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Alternative Story Forms ‘Secondary readings’ move from being extras to being the essence of the story B y

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he Gannett newspaper company calls them charticles. The Austin American-Statesman in Texas calls them storytelling devices. Newspapers such as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Florida Times-Union and The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., call them alternative story forms. Whatever the name, editors and writers at newspapers throughout the nation are experimenting with ways to convey information and to reach readers. And research finds these experiments are working. Consider this article a guide to alternative story forms — what they are, what they do and how your staff can do them. Train your students to think about new possibilities. Brainstorm about effective communication and how to present content in creative and visually appealing ways. Winter 2007

Communication: Journalism Education Today • 5


Joseph Pulitzer A HungarianAmerican publisher best known for posthumously establishing the Pulitzer Prizes and (along with William Randolph Hearst) for originating yellow journalism.

Today, Sept. 19 1995 Unabomber manifesto published 1881 President Garfield succumbs to shooting wounds 1893 New Zealand first in women’s vote 1955 Peron deposed in Argentina

FAST-FACT BOX Brief profiles of people, places, products or organizations, itemized by key characteristics.

BIO BOX A series of names, tips, components, previous events — any categories that add context to a story.

Famous journalists • Elijah Lovejoy, 1802-1837 • Margaret Fuller, 1810-1850 • Mathew Brady, c. 1823-1896 • Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910 • Jacob Riis, 1849-1914 • H. L. Mencken, 1880-1956 • Walter Winchell, 1897-1972

LIST Lists can be of just about anything: names, dates, facts. They can be ordered (numbered) or unordered (bulleted).

Type terminology Apex – point at the top of a character where two strokes meet (e.g., the top of the A) Arm – horizontal stroke that does not connect to a stroke or stem on one or both ends (e.g.,T, E, F) Ascender – portion of a

GLOSSARY Terms and definitions that help the reader make sense of the story.

Quiz 1 The ____ is the point at the top of a character where two strokes meet (e.g., the top of the A) 2 The horizontal stroke that does not connect to a stroke or stem on one or both ends (e.g.,T,E) is called the ____.

QUIZ Get the reader involved. Multiple choice, short answer or matching work the best. Include the answers.

Q. What are alternative story forms? A. Anything that isn’t one of the traditional forms. You’re reading one right now: a Q&A. Alternative story forms are easier for readers to scan. They break things down by category rather than from most important to least important the way inverted pyramid stories do. Newspapers and magazines can still use inverted pyramid stories, anecdotal leads and other ways to report, to write and to edit. However, they can also tell stories and convey information in other ways. Think of these forms as another option when brainstorming, writing and editing. Q. Are alternative story forms new? A. Not really. Newspapers and magazines have had timelines and checklists, for example, for a long time. But they probably have not used such things as often as they could have, and they probably did not always use them as well as they could have. Now ASFs appear more frequently in U.S. newspapers and magazines. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for example, says that alternatives story forms make up 60 percent of its front page, up from a third of its front page a year ago.

Atlanta JournalConstitution July 1, 2006, p. 1D

Q. Why use them? A. To inform the readers. ASFs can provide quick facts and deep context. They can cut information into “bite sizes” that are easier to digest while they bolster journalists’ role as watchdogs over government and other powerful institutions. ASFs can also offer variety and surprise the reader, and they can bring visual pizzazz to a page. “A good ASF can show your readers in one quick glimpse something that might take 1,000 words to explain in text,” says Alison Bolen, editor-in-chief of sascom, the quarterly magazine of software company SAS. Q. What do professionals know about how these story forms influence readers? A. Research by Poynter Institute’s EyeTrack project shows that ASFs attract more attention from readers and that readers recall more information from them. In a study, readers were shown different pages with information about bird flu, some with traditional stories and others told in alternative story form. After looking at a page, people took a pop quiz about what they had read. Participants who had read the alternative form scored better. Q. When should a staff try them? A. There are no hard rules on this. Here are times to strongly consider alternative story approaches: • Recurring events such as annual awards, graduation ceremonies, inaugurations, etc. • Routine events such as speeches by government leaders, openings of stores, etc. • Surveys and other “report” stories from groups and organizations. • “Teachable moments” when you want to educate your reader about a complicated issue. • Updates and assessments.

