McGuire on Media

News21 can teach us to make journalism and storytelling better

Wednesday I came out of a News21 presentation of work done by Cronkite School journalists that made me ready to shout from the rooftops.  This is sensational work done by great students with expert professional direction and funded by two incredibly far-sighted funders. Even more important for readers of this blog there are bright, clear guideposts for journalists who want to explore exciting new ways to present journalism.

The Carnegie-Knight Initiative for college journalists has several goals, but the primary one is to stimulate incubators for innovative approaches to journalism. From what I saw Wednesday, mission accomplished.  The ASU work and the work of other schools breaks new ground in method, style and substance. Yet it is an error to think this is flashy space-age stuff. A long, slow, savoring read will reveal story is central to all the presentations, but so is choice.  Readers have a number of options for how to choose how they want to consume the material. 

I found the Innovation Roundup full of great suggestions for innovating storytellers. Some of the points might seem obvious, but taken as a whole that piece struck me as a solid cookbook for innovation and story-telling.

A lot of graybeards like me are petrified the integrity of the story will be damaged by all these new, high-tech tools and imaginative new methods. They should be reassured by reading the lessons the News 21 folks have learned: get the story first, report in teams, hire developers and put them in newsrooms, understand developers and their tools; hire journalists with basic photography skills etc.  The lessons are worth reading because none of that sets story aside, rather it keeps story central. The students who talked about their work Wednesday stressed that they needed to discipline themselves not to fall in love with their fancy tools, but use those tools to enhance the reading/viewing experience.

Now that is not to say that storytelling has to look like it has for 50 years. The Innovation Roundup enthusiastically  embraces non-linear story-telling. There is a lot of evidence that young people are not particularly taken by a,b, c, storytelling, but rather they embrace chaos. One of the finest young photographers I have seen, a woman named Deanna Dent, displays her pictures and story about the Virgin of Guadalupe in a decidedly non-traditional way. Linear is not even a vague notion. It is a little out there for me, but it can teach editors a lot about this unconventional approach to story-telling.  Do not be put off when you click on it the first time. Conventional media folks may have to stuff their bugged-out eyes back into their heads, but stick with it awhile and I think you will be impressed and intrigued.

For unconventional approaches I became enamored of following my food and its impact on energy, which is the work of The University of North Carolina students. So far, I’d have to say my favorite story in the whole package is Latinos in the Military. It uses great tools and tells a dynamite story with real strong public policy implications. 

Collaboration is the third big lesson the News21 people celebrate. They talk about the importance of working in teams, getting everybody in the same room and working closely with developers. At the ASU site students tell downright heart-warming stories of students crossing from one story to another to bail out colleagues.  In this day of remote offices and telecommuting, Jason Manning and Rick Rodriguez, who directed the ASU project are convinced staffers should come into the office regularly. They said the spontaneous idea factory created by the office presence is indispensable.

Take some time with the News21 site. Bookmark it and go back to it often. You are not going to grasp the fine storytelling or the tremendous potential of the innovation on one visit. There is a lot of clever stuff here that needs to be absorbed if the Carnegie-Knight goal of affecting industry practices and experimentation is going to be realized. Right now you can find a blog here about the processes used. Keep visiting that site because eventually students and their teachers are going to reveal what’s under the hood of the storytelling behind these great examples of journalism innovation. That open-source approach is a great thing about this sort of undertaking.

For my money, Carnegie-Knight, these students and their teachers are teaching professional journalists high-tech tools can help us make journalism and storytelling greater than it has ever been.