Taking news beyond the narrative form

Below is a post inspired by Barcamp News Innovation Philadelphia, an annual unconference focused on journalism innovation and the future of news. There is a big emphasis on the intersection of journalism and technology. I may have more posts in the coming days about BCNI.

Sean Blanda wonders why news articles online still look like news articles from a newspaper from the 1800s (here is a link to his prezi).

The essentials are the same: Headline, sub-headline, author name, dateline and a narrative. Below are a series of images that Blanda presented from news stories from the past three centuries:

That’s pretty damning evidence if you ask me.

The argument could be made that news stories are being presented in much the same way after 150 years because the format works. And in many ways, the news narrative does work. I’m not dismissing that attitude, but I do believe Blanda is right that there are other ways to present news and in many instances, much better ways to present news and information.

Blanda wonders why so many stories are still in narrative form? Do you really want to read a narrative about the NFL draft or do you want a list of draft picks with links to more information about each pick and what draft experts think of the pick?

I want the latter. People think of a draft as an event that happens in chronological order, and most sports websites now have draft trackers that present the draft as a series of lists with links to more information. By thinking of much of this information as information that doesn’t need a narrative, it can be reused into different packages and stories.

ESPN has a list of all seven rounds of the draft with thoughts about each pick and video analysis. If the videos were fixed to a single story, and not a part of a video database, ESPN couldn’t link to the video analysis on the draft list page.

Instead, ESPN embeds and links to their own video content all over ESPN.ocm, and does much of the same with their expert analysis information. ESPN does a pretty good job of not tying down their information to just story narratives.

Too much journalism, however, is still presented as narratives, particularly inverted pyramid narratives, regardless of the information being given. Why do we still have so much of a one-size fits all approach to sharing news?

The inverted pyramid is a style of writing that puts the most important content first — the base of the story/pyramid — and slowly makes it way down to less important information. The inverted pyramid traces its roots back to the 1800s and the telegraph.

If a telegraph transmission was cut short, a story could still be usable if it were written in the inverted pyramid format. The most important information all went first and if a few sentences are paragraphs were cut off, so be it. Of course, we don’t use telegraphs anymore, and we don’t have transmission issues.

Blanda presented three half-baked ideas for reinventing stories. His session was more of way to get people talking and thinking and less of a prescription for how to change how we report. In keeping with his session, I’m going to share some thoughts on how stories could be redone in this Internet age. This post is a bit of a brainstorm, and is geared towards getting a conversation going.

How to make articles into living, breathing documents? How to evolve articles from the same format that they were 100 years ago?

Why is everything in narrative form? More articles should be in bullet point form or as structured data in a database.

Narrative articles only work for true narratives. If people want info, put it into a form that makes sense for sharing that info: A database, list, table, box score

What if restaurant menus were in narrative format? Imagine how hard it would be to find something to eat.

If you have a story about school closings due to budget cuts, there should be a list or searchable database with auxiliary information. Also plotting the closures on a map would help a lot.

Only true narratives should be in narrative form. Trying to tell the story of how the foreclosure crisis hits? An in depth narrative filled with a lot of reporting that mixes in anecdotes from homeowners, mortgage brokers, realtors, etc. would be great piece. makes a lot of sleep. But a timeline of important events, if there are them, would help people to learn what happened.

Sometimes, however, there aren’t distinct events to be presented in a timeline or a list. Sometimes it’s more overarching decisions that lead to outcomes. With other stories, such as the events leading to World War II, a timeline can help make it easier for us to understand important events. While a narrative would certainly help fill in more details, a timeline helps add to the understanding of what happened.

Topic pages are a way to give people the backstory and some news organizations such as The New York Times are experimenting with them. Every story has a backstory. Wikipedia is popular because it gives people the backstory; news orgs should learn from Wikipedia. But topic pages have to compete with Wikipedia, which is a tall order for news organizations.

It doesn’t do news organizations any good to create a topic page that ends up being inferior to Wikipedia, which is one of the five most popular sites in the world. Compare the Times’s topic page on Israel to Wikipedia’s.

If your goal was to learn about Israel, only one of those is a serious option. Wikipedia presents a true overview of Israel, complete with geography, climate, demographics, legal system and more, while the Times presents a quick overview of what has happened lately in Israel.

Where the Times beats Wikipedia is in current event coverage and in multimedia. I like the idea of the topic pages, but the Times may need to structure their pages to highlight what they do best and perhaps link to the rest. The Times topic pages doesn’t have a lot of historical content that could inform readers as to why certain issues are ongoing, but that shouldn’t stop the Times from linking to and excerpting from others.

A river of the latest stories about Israel and the Israel and Palestine isn’t superior to Wikipedia. The topic pages on these issues could be better curated. What are the last 5-10 most important bits of news out of the Middle East? Or the latest pieces from columnists. And the Times really does need to make better use of other content on the Web from academics, other news orgs, encyclopedias, etc.

But the Times shouldn’t be faulted for trying new ways of informing their readers. I applaud them for doing so, but I think they need to find a better way of standing out on the Internet.

So, how can news articles evolve in the 21st century? What kind of stories do you like to read? What kinds of articles, stories and formats educate you the best?