“How do I report all these facts if I can’t write a long article?” Here’s how
You can learn a lot about design from the Focus page in the Orange County Register. But that’s not what struck me when I saw this page in Focus editor Charles Apple’s Twitter feed.
What I see here is great ammunition for my campaign to kill the news “article.” So this post is for my fellow revolutionaries. (I know you’re out there, plotting quietly.)
Print this Focus page, share it and hold it in reserve for the day (the first day you ban “articles,” I suspect) a reporter comes to you and says, “What do you mean I can’t write a long text article? I know it’s not a compelling narrative, but I’ve got a lot of facts here that people need to know!”
Facts? This page has got ’em. Details on each of five major campaigns in World War II. A map of internment camps. Statistics on medals. Good reporting has been done, which underscores a point my advising pal Erica Perel from The Daily Tar Heel tweeted after my first broadside against the boring article:
@adviserdavid Very on point. Something to emphasize: alt-styles still need strong sourcing, original reporting. Not a license to slack.
— EricaPerel (@EricaPerel) April 11, 2014
Back to our example: Register designer Kurt Snibbe had a lot of facts about the regiment, but nothing that was going to make a true “story.” No central character, no vivid scenes. In this case, there’s a good reason for that. The Register planned a separate story later in the week on one of the heroes, Kazuo Masuda. That story would be a narrative. This is the factual presentation of the unit’s achievements.
Every day in college media, we produce material that also is just, well, factual. We go astray when we try to contort those facts into a long slog of paragraphs with transitions and other attempts to make a coherent “story.”
We need everyone in the newsroom to be able to spot this kind of assignment early in the process and get the right people thinking about doing a, hmm, what do we call it? As I’ve said previously, I’m leaning toward “fact file” because I don’t want “alternative story forms” to be alternative any more. In this case, the reporter or assigning editor would acknowledge immediately that this is not a brief and it’s not a narrative, so it’s time to plan a fact file. What happens from there is up to your newsroom’s work flow — as long as writing and design are planned together.
Finally, a word about whether this diminishes “writing.” I considered myself a better-than-average writer at my last newspaper job, and I was not shy about defending my turf. I identify with this line from Bill James: “I welcome editorial suggestions with the warmth of an alligator greeting a scuba diver.”
So I could rival the grumpiest writer in your newsroom. And yet I was delighted to do packages like this. It’s incredibly liberating (and quick!) to plan the various elements and knock them out. Quite often a format like this allows for more playfulness or personality than would be tolerated in an “article.” And in any event, spending less time wrestling facts into a semblance of order in a long piece of text means more time for that next beautiful narrative. Make room in the trophy case!