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From AJR,   August/September 2005  issue

I'll Be Brief   

In a world of tight newsholes, no-jump edicts and time-starved readers, newspapers are turning to short-form narratives in an effort to bring heightened creativity to small spaces

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By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

Diane Tennant's 112-word front-page story came about because of a challenge between reporters, a newsroom dare over who could write the shortest story, who could write a story all in dialogue, who could write about an inanimate object.

That's how Tennant, of Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot, found herself at a local park one day scouting for stones and boulders. She was hoping to discover "a large rock that fishermen stood on, that kids jumped off of, that teenagers kissed on," or something like that, when she came across a more moving inspiration.

Here in full is her one-sentence A1 story:

Know that a tree was planted for a soldier who died in World War I giving his all; that his name lived on for years after, because a little plaque by the tree gave it out; that even after people stopped remembering who James Lynch was and why he gave his life on Aug. 28, 1917, that his tree kept growing in Portsmouth City Park; that his selfless gift "for God and country" has been accepted as a quiet challenge of remembrance by the tree; and that what it gives of itself is a vow that life cannot and will not be stopped but must go on and on and on:

Acorns.

It's a tight-newshole world these days, but leave it to writers to find ways to be clever in cramped quarters. And increasingly editors are spurring them on. Alarmed by reader defections, wounded by being branded as boring and limited by no-jump edicts and a sound-bite mentality, newspapers are hustling with renewed ferocity to bring greater creativity to shorter spaces.

Zipping through newsrooms are catchphrases like "container stories" (which contain themselves to the section front) and "short-form narrative" (storytelling produced in a day or two rather than weeks or months). A columnist won a Pulitzer Prize this year for a range of vignette-filled small masterpieces. Even the venerable Associated Press has volunteered daily "optional leads" on selected top stories, combining narrative style with wire service punch.

"The state of journalism is becoming more precarious," Tennant says. "In the drive for readership and subscribers, it is not just corporate people who worry. Writers care too. The writers want to give people something new. And speaking for myself, it keeps me amused."

Not only amused, but increasingly valued and rewarded with good play. While it remains true that newsroom accolades still attach more to mega-projects than mini-tales, short pieces can amass their own recognition and status. Tennant's 112-worder, for example, appeared as part of a front-page Sunday Spotlight series intended "to provide readers a break from all the bad news."

The American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors' writing contest includes a "short feature" category, limiting entries to 1,000 words. This year it drew 182 submissions. Subjects included a love affair between a chocolate Lab and a Canada goose; why we dream we're naked; and a woman who delivered her own baby in the front seat of a Chevy Tahoe.

"Editors and writers both are getting the message that shorter stories can be just as good," says Diane Cowen, the Houston Chronicle's deputy features editor, who chaired the feature-writing contest. "They can make you laugh; they can make you cry. They can inspire just as much as a long story. And they probably get better readership."

Readership worries definitely are helping drive the trend toward daily storytelling. Research by Northwestern University's closely watched Readership Institute has found "strong evidence that an increase in the amount of feature-style stories has wide-ranging benefits." A more narrative approach to both news and features, the institute said, can raise reader interest, especially among women, in topics from politics to sports to science. "Newspapers that run more feature-style stories are seen as more honest, fun, neighborly, intelligent, 'in the know' and more in touch with the values of readers," it said. (See "Why Do People Read Newspapers?" December 2003/January 2004.)

Jack Hart, a managing editor for Portland's Oregonian and a nationally known teacher of narrative writing, says his paper and others have "taken the Readership Institute findings to heart. Clearly, they were calling for more narrative writing in the context of daily coverage."

Hart, for example, has conducted several workshops in his paper's newsroom and bureaus, stressing how narrative techniques can be used on one-day stories. Oregonian Editor Sandy Rowe, in a note to the staff, said, "We'd like that kind of story to become a regular feature of our daily report...We know these stories connect with readers."

One that connected was Joseph Rose's rollicking play-by-play of the fight over a giant doughnut at Voodoo Doughnut and Wedding Chapel, a funky 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. Portland nightspot. Rose's story, which got front-page play, chronicled how enraged customers fought back when a thief tried to steal the shop's "sacred" symbol, a 5-foot-wide plastic doughnut hanging on the wall:

The man was halfway through the door when some customers hooked their arms through the doughnut hole and pulled. The thief tugged from the sidewalk outside. The customers wouldn't relent. One threw a cup of chocolate milk in the thief's face. Chunks of doughnut foam broke away and fell to the ground.

