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Thursday, August 11, 2005

The paradox of the pithy narrative

This is funny. It’s an article titled, “I'll Be Brief,” by Carl Sessions Stepp, a J-prof at U Maryland and senior editor at American Journalism Review. (I’m pretty sure I had textbook in J-school written in part by Stepp.)

Anyway, his point is that “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.”

The teaser for this piece on Romenesko was “Pithy narratives.”

Love that word pithy. It sounds derogatory, but it is the essence of what good journalism should be in this ADD world. According to my M-W Dictionary, pithy means “having substance and point: tersely cogent.”

Stepp could take a lesson from his column because he takes 2,747 words to tell us how to write stories concisely:

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.

He’s referring of course to Cleveland’s own Connie Schultz, whom he interviewed along with her editor Stuart Warner. Stepp goes through the usual surveys of declining readership and cites examples from all the buzz names in narrative journalism – Jack Hart, Jon Franklin and the like.

But the point is that newspapers in particular have to do a better job of storytelling, period. Here’s a discussion (sorry, SPJ member login required) and example of a pithy narrative by Pulitzer Prizewinner Tom Hallman of the Oregonian.

Newspapers will always need to balance in-depth reporting with smaller fare. But no matter what the size, I say break away from the inverted pyramid and simply tell me a story.

After citing many (I would venture to say too many) examples of pithy narratives, Stepp concludes that short-form narrative isn’t a 1,200-word story cut to fit a 600-word space. It has a different tone, tighter form and sharper edge.

The rub?

To produce them, writers need confidence, and, more than anything else perhaps, supportive editors.

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