In search of storytellers (or what’s the point of storytelling, anyway?)

Posted by Scott Leadingham

What’s the point of storytelling? Specifically, in journalism, what are we trying to accomplish by “telling stories”?

At SPJ we often get e-mails and calls from aspiring journalists – students or otherwise – who want advice on becoming a full professional. There’s usually a theme in these conversations, something like: “I want to be a journalist because I love telling stories.”

Same thing goes when talking to journalists at conferences or in meetings or profiling them for Quill magazine. It’s a variation on a theme: “I got into journalism to tell stories about people and their communities, to have an impact on people’s lives.”

An NPR piece this week made me think about this with renewed fervor. Media correspondent David Folkenflik visited USC’s Annenberg School and asked: “What’s the point of journalism school, anyway?”

Upon hearing the report, I asked myself: “What’s the point of storytelling, anyway?” Why do many journalists hold it in such high regard? (Or, more cynically, why do so many journalists and outlets claim to value it when in reality so much journalism is stenography and infotainment?)

In thinking of Folkenflik’s piece, are the skills purported to be taught in journalism school – ethical responsibility, sound news judgment, mechanics for writing and production – the same as the art of storytelling? Does one really need to go to journalism school to learn storytelling the same way one learns, say, how to access public records?

All rhetorical questions, for sure.

For Quill, this blog, the SPJ website, heck, my own personal amusement, I’m looking to collect your thoughts on what it means to be a storyteller in journalism. Who does it well? What journalists, outlets or initiatives encapsulate what it means to be a “storyteller”?

Of course, there are many from which to choose. A short list in my mind includes “This American Life”/Ira Glass; “The Story”/Dick Gordon; Tom Hallman of The Oregonian; Amy Ellis Nutt of The Star-Ledger; Melissa Lyttle of The St. Petersburg Times; Boyd Huppert/Jonathan Malat of KARE-TV; and Rosette Royale of Real Change. Who do you suggest?

Leave a comment or drop me an e-mail. Heck, tell me a story while you’re at it.

Scott Leadingham is editor of SPJ’s Quill magazine. Twitter: @scottleadingham.

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  • http://www.portlanddailysun.me Bob Higgins

    Where journalism is the left hand pocket and storytelling the right, both are situated in the same pair of pants. J’s need to have the ability to grab the readers attention from the first graf, and storytellers have to have the ability to KEEP that person interested.
    Favorite exercise: “Billy Pilgrim”- Take the first line of Kurt Vonnegut’s famous “Slaughterhouse Five”, “Listen,-Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” Tell your story from the viewpoint of telling a person who just arrived on the scene, knows NOTHING about what is going on, and is easily perplexed or distracted by something shiny. Get the readers attention, and keep it.

  • http://blog.digidave.org Digidave

    A rhetorical question indeed – but one that should be asked. Sometimes I don’t think we ask enough SIMPLE questions about journalism “why storytelling.”
    Good question.

  • Scott Leadingham

    Bob – That’s an interesting exercise. I haven’t read Slaughter House Five in a few years. I think it’s time for another round. Thanks.

    Dave – You’re right. I think we sometimes get too caught up in all the big questions (funding, business models, etc) that we overlook the little things. Indeed, many projects and journalists are telling great stories because of Spot. Kudos for making it happen.

  • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

    The concept of storytelling is so old and so familiar that it can be hard to recall and appreciate the bigger purpose it serves: establishing connections. When I’m with a group of friends and we’re catching up, we’re telling stories. Each is an opportunity for people in the group to relate and draw connections: “That reminds me of this!” “Did I ever tell you about that?” Friends refresh their bonds by telling stories, by reminding themselves that though different, they have much in common. Strangers can come together with stories, too. That, to me, is a big part of the job of a journalist: to find and tell the stories that, if more widely known, can form connections and enrich our understanding of the people around us. Without these stories, the links that bind people together in large and small communities — nation, state, city, neighborhood — could disappear.

  • http://www.matthewgmiller.com/ Matthew G. Miller

    A distinction must be made between storytelling and reporting.

    Readers pick up a newspaper, and surf the Web, looking for reports — news, information, data, inverted pyramids, summaries, sound bites. My satisfaction comes from learning what I didn’t know before.

