McGuire on Media

Message to high school J-students:Storytelling needs to survive the media tumult

The following speech will be delivered at 7 pm. Thursday, April 28, 2011  to teachers and award-winning students of the Arizona Interscholastic Press Association. 


Congratulations to all the award winners and to their teachers.

In some ways it’s a ludicrous for me to be speaking to you tonight.

You students represent tomorrow. My career represents yesterday.

Just how different yesterday is from tomorrow was brought home to me this past weekend when I was reading a new book by Steve Rosenbaum called Curation Nation. Rosenbaum says we are on the verge of a data tsunami. He quotes Google CEO Eric Schmidt as saying, “between the dawn of civilization and 2003 there were just 5 exabytes of information created. That much information is now created every two days!”

Think about that, we now create in two days what it once took thousands of years to create!

You are going to be literally swimming in information, or perhaps more precisely, drowning in it. The demands placed on you, the journalist, are going to be unlike anything I ever experienced and unlike anything my peers can imagine.

There are a lot of so-called experts who are incredibly anxious to tell you what your journalistic careers could and should look like in 15 years. Frankly, they are charlatans playing an alluring game of three-card Monte.

The only thing anyone can effectively predict about technology, information and journalism is limitless possibilities.

Your mobile device may be your television, your newspaper and your college textbook all in one. Literally anyone could be a content creator. Informational jewels and junk could be indiscernible.

In my Business and Future of Journalism class I explore all the phenomena that are going to shape your media lives. They include the loss of corporate control, the rise of consumer control, and the amazing shift from media scarcity to media abundance. I tell my students we are in a Schumpeterian Moment. That means the old world is being destroyed and a new one is being created. And we’re caught in the middle of that.

All of those are important issues for future journalists to contemplate, but this week I have been more of a romantic than a pragmatist. When I make speeches like this I usually take a stab at predicting what the future is going to look like. Tonight, I am going to hope rather than predict.

My romanticism was rekindled Sunday morning as I sipped my latte at our favorite breakfast place. As I enjoyed an Arizona Easter morning outdoors, I was mesmerized by every word of a two story package in the Arizona Republic on Gabby Giffords and her husband Astronaut Mark Kelly.

The stories, beautifully crafted by Jaimee Rose with help from Shaun McKinnon and others, took me back 45 to 50 years ago when I’d lay out the Sunday Detroit Free Press on my living room floor and devour the long Sunday pieces for which the Free Press was famous.

Obviously the subjects and the authors of those stories have faded into my dusty memory. I do remember my sense of total engagement as a 15 and 16 year-old kid. I was fascinated by the true tales told by pure craftspeople. These were writers given enough time and space, and enough creative freedom to produce tales that informed, entertained and evoked deep emotion. The writers created a narrative that invited me to invest my time and emotional energy.

That’s exactly what Jaimee Rose and her compatriots did in those stories about Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly last Sunday. I think there are three distinct things Rose and her co-writers can teach you students about how to create great stories that are worth reading from beginning to end.

1. Reporting, reporting, reporting. Details are what bring a story to life, but young writers often wonder where does all that detail come from? It comes from digging, asking and listening. It comes from a willingness to be surprised. It comes from keen observation.

When Rose writes that Giffords “pushes a grocery cart up and down the hospital halls as therapy,” we can all imagine that in our minds. And when she writes, “The halls are all florescent lighting and linoleum. In the garden out front, hot-pink roses keep company with boxwood hedges and a bronze sculpture of Prometheus Unbound,” we feel like the reporter has taken us with her to Houston.

No detail should be disregarded. You never know where it might fit. Be persistent. Writers like Rose and McKinnon are painting a picture and they needed to appreciate all the nuances to paint that picture.

2. You must capture feelings, not just events, to create authenticity. An event writer would say: Giffords speaks in one or two word sentences. Rose told us in a quote from her doctor that when Giffords has trouble expressing herself, “She’ll sigh out of exasperation.” I heard and felt that sigh.

In Sunday’s piece, Rose and McKinnon tell us how Giffords found out about the Jan 8 shooting and the associated deaths. “It was from a Times story they were reading together that Giffords first learned that six people died in the shooting that wounded her. Kelly tried to skip a couple of lines in a story, but Giffords, following along, caught him. When she realized the truth she began to cry.”

“She began to cry” are simple and clear words, yet in the context of explaining events, they give authenticity to a great story. Don’t just ask people to describe events. Ask them how the event made them feel. Ask them what they did during the event.

3. Great storytelling must evoke emotion. It may be humor, it may be empathy and it may be anger. The reader has to feel a well-told tale in his heart and soul. I felt terrifically edified by the Giffords pieces, but I also felt a share of Giffords’ and Kelly’s struggle. I see their mountains, and I now have an investment in seeing them climb them.

In fiction, we call that caring about the characters. Great storytelling always makes you feel deeply about well-drawn characters. Rose and McKinnon painted clear pictures of Giffords and Kelly and some of the side characters like Nurse Poteet.

There is a secret about evoking emotion. You have to be a feeling, sensitive being yourself. Caustic cynicism may be fine for covering a fire or the legislature but when you are telling great stories you need to turn on the “feelings’ radar and be comfortable in your own skin. Arms-length story-telling is usually pretty obvious and pretty ineffective.

Great story-telling always has a grand story arc. Sometimes, it’s jealousy. Sometimes it’s hate. For me, there were two grand story arcs in the Giffords and Kelly stories–love and perseverance.

A great tale well-told is like a homily, full of meaning and lessons.

Please notice I have not mentioned the words newspaper, computer, book or magazine in this discussion of what makes great story-telling.

Beautiful story-telling must survive no matter the medium.

I applaud the work of my friend and Cronkite colleagues Len Downie and Rick Rodriquez who have done so much to advocate for the preservation of accountability reporting, investigative journalism and in-depth reporting. And, another friend and colleague Dan Gillmor’s advocacy for citizen journalism is a serious and valuable endeavor. Beautiful storytelling also needs an advocate.

As I said when I began, nobody knows where journalism is going. I do know you and your teachers are going to have more to say about that future than I will.

That’s why I urge you to go home and read last Sunday’s pair of Republic stories. Read novels. Read non-fiction books that tell stories. One suggestion is a funny narrative about a deadly serious subject, the Afghan war in Kim Barker’s book The Taliban Shuffle. Seek out great stories. Analyze them. Try to emulate them.

No matter where technology takes media and society we are always going to require the nourishment of well-told stories. They make us a richer society, more appreciative of relationships, emotions and personal well-being.

My hope tonight is two-fold.

I hope all of those with power in all sorts of journalism businesses protect, nurture and enable great story telling. I pray that they don’t get so consumed with birthers, Sheens and the latest nasty mean-spirited political charge that they forget the life-giving force of great story-telling.

My final hope is for you young people. I hope, I ask, I plead that you read great stories and you applaud great stories and that you write great stories that make your world a better place