Charticle Fever  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October/November 2008

Charticle Fever   

Bite-sized combinations of words, images and graphics called charticles are in vogue at a number of American newspapers. And they are not necessarily the enemy of compelling narrative.

By Dane Stickney
     


Josh Awtry is known as a story killer.

Because of his steadfast support for the short, graphic-driven alternate story form known as the "charticle," some traditionalist reporters and editors have labeled the Salt Lake Tribune assistant managing editor of online and presentation an enemy of the narrative.

A few months ago, a story-hugging editor cornered Awtry, accusing him of trying to turn the whole newspaper into one giant graphic.

"I'm not out to destroy narrative," Awtry replied. "Just bad narrative."

For decades, news organizations have been seeking ways to stem the steady decline of newspaper circulation and woo those elusive 18-to-35 year-olds who are likely to get their news free on the Internet. Well, here's an equation that editors and designers in newsrooms ranging from small dailies in Oregon to major metros in Florida are increasingly turning to: Chart + article = charticle. (Think Brad + Angelina = Brangelina, but not nearly as hot and quite a bit geekier.)

Charticles--as defined by Omaha World-Herald Deputy Presentation Editor Josh Crutchmer--are combinations of text, images and graphics that take the place of a full article. But in many newsrooms, the term refers to a bunch of blurbs floating around with no byline, no transitions and--gasp!--no nut graph.

Say you've been asked to write a story about what people were doing with their federal rebates aimed at stimulating the flagging economy. You go out and find one person who's going to spend it on a new hi-def TV, another who's going to stick it in the bank and another who's going to try to cut that $3,000 credit card debt in half. Sure, you could think up a snappy lead, mix in some quotes from economic experts and write a nice little 12-inch story. Or you could try another approach. You assign photographers to take nice portraits of the sources. You put their personal information in an easy-to-digest form--name, age, job, what they're doing with the money, maybe a quote or an expert's opinion on what these people have chosen to do. Boom. You're done. You've got three local faces staring back at you. The entire package--probably laid out in a grid format is quick to read and easy to digest.

At papers including the Salt Lake Tribune, Omaha World-Herald (where I work), Florida Times Union, St. Petersburg Times and Orlando Sentinel, charticles are all the rage. The merger of graphics and text also occasionally pop up on the pages of dozens of other dailies, from the 9,000-circulation Daily Astorian in Oregon to larger papers like the 200,000-circulation San Jose Mercury News. The form allows more design freedom, helps offset heavy public-policy coverage and makes design contest judges smile.

But, as always, there's a catch. Charticles rely on authoritative, punchy writing, leaving room for opinion to seep in. And when news and opinion mix under a reporter's byline, well, you see where that could lead. Because the writing needs to be so succinct and the approach is design-intensive, a lot of people are involved in the evolution of a charticle. That can leave reporters writing to an editor's idea instead of letting their reporting lead the way.

Whatever its pluses and minuses, though, the charticle is causing editors, reporters and designers to examine how they tell stories.

It's unclear exactly how the charticle was born. If you find yourself bellied up to a bar with a bunch of hardcore page designers and want to start a ruckus, ask them who invented the charticle. You're apt to get a bunch of different--and fervently held--opinions.

Some say Van McKenzie, the late sports editor at the Orlando Sentinel and St. Petersburg Times, pioneered the marriage of graphics and text in the 1970s.

Others theorize that Edward Tufte, the Yale University design professor emeritus whom the New York Times described as the "da Vinci of data," is behind the charticle. But Tufte says he's not the guy. He says he didn't coin that "awful word 'charticle'" and certainly didn't come up with the idea. He has, however, written a lot about it. In his book "Beautiful Evidence," he contends the practice has been around forever and segregating words and images started with modern technology that can handle either pictures or words but not both.

