Telling (and not telling) stories

Do you believe in letters to the editor?

I ask myself that question a lot recently — mostly as a result of paying closer attention to the letters printed by the Washington Post. It’s refreshing to see readers complain very articulately about the problems journalism faces today, some of which I already bitched about earlier this week.

As a result, I’ve started writing more of them, the last of which I sent to the Post this morning after reading an innocent piece on Ira Glass, the host of This American Life. Here’s a sample of my comments:

“[…] it’s disappointing to me as a subscriber to the Post and someone who attended Mr. Glass’s presentation that Ms. Frey got so little out of it. Mr. Glass spelled out his philosophy of telling stories and bringing meaning through journalism in a noise filled broadcast world. All Ms. Frey’s article illustrates is that an event happened, in which a goof-ball with thick-rimmed glasses with an odd radio show talked about his pet peeves.

Ms. Frey doesn’t even mention the structure of Mr. Glass’s talk and ignored that the message he delivered was conveyed in the same styleand structure as the radio show. This would be a small omission if she used the space she had for this article to talk about journalists who believe in telling stories — something she failed miserably at on this occasion.

Ms. Frey also referred to Dove in her story as being the detergent mentioned in Mr. Glass’s talk. It was Dawn and the word was repeated countless times during the segment. She also dismisses Mr. Glass’segment on the FCC as a “swipe” although it was a more compelling piece of reporting on the subject than almost anything done by other media organizations.”

It was a hard complaint to articulate because I was in the audience, stunned by Glass’s passion and his sublimely articulate vision for storytelling. I believe This American Life tells the best stories in journalism today, and I always knew that the format and the grammar as Glass says makes it what it is. But hearing Glass talk about how the show gets puts together, how ideas come about and much thought the staff is putting not only into the stories, but into the storytelling process, was fantastic.

Glass flat out rejected what he called the “topical sentence,” that nagging sentence in a story or a news report that signals to the reader that they are about to move to a completely new idea. It’s almost like a series of leads and the story looks like a quick assembly of chunks, which is most of the time a failure.

On This American Life glass pushes for story telling that is almost chronological in nature, the action moves from point A to B to C and is peppered with delightful surprises along the way (see Roy Peter Clark’s idea of the golden coins). As the audience moves through the story, they know to expect these moments of emotion, humor, genuine surprise and insight.

Journalism is struggling mightily with meaning, which is why hearing TAL is so rewarding. The action is always followed by the greater theme, the thread that makes us connect to the story and it’s more than the straight news “nut graf” that is supposed to tell readers why they care. This is a moment that most of the time goes to the heart of the human condition — it makes the listeners understand the character and feel connected to them and the world at large.

This is one of the things that made me mad while reading the Post story — there was no attempt to tell the readers why listeners they react to This American Life and make them feel what is the magic behind a 10-year-old wonder that captures the hearts of 1.6 million Americans every week.
It bothered me that the Post would do a story about a storyteller (to which they devoted considerable space) and not share his quirks and techniques. If I did know Ira Glass, I would have set down the paper having learned nothing, having no idea that this man is preoccupied with feelings, with life, with the idea of being part of the world and understanding it.

Glass said during his presentation that the average time a listener spends tuned to the one-hour how is more than 45 minutes. I’d like to see the Post or any newspaper for that matter compete with that. I’d like to see the Post — or any other media for that matter — convince me to tune out the world and stop doing anything while they take me on a trip that not only makes me more informed, but that — to some degree — makes me more human.

3 Responses to “Telling (and not telling) stories”

  1. Hard to do this kind of journalism at a newspaper…so not surprising they don’t want to champion it as something “great,” right?

  2. The problem is that everyone says “it’s hard” instead of saying “let’s give this a try.” This industry runs from innovation like its the avian flu!

  3. We are the worst at innovation. So say the people at the “Learning Newsroom.”

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