M. Alex Johnson – Journalist at Large

An analog journalist in a digital world

‘Alternative story telling’? No — just telling the story

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Sometimes reporting, editing and producing a breaking news story can be frustrating, because two new developments land on your doorstep before the last one has made it through the production process.

That’s what happened when a gunman entered a real estate office in Valparaiso, Ind., today and took about 10 hostages.  So in parallel with writing msnbc.com’s running main story, which you can read here, I also set up a Storify stream, immediately publishing news, images and local reaction as they came in. By the end of the day, it was a lively, largely unintermediated narrative of the entire drama as it unfolded:

It worked so well that we included it in our main report — in essence allowing readers to check our reporting against the observations of people actually in Valparaiso, many of them local journalists feverishly covering the story themselves. It worked so well, in fact, that I will certainly do it again whenever appropriate.

There’s been a lot of discussion about whether so-called alternative story-telling tools like Storify can replace reported narrative writing. Generally speaking (because there are some events for which the online discussion is the story), I’d argue that reporting tools like Storify are most useful when we use them that way — as reporting tools, not as reporting formats.

Setting aside my bias — I’m a writer, and I like to get paid — it seems to me to be an artificial us-vs.-them construct.

Think of the story as a hamburger. There’s a real hamburger, and then there’s a veggie burger — lighter and a little less filling but more philosophically appealing to a small segment of the restaurant clientele. Because the veggie burger lovers have an evangelistic zeal about vegetarianism, they tend to drive more conversation than is proportional to their numbers.

So it is with skeptics of the old and purportedly outdated technique of telling stories in long blocks of type. We can Storify it instead! We can tweet it instead! We can sell tempeh dogs! We can sell tofu “turkey” breasts! It’s better for you anyway!

Maybe so. But ask any restaurateur — you can feed a lot more people selling hamburgers than you can selling veggie burgers. And you can feed the most by selling both.

Written by Alex

May 25, 2012 at 4:29 pm

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