Awtry agrees with Tufte on both counts. Illuminated manuscripts stretching as far back as 400 AD featured what would be labeled today as at-a-glance boxes. Mayan temples constructed 1,500 years ago featured calendars of events in grid form. But it's hard to present information that way on your basic personal computer.

"Have you ever tried to do an alt form in [Microsoft] Word? Not gonna happen," Awtry says. "Newspaper front-end systems allow you to start a story under a byline, write it and file it when you reach the end. Even the most progressive of systems won't let you do anything more than add a glance box."

So it was up to designers to take the text out of its traditional form and present it in a more accessible way. People like McKenzie, Tim Harrower of Portland's Oregonian and the graphics addicts at USA Today did just that.

But the word "charticle" has only been buzzing around newsrooms for less than a decade ago. One of the earliest designers to use the term was Monica Moses, a progressive visual journalism star who helped raise the profile of alternate story forms in the late 1990s and early 2000s at the Charlotte Observer, Minneapolis' Star Tribune and the Poynter Institute.

Moses remembers hearing the mashed-up term while judging a design contest in the early 2000s. The staff of Texas Monthly described their mergers of visuals and text as charticles. Many designers credit magazines--like Wired, with its use of edgy info blurbs, and Maxim, which wraps some features around pictures of near-naked women --as inspiration for newspaper charticles.

Moses liked the Texas Monthly term and used it as inspiration for the development of a more reader-friendly presentation. She pushed the charticle not only as a replacement for boring, info-heavy narratives, but also as companions to in-depth pieces. People are much more likely to read an 80-inch story if they're given a brief, easy-to-understand primer before diving in, Moses says.

Poynter's EyeTrack07 study backs her up. It found that alternative story forms like charticles did a better job of catching readers' attention than traditional narratives. The pairing of short text with visual elements also helped readers better remember facts, according to the study.

Anecdotal evidence of the charticle's impact varies from paper to paper. Patrick Webb, managing editor of the Daily Astorian in Oregon, has recently run four or five charticles in his newspaper. Topics included child care shortages, fishing and competition between area hospitals, some of which ran as the main story on the front page. "Every one has prompted unsolicited reader comments that say, 'I like the way you explained that,' " Webb says.

The San Jose Mercury News uses charticles sparingly, often in its business section for such topics as holiday shopping and events that require a lot of data but not much storytelling. The staff buzzes about them more than readers, Managing Editor David Satterfield says. "I'd say we've really had no reader response- either positive or negative," he says. "But folks here [in the newsroom] enjoy them."

The Times in Shreveport, Louisiana, recently set up a newsroom committee charged with getting more charticles and other alternative story forms into the paper, Executive Editor Alan English says. The staff is still determining when it's best to use the form and how to free up designers to create charticles. But top editors have asked each reporter to propose one charticle-like story each week. "We are exploring these new forms more seriously to be an easier and better read for baby boomers with busy lifestyles," English says.

The charticle is perfect for those busy readers, says Julie Wright, managing editor of the Anchorage Daily News. "Newspapers are at their best and most memorable when they tell stories with people, conflict, drama, action," she says. "But a lot of what we give readers doesn't have those elements; it's essentially imparting information. Alternative story forms are great for imparting information as opposed to telling a story: What hours is downtown parking free, how much rain have we had this summer, how much have grocery prices risen, what are the 10 best summer reads?"

The leaders at Minneapolis' Star Tribune, early believers in alternative forms, hired Moses in 2002. Eventually, the paper embraced her ideas to the point that it covered a major gubernatorial address in charticle form.

Things changed when McClatchy sold the Star Tribune to Avista Capital Partners in December 2006. Moses, who had moved to the business side of the paper, quit a few months later and now works as a consultant. She's noticed her old newspaper hasn't run as many charticles since she left.

