I recently spent a few days at The Morning Call newspaper in Allentown, Pa. I had been invited to visit and talk to the staff about alternative story forms. It was an area that the paper had already been experimenting with, and now the newsroom wanted to build on those efforts.
The first segment of my stay consisted of workshops on the topic, one for reporters and assigning editors, and another for copy editors and designers. The second part of my visit was more spontaneous and open-ended: I would follow a story form from conception to birth, watching the process and coaching people along the way.
Here’s the story of one story:
At the 10 a.m. meeting, editors from each department offered previews of their best stories. A few of these seemed to have possibilities to work as an alternative story form:
- A statewide poll on Pennsylvanians’ views on climate change.
- A possible resolution in a textile strike.
- The sentencing of a man who had fatally struck a bystander during a brawl at a wedding reception.
- A preview of the NBA Finals.
Any of these could have been pulled off, but the most challenging ones would have been the sentencing and the textile strike. Each of those stories had complicated characters and complex plots that can be difficult to break down into the “chunky text” that characterize ASFs. Such dramas are usually better told in traditional story formats such as the inverted pyramid or narrative.
We decided to proceed with two ASF projects: the warming poll and the NBA Finals. They had the ingredients to make an ASF work: lots of data that needed to be organized and grouped by theme. Each ASF would be a centerpiece, with the poll on the front page.
I met with Pete Leffler, a state editor, about the poll on global warming. He and I went through the survey’s results, looking for themes to the questions and answers. We came up with three concepts: what people knew about the issue and its causes; what government should be doing about it; and what people are willing to do themselves. He also got a reporter going on collecting comments from the poll respondents.
From there, we convened another, smaller meeting. Craig Larimer, a design editor, and a representative of the photo desk joined me, Pete and a reporter, Arlene Martinez. We hashed out some more ideas. Craig made a great suggestion: Let’s come up with the display text now, not later, and build the package around that. We agreed that the big type needed to communicate to readers that this wasn’t just another story on global warming. This was a survey of their views, the first poll of its kind. After floating various “hot” headlines, we went with “Global issue, local concern” for the main headline. We also labeled the three themes: Your Views, Government’s Role and Your Role.
That led to a discussion of photos — should we go with the iconic imagery of a person pumping gas and factories blowing who knows what into the air? It seemed like a cliché. Why not just use a globe image, given the headline that we had crafted?
We also added references to the G-8 story inside and to the full results of the survey online.
A page designer began working on the centerpiece, and Martinez worked on the introductory text. The designer also put a “Morning Call exclusive” label atop the package — designers can be word people, too. Leffler worked with a reporter in Harrisburg on boiling down the poll results. Everything was going according to plan.
At 3:15, some of the paper’s top editors got together for a “standup” — a less formal meeting to check on what was up for the front page. Typically, this meeting takes only a few minutes, but the poll ASF became the topic of an extended and lively discussion.
David Erdman, the managing editor, saw the draft of the page and asked whether a traditional story on the poll would accompany the story form. The answer was no, which worried him. Erdman argued that a traditional story would have the “connective tissue” that would make the poll data come together. He liked the alternative story form as an introduction to a full story somewhere in the paper. Otherwise, we’d be putting 15 pounds of sausage into a 5-pound barrel.
While agreeing that we wanted a complete report on this poll’s results, many of us countered that alternative storytelling could work just as well at capturing readers’ attention and helping them learn more about the topic. Recent EyeTrack research has indicated that story forms do just that. Erdman was willing to go along with a standalone ASF if we reworked the design to allow more results.
Jeffrey Lindenmuth, assistant managing editor for visuals, sketched out a revised layout that allowed for more substantial reporting on the poll. It also improved the flow of the text from headline, to intro text and into each category of results.
The global warming story, with those revisions, was the centerpiece in the June 7 edition of The Morning Call. The package works, thanks to well-written intro text (yes, story forms like these require good writing), tight editing and careful attention to design.
Collaboration and conversation were also essential ingredients. Everyone involved needs to have a voice, before, during and after. This story was well received, though some editors still wondered whether the package delivered enough. That’s something to think about for ongoing efforts.
(This and previous posts on story forms here.)