It was almost a no-brainer to decide how to kick off this new blog.
Beyond the Churn, by Sarah Smarsh (Aeon, 2015) with its focus on what thorough story-telling can do, was the perfect piece.
Smarsh writes of her decision to infuse her journalism with context, the kind that too often is missing from the information overload in the daily news cycle, the kind that makes a difference to the reader’s ability to understand and really connect with an issue, an idea, the very story itself.
This, of course, is contrary to how many media organisations believe articles should be written, and that it risks having readers simply click away in their endless search for the next snippet of information.
But audiences aren’t craving more and more news, Smarsh says, they’re desperate for meaningful stories that nourish the mind and soul.
Then she drives her point home with a narrative journalist’s touch.
That’s what broke my tough reporter’s heart – not the horror of sexual assault but that I was clocking it, timing it, reducing it to bullet points for processing – the way fast-food corporations processed the calves I once bottle- fed in my family’s farmhouse living room on winter mornings too cold for newborns to survive.
It’s what my old-school journalism professors lauded as hard news – an apt term for a system that ‘shoots’ video, ‘breaks’ the story, ‘cuts’ to the next shot. It emphasises political races over candidates’ platforms, and explosive wars over the reasons behind them. Didactic and linear, its best product is fast, lean fact.
Looking back on my own attempts to write news and features over the years, I can see there was – aside from my clumsiness with angles, style and pace – a lean toward including the kind of detail that editors tended to scrub out altogether. It’s not that they were wrong – what I was doing just didn’t suit their needs, right then. It’s taken a while for me to realise that what I wanted to deliver was narrative journalism. I still want that and, yes, that road is long and will be bumpy. But I’m hopeful, because I do think these are times of massive possibility for journalists and story-tellers.
The 24-hour cycle of whizz bang news briefs and sensational clips can erase context, but used wisely and appropriately, multimedia is amazing for some stories. In my next post, I’ll explore a story that seamlessly married tech and words to enhance the global scale meaning of what was taking place – and along the way changed lives.