It’s a word that echoes in newsrooms every day.
“Great story today.”
“Where’s that story? You’re 30 minutes late!”
“Boss, I need another day/week/month to finish that story.”
“Sheesh, how the heck did that story get on the front page? (This always refers to another journalist’s work.)
And the old standby: “Story at 11.”
We call them stories, but most of what appears in print, online, and broadcast are articles or reports, says writing teacher Jack Hart.
Here’s an example from The Guardian about the Feb. 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine:
Fierce fighting broke out in Kyiv as Russian forces tried to push their way towards the city centre from multiple directions in the early hours of Saturday, and as the Ukrainian president, Volodomyr Zelenskiy, bluntly rejected a US offer to evacuate him from the country’s capital.
Articles present information about an accident, a public meeting, a speech, a contested Presidential election, or even a war. They’re a convenient way to convey information in a clear, concise, accurate fashion.
But please, let’s not confuse them with stories.
A story features characters rather than sources and communicates experience through the five senses and a few others: place, time and, most all drama.
It has a beginning that grabs a reader’s attention, a middle that keeps the reader engaged and an ending that lingers. Scenes peppered with dialogue and a distinct narrative voice drive the action.
Here’s how Mitchell S. Jackson opened “Twelve Seconds and a Life,” his Runner’s World story about the murder of Ahmad Arbery, a Black man, by three white men in 2020 while jogging through their suburban Georgia neigbhorhhod.
Imagine young Ahmaud “Maud” Arbery, a junior varsity scatback turned undersized varsity linebacker on a practice field of the Brunswick High Pirates. The head coach has divided the squad into offense and defense and has his offense running the plays of their next opponent. The coach, as is his habit, has been taunting his defense. “Y’all ain’t ready,” he says. “You can’t stop us,” he says. “What y’all gone do?” The next play, Maud, all 5 feet 10 inches and 165 pounds of him, bursts between blockers and—BOOM!—lays a hit that makes the sound of cars crashing, that echoes across the field and into the stands, that just might reach the locker room. It’s a feat that teenage Maud also intends as a message to his coaches, his teammates, and all else that ain’t hitherto hipped: Don’t test my heart. Some of those teammates smash their fist to their mouth and oooh. Others slap one another’s pads and point. An assistant coach winces and runs to the aid of the tackled teammate. And the head coach, well, he trumpets his whistle. “Why’d you hit him like that?” he hollers. “Save that for Friday. Let’s see you do that on Friday.”
Jackson’s story won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize and a National Magazine Award for feature writing.
Journalists must be able to write articles and stories. Each has their own challenges. Articles compress events and focus on newsworthy elements. Stories connect us with the universals of the human condition. They matter because they transport us to different worlds that reveal the personal and emotional realities behind the news.
Articles have their place, but late at night, your child will never say, “I can’t sleep. Tell me an article, Daddy!”
No, they beg to be lulled into slumber by a story.
Instead, in much of news writing, we provide few if any of these.
Instead of settings, we give readers an address.
Instead of characters, we give people stick figures: “Goldilocks, 7, of 5624 Sylvan Way.”
Instead of suspense, we give away the ending at the beginning using the inverted pyramid, the form which presents newsworthy elements in descending order and peters out at the end.
The challenge for today’s journalists is to write stories, as Joel Rawson, former editor of The Providence Journal, described it, that reveal the “joys and costs of being human.”
• Newspapers are full of stories waiting to be told. Police briefs, classified ads, obituaries, the last two paragraphs of a city council brief; all may hold the promise of a dramatic story. Mine your paper for story ideas.
• Find the extraordinary in the ordinary stuff of life: graduations, reunions, burials, buying a car, putting Mom in a nursing home, or the day Dad comes to live with his children.
• Change your point of view. Write the City Council council story through the eyes of the Asian-American who asks for better police protection in his neighborhood.
• Look for ways to drop storytelling features in your daily articles: a description, a scene, a snatch of dialogue.