Storytelling in social spaces has several characteristics which need to be considered. Where once stories were produced with a single output they are now built from a range of multimedia multi-voice elements. The founding skills of a journalist’s work are as important as ever and authors have given much attention to the building blocks of journalism practice (Randall 2011, Harcup 2009; McKane 2006; Hennessy 2006; Phillips 2007; Hicks 2008, Boyd et al 2008).
But social media adds another dimension, another value – and one which journalists must grasp if they are to survive in the new media landscape. This forthcoming section in my book Social Media for Journalists sets out the five I's of social media storytelling which embrace the iterative non-linear nature of content creation.
I would be really grateful of any feedback.This chapter is set to follow one on 'sourcing stories' and before one on 'distributing stories' so is very much just on how to make or do news...
It’s essential to conceptualise the infrastructure of journalism as a process not a product. The flow of sourcing, making and distributing content is so fluid as to blur many of the boundaries once accepted as start points in storytelling. You are dealing with non-linear consumption. Put simply, that means you cannot presume a starting point for your audience nor their needs in terms of what they want from that storytelling experience. Users have to be allowed to consume as much or as little as they like; to begin where they want and to discover the parts they consider to have value. And each piece of content has its own unique journey around the web.
However there is still a heart, a trigger, a top line. Whether it’s analysis, breaking news, comment or colour, there will always be a reason why you are talking about something now. This is known as the peg. And your writing will often include some if not all of the classic who, what, where, when, how and why questions.
All this has an impact on the way stories are built. Journalists increasingly have to think about a story in modules. This news story for the BBC is typical of a module approach to story telling.
Headlined ‘Fresh talks in Greece as fears of euro exit grow’, it is built with 30 short paragraphs, a 21-word introduction, hyperlinks, an image with picture caption, four links to background articles in a panel box, subheadings, a framed analysis piece with headshot, a graphic of election results and a sign off series of ‘more’ reading.
In building this story, the journalist has made decisions about how to layer or chunk the content. They have considered in which ways to best tell the five Ws. There is the trigger (in this case the fresh talks) and then the journey of explaining that story by constructing and combining from the grassroots with follow-ups and backgrounders, analysis and commentary. The who may be a profile or picture story; the what may be quotes, polls, timelines, interviews, links to documents, pictures; the where might be a graphic or map; the when may be a calendar, curated feed or bulletpoints; the how might be analysis, interactivity, a shorter explainer. This process is likely to be highly collaborative across departments and teams as well as users.
Talk to any journalist and they will express the need to constantly negotiate the environment of being right or being fast. There is a pressure from always-on reporting that you want to inform and connect as quickly as possible. Think of the sinking of the Concordia in January 2012 off the coast of Giglio: pictures were distributed as it was sinking where you would have had to wait hours for them in the past. Yet accuracy can not be compromised for speed. ‘Journalists of the future have to be faster than the ones we have now but just as reliable.’ (Blackhurst intv march 2012)
If you are posting to social networks to inform or crowdsource, but are unsure of verification, then say so. NPR journalist Andy Carvin has built a reputation for doing just that. It may be that verification is the raison d’etre for the output, as with a Google map created by a team at The Guardian to highlight verified and unverified areas affected by riots in the UK in August 2012. If your intent is to produce an objective journalistic output make sure it is balanced.
Accuracy is non-negotiable. In larger organisations there is scope for teams to edit and revise content. However most journalists write directly into templates, and the existence of sub editors for checking and editing is becoming increasingly rare. Be sure to preview or reread everything you produce before you press upload or send. In a matter of seconds that content may have been redistributed – and it’s not always possible to backtrack. Check spelling, grammar or punctuation as well as the keywords and tags. Be mindful of the legal or ethical implications (discussed in chapter XX) and make sure you have attributed where necessary.
It’s essential to acknowledge that audiences want different experiences from storytelling. Some people are looking for a full immersion complemented by an ever-increasing sophistication of tablets and rich media. Others want the surface news fast. As such, understanding target audience needs is crucial to ‘do’ journalism effectively. On what device is this story likely to be consumed? Do you want to stimulate debate and reaction? Is your content aimed at the rush-hour commuter or to afford someone leisure reading?
Delivering an immersive news experience is likely to involve a different combination of infrastructure: more links, rich media, graphics, interactivity. The vocabulary, phrasing or length of your package will also change because of the time dedicated to it. Readers and viewers may also want to be active rather than passive They may be expecting to participate, comment or discuss ideas so address them accordingly. They may be happy to offer footage or an image from the ground, and want to be acknowledged. Understand what user generated content is and how it affects how you produce stories.
Other people want to read and go. These are the people who haven’t got time to decipher or battle with puns and heavy going prose. You also read much more slowly online as the screen resolution is lower than print. Clear, unambiguous headlines help users decide quickly if content is relevant to them. Think function over fluff. Introductions may be the only sentence users skim if they have come to the story from a reader or aggregator.
Interactivity is ubiquitous to social storytelling. It is an acceptance of journalism as a two-way process. How you interact with the audience will depend, but nteractivity is open to you at every turn: surveys, polls and questionnaires, rating tools, comments and feedback, asking for story ideas on Facebook, responding to comments on stories or blog posts, replying and promoting other people’s tweets, delivering a service and user experience, producing for two and three screeners. It’s second nature for producers to cite activity on social networks and drive users seamlessly between platforms. And it is not just interactivity for editorial: the advertising campaign for the film Prometheus was the first to combine nearly-live tweets in a commercial.
Interest in your content is expressed in many different ways, but here we are thinking hits. Consider how users are going to find your story from social media or search and how to adapt your writing and production accordingly. Stories are also rated through web analytics. The onus is on journalists to understand how to drive search and social traffic by optimizing their articles with key words, and allowing them to be readily shared and recommended on social services such as Digg, Twitter or Facebook.
Keywords are specific words or phrases which best sum up your content. They need to be used in headlines, picture captions, subheadings and the introduction. Think about what a reader would be searching for with which words, and remember that an online or mobile audience is a global one. Don’t be scared of repetition or using a colon. For example, a headline which says ‘Greece debt crisis: Far left Syriza pulls out of talks’ has keywords and information but ‘Papoulias fears future’ will be lower down in the results because it is vague and relies on remembering his name.
Tagging is the technique for categorising content with keywords. Most blogs, social bookmarking and networking sites or content management systems will let you add keyword tags. These help you, and others order and sort content in a way that suits you. It helps to deliver content effectively across emails, mobile, social networks and search. Categories tend to be broad topics such as Greece, eurozone or economy but tags would be specific subsets within this such as key people, places, dates or organisations. Hashtags are a crucial part of the Twitter ecology as it creates a link around a group of threads and themes such as #greece, #euro and #eurozone.