Magazine article American Journalism Review

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

Magazine article American Journalism Review

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

Article excerpt

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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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. …

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