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I am absolutely fascinated by the mechanics of storytelling. I admitted as much at news:rewired last year when I was invited to talk about new forms of storytelling in journalism. But in exploring some of these brilliant new platforms – Twitter, Storyful, Storify, even online video – we forget that storytelling itself is not a new thing. It is, of course, ancient.
I am worried about storytelling and journalism for several reasons. Firstly, in our pursuit of breaking news, developing stories and what is happening now, we are ignoring in-depth, considered storytelling. For example, both of the UK's rolling news channels, BBC News and Sky News, despite having 24 hours to fill, contain hardly any documentary storytelling in their schedules. It is easier – and cheaper – to put a reporter outside the high court for eight hours. At the same time, cost-cutting in newsrooms means journalists do not have the time to craft meaningful narratives, as much as they may want to. In my years as a radio reporter I rarely got a break long enough to start putting something together before the phone rang again.
I am also worried because I do not see in-depth narrative storytelling featuring on journalism courses today, either on the one I took myself, or the one I teach. Tomorrow's journalists have so much to get their head round: law, ethics, how to write, the inverted pyramid that the intricacies of compelling narrative do not fit in.
So what? Well, it is a problem because the internet is changing again. It is easy to think that quick-hits and tits, SEO fodder and top-10 listicles are here to stay. But that is not true. Quality is starting to matter again.The only way to build an audience around your content, to get your storytelling noticed, to make your journalism stand out and make a difference is through the hot pursuit of quality over mediocrityAdam Westbrook
In an excellent talk about storytelling and journalism, New York Times reporter Amy O'Leary pointed to strategies taken by some of the biggest names in online news. Slate Magazine for some time pursued stories to appeal to search engines and to get the all-important clicks. But then they tried an experiment in pursuing long-form, original journalism, framed in high-quality storytelling. What happened? They published 33 per cent fewer stories, O'Leary reports, but saw a 40 per cent rise in traffic. A similar experiment by Gawker found original reporting got more views per article than viral rehashing.
I am convinced that the only way to build an audience around your content, to get your storytelling noticed, to make your journalism stand out and make a difference is through the hot pursuit of quality over mediocrity. In taking time to craft a narrative, the way an artist crafts a painting. To invest time in finding remarkable stories and to keep working at them until they shine.
That is why I started the Inside the Story project this year. I wanted to produce a must-have guide that focuses solely on creating remarkable stories, and focuses solely on new web platforms. To help me do this, I hand-picked two-dozen of the best digital storytellers I could find to help me: people who have won Emmys for their documentaries, like Richard Koci Hernandez and Brian Storm; people who have created films that have gone viral, like the superb California Is a Place series and Yoshi's Blend. And producers at the most respected digital publishers in the world: the New York Times, the BBC and the Guardian.
I gave each of the contributors a difficult challenge: share one killer piece of advice, the sort of thing you only learn by experience, and do it in less than 200 words. That is not much at all, and it forced the writers to cut the waffle and get straight to the point. The result is "Inside the Story: a masterclass in digital storytelling by the people who do it best". It is a book you could read in less than an hour, but one I hope you can return to time and time again when you are stuck on a story problem.
I believe Inside the Story will inspire and motivate lots of digital storytellers, but I wanted it to do some good too. So we decided to give all the proceeds from the book to Kiva, the developing world entrepreneurship charity. They crowdsource loans to people in South America, Africa and Asia who need capital to start their own business. In the first 48 hours of the book's launch we raised $1,000. I hope we can triple that by the end of May.If you want to really engage people, not just to cover the news, but to make people understand and care, and perhaps to change the world a little bit too, then the finely crafted story, full of suspense, surprise and wonder, is the path to takeAdam Westbrook
Will this book turn you into Ira Glass overnight? Of course not, because as Ira Glass himself admits, in this now famous series of videos, storytelling is hard graft. It takes years of relentless practice and failure to become a great storyteller (I for one, know I am a long way off). But maybe it will save you some time. All the advice in the book took the writers years to discover for themselves.
Make no mistake: it is easier (and just as legitimate) to make a career in liveblogging, or writing quick hits for the Google spiders. Great journalism is done this way. But if you want to really engage people, not just to cover the news, but to make people understand and care, and perhaps to change the world a little bit too, then the finely crafted story, full of suspense, surprise and wonder, is the path to take.
Multimedia producer Adam Westbrook (@adamwestbrook)has just published a collaborative ebook about how to tell better digital stories, to raise money for Kiva.
Inside the Story: a masterclass in digital storytelling by the people who do it best is available for digital download now. It's priced at £3.50 and all proceeds are donated to development entrepreneurship charity Kiva.