The Myth of the Sole and Useful Story
How reporters can tell web-friendly stories on multiple scales
With SRCCON 2015 in the rearview mirror, Robinson Meyer is filing Work Week meditations on some of the high-level themes and threads that unspooled through its sessions and conversations.
A newspaper investigation is a messy thing, and it generates a lot of stuff—papers, reports, spreadsheets, interview transcripts—that never sees publication. Should that change now that many publications work primarily online? In a session at SRCCON 2015, Chris Amico asked participants that question. How could they use, as he put it, “every part of the pig?”
First, I should back up. Chris and Laura Amico co-founded Homicide Watch, which will be familiar to journalism nerds but which should be talked about more often. Homicide Watch told stories in a special way. For more than four years, it tracked every murder in Washington, D.C., from the discovery of the victim’s body to the close of the killer’s trial. It combined old-fashioned reporting with powerful software to generate both a running series of inverse-pyramid stories and a database of local homicides.
It found, in other words, a specifically web-friendly way of telling stories. Which is good, because the state of online storytelling is much more tentative yes than many would have predicted two decades ago. Hyperlinked fiction failed to take off among even the high avant-garde crowd, and digital economics now favor general-interest sites that publish the kind of 1,000-word interpretive piece you could’ve found in the front of a newsweekly 35 years ago.
Reporting on Individuals, Showing the Systemic
Homicide Watch did something different. The Amicos’s site could account for both the individually tragic—every murder victim had their own page on the site, which often became a place for friends and families to share memories—and the otherwise systematically unseen. As Laura Amico told Contents Magazine in 2013, those human stories would create, in aggregate, a powerful reporting tool:
Just recently we had three homicides in one night. As I was writing the story it occurred to me that, combined with deaths earlier in the week, that week might have the most deaths of any this year. I was able to prove that in just minutes and get that story up. I haven’t seen any other reporter with a database robust and agile enough to do that.
In other words, the pair (along with other reporters who joined later) covered a vivid, important, and well-defined beat in ways that old or new methods alone wouldn’t have permitted.
Homicide Watch D.C. closed at the end of 2014, though its software and something of its approach lives on in other cities. Laura Amico, the editorial lead, is now data and multimedia editor at the Boston Globe; Chris Amico, the technical lead, works at PBS’ Frontline as interactive editor.
Applying the Concepts
Homicide Watch was an ingenious adaptation of the newspaper beat reporting method. But Chris Amico, at least, has moved on from the beat-driven life. Frontline is a public-broadcast house that exclusively sponsors big investigative work—not day-to-day reporters who cover the more mundane. So the SRCCON session was a peek into how he has been thinking about applying those old ideas to his more monumental new home.
Two journalistic concepts in particular guided Homicide Watch’s work, he told the group. The first was open notebook reporting, or publishing all the reporting you can. “It’s the goal of trying to put as much of the raw material of your reporting out into the public,” he told the group.
The second was structured reporting, “the idea of taking your reporting and organizing it into a logical structure so you can reuse it later, rebuild it.” Homicide Watch did this by using every story as an opportunity to augment its central database.
He encouraged participants to think about how they could apply the technique at the level of tools, practices, and culture.
“A friend of mine likes to say that culture eats strategy for breakfast,” Amico said. “Strategy is what we mean to do. Culture is what we do without thinking about it.”
And SRCCONers replied. They split into teams and listed recent misunderstandings in their newsroom where communication, not software, was to blame. In one project at an alternative weekly, a meeting between a reporter and a visual team took place too early in the process. The reporter hadn’t begun planning her story yet, and the visual team began to illustrate a story that didn’t match what was ultimately written. “Sharing our expectations and hopes for the project overall might have helped to steer the project,” said one participant.
Other ideas tried to systematize this approach. One team proposed a metadata editor, who would sit “between the people doing the writing and the people doing all the research.” They would “collect all the reporting that was being done, and sort of catalog it in a standardized and structured way”: a kind of newsroom librarian, but for unpublished knowledge.
Amico then asked the groups to imagine possible mission statements for such a project—and for the larger journalistic effort of “using all of the pig.” And the room hit upon a tension.
Some groups suggested mission statements that appealed to restraint as a storytelling virtue. “Everything published should push the story forward,” said one. Another proposed: “Only use content that’s germane to the story you’re going to tell, but be relevant to all your audiences.”
But a third put forth a mission statement that was quite different: “Treat every part of the reporting as if it was going to be published.”
Finding “The” Story?
Which is it? Should journalists work behind the scenes, preparing certain tasty morsels for readerly consumption, or should they go about their reporting believing that most of it will wind up in public?
Of course it depends on the story, somewhat. But the question also connects to what an investigation—and any major investment of newsroom resources—is. There’s an ideal that we bring to enterprise reporting that says that, when a newsroom embarks on an investigation, it does so to find the story: the singular, gripping narrative revealed by documents, interviews, and other kinds of reporting. A good journalist, it’s said, can distill 5,000 pages of public records down to a curt, efficient 2,500 words.
This is a very print-esque aspiration. The searing front-page headline that discovers local corruption is what regional-newspaper dreams are made of. (Local muckraking is, in fact, exactly the kind of reporting that has suffered as national news sites running on digital ads supplant local print markets.) And it’s print-y, too, on a technical level. You can’t do what Homicide Watch did if your medium is a singular packet of dead trees. A running database, an interactive map, a page for every victim: These things just don’t translate.
But this same myth also springs from a journalistic impulse as vital now as it was decades ago: the idea that journalists should save the reader time. Why bog down the reader with extraneous information when what would be really useful for them would be to read a single story?
A sole and useful story is not quite what Homicide Watch’s techniques are geared toward. Instead, they aim to help a reporter successfully tell many stories, simultaneously. One of the site’s guiding principles was that “everything that I would have on my desk, in my notebook, should find a way onto the site,” Amico said. So Homicide Watch D.C. kept a courts calendar, because the reporters kept a courts calendar themselves. They kept many documents in a publicly accessible DocumentCloud installation, because they needed to access them quickly, too.
All of this information was germane to some of the site’s readers. It was important and useful knowledge for them—in part because Homicide Watch’s readers, so often, were affected by tragedy. The site did them a service.
But it was only useful for some of them. It was decidedly not “relevant to all audiences.” Instead, some part of it was relevant to every part of an audience. Can writers and web-makers weigh these two conflicting needs: to be useful to readers, to save them time; yet also to honor the many facets of any one story?
A New Way Forward
Thinking through this problem, I’m reminded of the Guardian’s ongoing investigation, The Counted. The Counted is a tally of people killed by police in the United States in 2015. It encompasses both a single story and a continuously updated database, so it honors both the main systemic story and all the individually human ones that constitute it. The Guardian’s work was so fertile that it gave rise to further work from journalists beyond just their newsroom—including mine.
I think The Counted pulls it off, in other words. It honors both scales of the story. It is relevant and multi-faceted while still making a keen, specific point. Eight-hundred-twenty-nine people have been killed by an American police officer since January 1, and there are 829 protagonists to this story.
As news organizations try both to use all the parts of a pig and to embrace the web, I think they should remember that sometimes a new kind of story may look like this: multitudinous, ambi-relevant, democratic. The great power of the internet to tell stories may be this: There does not need to be just one story or just one audience. Maybe such a story can never even be accurate.
Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.