Tag Archives: narrative

Here’s the thinking behind my new MA in Data Journalism

A few weeks ago I announced that I was launching a new MA in Data Journalism, and promised that I would write more about the thinking behind it. Here, then, are some of the key ideas underpinning the new course — from coding and storytelling to security and relationships with industry — and how they have informed its development. Continue reading

Tap to advance: the rise and rise of the horizontal story

Snapchat's horizontal navigation

Another month, another set of new feature launches: this time the longform blogging platform Medium announcingSeries‘, a “new type of story”, then days later Facebook announcing its ‘Messenger Day‘ feature.

Last month it was Instagram‘s Carousel feature and WhatsApp‘s Status feature.

What all have in common is the almost unquestioned use of a horizontal storytelling mode: a move from scroll-based navigation to navigating through a swipe or a tap.

What does that mean for journalism and storytelling? I think it’s about time we asked. Continue reading

My online journalism Masters course is changing its name. Here’s why

telegraph-newsroom image by alex-gamela

MA student Alex Gamela took this image of the Telegraph newsroom during the first year of the MA

My MA in Online Journalism has a new name: the MA in Multiplatform and Mobile Journalism*. It’s still a course all about finding, publishing and distributing journalism online. So why the name change?

Well, because what ‘online‘ means has changed.

For the last 18 months I’ve been talking to people across the industry, reflecting on the past 7 years of teaching the MA, and researching the forthcoming second edition of the Online Journalism Handbook. Here, then, are the key conclusions I arrived at, and how they informed the new course design:

1: Adapting to new platforms is a specific skill

In the last few years a significant change has taken place. Journalism is now increasingly ‘native’, playing to the strengths of multiple platforms rather than just using them as promotional ‘channels’. It went from web and social to chat, keeps remembering email, and in the near future will take in cars, the home and other connected devices too. Continue reading

Snapchat Memories is nothing to do with memories – but it changes everything

Snapchat memories

Swipe up from the camera screen to access Snapchat Memories, then tap the camera roll option

Snapchat’s new Memories feature is being pitched as a way to share old snaps and stories — but the real change is what it means for those creating and reporting stories in the tool. Now for the first time Snapchat users can create non-chronological sequences and stories using images or video that they have not taken themselves. Continue reading

Snapchat for journalists (part 3): narrative

In the first and second parts in this series I covered different types of stories and the different tools in Snapchat. In this extract from the ebook Snapchat for Journalists I cover narrative techniques in Snapchat, including the importance of variety and thinking about beginnings, middles and endings.

Snapchat book cover

You can find more tips and examples in this ebook (also available in the Kindle Store)

Snapchat Stories: variety is key

The best stories tend to mix both images and video, have more than one person, and employ a range of different techniques.

Just as you wouldn’t write a news story which employed a quote-quote-quote structure (you might instead choose fact-quote-background), stories are more engaging when you switch from one type of content to another.

One technique, for example, is to use a still image with a caption to introduce a speaker, before moving on to a video clip of that speaker. Continue reading

Online video and audio – a multimedia introduction

Here are a series of videos, audio slideshows and podcasts that demonstrate some key lessons in producing audio and video for the web – and how that is different from broadcast.

Here are a series of videos, audio slideshows and podcasts that demonstrate some key lessons in producing audio and video for the web – and how that is different from broadcast.

http://storify.com/paulbradshaw/online-video-and-audio-a-multimedia-introduction/

Podcasting and principles of narrative – a case study

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how narrative techniques are used within journalism to engage users and then keep them reading/listening/watching/clicking. By way of illustrating this, specifically with relation to audio, I wanted to blog in some detail about how narrative is used in a very good example I came across last month: a Freakonomics podcast.

Before you read any further, listen to that Freakonomics podcast and pretty much any Guardian Media Talk podcast

… OK, done?

Right. These are great case studies for how podcasting uses three core principles of narrative:

  • Characters,
  • Setting, and
  • Movement

The two also illustrate different editorial demands: the Freakonomics podcast is a good example of exploring one issue in depth; while the Guardian podcast is about breadth: reacting to a number of current events and reporting across them.

I’m going to focus on the Freakonomics podcast because it uses the same basic techniques which are employed by Media Talk, but also some others beside. It’s also technically pretty straightforward.

That’s good because their approach also makes for good journalism, moving beyond the superficial to a deeper exploration and understanding – which is key when we talk about narrative.

Here’s how the Freakonomics podcast uses character, setting and movement particularly well to attract the listener and keep them listening:

The hook: a great introductory story

After an initial introduction by the presenters that gives us a feel for the show and their personalities (the first ‘setting’ and ‘characters’, if you like) we start with a story. It’s a story of people dying unnecessarily. It’s a good story – and it has characters, settings, and movement: a problem, a journey, and a resolution.

Why start with this story? Because it grabs the listener from the start, and it provides an immediate reward.

But it also sets up a tension, at around 5.40: why are we being told the story? What does it mean?

This is the first hook of the podcast.

Movement and relevance: bringing things up to date

We then change setting, moving to a recent story about modern medical hygiene.

The characters in this story are weaker (that’s probably why we started with the stronger story). But it has something the first doesn’t: a problem that affects us directly.

This is the central tension of the whole podcast – our second hook (at around 7’20, when the show theme and introduction is finally played). And we will have to wait until the end of the podcast for its resolution.

From the end of the beginning we move into the beginning of the middle. That central tension hanging in the air gives us a reason to listen to the end, but we also need continual movement within the middle period to keep us interested.

And so we move to a new story: the subplot, if you like (in this case, about financial literacy), which will, eventually come together with the initial story.

We hold on to find out how this tension between the two stories will be resolved.