6 • Communication: Journalism Education Today

The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) June 29, 2007, p. A3

Winter 2007


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“A cure for cancer will be found” Very likely.......... 35% Not too likely...... 64% Unsure............... 1% Associated Press-AOL News Poll, Dec. 2006

PUBLIC-OPINION POLL Simple survey of opinion on a topic. Results can be reported as statistics or quotes from people responding.

QUOTE COLLECTION Comments on a topic by newsmakers, readers or random people affected by the story’s topic.

FEVER CHART Observe trends, often over time (on the horizontal axis).

BAR CHART Compare the relative amounts of individual items.

PIE CHART Compare parts that make up a whole, usually in terms of percentages.

Q. When should a staff not try them? A. Never say never. Some stories, however, are more difficult to tell in alternative forms. If what reporters/editors are writing about has distinct characters, a complicated sequence of events or prominent plot, that story may be hard to write in alternative formats. In those cases, try the inverted pyramid or feature structures instead. Q. What are some different kinds of ASFs? A. Timelines, questions and answers, quizzes, checklists, lists and side-byside comparisons (sometimes called “tales of the tape”) are all examples. Another is a “breakdown,” which reorganizes information by theme, usually with a label at the start of each thematic category. And remember that the story team can always mix, match and combine types.

WHAT’S AHEAD NewsU, Poynter Institute’s distance-learning site, is developing a course on alternative story forms. “Beyond the Inverted Pyramid: Creating Alternative Story Forms” is aimed at student journalists and professionals alike, and the free course is scheduled to be available in October. Find out more about NewsU at www.newsu.org.

Winter 2007

Q. What are the typical ingredients of an ASF? A. They usually begin with introductory text. The text introduces the topic and sets the stage for what’s to come. The copy needs to be well-written and attention-getting, the same standards used for the lead on a traditional story. Then readers are ready for the main event: the Q&A, list or other device reporters/editors are using to inform their audience. Possible elements include the following: • Who, what, how: The basics of who is affected and how. • Logical flow: Consider how the “bite sizes” of your ASF flow from item to item. For example, each answer in a Q&A on an issue probably has a natural follow-up question. Try to anticipate that — and make your next question that follow-up. • Call to action: This can be a sentence or two telling readers how they can get involved. It is great to include these for events such as festivals and town meetings. Editors must be sure to let people know how they can participate, listen or watch. • Itineraries and what’s next: Readers want to know not only what happened but also what will happen next. Writers and editors cannot predict the future, but many news stories — for example, a court case or basketball playoff — have next steps that the publication can let readers know about.

The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) Nov. 4, 2005, p. 1B

Q. What about visuals? A. Many successful ASFs have photos and graphics with them, but not all of them do. Brainstorming early about visual ideas is a good idea, and collaboration among all staff members is essential. Because alternative story forms often take more planning than traditional story forms, everyone who has a stake in the process needs to have a say, from start to finish. Leaders must keep lines of communication open among reporters, editors, photographers, graphics artists and page designers. “ASFs force reporters to think visually and designers to think about news. That can be scary, but together they can put out a product to go in both of their clip files,” says Joseph Schwartz, a special projects reporter at The Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Communication: Journalism Education Today • 7


DIRECTIONS: Pick a spot in your community — a school, the capitol building, town hall or even your house — and create a map that could serve as an infographic to accompany a story if that building suddenly became news. Keep your map simple, but put the building in context. As Tim Harrower says in chapter 6, “Assume your readers are lost.… [I]nclude any familiar landmarks — cities, rivers, highways, shopping malls — that help readers get their bearings.”

Helvetica

29

Times Palatino Garamond

2

Baskerville

TABLE Columns and rows of items that help the reader organize and relate various items.