Eventually, the thief released the giant doughnut and ran.

But customers chased him down and cornered him as police closed in. It was, Rose said later, a cop reporter's gold strike, "a battle of good and evil on this busy street corner in the middle of the night, involving a giant doughnut.. in the seedy underbelly of the city."

"What a hoot, Joe. You're terrific!" one reader e-mailed Rose. Another exclaimed, "You are the God of rock 'n' roll cop stories, man."

Telling quirky cop stories isn't anything new, of course. For decades newspapers have produced powerful smaller pieces, from police shorts to brites, from 750-word human interest columns to poignant obituaries. Ashley Halsey, an associate metro editor heading an effort to produce more innovative daily stories for the Washington Post, turns for inspiration to a collection of cop stories written by his father in the 1930s. They're hard-boiled tales about a schoolboy killed in a fight after he was called "yellow," a police officer shot after he let a waitress play with his pistol, and a man named Roy Lady who was "no lady, to begin with" and "no gentleman, either" after he spanked a neighbor's child with a shovel.

What's new is not the idea of short articles so much as a reinvigorated drive to spice up the daily paper with better storytelling of all kinds, including short pieces on front pages.

Halsey, who says that in eight years at the Post he has edited 82 front-page stories of more than 70 inches, thinks newspapers have drifted away from pithy narratives. Returning to them, he believes, will help catch "the uncommitted reader the reader who did not intend to read your story."

So "short-form narrative," as it is often called, is turning into a hot newsroom art form, winning attention from some of the biggest feet in literary journalism, from the Oregonian's Hart to two-time Pulitzer winner Jon Franklin to author Walt Harrington, head of the journalism program at the University of Illinois.

Hart defines the genre as a story produced in one news cycle. He teaches writers that shorter narratives need the same drama as longer pieces but often have fewer characters, fewer scenes and a shorter time span. "It only takes three details to establish a scene in the reader's mind, if you select them astutely," Hart says.

Harrington quotes a colleague's phrase--the "tone poem"--and calls it "a little slice of a piece that doesn't promise a whole lot and as a result delivers well on what it does promise."

Such stories need action, and they benefit from a tight focus and a narrow point of view, he teaches. For example, given a daily assignment to report on the new teacher of the year, a reporter might spend a few hours in the winner's classroom, applying the scene, action and dialogue there to one key question: What does it take to be an excellent teacher?

"You have to reconcile yourself to the fact that you are evoking a moment," Harrington says. "You are taking a snapshot."

Franklin, who teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, runs an online listserve called WriterL in which short (and long) narratives are regularly dissected and techniques shared.

"One of the secrets is taking it seriously," Franklin wrote in one post. "Too many reporters, given a feature to write, go into a sort of fluff, cutesy mode... A guy who's trying to win a teddy bear for his girl at the local fair is a serious matter for the guy... The story of the guy who ran 17th in the local primary with .003 percent of the vote can speak volumes about how we deal with loss and, perhaps, self-deception."

Short stories, these gurus maintain, don't have to equate to dumbing down, oversimplifying or trivializing. They don't have to be journalism lite. They can have depth and power. "It is like the difference between a short poem and an epic poem," Harrington explains. "It can deliver so much in terms of connecting with readers... You have to decide what the story is really about. Then you have to drive toward that meaning."

One writer who has soaked up advice from Jon Franklin and others is columnist Connie Schultz of Cleveland's Plain Dealer, winner of this year's Pulitzer for commentary (see The Beat, June/July). Schultz is a former projects writer who once produced a 26-day series. Now she writes a 16.6-inch column two days a week.

She likes to narrow her focus by asking, "Whose eyes can I use to tell this story through?" One column began, "Jeff Williams sat a few feet away from his 14-year-old son's open casket on Monday and talked about saving other children's lives."

Another Schultz column featured a powerful piece of personal observation. Stranded at an airport, upset over a scheduling snafu, Schultz noticed an older woman with very short hair.

"Cancer," I thought. "She's just finished chemo."

Then I noticed the little granddaughter tugging on her hand. The woman leaned down and chatted with her, nose-to-nose. The child's parents watched. The father smiled, but the young mother dabbed at her eyes. The grandfather hovered, took a few noticeably deep breaths, then laid a hand on the woman's bent back. When she stood up, she too wiped her eyes, and he looked away for a moment, sucking in air.

