply bells and whistles just for the hell of it." She is a firm believer in "payoff for download, meaning that you consider the value of the multimedia in the context of time it takes the user to download. If it takes me 14 minutes to download your video, I'll probably be too frustrated to care what's on it — or more likely, I won't even bother to wait."

    Rich Jaroslovsky, managing editor of the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition and president of the Online News Association, concurs. "Don't frustrate your audience. Requiring users to download plug-ins, or pushing enormous graphics or multimedia files down the line may be fine for sophisticated users or those with high-speed connections — but do nothing but annoy people on a 28.8 or even 56K modem. You can't tell any story unless people are willing to pay attention," he said.

    Bookmarks
    Various sources suggested visiting the following Web sites for examples of approaches to online writing and presentation.

  • Both Harper and Graham cited Salon.com and Feed Magazine for innovative storytelling.

  • Graham also says APB Online "is like one big Web special. Its editors are doing lots of interesting things."

  • Web pages prepared by the Seattle Post Intelligencer on Safeco Field, the home of the Seattle Mariners, utilizes an array of new media tools, says Kawamoto.

  • A new-media masters project prepared by a Columbia University student "is a great example of an online 'lede' that works," Jacobson says.

  • Jacobson adds that PBS "does a lot of good work on [its] Web site. Not only are they easy to navigate, they are visually pleasing and provide enough content to merit return visits."

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