Category Archives: online journalism

Longform writing: how to avoid the ‘saggy middle’ — and end strongly

4 ways to structure a longform story

This year on my MA in Data Journalism and MA in Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism I have been teaching students how to plan and organise a longform story. Having already written about story types that can help organise an investigation and beginnings, in this post I want to look at techniques for organising the middle of longform features — and how to wrap it all up at the end.

Middles and endings of long features are no less tricky than the beginnings you can spend so much time writing and rewriting. Often people fall back on particular habits which may not quite ‘work’ for the story being told.

Telling a story in chronological order, for example, is not always the most effective approach. Stories where the action is not equally dispersed chronologically can ‘sag’ in these cases and the momentum of a strong beginning get lost.

In those situations a storyteller with a varied toolbox might use places, or themes, or scenes, to keep that momentum going instead. Continue reading

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Longform writing: how to write a beginning to hook the reader

7 ways to begin a longform story: person, place, action, detail, question, problem, revelation

Previously I’ve looked at 7 story types that can help organise an investigation and the 5 stages of a longform story. In this follow-up post (taken from a class in my MA in Data Journalism and MA in Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism) I look in more detail at the editing process once you have a longform story laid out — specifically, how to start that long feature.

Beginnings are notoriously tricky for any writer. For news reporters the advice is simple: start with the ‘new’ thing in your story, and make sure there is a verb in there: a person has said something; a report has revealed something; authorities are looking for someone, warning about something, planning to do something; and so on.

But in longform and feature writing the approach is more subtle. Although we can choose to report that something has been ‘revealed’ right at the start, this risks removing tension from the story and leading the reader to abandon it before they have the full picture.

Instead, then, journalists use a number of techniques to keep the reader engaged across a longer format — with the important implied promise that the story is going to be worth it.

So, for anyone struggling to think of a way to start a longer story — or feel that you can improve the approach you’ve chosen — I’ve pulled together seven types of beginning that are used in longform reporting and feature writing, with some considerations to bear in mind — and plenty of examples. Continue reading

Meme journalism on Instagram in Denmark: “It’s necessary if we want to play a part in the lives of the younger audience”

When I saw Danish broadcaster TV2 Østjylland’s innovative meme-driven Instagram strategy to reach younger audiences, I immediately wanted to know more. So I spoke to Head of News Louise Petterson and Art Director Kristine Helms to find out how the organisation took on the challenge of a new language on a new platform — and what they have learned along the way.

With TV audiences ageing and public service broadcasters struggling to retain mass appeal, many news organisations have looked to new platforms to reach younger audiences. At TV2 Østjylland, Instagram was part of the mix — but they were acutely conscious that the organisation could no longer rely on traditional approaches to storytelling that journalists were used to.

“We couldn’t take a TV narrative and just put that onto Instagram or Facebook,” explains Louise Petterson. “We had to define a new narrative, a new way of communicating with a younger audience. Continue reading

When you get data in sentences: how to use a spreadsheet to extract numbers from phrases

Unduly lenient sentences review scheme inadequate

This BBC story involved converting phrases into numbers that could be used in calculations

Earlier this month the BBC Data Unit published a story on unduly lenient sentences which involved working with data that was trapped in phrases.

We needed to be able to take a collection of words such as “11 years and 5 months’ imprisonment” and convert that into something that could be used in spreadsheet calculations (specifically, comparing the lengths of time represented by two different phrases).

It’s a problem you come across every so often as a journalist — especially with FOI requests — so in this post — taken from the book Finding Stories in Spreadsheets — I’ll explain how to do that. Continue reading

The 5 stages of a longform story – and how they can help you identify sources

5 stages of a longform story

This year I’ve been working with my MA Data Journalism and MA Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism students on techniques for telling longer form stories. In this post I explain how a consideration of story structure can help you clarify the sources that you will need to talk to in order to gather the elements needed for an effective longform story.

In a previous post I discussed how different plot frameworks identified by Christopher Booker in his book ‘The Seven Basic Plots‘ – such as the ‘quest’ or ‘tragedy’ – can help a journalist think about longer investigations. In addition to those types of story, however, Booker also identifies 5 stages of a story. These are:

  1. Anticipation: setting, character and – crucially – ‘problem’ are introduced.
  2. Dream: we begin exploring/solving the problem.
  3. Frustration: we hit more problems.
  4. Nightmare: this is the ‘final battle’ of fiction narratives.
  5. Miraculous Escape/Redemption/Achievement of the Prize or (in the case of Tragedy) the Hero’s Destruction.

How the 5 stages work in journalism

I would argue that you can see these stages at work in most longform journalism, too. Here’s how: Continue reading

Here are 7 story types that can be used to help organise investigations

7 story types and investigations

This year I’ve been working with my MA Data Journalism and MA Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism students on techniques for telling longer form stories. In this post I explain how a consideration of seven common plot types can help you clarify what story it is you’re telling – and what you might need to tell that.

There are many ways to tell a story, and many stories to tell. An investigation can be trying to establish the cause of a problem, or solutions to that problem; it can be revealing previously hidden unethical behaviour, or shining a light on issues which are ‘hidden in plain sight’; it can be holding a mirror up to a part of society to reveal its scale; or giving a voice to that part of society as a step towards a more sophisticated understanding of problems affecting it. And depending on the type of story, you might adopt different approaches to telling it. Continue reading

FAQ: What are the essential computational skills that a journalist should develop?

Blue skyscrapers

Recognising patterns is a key skill in computational journalism (image by Stanley Zimny)

This latest group of frequently asked questions comes from an interview with Source, published here in full just in case it’s — you know — useful or something…

1. What are the essential computational skills that a journalist should develop?

Firstly, an ability to recognise patterns, or structured information. Spreadsheets are explicitly ‘data’ but some of the most interesting applications of computational journalism are where someone has seen data where others don’t.

Continue reading