About a year later and nearly 1,200 miles away, another editor who worked with charticles resigned as well. But Choire Sicha quit his job in protest of the form that Moses embraced. Sicha publicly blasted the charticle in January after resigning as managing editor of the news-gossip Web site Gawker. Owner Nick Denton had recently expressed his desire to keep much of the site's content--often presented in charticles, top 10 lists and other alt forms--to between 100 and 200 words.

That didn't sit well with Sicha, who told the New York Times, "I don't want to write a top 10 list in my life, ever. I don't want to construct a charticle."

Sicha indeed is not forming lists and charts now: He writes for Radar Online and freelances for the Los Angeles Times. "Obviously the charticle is useful in that it consolidates information," he says. "A charticle makes it pleasant to read without, you know, all those awful words in the way."

However, Sicha isn't convinced newspapers are reacting to their readers' desire for easier-to-read presentation. Instead, he thinks newspapers may have in fact changed the way people read by force-feeding them easy-to-digest information.

"It seems to me that the short attention span of the reader has become a self-fulfilling thing. USA Today made the reader what he is," Sicha says. Publications have become "an experience of looking, not of reading. And so nearly every publication looks like US Weekly and Cosmo: numbers in huge type, pictures, polls. Databits. Postliterate!"

Sicha doesn't see that changing, because many designers and editors misguidedly, in his view--don't think people want to read traditional newspapers. "They doubt themselves too much," he says. "Many have become cowards."

He sees editors and designers over-thinking and getting too cute. They are dreaming up what he calls "half-baked" charticle ideas, sending staffers out to report them and having designers make them look pretty. "Charticles are in that way anti-journalistic," Sicha says.

The potential problems don't end with editors and designers. Not only is there the risk of reporters injecting opinion, there's also the risk that they will kiss them off. Moses, Awtry and Crutchmer noticed that reporters often approached charticles with lower standards than they did traditional pieces. Because they are not stories and contain less text, some journalists seem to believe they don't require the same level of reporting and attention to detail that narratives do.

Actually, they may require more. In narratives, reporters can cover up holes with flowery writing or storytelling devices. Charticles don't allow that luxury. They're straightforward and simple. If you don't have the goods, it shows.

The best writers--the ones who often aren't asked to write alternate forms because they're too busy with "real" stories--are the ones who tend to do the best job with charticles, says Awtry, the Salt Lake designer. "Good writers get it," he says. "They know when a story needs to be told--to write with authority, sure, but also with emotion, impact and subtle weaving of narrative and chronology. They also know when to get out of the way. They don't have any desire to write subpar stories or feel the need to try and weave a weather story into a narrative. They'd rather be clean, kick it out the door and move on to something riveting."

Crutchmer, whose charticle ideas have helped the Omaha World-Herald win two Society of News Design Awards of Excellence, does see a battle of story forms emerging, a sort of survival of the most readable. And he foresees a victim: "I hope charticles kill the 12-inch story."

In Crutchmer's view, readers want one of two things. They want to get their need-to-know info quickly and in an understandable way. Charticles can handle that. But readers also want to be told stories in longer, captivating ways, in compelling traditional narratives. What they don't want are medium-length, inverted-pyramid reports. Crutchmer sees newspapers becoming more like magazines--a combination of short, graphic-heavy blurbs and well-written long-form stories.

So are Crutchmer, Awtry and their beloved charticles actually preserving the narrative? Perhaps they are promoting a way for the best writers to quickly get through the mundane news items and spend more time with the stories that need to be told with scene-setting leads, drama and character development.

Some journalists--like Choire Sicha and that editor who cornered Awtry--might have trouble buying that. Awtry doesn't much care.

"There's a place in our industry for a bigger toolbox," he says. "There's a place for the long, compelling story that evokes emotion, incites passion and fuels reaction. And there's also a place for self-selecting information--a place where I can glance, pick what I want and get out."

Dane Stickney (dstickn1@gmail.com) is a features writer at the Omaha World-Herald, where he writes 40-inch narratives about aged calligraphers and four-inch charticles on "American Idol" contestants.

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