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Citizen Journalism 101: Alternative storytelling forms

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      As the old saying goes, there’s certainly more than one way to skin a cat; especially if that cat is producing a news article.

      The tried-and-true method of newswriting is called the “inverted pyramid” style. It was developed by correspondents covering the Civil War. Both sides were sabotaging telegram wires in an effort to prevent news from getting back to their opponents after key battles.

      So, in an effort to get the most important information conveyed quickly, correspondents would send the most important information first, the least important information last. That way, if the cables were cut, hopefully the key information made it back to the newspaper.

      Today, the inverted pyramid style is easiest for editors who may need to pare down a story to make it fit the limited news hole space. While this format is good for conveying the facts most quickly, it can lack flare — those little details that make a story more compelling — which makes it a weak format for features writing.

      In those cases, the tried-and-true format is prose, or long-form writing. Like the standard composition essay, prose has an introduction, an informative body, and a wrap-it-up conclusion. In general, most prose-format features are narratives written in chronological order.

      These two formats have been the mainstay of American journalism since its founding, but in an increasingly fast-paced world, the need for more information faster has led to the development of other formats. We call these formats “short form writing.”

      One of the masters of short form is Tim Harrower, the man who literally wrote “the book” on newspaper design. The following are but a few of the methods he instructs professional journalists to use when looking for alternative means of storytelling.

Fast Facts

      Sometimes, the Joe Friday method — just the facts, ma’am — is the best way to get as many details and facts in your reader’s hands as possible. This is usually a sidebar to a short article or information graphic (more on those in a moment).

      Usually, a simple rundown of the “Five W’s & H” will suffice.


      As opposed to a long-form feature story, sometimes it’s better to simply give us the key details about a person’s history. This is useful when trying to condense a whole bunch of candidates running for office into a short amount of space.


      Why try to get flowery when all you’re trying to convey is a list of people, places, or objects? Give us a short header to identify what the list is, and then give us the list. It’s compact, but it delivers all of the information the reader wants.


      Slightly different than a list, a checklist is a rundown of key steps the reader should follow to accomplish something. Or, it can provide a slightly more detailed list of items necessary to complete a task, or to be prepared for an event.

By the Numbers

      Almost everything has numbers that can be associated with it. Some numbers are more important — or more interesting — than others. From smallest to largest, providing a rundown of key numbers associated with the main topic can be useful to the “stat rats” out there.


      Even 15 years ago, journalism instructors taught students that question-and-answer format was “cheating.” But, frankly, it is the best way to keep a subject’s quotes in full and complete context for the reader.

      Magazines have been using this format for decades, and newspapers are finally starting to follow suit. In the Digital Age, there are far more interesting things you can do with an interview and the Q&A format.


      A lot of people like to be challenged when they read. So, test their knowledge on the subject material with a short, simple quiz. Multiple choice is the most common format, but fill-in-the-blank works, too.

      The quiz format is most useful when there a lot of misperceptions about a particular topic, or when the topic is “new” or “unusual” to your audience. And, it adds a layer of entertainment value to the news item.

Information Graphics

      Information graphics, or “infographics,” are the one format in which all forms of media have most quickly adapted. It follows the old adage, “I can show you better than I can tell you.” This form of storytelling began developing with the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and soon became a requirement for all major news events.

      There are many different kinds of infographics, though. This category includes maps, charts, tables, diagrams, annotated schematics, and timelines. The goal is to provide the most amount of information in as little space and as quickly as possible.

      Usually, no single format will suffice for short form journalism. A mixture of two or three, in a well-packaged format will work best. And, it’s always helpful to have solid graphics to work with.

      Next week: Photography is just as important as good writing skills in a fast-paced media environment. Next time, we’ll look at key tips to get a great photo to go along with your story.

Written by bfranklinjournalism

April 6, 2011 at 10:00 am

One Response

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  1. […] As promised a couple of weeks ago, this week we will look at a couple of things to keep in mind when engaging in news photography. […]

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