Everyone loves well-told stories

October 24, 2006 • Ethics and Quality • by

Die Welt, October 24, 2006

Narrative journalism
Narrative texts, i.e. well written, gripping articles, are arousing a new passion for reading among Internet users and newspaper readers in the USA. Is Germany next?

Isn’t it a shame that while journalists spend hours and days writing articles and creating new and interesting newspaper pages, fewer readers deem them worth a look? Well, most articles are simply not written well enough, conclude the US and German researchers and journalists who gathered a few days ago on the media campus of Villa Ida in Leipzig, Germany. It is the aim of these researchers to give narrative journalism the appeal it already has in the USA.

Across the Atlantic, the media crisis began earlier than it did in Europe. Shrinking circulations at the end of the 1980s and an increasing number of young people who never had read a newspaper at home prompted journalists and publishers to focus more on the needs of the reader. One way to do so was to increase the share of narrative journalism. Journalists who follow that approach combine the journalistic style of features and reports with the techniques of novel writing so as to make everyday life and topical events gripping and compelling.

The genre had its heyday in the 1960s when “New Journalists” such as Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson promoted a new form of newspaper writing. Now, for the last five years, there has been a new demand for that brand of journalism.

The Universities of California-Irvine and Oregon and the Nieman Foundation at Harvard are offering workshops on the discovery of the perennial in the ‘zeitgeist’ – the extraordinary in the ordinary. Mark Kramer, a long-standing journalist and professor for journalism, is among the protagonists of the movement, regularly co-organising and -hosting conferences on the subject. In Leipzig, he recommended a “Covenant of Good Faith” between journalists and readers, i.e. utmost factual precision with no scenes invented just for dramatic effect.

A piece of narrative journalism can be short, swiftly researched and compelling, according to Jacqui Banaszynski, a journalist and professor at Missouri School of Journalism, who wanted to dispel any worries voiced by publishers and editors-in-chief during the Leipzig convention. A side remark in a police report about a car crash, for example, inspired Banaszynski to write a story about a little girl who rose to the occasion. The original report only mentioned that after the crash the girl had searched for help in a distant farmhouse. After two hours of research, however, Banaszynski was able to paint a colourful picture of a shy little girl who ventured into the cold, dark night, courageously seeking help for her injured mother and brother who were stuck in their car, unable to get out after the accident.

What happens to individuals is worth telling whenever it serves as an illustration for greater truths, Banaszynski explained, further illustrating this with an award-winning story written by a journalist working for the Los Angeles Times. The author told the story of a young boy from Honduras in search of his parents, while at the same time shedding light on the fate of immigrants entering the USA. This time, however, much work went into the article: the journalist had to gather her facts over the course of a year before she could write the 6-page story. But it was well worth it. The story became a sensation, prompting readers to send thousands of e-mails, many containing the life stories of other immigrants. “We don’t know whether a paper’s circulation goes up if it contains narrative pieces,” Banaszynski admits, “but one thing is certain: the paper’s image substantially improves.” The readers regard their paper as trustworthier, young people feel invited to take a closer look and smaller papers in particular have the chance to create a distinct image for themselves. Michael Haller, professor for journalism in Leipzig, did the math, “It costs 400 to 600 euros in marketing to win one lost reader back,” justifying any “preventive” investment in the quality of a publication. And the time to act is now.

To find out “what readers really want”, Haller analysed texts taken from 40 different German titles, using reader-scan pens and tracking devices to register readers’ actual flow and direction of attention. His finding: they want action. Hence, out go the old journalistic vices like weak verbs, passive constructions and nominal style and in are the the new virtues of telling stories in a vivid, gripping and compelling way. Just printing shorter articles simply doesn’t do the trick. Who would ever want to read them?

The journalists gathered in Leipzig were already open for a new kind of journalism, one that tries to capture reality by involving all the reader’s senses. “In every sentence there must be a piece of news. I’m not writing like I’m playing the banjo, just to kill some time. I’m writing to tell a story,” said Anne Hull from the Washington Post. Wolfgang Büscher (Die Zeit) underscored the “structuring power” of the author-I, especially if the writer has experienced something first-hand that is key to the storyline. Jürgen Leinemann (Der Spiegel) pleaded for self-reflection: “When I’m describing someone, I have to be consciously aware if I like them or not. This way I can make a clear distinction between the events I’m writing about and the people involved.”

When Kramer organised the first conference on narrative journalism in the USA, 300 people came; when he organised the third one, the number rose to 1,000. The participants of the Leipzig convention hope for a similar sequence of events. However, many of those who should have been there were missing. As an example, no editor-in-chief of a local newspaper heeded the call, many publishers sent an editor in their stead. It remains to be seen, therefore, how their fellow journalists will greet those attending the conference.

The greater the number of those adopting this new narrative approach, the more it has the chance of becoming a new trend. Texts written from a first-person perspective definitely have the potential for attracting larger audiences.

Translation: Oliver Heinemann

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