Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What about better writing?

We need lots of new bells and whistles, databases and widgets. We also need to employ the tools we have more effectively.

Nothing in the arsenal is even nearly as potent as narrative text.

We should write better. Stories should have a beginning, a middle and an end. There should be emotional connections for readers, conclusions, a pay-off for the time readers invest.

Hey, I recognize that not every story (or even most of them) lends itself to narrative treatment. I’m all about alternate story forms, visual journalism, web 2.0 techniques, co-creation and all the rest.

But I am also hungry for storytelling, for writers who can work their magic on a preliminary hearing in a murder trial, or a heated exchange at the city council, or a lonely immigrant worker who misses home. Edna Buchanan, Jimmy Breslin, Francis X. Clines.

No six-year old will ever tug at your sleeve and ask, “Mommy, tell me an article.”

But stories? Oh yes, please.

We need more.

(I will start a new folder called "Better writing" on McClatchyNext where you can share winning examples from your paper or website. Please do.)

P.S. Yes, I also see the notice about upgrading the site at McClatchyNext. I have inquired with PBwiki about doing so; I am honestly not just stiffing them on the bill.


  1. Anonymous10:22 AM

    I totally agree with this post. Bells and whistles are great, but there is no paper without good story telling.
    Kevin L.

  2. Anonymous6:26 PM

    Why can't MNI papers be read online? Take a look at what they are doing at Flower Mound, Texas:
    Would it not count as an additional reader if someone looked through a paper online?

  3. Anonymous7:06 PM

    I went into this business because I wanted to tell people's stories. Trust me when I tell you this based on several decades worth of experience. Everyone has a story, and everyone wants that story told.

    What I tend to see here and on McClatchyNext is a bunch of tech folks braying about how important they are. Well, they are. But they're nothing without the stories that we bring to them, the stories of the people and the places where we live.

    What we have -- in Fresno and Fort Worth and Biloxi and Lexington and Raleigh -- are the stories of the people in the communities we cover. That's our franchise.

    No one else in the world is going to cover Fresno the way we can. No one else in the world is going to cover Raleigh the way we can. Rinse, repeat.

    And I'm not talking about city council meetings and forest fires, about car crashes and bank robberies. Sure, that's the kind of stuff where you can send reporters out with laptops and they can update their little hearts out for online.

    What I'm talking about is the community. The people. The heart of the place. The depth of the place. The complexities of the issues and the complications of our lives.

    Bring on your bells and whistles. But without your storytellers, MNI might as well just give it up.

  4. Anonymous7:09 PM

    One last thing. I am not passionate about technology. To me, computers are machines. So are automobiles and toaster ovens. I need to know how to operate all of the appliances in my life. I don't need to love them.

    I say that with all due respect to the technies. You love your killer aps, and God bless. You're passionate about what you do, and we need you to be.

    Me, I'm passionate about storytelling. And MNI needs that, too.

    -- Anon706

  5. Anonymous8:02 PM

    amen. all the technology in the world ain't gonna help you if you're putting nothing but shit on the internet....and we storytellers are the only thing keeping the dam from breaking and the shit tidal wave from engulfing us. we might be technologically superior (which btw we are not even close to being) but our storytelling is what makes us different. I'll take this a step further by suggesting mcclatchy actually find a way to make our websites halfway worth looking at so our content can be looked at. most of the websites for our papers remind me of a clown car at the circus. maybe that's what our tech people should be working on instead of berating the word people for not "knowing" the techno side.

  6. Anonymous3:04 AM

    This techie vs. storyteller dialogue is getting old, quickly. As journalists in this rapidly evolving landscape of bits and bytes, blogs and videos, databases and directories, we've met the techies and they are us -- or, at least, they should be.

    Sadly, though, the wall between the "digital staff" and those producing the "pulp product" is seemingly as solid as the wall between newsroom and advertising, despite the repeated admonitions from within and outside the industry that we must keep creatively nurturing the Web.

    How many "traditional storytellers" in our newsrooms know how to code an ActionScript app? How many "techies" know how to spot libel in that Web hed someone just wrote on a breaking robbery? Where are all the Adrian Holovatys we were so desperate to snatch up a couple months ago? Why aren't we doing more to develop and promote such skill sets on both sides of the wall?

