Why stories are not enough

Today, as in 2005, as in 1905, most news is organized and communicated as “stories.” To be a story, a collection of information must have a who, a when, a what, a where, and in most cases, a why and a how.

But that traditional approach to news leaves out the sixth W: “Who cares?” A story must be potentially interesting to a valuable audience, or it isn’t worth producing.

This is the fatal flaw with a theory of the press that is based on stories. It assumes that the only information that has value is the information that seems immediately interesting.

But what if baseball coverage worked that way? If our only records of Major League Baseball games were stories about dramatic, game-defining events, we’d never read about a bloop single in the scoreless third, because who cares about facts irrelevant to the story? The “story” is the game-winning RBI in the bottom of the ninth.

220px-Henry_Chadwick_BaseballWe enjoy baseball’s intricacies today because of an 1860s sports journalist named Henry Chadwick. Chadwick earned a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame for inventing a structured code for recording the outcome of every play in a baseball game. It’s because of Chadwick’s “box score” that we value inconsequential third-inning singles, because that hit – like the ground-out before it and the strike-out that followed – is part of a comprehensive data set. If we recorded for posterity only those plays that individual sportswriters deemed immediately interesting, we would have no baseball statistics. No objective way of comparing players across eras. No Sabremetrics.

Today’s journalists tend to view new alternatives to narrative as barbaric assaults on their art form, but the simple truth is that we love good baseball stories in large part because box scores give writers the freedom to reject stenography in favor of the most interesting narrative, as well as the ability to make wonderfully definitive statements. We need not cautiously declaim that “many close observers agree that Josh Hamilton is one of the best batters in game.” We can instead write that “Hamilton, who hit .359 this season, has added a new milestone to his improbable comeback from drug addiction: 2010 American League batting champion.”

My mind = blown.

It suddenly starts to make sense why I’ve always dreamed of reams of data for political coverage. For instance, wouldn’t it be nice if, in Chicago, we had a record of every alderman’s vote on everything that ever came up for a vote going back at least 20 years? And that’s just for starters.

One Comment

  1. Anonymous March 25, 2011

    I agree. Narrative will always have its place, but some stories are better covered in other ways.

    Imagine an X/Y graph diagram. One axis is “number of sources.” The other is “time.”

    Most “stories” have relatively few sources, and happen within a confined timeframe. Think Tiger Woods scandal. This is because a reporter can only interview so many people before deadline, so the number of sources on this type of story is low — let’s say, under 100.

    If you go further up on the “number of sources” axis, without expanding the time, you get a story like “Plane lands on Hudson,” where many of the iconic photos were taken with iPhones from a passing ferry; lots of sources.

    If you go out on both the “number of sources” axis and the “time” axis, what’s out there? Well, global warming. Economic crises; the foreclosure crisis.

    A lot of those stories demand an approach other than narrative. Neglecting them, in my opinion, has real costs to society.

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