Well Told: A conference about longform and narrative journalism

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to attend an unusual event (unusual for the London conference world): the city’s first conference focussing on longform journalism. This is a particularly interesting time to zoom in on this form of storytelling, given the unfortunate rise of fake news and sensational events like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, which eclipse other important ones like the ongoing migrant crisis. The former suit the 24-hour news cycle much better than the latter, and so a lot of important stories go untold.

It’s about trust and tribal identities, not facts

Amy O’Leary, Chief Story Officer at Upworthy, began her talk by showing us a clip of the story of Rob Scheer, which gained tens of millions of views and 477,000 shares. It is an emotional story which truly resonated with people, and she used it to illustrate that even in the age of sensationalist news, human stories can break through. As she said,

‘We have a reality-based problem. Facts are under assault like never before’

Facts are easily overwhelmed by master narratives that people employ to understand the world. So the simpler, better story wins cognitively, whether or not it is true. So it’s not facts, but stories that matter.

She also made a really good point about the importance of trust. If people don’t trust you, it doesn’t matter how good your facts are because they won’t believe it. Referring to Eli Pariser (founder of Upworthy) and his book The Filter Bubble, she said that we are moving from a ‘process-based to an interpersonal form of trust’, or handing over the reins from experts to our friends. We trust our friends in the way we sometimes don’t trust experts. The scary thing is that sometimes people don’t really care if they are familiar with only one-sided views, and this has repercussions, as we have seen in the US. According to the Pew Research Centre, ‘Conservative Republicans that say the news they get from friends and family is fairly one-sided are much more likely than others to say that this is OK (51%, compared with about a third or less of other political groups).’

The solution is to engender trust first, and then provide facts. This is also part of the reason why Trump won: if your community wasn’t covered much by the media then you’re already not thinking favourably about the media, and it doesn’t take a lot to trust a politician who said that you shouldn’t trust that media. This was best summarised in a tweet that Amy showed us from writer and editor Ayesha Siddiqi:

That is precisely why fake news has traction: it serves people’s need for tribal identity. Throwing more facts at the problem, therefore, isn’t the answer – it’s in the craft of journalism: “to tell true stories that reflect the community to a larger understanding of ourselves”.

In short, Amy left us with the following tips:

  • Be aware of a community’s tribal identities or schemas
  • Understand various schemas, don’t ignore them
  • Acknowledge that in today’s world especially, facts are not enough
  • Activate new tribal identities
  • Build trust by serving the need of communities

‘Take them there and make them care’

Manveen Rana, a Radio 4 producer, told us about her experience making a radio programme tracking the Dhnie family, who migrated from Syria to Germany. A 2-day project became 6 weeks, but she was able to convey so much more of the nuances of the story of the individuals in the family by taking the time to uncover their story, rather than just produce one episode.

She mentioned a quote from a colleague of hers about what she should try to focus on: “take them there and make them care”, because people are saturated with refugee images coming out of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan. So she realised she needed to surface the back story to make people care. As she said, “longform allows for complexity”, which short news stories don’t.

‘Narratives are designed to render felt experience’.

Tom French, the Pulitzer-prize winning writer and novelist, spoke about how it is important for journalists to recognise the need for people to know.

He also spoke about how information is different from stories. Most journalistic forms are structured to convey information. Narratives, he said, are different, in that they convey stories and are ‘designed to render felt experience.’

He encouraged journalists to take the time to know specifics about the lives of the people they were writing about, to find out what they care about. ‘Zoom in tight’, as he said. Because people want to know the details.

Compassion fatigue

Emma-Jane Kirby, a reporter for BBC’s Radio 4, gave a fascinating account of her experience meeting an optician in Italy who happened to come upon a group of drowning Eritrean refugees while he was on holiday sailing on a boat in the sea off Lampedusa. He was able to save 47 people, but the experience never left him because he had to leave many others who died.