RATINGS A comparison of items showing how they compare to one another on an often subjective scale

1 Place dominant art 2 Place art of contrasting size and shape

PEACE

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Krispy Kreme Doughnuts

549 N. Person St.

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Designing a page

4 Position captions 5 Position headline

State State Capitol

6 Verify consistent margins

( Find a recent, reliable source map. Even an online map such as Google Maps can be useful. ) In software such as Adobe Illustrator or even Adobe InDesign, trace all key roads and items of interest. * Finish map according to your paper’s graphic style. Don’t forget to add attribution when appropriate.

DIAGRAM Explain the parts of an object or process or how something works.

STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE A guide to help the reader understand a process from start to finish.

MORGAN ST

PERSON ST

13

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MAP Give readers geographical information by showing the location of events and where those events are in relation to other areas.

Q. With so much information in “bite size,” are good writing and editing still required? A. Of course. In fact, writing copy in “bite sizes” can be more challenging because it requires increased conciseness and clarity. Reporters and editors must remember that alternative story forms are meant to speak to readers, who want a lot of information quickly. The hard work is worth it. And writers can still keep their voice, that style that makes their writing unique, when writing alternative story forms. Q. Do staffs run the risk of dumbing down their publications by using alternative story forms? A. That is a concern, but it is not limited to alternative story forms. Any story can be “dumbed down” regardless of its form. When done well, an ASF can be as informative, if not more so, than a traditional story. The key is making all those “bite sizes” of information add up to something nutritious. And they help print publications compete with other media. “The newspaper has to find a way to adapt to readers’ short attention spans and ASFs are respectful of readers’ time,” says Teresa Kriegsman, design director at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. “ASFs also offer information succinctly so that helps newspapers compete with 24hour news on cable and online.”

Worksheets created by Bradley Wilson to accompany The Newspaper Designer’s Handbook, 6th edition by Tim Harrower. ©2008, The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

For more information on alternative copy forms, consult The Newspaper Designer’s Handbook by Tim Harrower, 6th ed.

Q. How should a staff get started? A. First, a staff may find it helpful to take a look at the story forms listed on these pages. Have the staff try the exercise. Look in local newspapers and national magazines to discover what examples are being used effectively. Train editors to promote these approaches: Encourage collaboration. Never throw away an idea. And have fun. n

from

Mario R. Garcia, CEO/Founder Garcia Media

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Although narratives are, and will continue to be, the foundation of all storytelling — we now know that they work well both in print and online — it is alternative story forms, or what I refer to as “secondary readings” that often enhance the story, provoke a scanner to stop and read the entire story or simply provide that additional point of entry to break a long mass of text while offering information that many who DO NOT read the narrative might totally miss. The recent EyeTrack 07 research project, conducted by The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, shows that alternative story forms are read by a large percentage of readers. Editors are

8 • Communication: Journalism Education Today

G ar c ia

smart to invest the extra time in creating these summary boxes, timelines, biographical sketches and the rest of the many forms that define alternative story formats. For scanners, these alternative story formats are visual destinations. For methodical readers, they are enhancements to the overall information presented. We are all storytellers in a world that moves fast, where readers contemplate a story package for about 10 seconds before making a decision to read or not to read. Alternative story formats help to seduce these impatient readers. No doubt they are the perfect complement to the traditional narrative. Winter 2007


More Types of Alternative Story Forms The staff will be able to understand alternative story forms as they consider examples of types of approaches. Students will recognize most of these approaches. And for sure they will quickly realize that this is not a definitive list — they should feel free to modify these or invent their own forms. TIMELINES Typically, these go with traditional stories, but they can sometimes stand alone. Timelines recap a person’s life, a long-running court case or anything else with a chronology. Be careful, however, not to let the timeline be too long. If it has more than six items, be sure to include photographs and graphics to make it visually appealing. Or design the timeline to make it look like a daybook or wall calendar.