Style and structure

Having looked at the over-arching structure of the podcast, I want to look more closely at how style is used to add extra interest to that.

Because there is a lot more to note about the telling of these stories.

A useful technique when looking at media production is to think about the choices that have been made by its producers. For example, you could tell these stories in any number of ways – handing over the narrative to an expert; narrating it yourself; reconstructing events dramatically.

But the producers make a choice in the first story which is worth analysing: they switch relatively frequently between interviews and narration.

The effect of this is to reinforce the listener’s sensation of movement: the narrative moves along quickly, and the contrast between voices creates a tension that helps maintain our interest.

Once the first interviewee’s story is established, we move to a second. Again, this adds to the sensation of movement, with a new character, and a change of setting.

Note that the speaker is introduced after they speak, introducing a brief period of tension as the listener wonders who this new voice is.

Also: under the sound of speakers, we sometimes hear music or other sounds. This helps establish the setting of the story they’re recounting. Something as simple as classical music (out of copyright, which is handy) can establish a period or a place. Generic comedic sounds can turn tragedy into comedy.

As the story moves into its middle phase, interviews become less narrated. At 9’20 we have a telephone interview. And instead of ‘cutting’ through narration, the style is more conversational, and the interviewee has more space to talk.

Interviewees are sometimes arranged in sequence so that their views are at odds. We have conflict. Put another way: having established the problem in the beginning, we are now introducing characters onto the stage to fight that problem out.

This helps solve one of the hardest problems in storytelling: the fat middle; how to get from the beginning to the end without losing interest.

Mini-stories

In the Freakonomics example interest is also maintained in a number of ways other than conflict. One is the way the podcast introduces mini stories within the larger story (how the research was done; how a character discovered flawed claims – complete with ‘detective’ soundtrack); and a third is a mini-quiz (with a comedic/’countdown’/’game’ soundtrack to make it less dry).

The peak of the conflict comes with a hosted debate between two characters who hold different positions on the problem (flagged up as a “puzzle” in the lead-up, which again uses ‘debate’ music to establish the setting).

It’s worth listening to how the host prompts the debate and summarises positions, and when the characters get to speak directly to each other.

Even within the debate there is structure: we start with consensus before moving onto disrupting that, and a final consensus.

To host a debate like this you need to know people’s positions first and plan the debate around those.

The end phase

Having resolved that conflict, then, we move onto the beginning of the end.

And to signal that change, we have a change of setting too: we have an interviewee walking us through a hospital. The sounds are key to this, often recorded separately so they can be heard more clearly in the edit.

The end of the podcast uses a common technique in storytelling: returning to the start. The problem established in the beginning – hospital hygiene – and the problem established in the sub-plot – financial literacy – are both resolved with both final lessons and consensus, and at the same time, the question hanging in the air of “What do these stories have to do with each other?” is also resolved.

What’s more, the resolution has meaning beyond just a story: we have learned something.

Just to reinforce this, after that resolution comes a fade-out, rising title music, and credits. Small things that tell us definitively: The End.

Principles of narrative in a news podcast

But how do these techniques translate to a more traditional news podcast? The Guardian’s Media Talk podcast is, as I say, more about breadth than depth: a collection of short stories rather than a novel.

But it uses many of the same techniques at a smaller level. We begin with a table of contents, which serves to establish a little bit of tension, including teasing clips of tasty quotes.

We again have two voices (often both journalists) to tell a story instead of one, to introduce contrast and a little tension, and some structure of questioning that sets the scene before exploring more problematic issues, and ends by looking forward.

Each change of story is accompanied by an audio sting to signal that change of setting – and sometimes that change of setting occurs within the story – as when, for example, we move from an interview or report to the reaction to it.

The peak – two-thirds into the podcast – is the discussion where we move from hearing 2 voices to hearing 3.

So you can see the same techniques used, but in a much shorter space of time, and in a more routine manner. The format is more restrictive, but also allows for more effective production. It’s the right tool for the job.

Rounding it all up

That’s a lot to learn, so let me try to summarise these techniques that are used again and again:

  • Firstly, think about establishing tension:
    • through problems and questions;
    • and through conflict and contrast.
  • Secondly, think about movement:
    • This is done through regularly resolving those tensions and establishing new ones (while keeping the main tension hanging until the end).
    • And secondly, through moving from setting to setting.
    • And thirdly, by having stories within your overarching story or stories (which is really the same as using tensions, but is worth identifying separately). Notice how narration is used frequently to move the story forward – mainly because there’s a lot of material to get through. Don’t add narration for the sake of it if your characters can move things along themselves just fine.
  • Thirdly, note how audio is employed beyond the core content.
    • Music is used to increase tension, describe character, establish setting, and even the genre of mini-stories.
    • Silence and volume are equally important: a moment’s silence can indicate a change of pace or setting. A sudden rise in volume can indicate the end of a section.
  • Finally, remember that all the above relies on those characters. It is the actions of characters that creates the movement; it is characters who introduce us to new settings. We need to hear those characters – and you need to find them.

Suggestions on building narrative into a podcast

Listening to those podcasts again with those points in mind, here are some suggestions on how you might plan to organise a podcast of your own on a single issue story:

  • What’s the central tension you are going to introduce at the start and resolve at the end?
  • Is there a secondary and related tension you can run alongside it and resolve simultaneously?
  • What’s the best mini-story to begin with? End with?
  • Who are your main characters? And when do they need to enter and leave the stage?
  • What are your settings? And how might we move through them as the story develops?
  • How can you maintain movement in your middle section? Do you have more mini-stories?
  • What extra audio might you need to signal setting, character, genre or movement?

Any other examples or suggestions welcome.