    Readers pick up a novel expecting a story — an Aristotelean plot, with a beginning, middle and end; with characters, setting and dialog; with complication, conflict, suspense, crisis, resolution and denouement. My satisfaction comes from traveling the narrative arc.

    Reports are about the Who What When Where. Stories are about the How and the Why.

    Reports tell you what’s important. Stories show you.

    Nonetheless, stories can be informative; reports can written with narrative. Most Pulitzer-Prize winning articles do both. Jon Franklin’s book, Writing for Story, attempts to prescribe a formula.

    Both have their place and purpose, in the newspaper and on the Web/ Yet readers don’t always want stories. I skim a newspaper, click on a home page, listen to NPR, and I feel I know something about what happened today. But I don’t always have time to sit down with a New Yorker article or an episode of This American Life. I have to care more to devote the time and attention. When I do, nothing’s better.

    And sometimes I just want to know the facts, ma’am.

    Editors often don’t want stories. They take extra time to research; they take extra time to write; they take a reporter away from posting their requisite three or four daily blurbs with slide shows and video.

    Stories look toward long-term processes, not immediate events. In this way, they aren’t considered “news.” In the October issue of Quill, Tom Hallman Jr. laments this very problem in his column “Narrative Writing Toolbox” .

    I’ve faced it more than once myself. During a conference last year, I was privileged to sit one-on-one with a professional reporter from the local daily newspaper. I had been dusting off my journalism degree by writing freelance for a neighborhood newspaper. I showed her a few of my clips, two of which were prize-winning narrative stories. I hoped she liked them enough to suggest I talk to her editor about an internship.

    Instead she complained my dialog was irrelevant, I focused too much on personal information of the characters, I didn’t include enough background or statistics.

    And, she said, maybe I should go back and take a community college class to learn how to write.

    Ouch.

    In the right place, nothing is better than a gripping lede, a precise nut graf, the succinct quotation, a clever kicker. It’s an art to write a good report. Similarly, a story is difficult to craft, constructing plot, revealing character with telling detail, creating suspense — especially when we’re constrained by fact and observation. Reports and stories occupy two different places, have two different purposes, reach readers on two different tacks.

    Reports and stories should complement rather than compete.

    Yet I am reminded that editors often do not appreciate, nor understand, the distinction. They miss out on the power of a good story. And so do their readers.

    -30-

  • http://gumption.typepad.com/ Joe McCarthy

    While I agree that journalism and storytelling are different (e.g., journalism is non-fiction), I believe the best journalism constructs a compelling narrative (= story) about the people, organizations or events that are being reported.

    Anyone interested in storytelling might be interested in an insightful book by psychologist Dan P. McAdams, The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self, in which he talks about how – and why – we relate so strongly to stories.

    Also, given that you’ve mentioned This American Life, I highly recommend an interview with Ira Glass by Kathryn Schultz (author of Being Wrong), in which he talks about the central importance of being wrong in great stories (and storytelling) … and I believe many of the great examples of journalism also reveal epic mistakes (or wrongness).

  • Scott Leadingham

    Thanks, all, for your feedback and comments. Joe – I will certainly review the Kathryn Schultz interview with Ira Grass. Thanks for the suggestion.

  • http://jenniferfaustin.com/ Jennifer Austin

    I agree that reporting, in a watchdog manner, and storytelling can be different. However, I think that storytelling is just as important a part of serving the public as reporting.

    I remember watching, “The Tyler Project”, by Boyd Huppert and Jonathan Malat for the first time. The empathy, care, and emotion encompassed in one piece was beyond moving. This piece was more than a young man with cancer who asked for, and received, help renovating his car. It was about the complete strangers who traveled from across the country to help a person whom they’d never met. It was about the Sgt. stationed in Iraq who took the time to respond to a blog post and started it all. It was about a collective group of individuals who decided they cared enough to give a family hope. How else would the world know about these individuals, if not for the storytelling which included them all?

    The world can be a bad place, with a lot of bad people. But sometimes, people do amazing things. Sometimes, they show that the world isn’t always so bad. Sometimes, among the facts, are people who bring a whole new meaning to the story.

    People are the point of storytelling.

  • http://www.eastlakeave.com Curt Milton

    Storytelling: One of my favorite topics. Ultimately, it’s about answering the question: “And then what happened?” My favorite answer is this clip from “The Last Tycoon:” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKlHtJjcAz4


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