designed in a grid format for easy comparison. Effective grids use parallel structure — in other words, they compare apples and apples, not apples and oranges. CHECKLIST One of the media’s main functions is to serve as a watchdog over government and other powerful institutions. A checklist can do this in an effective way. Did the governor deliver on campaign promises? Did the football team meet its goals for the season? Listing the objectives and the results in a checklist form can help readers decide for themselves.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS These are similar to the “frequently asked questions� found on many Web sites. A Q&A is a great way to explain a complicated issue. When researching a Q&A, come up with a comprehensive list of questions. Editors should keep readers in mind: What do they need to know? When writing and editing a Q&A, they should anticipate how readers will react. Usually, an answer to a question implies the nugget of a sequential question — thoughtful editors make that the next question in the Q&A. BREAKDOWN In this form, information is organized by theme, usually with a label at the start of each thematic category. For example, a story about the recall of a toy train could have labels such as “Who’s Affected,� “What To Do� and “What’s Next.� Organizing stories by category helps readers scan for the information they want. GRID This is a great way to compare two (or more) competitors in politics, sports or other news that is competitive by nature. They can be fun or serious, and they are usually

BY THE NUMBERS Some stories are heavy on statistics, which may make for difficult reading. A “by-the-numbers� approach — in which key numbers are compiled into a list or divided into short lists — can make poll stories and other statsheavy stories more accessible to readers. The simplified approach gives the numbers context. Sometimes a “bythe-numbers� story can feel like a random collection of figures without an underlying meaning.

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percent of text of stories longer than 19 inches read in broadsheet newspapers

1

percent of online podcasts that got viewed

88

percent of the eye stops on graphics went to maps, including weather and traffic

75

percent of print readers that read from top to bottom without scanning; only 50% of online readers were methodical

77

percent what readers read after picking a story online compared with 62% in broadsheet papers

59

percent of readers of broadsheet newspapers that read jumped story text SOURCE: Poynter Institute Eyetrack 07 study available online at http://eyetrack. poynter.org/





Winter 2007

GAME Using the format of a board game can be an enjoyable way to present news or features. For example, RedEye, a newspaper in Chicago, used a layout similar to the game Operation to wrap up various celebrity mishaps. The VirginianPilot used a crossword puzzle to explain business news. The game story form should match the tone of the news — it is probably inappropriate for serious events. And its gimmicky nature means it should not be used often.



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The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Vir.) Dec. 31, 2006, p. D1

Communication: Journalism Education Today • 9


Exercise to develop Alternative Story Forms DIRECTIONS: Read this inverted pyramid story and, in the space below, note ways it could be reorganized into an alternative story form. Also note what photographs and graphics could be used with it. Then, on your own paper, sketch out an alternative copy package using this content. By Lois Lane Staff writer

The delivery company DHL unveiled its sprawling new distribution center today in Upper Macungie Township, where more than 200,000 packages are sorted every night and shipped anywhere between Washington, D.C., and Connecticut. The $120 million, 500,000-square-foot facility on Nestle Way near Route 22 serves as the company’s East Coast gateway to 54 stations within a 300-mile radius, which includes big metropolitan markets such as New York and Philadelphia. And it caps a $1.2 billion investment campaign that DHL launched in 2004 to expand its business in the United States, company officials said. “This is the newest, biggest and most stateof-the-art,” of the company’s 18 regional hubs in the country, said David Petko, DHL’s Northeast Regional Hub manager. The bright yellow building, which first opened in February, is dormant during the day. But at night it is abuzz with activity. Packages surf along a network of conveyor belts, rollers

and chutes that represent the cutting edge of logistics technology. Each box passes through a camera scanner that photographs it on all six sides to read the bar code and determine its route through the plant. The boxes go down spiral metal slides that look like they were plucked from a playground, and on to conveyor belts that stretch into the belly of trucks parked at more than 100 loading docks around the building’s perimeter. In the company’s other facilities, much of the sorting is done manually with package handlers reading labels to determine where they should go. The new system offers greater speed and accuracy, DHL officials said. “Our business is so time-sensitive, we have minutes for a package to come into Allentown and get out for its destination,” said John Cameron, DHL’s executive vice president of operations. About 400 people work at the facility. They earn about $13 an hour on average plus productivity bonuses, according to the company. It will contribute $15 million annually to the Lehigh Valley economy in payroll and taxes.