I wanted to look away, too, but there they were, right in front of me, a small family reunited for a while but now saying goodbye--to how much, they didn't yet know...

The woman stood and watched her family... Every time the little girl looked back, the woman waved and made a grandmother face... When they disappeared, the woman surrendered. She lowered her head for a moment and didn't bother reaching up for the tears that fell.

To Ken Fuson, a much-honored Des Moines Register writer, a key lesson is that "the same tools are used in the shorter pieces as in the longer ones--except that you use one anecdote instead of five."

Fuson has written his share of projects but also enjoys the shorter stories. In the year 2000, for instance, he wrote "A Year of Firsts," weekly 25-inch stories about people doing things for the first time, including a police officer's first night on the beat, a girl's first Easter dress and a boy's first pheasant-hunting trip.

His advice: "Find the person who has the most at stake and who gives you a sense of drama," such as the spelling bee contestant from a town with a reputation for producing winners. "I try to really narrow the focus to what does this person want and are they going to get it," Fuson says. "Are they going to win the game or get the award or give the speech without passing out?"

Before Election Day last year, Fuson produced a page-one piece on "20 reasons why you should vote."

1. Because you're for somebody.

2. Because you're against somebody...

20. Because of United Airlines Flight 93. An amazing thing happened on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, on that hijacked airplane... With their lives at stake, with their country facing peril, these 33 men and women of diverse backgrounds did a most American thing: They took a vote. They decided to rush the cockpit. And a plane that might have destroyed the White House or U.S. Capitol crashed instead in a Pennsylvania field.

Obviously, these pieces are not just ordinary long stories trimmed to fit tighter holes. They have a tone, sometimes even an edge, distinct from the conventional straitlaced newspaperspeak. To produce them, writers need confidence, and, more than anything else perhaps, supportive editors.

"The single most important thing to achieve in generating the quality short narrative is having editors who understand it and talk it to reporters at the front end," says the Washington Post's Halsey. "And then you have to see that the story gets the play it deserves."

Even today, play can be a problem.

Stuart Warner, who is Connie Schultz's editor and the deputy features editor/ writing coach in Cleveland, says, "As long as you keep it in features, there is no problem. Getting into news, there is almost this wall. It just mystifies me why there is so much opposition. We wring our hands about circulation going down and young people not reading. But we know they love stories."

Crafty creatures that they are, writers and editors see declining readership as a chance to push for innovation. "You sneak it in," says Schultz. "You make it so tight and so well done that the editor who never thought he wanted to see narrative in a cop story says, 'Oh.' You never give up. I always wanted to be the writer they said no to rather than the writer who gave up."

Maria Carrillo, the Virginian-Pilot deputy managing editor for enterprise and longtime "narrative team" leader, sees the problem ("the big, honkin' project is still what wins awards") and agrees on the solution: quality. "There has to be a tale to tell," says Carrillo. "There has to be a reason to take a journey, even if it's a short journey."

One top editor and fervent convert is Earl Maucker, editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. In May, his paper overhauled its front page, devoting a third of the space to digest items and encouraging editors to offer no-jump stories.

Maucker called on the paper's marketing department to distribute to the newsroom research it had gathered from local content studies and focus group results as well as research from the Readership Institute. Then he and his news staff acted.

"What we're trying to do is move quickly," Maucker says. "What can we do with existing resources and existing staff to identify these readership trends and then go make something happen?"

So the Sun-Sentinel front page now features bite-size stories on topics such as the chances that a hurricane will strike this season or workers calling in sick when a blockbuster movie premieres. Maucker wrote a Sunday column explaining the changes to readers. "We're just trying to provide a more useful newspaper," he wrote. "In this 24-hour-a-day news cycle, newspapers must deliver something extra."

But in an interview, Maucker added something else: "I want to encourage the staff to think creatively and have a little fun with the paper."

It was a point reinforced by Norfolk's Diane Tennant and several others. A touch of playfulness and experimentation makes writing more enjoyable. And when the people producing the paper are having fun, their delight may well come across to readers. Take the following two-sentence item from the Washington Post. The Post, it's fair to say, is associated more with the epic than the sonnet. But someone was clearly having fun with this item:

A very upset caller told animal control that she could see a baby bear sitting on a nearby roof. Responding officers determined that she was actually looking at an oddly shaped satellite dish, which they agreed could easily be mistaken for a baby bear.

It is a tale of urban life in a brisk 44 words. But it may not be the ultimate in brevity. "The challenge for a one-word story," says Tennant, "is still open."