Notes on the creation of a new media landscape

The Story Is Dead. Long Live the Story.

with 12 comments

Based on an article in the BBC’s recent report The Future of Journalism, Vin Crosbie’s blog recently published another premature obituary for our profession—a piece that is fast developing into its own genre of new-media punditry:

People very much want to know local news and information, such as which restaurants in town serve Chinese food and are open at this hour, what the score is at this moment at the local secondary school’s football game…But they want to know all of it now, not just the few topics about which a local news organization might have available staff that day to report…
The web has … erased the distinction we journalists used to make between ‘news’—what we said it was—and information, stuff, the whole of the rest of the world.

Let’s give him that. The conclusion inferred from this, which Crosbie’s blog quotes approvingly from the BBC report, bears closer examination: “Our old image of gripping them with our ‘stories’ is no more. The story is dead.”

Long-form journalists who haven’t taken the hemlock already need no comfort from me. But new-media pundits—who often sound suspiciously like old-media pundits (except, of course, for yours truly)—can always stand a good rap on the knuckles. Here’s one that I think is especially well-deserved.

The story is not dead, it’s just suffering. The reason is that publishers, journalists and other story tellers have been slow to adapt to a digital world with lots of newfangled pens and pencils, including audio, video, full-motion infographics, Flash animation, various forms of interactivity—and, of course, words, the better the better.

Some of us have confused the availability of new tools with the need for a new theory of knowledge. To be sure, our moment is revolutionary, and the media disruption we are experiencing now will have revolutionary outcomes. But the story in this revolution is like the axe in the transition from stone to bronze: We still used axes. The edge just got a lot sharper.

Forty-five years ago, in Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan described the digital revolution before us now with preternatural precision: “We have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly we approach the final phase of the extensions of man—the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media.”

In this revolution, we are ill-served by reducing the ambition of even purely local news to “which restaurants in town serve Chinese food” or high-school football scores. If that is digital deliverance, save me from it.

Right now, digital story-telling is a pathless land. I work for one of the places venturing forth into this undiscovered country, and at least so far, it’s very lonely out here. But it won’t be for long.

Knowledge and information can and will be virtually ubiquitous, wikied and individually curated, to our great common benefit, but so too will stories continue to be reported and told. At some point in the not distant future, stories with sharper, digital edges will inform conversation in a transformed version of the public square—a place busier than the old one, no doubt, and substantially messier, but one that serves the ultimate democratic goal of consensus in a way that a clamor of bits and bytes of purely utilitarian information never could.

In his New York Tribune editorial of 1865, Horace Greeley famously advised: “Go West, young man, and grow up with your country.”

If Greeley were around today, I think this is what he would tell publishers, journalists and other story-tellers of all ages:

Go digital, and grow up with your fellow citizens.

Jim Gaines
Twitter: @jamesrgaines

This is a conversation. What do you think—about the future of the story and story-telling? Take a look at FLYP—what do you like, and not? What do you see elsewhere on the Web or in the world that suggests good story-telling? Or do you agree that the future of digital publishing is in purveying pure information?


Written by Jim Gaines

August 31, 2009 at 4:07 pm

12 Responses

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  1. Jim – You provide some really good insight into the future of storytelling and media. From my perspective, it’s not so much that the story is dead, as it is that the medium by which we now receive stories doesn’t jive with how many people now consume information. We live in a world now where we have literally hundreds of different ways to view information and stories. For a magazine to just continue to put ink on paper and marginally reproduce its print content online is not only incredibly short-sighted given the current economic climate, but it’s also slightly insulting to many of us who have learned to embrace and fully enjoy the many different ways to consume information.

    Kudos to you for bringing to the forefront an issue that I’m sure will only continue to bubble up in the coming months and years.

    Sam Waters

    September 2, 2009 at 11:30 am

  2. I went and read the original post you are responding too … you might be exaggerating a hair. I don’t think he’s saying: either we have stories or we don’t — and we don’t need them. He writes this: “Much local news can easily, effectively, and excellently be conveyed in ways other than as stories. I believe that the foundation for any local news organization in this new millennium should be live, interactive databases of that utilitarian information.” Fine. Papers do that anyway — calendars of events and whatnot. He’s just advocating for more of this, I guess. And I think he’s right in many ways. Sure, we need stories and we will always have them. These things are not mutually exclusive.

