I’m not a storyteller — I’m an information provider

A lot of journalists got into this business because they like to tell stories.

I think that’s one fundamental reason why so many journalists have a hard time adapting to the changing news landscape. For me, it was never about the story — it was always about the information and news.

So, if the format changes, it doesn’t really bother me. I’m not married to the format or the medium. I’m not here to weave intricate narratives and tell stories.

In fact, I’m not very good at telling oral stories. But I can tell you a lot of facts, figures and information.

This post was brought on by two things. First, the other night I was getting some drinks with some journalists and one said, “I’m not a journalist. I’m a storyteller.” He talked about how he had trouble keeping his stories short and didn’t like taking out quotes and information for brevity.

Obviously, his work was more for himself than for his readers. That’s does not serve our readers well, and it certainly doesn’t help journalism.

The second part of this post was inspired by a post by Howard Owens, “Not all information needs to be crafted into a story:”

Storytelling, whether written or visual, then becomes something that is more about serving your own ego than serving your readers.

So check your ego, whether writing or shooting, and give people useful or entertaining information in an accessible package.  Save the storytelling for when you really have a story to tell.

A lot of journalism seems to be ego driven. Some journalists report on what they want to cover, in the mediums they want to report in. It has very little to do with what people actually want.

But we’re in a business. We have to produce a product that people want. And most people just don’t read the whole story (thanks to Owens for the link):

But here’s the thing: journalists have always been far more entranced by ‘the story’ than audiences. Less than a quarter of newspaper readers claim to read to the end of a story, even one they’re interested in … and of those, over two thirds don’t read every word.

Yes, sometimes journalism is storytelling, but as Owens notes, we should save the storytelling for when we have really good stories to tell. I see so many feature, anecdotal and other non-news ledes on stories that are really just news stories.

Let me tell you something: I have stopped reading a lot of news stories because I didn’t want to put up with another boring feature lede on a news story. I wanted the news, and I wasn’t willing to wait for some journalist’s ego to go by. And I’ve read some great non-news ledes and they were usually on great feature stories.

If you’re a storyteller, it’s no fun to have to truncate your stories. Is it really a good story then? Is blogging a good storytelling medium? Probably not.

But if you’re in the business of providing facts, figures, information — news — you’ll find blogging and Web journalism to be amazing. The Web (and its mobile cousin) provide a great deal of immediacy and depth that print never could. The Internet is an awesome vehicle for information.

Too many journalists think of themselves as storytellers and not as journalists. People ultimately want journalism so they can be informed. I think if we concentrate on making journalism that people want, we’ll find ourselves and our industry in much better shape.

And sometimes people want great stories, but let’s not force every news item into the storytelling format.

  • I don’t see why there are only two choices. A dichotomy between telling compelling stories and providing important information exists only in bad writers and bad stories.

  • I have never really thought of myself as a “writer,” something I used to argue with colleagues back when I was in college. And I agree that too often a reporter’s ego and running with a creative idea can get in the way of the information. But there’s the issue of format that is perhaps the greatest barrier.
    Newspapers are designed for stories. To fit the format, all news must be packaged as a story (or at least that’s what tradition–powerful stuff–tells us). That’s where the Web is teaching us new techniques. Ultimately, news organizations will understand that there is a time and a place for a story and equal or greater need for readily accessible information.

  • MCWFlint

    Sometimes stories are the best way to present information. A talented journalist matches form to function, to purpose. On breaking news, a Twitter-type text may be enough. But sometimes I need and want more – audio, photo, video, map, more words.

    I am a reader who gets bored when everything is the same.

  • I’m going to agree with Daniel. The way you’ve framed the question — as facts-and-figures vs. narrative — is a bit over simplified. That aside, you raise a valid point about the intincts journalists rely on to determine their story forms. Most of us, if we’re not writing for ourselves, are writing for people like us.

    Many newspapers have long and growing lists of “alternate story formats” to suit all kinds of content in smart, often short, reader-friendly ways. We just don’t use them. We’re basing decisions on who we think our readers are rather than who they’ve become.

    There’s a lot of research out there about how people consume media today, and we’d all do well to be fluent in it and to share it with our colleagues. Pat, or anyone else for that matter, what have you found to be some of the best resources for hard-and-fast facts about what, as you say, people want from their media?