    At my McClatchy paper, admittedly, we do have quite a few Web folks who have done copy editing or reporting or shooting, but they get so wrapped up in "mapping stories" and "posting slide shows" that they somehow misplace the storytelling hats they used to wear. And, though they're in the minority, I'm sure we do have some folks on the rim or on the metro desk who know their way around Photoshop and Perl, but they're rarely called on for ideas -- and have scarce time or incentive to regularly offer ideas -- about how to transfer their storytelling talents to the online product.

    My guess is our newsrooms still have too many glass-office types who know how to tell great stories in the paper and are being told they need to do so on their Web sites, but don't have the technical knowledge to make this come about. And too many folks in the tech cubicles know how to create a spiffy Flash animation but don't know how to report the content to make that animation interesting or useful. (Be honest: How many of the top editors in your newsroom even know what a basic HTML tag looks like?)

    Yes, top newsroom editors are often great promoters of the latest bells and whistles ("Hey, let's make sure we promote that map mashup from that story." "Do we have video of that?"). But too often we're losing the forest for the trees. When was the last time you saw something on an MNI site that was truly innovative?

    I got quickly bored reading McClatchyNext because it seemed to be turning into a forum for debating the best tools for the job rather than examining whether that job we're using them for is worth doing in the first place.

    My newsroom, for example, expends an incredible amount of journalistic muscle producing Web-only videos that on any given day are viewed by only a tiny percentage of our Web visitors. And that number, I'm sure, goes down when you subtract hits from within the building. Yet, we still don't have a database of all our popular movie reviews from the the past decade to help readers pick which DVD to order from Netflix. We still don't have accurate listings for restaurants and attractions in the area so users can plan a weekend outing. Heck, I can't even read a story if it was posted more than a week ago.

    We have a wealth of information that people want -- and, I'd venture, need. And we have the most experience telling stories that people care about. But still we don't allocate enough resources to make that information and those stories easily accessible.

    We need to recruit and promote more (younger?) journalists who grew up with Facebook and YouTube. (How many top editors at your paper are younger than 35?) We need to encourage the newsroom employees we have now to dare to try different things -- and reward them for doing so. We need to make better use of what little staff we have left -- even if it means killing off some of the traditionally sacred cows of the newspaper.

  7. Anonymous7:25 AM

    You point out two databases -- movie reviews and restaurant reviews -- that would be of great service and interest to readers.

    My MNI paper just put a teacher salary database online. Woo-hoo. This after the debacle of putting state worker salaries online, which cost us a good deal of paid circulation when pissed off folks dropped their subscriptions.

    How do we get top editors to understand that what people care about isn't just the nuts and bolts crime databases and salary databases -- but also the databases that usefully and imaginatively reflect how ordinary people live?

    The other thing I see is this: Top editors discover slide shows, so we all rush to that side of the deck to do slide shows, and the ship tilts. Then top editors discover blogs, so we all rush to yet another corner of the deck to do blogs, and the ship tilts in that direction. A week later, databases, and the ship tilts again.

    This would be why your reporters and editor sit and wait and do their jobs the way they've always known how. Latching onto the latest thought to cross Melanie's mind is a useless and potentially costly proposition. Because in another week, the ship will tilt again.

    This doesn't mean we're technologically adverse. It means we're fed up.

  8. Anonymous7:32 AM

    Glad you asked this question, Howard, because I spent the last three weeks of my vacation studying Web sites and new aps to see if I can figure out where our business is going.
    I have reached some preliminary conclusions:
    1. The social sites and aps are wonderful advances in technology, but do they really fit in our core business and should we rush to embrace them just because they are the flavor of the month. There is a Hula Hoop feel about a lot of this technology and a lot is a fad that will fast fade from interest (MySpace) as kids chase after some new killer ap that appears and replaces it. We are in the newspaper business, and were not created to be fads but a steady, constant voice.
    2. I saw a new IPhone, and it is marvelous. Do you know you can Etch-a-Sketch on it, and they offer more than 200 games, plus a radio connection? But I asked the store techie what the reception is like, and he responded: "It's fine. It's wireless." For a $200 phone, I would expect better than just fine. I wonder if all these bells and whistles we are adding are in that category of just fine?
    3. The New York Times Web site is the industry leader in looks, and ease to use. It is also the Web site that has the most usage and hits. It has one thing MNI Web sites need more of: news.
    4. I am going back to work Monday, and realize the three weeks I have spent have basically been lost time. Sure I went over a lot of new applications, but I didn't find one new program that would help me in my reporting job, and I didn't buy an IPhone. I find this technology like Chinese food: you feel fulled for a while, then realize you are still hungry. It is interesting, but it doesn't help me to report and it doesn't help me to write.