    Bob Passaro

    September 2, 2009 at 3:47 pm

  3. Fair enough. I was really responding to the BBC report’s assertion more than to his. Like you, I don’t see utilitarian information and stories as mutually exclusive. Certainly I don’t see information per se as any kind of savior for newspapers, and neither does he.

    Jim Gaines

    September 2, 2009 at 6:48 pm

  4. […] The Story Is Dead. Long Live the Story. « CRASHING INTO MEDIA – “The story is not dead, it’s just suffering.” DD: Or was it ever alive? Sure, there’s The Economist and other titles that people buy for the stories, but the financial troubles of the newspaper industry may suggest something else. Maybe newspapers have never been about stories and this is becoming apparent just now as advertising has found new outlets. Thoughts? […]

    • I think newspapers, magazines, books and phone calls have always been about stories. Publication forms come and go. The story is as old and riveting as fire.

      Jim Gaines

      September 4, 2009 at 10:37 am

  5. I’m definitely of the mind that news sites should operate more like wikis, but you’re right—the “story” format shouldn’t (and probably won’t) just disappear. Both do certain things well and should compliment each other.

    I’ve been using health care reform as an example: It’s a confusing issue, for which a wiki-like entry is certainly warranted, but I don’t want to have to comb the wiki entry for new information everyday. Tell me what happened today and then link the phrase “health care reform” to the wiki page so I can clarify if I need to (but also make wiki pages for complex, timely topics easy to find anywhere on your site).


    September 3, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    • I’m totally with you on wikis, and I wish we could figure out how to get our site to be more collaborative. I think it’s mainly a software/platform issue–Flash is still pretty unforgiving. But we will get there. At the same time, I think what people will always be looking for–in wikis and in more traditional forms– are stories. That’s the best way to illuminate health care reform, for example, and I think mainstream media have missed a huge opportunity here. Stories get people to people’s heart, not just their heads.

      Jim Gaines

      September 4, 2009 at 10:39 am

  6. I agree with you that we (old pros, students, young pros, amateurs, anybody) should be learning multimedia tools and rethinking storytelling.

    I also agree with Vin Crosbie that a lot of information newspapers and magazines publish is forced into a “story” format when online media could do it better in other ways, whether multimedia or things like interactive calendars and searchable databases.

    But I hope we can find & build more online storytelling tools that are standards-based and/or opensource.

    I haven’t looked at enough of FLYP to talk about it, but too many Flash sites still break the important Web features of deep-linking, bookmarking and robust searching, or unnecessarily reinvent the user interface in less-than-obvious ways.

    I also care about history: Will new iterations of the software may make old stories unviewable?

    Nice to see the “text only” versions of things at FLYP, by the way. I’ll be back.

    bob stepno

    September 6, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    • Sorry I didn’t see this sooner. You’re right about Flash. They don’t make it easy, and you’re right we need to do that stuff a lot better–a LOT better. Not sure about future software, but we’ll do our best to make sure everything stays alive. Anyway, thanks for the comment, and stay tuned.

      Jim Gaines

      September 7, 2009 at 5:21 pm

  7. Attention spans are shorter.

    There are approximately 70 words to a 30 second script.

    You have an average 12.5 seconds to engage your website visitor – that’s 28 words.

    There are 140 characters to a Tweet.

    Critical to success are well written scripts.

    Easy to implement flash “rich media” videos for website effectively engage users without impacting SEO performance.

    Video must be relevant and easy for user to switch off

    End of the day it’s all about the viewer and telling a story.

    Scott Maxworthy

    September 7, 2009 at 6:00 pm

  8. I think the number of sites that try to “grow their fan base by communication” is actually becoming increasingly popular. Lots of individuals jumped into developing web pages and posting without knowing the importance of developing a connection with their readers. Like you have here, congrats.

    fairy tarot

    February 18, 2010 at 4:18 am

  9. Hi webmaster – This is by far the best looking site I’ve seen. It was completely easy to navigate and it was easy to look for the information I needed. Fantastic layout and great content! Every site should have that. Awesome job

    Emerita Rydzewski

    March 11, 2010 at 1:18 am

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