  • Generally, I think you’re right with the concept, but ignoring part of what a newsroom can (and maybe should?) do.

    The web, newspapers, TV stations, any news organization needs people to present information in a variety of formats. No, it’s not always going to be “storytime” for the reader, but it also won’t just be “oh, look at this really cool web gizmo I made” either.

    As with any career field, you need to be familiar with what everyone else does in regard to skills and have a bit of working knowledge in each place yourself, but you should specialize in something you’re good at. And, ideally, your organization will put you in a role the you’re best suited for. Now, if you’re a writer, this means occasionally picking up a camera. If you’re a photographer, this means maybe interviewing the people you talk with and writing something to go along with that gallery of images you came back with.

    In the end, there should be a collaborative effort to tell a story. At least on the big stuff. This isn’t any different than what has gone on in newsrooms, but it’s just that there’s a whole new array of skillsets to be included. And it’s not just the gathering and presenting of information, but also the distribution and publishing of it, too. After all, what good is your story if no one reads it and it doesn’t generate money for the company — be it pageviews or readership.

    Do some writers need to check their ego at the door? Sure, but so do some photographers, web people and designers, too.

    And about how print reporters now are loathing not being able to practice journalism as a craft and artform, well, learn to separate what you’re writing at work from what you write for yourself. It’s work, not your life. Put in your time, go home and pursue your art. If it’s really as good as you think it is, then someone should be willing to pay you for it — right?

  • I agree with a few other posters, this is a bit of a reductive view. I think you overstate people’s preference for information over ‘stories’.

    There’s a commercial value to picking out the narratives that are going to resonate with people. You may not agree with their values, but tabloids often do this better than most and reap the commercial rewards. I think there’s some value to your approach, but (and perhaps this is a bit old-fashioned) I kind of think that if you can’t find a ‘story’ in your notes then you’ve got to question the value of the news. Picking the right way to tell a story is still a valuable craft, perhaps more so when people are drowning in information.

  • We occasionally use narrative and ASF material that doesn’t translate well to the website by turning it into photo galleries, map mashups, etc. that we know will drive traffic.

    In my current project, nearly all of the top 15 or so links with the most page views are either galleries or interactives. Only a couple of true “narrative” stories — those produced with print in mind — are in the mix.

    That’s what I think about now — it’s in all of our job descriptions — meeting traffic goals, which goes to catering to audience needs. In some ways what I do now seems less like journalism and more like doing what I long thought was the job of our marketing and advertising offices.

    I was one of those journalists who got into the profession because I thought it was a calling. And those journalists who still think this way are having the most difficult time right now. Like those who believe in the church of long-form storytelling, there’s a tendency to see themselves as above the commercial fray.

  • The thing that gets missed in these stories vs. information debate to me is that “story” is not equal to “narrative.” Data-driven web sites with no narrative are boring. Sorry. 🙂

    I’ll agree that not everything in the news should be so story-centric, but to say this:

    “People ultimately want journalism so they can be informed.”

    And to use that to imply people don’t like stories is just plain wrong. Narrative is the oldest form of how humans make sense of the world. It’s not going anywhere, and data sites that don’t make use of some kind of narrative are boring and are seldom used.

    Likewise, I think it’s wrong to imply that journalists who see themselves as storytellers are useless on the web. I’m a programmer and I see myself as a storyteller. I see storytelling as the most essential element to a good web site of any kind. The traditional news story “form” may be limiting or not as useful on the web, but story itself is every bit as useful.

  • Many journalists are no good at telling stories anyway.

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  • Morton

    Anytime you place limits on yourself, for example, saying, “I provide information, not stories,” you demonstrate a narrow mind. It is intellectually lazy to always try and classify things and force them into neat little boxes… BE FREE…

  • “Information” and “facts” are internalized through the narratives in our heads. Characters, motives, standard plots, senses of time and place. These are the hooks that transform information into knowledge. Without hooks, it tends to be noise.

    It’s not about “once upon a time.” It’s about an implicit thought model, a narrative, that makes “sense” of information. Information is always in a “story” or a “narrative.” The only issue is whether it’s implicit or explicit. When it’s done really well, it’s almost impossible for the reader to tell the difference