ASF Ideas

10 • Communication: Journalism Education Today

Winter 2007


Exercise ANSWER KEY: Some possibilities

DHL to open Route 22 facility

Staff photo by Jay Pegg

A new 500,000-square-foot distribution facility will serve 54 stations within 300 miles for DHL, an international shipping company increasingly in competition with UPS and FedEx.

$120 million DHL facility opens to serve East Coast Package-shipping company DHL is stepping up its operations in the Allentown area with the opening of a huge distribution center. A close look at the new plant shows what it means for the region: What is DHL? DHL is a worldwide company that provides international shipping of documents and freight. Established in 1969, the DHL company name recognizes its founders: Adrian Dalsey, Larry Hillblom and Robert Lynn. Its main rivals are UPS and FedEx. Where is the building, and why was it built here? The bright yellow building is in Upper Macungie Township. The project caps a $1.2 billion investment campaign that DHL launched in 2004 to expand its business in the United States, company officials said. What region does it serve? The new center is the company’s East Coast gateway to 54 stations within a 300-mile radius, which includes New York and Philadelphia. Packages are sorted every night and shipped anywhere between Washington, D.C., and Connecticut. How does it help our economy? About 400 people work at the facility. They earn about $13 an hour on average plus productivity bonuses, according to the company. It will Winter 2007

contribute $15 million annually to the Lehigh Valley economy in payroll and taxes. How does the center work? The bright yellow building, which first opened in February, is dormant during the day. But at night it is abuzz with activity. Packages surf along a network of conveyor belts, rollers and chutes that represent the cutting edge of logistics technology. Each box passes through a camera scanner that photographs it on all six sides to read the bar code and determine its route through the plant. The boxes go down spiral metal slides that look like they were plucked from a playground and on to conveyor belts that stretch into delivery trucks. What’s different about this plant? In the company’s other facilities, much of the sorting is done manually with package handlers reading labels to determine where they should go. The new system offers greater speed and accuracy, DHL officials said. Compiled by Staff Writer Lois Lane

MORE ONLINE Take a video tour of the DHL center at mcall.com KEY STATS

$120 million

cost of the center

500,000

size of center in square feet

200,000

packages sorted each night

More than 100 loading docks

400

Number of workers

$13

Average pay per hour “Our business is so timesensitive, we have minutes for a package to come into Allentown and get out for its destination.” John Cameron, DHL’s executive vice president of operations

Package-shipping company DHL is stepping up its operations in the Allentown area with the opening of a huge distribution center. The potential impact is obvious with a look at the new plant and what it means for the region: THE BUILDING: The bright yellow building is in Upper Macungie Township on Nestle Way near Route 22. It cost $120 million to build and encompasses 500,000 square feet. WHO IS SERVED: The new center operates as the company’s gateway to the East Coast by serving 54 stations within a 300-mile radius that includes large metropolitan markets such as New York and Philadelphia. More than 200,000 packages are sorted every night and shipped. ECONOMIC IMPACT: About 400 people work at the facility, and they average $13 an hour plus productivity bonuses, according to the company. In payroll and taxes, the center will contribute $15 million annually to the economy. HOW IT WORKS: The building, which first opened in February, is dormant during the day. But at night it is abuzz with activity. Packages surf along a network of conveyor belts, rollers and chutes that represent the cutting edge of logistics technology. Each box passes through a camera scanner that photographs it on all six sides to read the bar code and determine its route. WHAT’S DIFFERENT: In the company’s other facilities, much of the sorting is done manually with package handlers reading labels to determine where they should go. THE COMPANY: DHL is a worldwide company that provides international shipping of documents and freight. The company, formed in 1969, has made DHL, initials representing the last names of founders Adrian Dalsey, Larry Hillblom and Robert Lynn, a shipping name to respect. Its main rivals are UPS and FedEx. KEY QUOTE: “Our business is so timesensitive we have minutes for a package to come into Allentown and get out for its destination.” — John Cameron, executive vice president of DHL operations. Compiled by staff writer Lois Lane

Communication: Journalism Education Today • 11


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