  9. Anonymous7:42 AM

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for No. 3 above.

    I've said it before and I'll say it again: Why don't we just copy the living shit out of NYT online and be done with reinventing the wheel with every damn MNI website?

    Every day, NYT has chats, slide shows, charts, blogs, special features -- for every section. I go straight to Opinion, and I can stay there for quite a while browsing through. Every day.

    Lots of people I know have NYT as their homepage. No one I know has an MNI site as the homepage. Why would they?

    The NYT site is attractive, easy to use, and it still looks like a newspaper. And yes, it still features the best writing and reporting around.

    Could we please learn from that?

    I think some of what that means is: Executive editors, get your egos the hell out of the way. You're not going to produce something better or more creative than the NYT site. Copy it, and stop kidding yourselves.

  10. Anonymous12:04 PM

    Just an observation: the only people here who have used a name or contact information are the "techies" that seem to be getting bashed quite a bit.

    Also, the "techies" of this generation are the same as the guys doing design on your desks and running the presses. We all need each other. Without reporters and good editors we have no content. Without the presses and the Web we have no delivery. Neither can survive on their own.

    This isn't a competition. It's supposed to be teamwork and constructive. For all the complaints here and the "why can't we just be the NYT," I'm curious to know how many of you Anonymous (please, could you at least all post under a different nickname so we can tell one from the other?) have actually gone to your Web crew and had a conversation with them. Not just a "you suck, why can't you do this," but a "hey, I saw this interesting thing and wanted to share it." We are excited about what we do, we'd love to share in your enthusiasm. And, believe it or not, many of us have prior newspaper or other publishing experience.

    Last time we did a redesign in Fresno I met with ALL of the newsroom departments (as well as advertising and marketing) and asked for ideas and thoughts about all types of Web sites. I got a few, incorporated as many as we could. But, I didn't get half as much feedback from the newsroom as I had hoped. And when you're battling the bloat that -30- mentioned above, designs can quickly get out of hand.

    Trust me, I'm no fan of pop-up ads. But I am a big fan of my paycheck. So finding the balance is difficult and important.

    As for databases we should have done a long time ago, I agree. I'd love to have a movies database that we could use to have both the national showing times and the local reviews in. However, this techie has been hamstrung by the tech and syndicates we currently have available. Plus the fact that we are just as tight on staffing as every other department.

    For recipes, we do have a good database here. Have you used it? We promoted the heck out of it online and a bit in print. Did you know it was there? When did you last add a recipe? Has your department made that a priority?

    I am constantly amazed by people who say "we really need this thing X." Then I show them where it's at. "Wow! I should read the Web site."

    Yes, yes you should.

    As for all the things on the NYT site. Cool! Let's do it. How many chats can I sign you up to lead a week? And when can you start posting multiple times a day on your blog? You are writing a blog, aren't you [We did take the time to set up a system so you could]? Can I get some more Flash designers? Can I match their online staffing levels?

    I think you'd be amazed at the level of geekcred at MI and with the techies at the affiliate level. And a lot of us participate on another site where code is shared and projects are discussed (write me if you want more information; it's for MI only, though).

    I'd love to have a conversation with anyone on this blog, but no longer want to engage with the Anonymous. If you're in Fresno, come catch me in my office near the conference room in the newsroom. Anyone else can reach me at or reach me on the phone. I'm happy to keep our conversations confidential, but I'd really like to know who I'm speaking with so we can get some ideas flowing and projects started.

  11. Anonymous10:18 PM

    jennifer, darlin the reason everyone else signs off as anonymous is because as you said MI is shorthanded (pathetically I might add) and unless you take a dump in gary or howard's front yard in broad daylight you'll have a job. and although management talks a good game they don't want to part with their money to beef up that side of the business. I think that's where the consternation comes from. IMHO

  12. Anonymous6:17 AM

    Well, that's not quite true. Its well known in Bee-land that among the layoffs at sacbee were three web programmers. They were seen as "duplicating" jobs at MI -- who also lost positions in the layoffs -- even though in the weeks that have followed it's become quite clear there was no duplication.

    In addition other newspapers reportedly lost people from their web staffs as well.