The story of that event became the book ‘The Optician of Lampedusa’. Ms. Kirby spoke about how she did a fair bit of research about the migrant situation in Eritrea and even wrote a couple of chapters on it, but in the end decided to leave them out because she realised she didn’t want anything to detract from the experience of the optician, who was the reason the story existed. It was through his experience, she said, that people could perhaps feel compassion again for migrants, an emotion that we have become numb to, having been almost saturated with tragic images of the crisis for years now. As she said:

“It doesn’t matter if you’re anti or pro-immigration, right or left politically – who can accept that 14 people per day died trying to cross last year?”

Slow journalism

Rob Orchard, co-founder of Delayed Gratification magazine, spoke about the position that his print magazine occupies in a digital world. He wanted it to ‘do the most that print can do’ – he wanted it to look good, smell good and feel good. He said that there was a place for it in the world because traditional news media are in decline as they have too much space to fill in their pages and do not discriminate when it comes to how they fill them. They also have a herd mentality that leads to the same stories being covered by everyone in the same short span of time. Delayed Gratification, he said, is more about slow journalism. They have two main goals: to revisit stories after the dust has settled, and to tell stories that the rest of the media has missed. They focus on finding the extraordinary in the ordinary – which links back to Emma-Jane Kirby’s focus on the experience of an otherwise ordinary optician.

Stories can be a matter of life and death

In a very touching session, Tom and Kelley French spoke about their book on the fight for survival of their extremely premature baby, born at 23 weeks. Kelley narrated her lived experience and the multitude of questions that came with it: baby Juniper was born at an age that was less than the number of weeks that babies can legally be aborted in many countries (24 weeks); as Kelley said, what to do with babies born at the edge of viability is one of the biggest controversies in medicine today.

They spoke about the quandary they had when it came to landing on the structure for the story: two-person memoirs are tough, and it’s rare for people to successfully write a memoir as two people. So they landed on the route of using a ‘baton-writing’ style, with neither of them writing the same part twice.

With a story like this, it was also very easy to get into a territory that might have made them sound indulgent, and they wanted to strictly avoid that. They wanted to be true to who they were, versus who they wish they had been: experiences like this could very easily fall back on stereotypical descriptions of love and life, but they didn’t want that.

It was heart-rending to hear about how Tom read Harry Potter to Juniper as she was in the NICU, and how her heartbeat would slow at good stories and start dropping when they were stories she didn’t like. That was why he closed by saying, “Stories can really be a matter of life and death”.

Juniper was in the room during the talk.

What does it even mean?

Mark Kramer’s masterclass on narrative journalism had a few good tips for the journalists among us:

  • Only put yourself in a piece if there’s a point in doing it.
  • If you turn emotions into narrative, you get a mawkish article.
  • The more you get into it, the better you know what you’re writing about (hark back to almost all the sessions above).
  • …which led to how access is all in journalism. You have to get to a point where you experience a story at a ‘felt life level’. Mark himself had to give up on a story because one of the people he wanted to interview refused access.
  • Don’t be scared of short sentences and paragraphs – use full-stops!
  • Eliminate ‘to be’ verbs, and words like ‘when’ and ‘as’ – they all remove you from the immediacy of the scene, and lose you readers.
  • Remove ‘blank’ images – like the phrase ‘gaudy picture’. What does that even mean?

Longform stories lead to longer reads

Jill Nicholson, Head of Product Education at Chartbeat, gave us an insight into the metrics behind longform journalism success. From research drawn from looking at longform content from 1 January to 15 May 2017, she mentioned how Chartbeat found that the human component stands out in longform journalism, as a result of which people tend to share them more.

Longform journalism is consumed mostly on mobile – 62% of the content examined was on mobile, while for all content it was 44%.

The best day to push longform journalism is Friday, so she suggested using social media then to give existing content a second life.

Existing readers matter – 11% of repeat readers for a US publication contributed 56% of revenue.

Facebook matters when it comes to promoting longform – it’s much more important than Twitter.

Longform journalism leads to people spending an average of 76 seconds on a site compared to 37 seconds for all content. Also, if you can keep a reader on your site for 3 minutes the first time they visit, they are much more likely to return than someone who stays just for 1 minute the first time.

And then there was more

There were also a couple of other very good sessions at Well Told. I wouldn’t hesitate to go again, and I sincerely hope that conferences like this mean we will start seeing publications and brands of all kinds spending more on good quality longform content.

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