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How to break away from articles and invent new story forms

As publishing has moved to digital forms, journalists have discovered it is quite possible — and sometimes preferable — to tell a news story without writing an article.

But how?

The American Press Institute, with the help of Melody Kramer from NPR and Kennedy Elliott from the Washington Post, packed a room at the Online News Association conference for a workshop called “Oops, we broke the article machine. Imagining what comes next.” The interactive session set participants to work on generating ideas. The exercise is liberating and almost always generates new ways of looking at news. What we did is also something you can try in your own newsroom.

The setup was simple.  Each small group gets an assigned story scenario — such as how to cover government better or how to cover a shooting incident in real time — and the only constraint is that their coverage plan may not include traditional news articles.

Now, the session doesn’t imply any denigrating of the narrative article as a story telling device. And we weren’t suggesting it should disappear from digital news. But the basic news story was invented in a different time –when story telling was limited by platform — and it has inherent limitations that you can overcome when trying to tell stories digitally.

For certain stories and certain problems, you can do better–and also migrate those ideas to other platforms.

Sometimes to break a habit, though, you have to quit cold-turkey and see what happens next. Here’s how we had our small groups do it:

Consider your audience(s) and their problems in approaching the story. Is information scattered and confusing? Do they not see how it affects them? Are they intimidated by the complexity?

Consider your storytelling options. Could you use multimedia to deliver aspects of this coverage? What combinations of video, audio, images, etc.? How could you use data and visualization, like maps, charts or infographics?

Consider your journalism goals. You want to deliver accurate facts, or course. But how about ways to deliver analysis and context to the storytelling? What about the human elements of reaction, emotion and impact?

Then design something that solves the problems and fits your goals.

What they came up with

The story scenarios included much variety — breaking news of shots fired in your city, covering a beat like local government, multi-week unfolding stories, and complex long-term issues like climate change.

Several of the groups came up with variations of ideas you might expect — quizzes, timelines, infographics. A good start. But some ideas really broke the mold.

Here are a few examples.

* * *

Audience problem: For a complex or long-running story, such as how to cover climate change or the rollout of the government health care program, readers may struggle to understand the inner workings of the issue. What are the key decisions? How do I figure out what I want done? How do I understand how this affects different kinds of people?

Solution: Use games to tell news
Give the user a series of choices about signing up for health care, each of which has consequences and leads to other choices. The user learns along the way about how the health care law works and what key terms mean.

Another group suggested a similar idea for covering climate change. Their game would let the user choose to play as either an alarmist or a cautious player. For example, the player may have to decide where to build a home in North Carolina. They then learn the effects of storms and sea levels, tourism economy changes, droughts and food prices on the place they chose.

Solution: The iClimate app
This interactive tool would help a person understand the specific impact of climate change on a specific location they know and care about. For example, the user could select their favorite beach and see projections of what it will look like in the future due to the effects of climate change.

Solution: Fan fiction
Similar to the iClimate app, but more speculative, one group suggested inviting the public to write fictional narratives about living with the effects of climate change in the future. In the process, writers and readers are forced to confront the personal changes in their lives. Journalists may want to take some of the best submissions and pair them with reporting that establishes the likelihood of each scenario coming true.

Solution: “Tough choices” data visualization
A game or interactive data visualization that lets users make choices about budgets or resources they would prioritize, and see how it affects other programs. (Note: This has been done in real life. American Public Media actually built a game like this for federal spending — Budget Hero. And The New York Times created a Budget Puzzle interactive and even wrote about the kinds of choices users made.)

Solution: Suggest content based on readers’ social media activity
Develop technology that  — if given permission — could comb through a user’s social media activity and make content suggestions based on what a reader reads and says. This would allow news organizations to send a reader relevant content based upon user’s lifestyles or life events. If a reader has posted “broke my leg,” for instance, a news organization could deliver specific health news and even ACA coverage based on that information.

Solution: Leverage Google Calendar
Create a calendar that users can access that reminds them what they need to accomplish by a certain date based on the information they disclosed to you about their health care situation. Create relevant content around those dates which would be of interest to the users.

* * *

Audience problem: News reporting on local government doesn’t connect to readers’ lives. It is too focused on institutions and officials, while the public doesn’t see how government could do something that really affects them.

Solution: #fixmycity
Use an Instagram or Vine hashtag to pool community reports of what’s wrong or needs to be fixed in the city.

Solution: The Town Crier app
A place for people to share and organize their complaints and concerns about their community. Tagging would create aggregate data about the relative concern for different topics. Journalists would follow up with officials when an issue reaches a certain threshold of support.

Solution: Personalized candidate tracker, voter guide
Establish a baseline of town interest in particular issues via a survey. Then make a “candidate tracker” web app. Journalists could pay special attention to covering topics from the survey, along with others, and update a database of who is voting on what, government action and so forth. Users could sign up for email notifications on issues they care about. As Election Day approaches, users can click a button to turn the information they followed into a personalized voting guide.

* * *

Audience problem: On any given topic, there are experts in the community that know the subject deeply and could explain it pretty well to everyone else. How does the audience get access to the few key experts who can help them understand?

Solution: The explainer contest
Let experts in the community compete to offer the best 30-second explanation of a given topic, like health care reform. The public can watch and vote on the submissions.

* * *

Audience problem: During big breaking news, the audience needs to understand what facts are true, what is unknown, and what rumors to ignore. They have access to numerous news sources as well as direct access to eyewitness reports and gossip via social media. They need a professional to help them sort through all the noise.

Solution: The strikethrough
One group working with our breaking news scenario suggested a simple HTML change for noting when new information comes in that contradicts the old. First, put incoming details in list form, perhaps sorted for importance. If a detail turned out to be incorrect or misleading, cross it out. The reasoning: Showing information which had been reported earlier but turned out to be different would help take some burden off the reader and keep them more fully informed.

Solution: The fact grid
Another group working with the breaking news scenario suggested a different solution to resolving what facts were confirmed, unconfirmed or disproved. Their solution: creating a dynamic infographic that sorts facts into columns — what’s confirmed as true, what’s uncertain for the moment, and what’s known to be false.

Try it yourself

This is an exercise you can take to your own newsroom and apply to your own stories and beats, to come up with creative story forms that solve audience problems in new ways.

You can download these story scenario sheets we used for the exercise, or draft your own using a similar format and discussion questions.

Let us know by Twitter, email or the comments below how this exercise goes for you, and if you publish the new kinds of stories you came up with.

Want more hands-on help? Feel free to contact us if you’re interested in the Press Institute organizing this exercise or something similar in your own newsroom.

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