    What ever illusions web folks and non-web folks were under concerning job security were pretty much wiped out that day.

  13. Anonymous7:59 AM

    To the previous poster who said he was tired of the techies vs actual journalists theme -- sweetheart, you're posting on a thread about storytelling. You've got actual reporters, editors, critics, columnists and writers here. You want to strut around and be appreciated among the tech brotherhood, go back to McClatchyNext and talk to the geeks.

    The geek shall inherit the earth, if you ask the combined populace of McClatchyNext, and the rest of us are doomed.

    Same for Jennifer. You've got McClatchyNext if you want to talk to people who sign their names and speak all geek, all the time.

    Here, we've spent many long decades in MNI newsrooms, and we know the dangers of outing ourselves.

  14. Anonymous8:27 AM

    Jennifer and other geeks who are getting all defensive because we've pointed out this ain't the New York Times: when I say I want MNI sites to look like the Times website, I'm not talking about the bells and whistles.

    The New York Times site looks like a newspaper front page. Scroll down, and it still looks like a newspaper front page.

    MNI sites and most other newspaper sites look like dog vomit, with chunks of this and bits of that, nothing that makes sense together and very little identification with any newspaper whose front page you can quickly scan. Most don't even use their newspaper's masthead.

    I wish some brilliant MNI mind would explain to me the reasoning that went into the creation of the MNI sites long ago.

    Why did we decide that online sites should look nothing like the newspapers they pair with? Fast forward a decade, and we sit and wonder why online readers don't identify with our newspapers and newspaper readers don't identify with our online sites.

    How does that choice long ago make the slightest sense in terms of cohesive branding and corporate recognition?

    Stupid, stupid, stupid decision.

    Yet does any MNI site redesign make the damn thing look like a newspaper front page?

  15. Anonymous3:36 PM

    Jesus, this isn't geeks versus "writers" or "reporters" this is geeks versus goddamn Luddites. It's no wonder MNI is in the toilet. You're a laughing stock.

    As someone said, the "geeks" in MNI are at least trying. All you people seem to be doing sitting at your typewriters, shaking your fists at the thunder. It's pathetic.

    All this whining about mcclatchynext too, are you really so backwards to not realize that its content is entirely from the users?!? If you don't like the geeks there THEN ADD YOUR OWN DAMN PAGES.

    Or is that too hard for you? What you can't find a "geek" to turn on your computer for you? Hell, Howard even threw you a bone, he put up pages talking about good reporting. But did you take it? Nooo, it's easier to wallow in self pity, isn't it.

    MNI has a lot of things wrong with it, yes. Not the least of which is the lashing out from Luddites who are so damn afraid of change that they're like a drowning man pulling down his rescuer.

    You are so sad, but cheer up, know that you're providing loads of laughs to the rest of the world who now get a real glimpse into why MNI is in the toilet.


  16. Why did we decide that online sites should look nothing like the newspapers they pair with?

    From 1996 until about 2005, seemingly no one in the newsrooms, retail or national advertising or elsewhere outside of interactive wanted to take it the website(s) seriously. The websites were seen as active threats, tantamount to sedition and at the same time, "insignificant" and a distraction from "the real work." All the better if they weren't associated too closely with the paper itself.

    It was really only after the websites 1) failed to be the fad many folks presumed they would be, 2) built traffic and 3) made money that people outside the interactive groups outwardly appeared to take them seriously and started being interested in what the news sites looked like, where stories showed up, how many ad positions there were, etc.

    In that approximately nine year vacuum, sites branded themselves and built themselves with very little. We learned a few things about putting websites together. We experimented (and continue to experiment). We would like to share the benefit of our experience. Revered as gods? No, but recognized as hard working professionals given the same respect you want for your bylines.

    Are we perfect?

    No, and I don't think any of the "techies" or geeks or however you'd like to label us would claim perfection. There is much still to be learned. Large on that list is working as a team. If you feel McClatchyNext is a hopeless ghetto of geekdom, that is all it will be and it will be poorer for your absence. It is exactly what you choose to contribute, or not.

    Closing factoid: was registered and owned by a domain squatter. As I heard the story, prior to the site launch in 1996, darts were thrown at the back of Ralph Frattura's door for the naming honors. By the time the name _was_ acquired, sacbee had been a well-established brand.

  17. Anonymous7:22 AM

    Nathan, I always appreciate your thoughtfulness, and I appreciate you reminding us of the history here.

    You haven't really answered the question, though. The New York Times site always looked like it belonged to the newspaper.

    I totally remember how dismissive news executives were toward online operations. At SacBee, that attitude lasted through Rick Rodriguez' tenure, and it has crippled us.
    I venture to say that some of the problems now at the Bee are the result of the people he put in crucial positions who for some reason can't be dislodged with TNT. The AME, for example, knows less about tech stuff than I do. And that's not good.

    Even realizing all that, the question remains: Why don't MNI websites look like their newspapers now?

    And in terms of the techie vs journalist thing -- I don't see that attitude in the newsroom, I see it here.

  18. Anonymous8:45 AM

    I think this speaks to a detrimental leadership vacuum. There would be no tech vs. storyteller war if true leadership were in play. Good leadership would have had us rowing together years ago. Period. THIS IS FIRST AND LAST A LEADERSHIP FAILURE.

    Personally, this journalist from the print side marvels at what our way-too-tiny Web site staff is able to accomplish. I salute them. And I know they respect me (or either do a very good job of pretending to to my face).

    I wish I could get more involved with the Web site. But I:

    A) Have always met resistance from my supervisors in the past.

    B) I now have such a crushing workload because of a year of attrition and two rounds of buyouts and layoffs that McClatchy has now made it effectively impossible to get involved, even if the cultural barriers were eliminated overnight. There aren't enough hours in the day anymore.

  19. Anonymous9:14 AM

    Anon845 brings up an important point. Many of us in newsrooms have come up with ideas for online, only to be shot down repeatedly by upper management in the newsroom. One particular longtime section editor was brilliant and creative and was constantly spurring her staff to come up with new and interesting ideas both for print and online. So of course she was demoted a couple of months ago.

  20. Anonymous10:31 AM

    Anon 9:14. That's exactly what happened to me. I initiated numerous attempts to get involved online. Someone in management always shut me down. Every single time. I can't believe every single one of my ideas was a bad one. I finally gave up about eight months ago when my last idea was met with this response:


    First of all, I didn't NEED to look busy. I already was. Secondly, how utterly sad that's the games our supervisors are forced to play. I think my supervisor was genuinely concerned it would appear we had time on our hands if I pushed this project. Well, our staffing was taken away anyway, AND the idea got crushed. Again.

    Howard, ARE YOU LISTENING? We're not the malcontents you want to make us out to be. We're energetic, creative people who are just so frustrated at being told one thing when our day-to-day reality is completely different.

  21. Anonymous12:28 PM

    he's not listening. he has too many $1000 bills stuffed in his ears

  22. Anonymous7:45 AM

    He's not listening, but he should. Howard, in many cases, the management teams you've put into place in MNI newsrooms are exactly the problem. When someone beneath them comes along with new ways of doing things or new ideas, they're too easily threatened and too quick to shut down creativity to protect their own fiefdoms.

    This is the problem with top-down management as opposed to collaboration, an issue Jim Richardson has addressed several times on this blog.

    Howard will never know what any of us are talking about -- which papers, who these inept managers are. Because he won't ask. Because to talk to us individually would violate the chain of command that he's so completely invested in. (Because, hey, it's worked out for him.)

    So what happens is that a brilliant editor gets marginalized -- passed over for promotion, shuffled aside into another department -- and starts looking for work not only away from MNI but outside newspapers altogether.

    Big deal, right, Howard? So what? Editors come and go. Reporters are interchangeable. So why ask our opinion? And why ever question the top managers you've put into place?

    But sure, let's blog a little more about the importance of good storytelling and the fire on the bridge and the rains that will soak us.

  23. Anonymous2:01 PM

    this is a little off the subject but you wanna save some money? here is what the director of marketing does at the good ole Raleigh paper:

    Note from the marketing director on behalf of the Publisher:
    From now through the end of the summer (Friday, Aug. 29), it's OK to
    wear jeans to work on Fridays. Enjoy, and thank you for all you do.

    wow. how do I get THAT job?

  24. Anonymous7:22 AM

    You've got a dress code in Raleigh? Like in Catholic school, where the nuns will hit you with a ruler if you don't tuck your shirt in or the hem of your little plaid skirt is more than an inch above your knees? Seriously? The company is going to hell...but oh goody, jeans on Fridays! WTF.