- Storytelling Is Stuck In A Rut?What Publishers Can Do About It

Upendra Shardanand
Friday, May 8, 2009; 10:07 AM

Upendra Shardanand is the Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Daylife, which helps publishers add content without additional staff or engineering. He also co-founded Firefly Network, a spinoff from his work at the MIT Media Lab, and sold the company to Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) in 1998. Upendra was the founding partner at the venture firm The Accelerator Group, and was the Director of Technology at Time Warner (NYSE: TWX).

On the subway one recent evening, I saw straphangers reading news articles printed off the web. This tells me two things:

1.The commuter's need to kill time outweighs their need to save trees.2.There's no difference to most people between reading a news story online or on an 8 1/2"x11" piece of paper.

Fifteen years into the web, the nature of journalistic storytelling has hardly changed from its print roots. Sure, there are minor differences. Headlines are SEO-optimized, and I can follow a writer on Twitter, post an off-the-cuff rant or rave, or Digg something I like. But the actual article is still the same beast. (Just like this column.)

Meanwhile, does (NSDQ: AMZN) bear any resemblance to shopping with the Sears catalog? Does Amazon even resemble itself from 14 years ago? Why has shopping been revolutionized while storytelling is stuck in a rut?

Speaking to publishers every day, I'm struck by their openness and eagerness to revamp so many parts of their business. IT? Distribution? Revenue? All subject to radical change. There's surprisingly little trepidation about experimenting with the latest and greatest web phenomenon. But one aspect of their businesses that very few seem to question is the actual craft of writing and telling stories.

There are, however, a few interesting experiments with new forms of storytelling (whether it be "news" or otherwise):

Kevin Sites' In the Hot Zone was an early attempt at war correspondence, seamlessly blending text, podcasts, and video into a singular narrative (sadly, Yahoo! (NSDQ: YHOO) seems to have taken the site down).Jonathan Harris' The Whale Hunt is a stunningly gorgeous, non-linear essay on the Inupiat whale hunt (disclosure: Jonathan Harris is the former design director of Daylife).Footnote's living, breathing, communal, and very public Vietnam Wall Memorial, as well as their I Remember Facebook app.Days with my Father , a heart-wrenching photo-essay of a son's last days with his dad.

And since the authors aren't "webifying" their content, you also find others attempting to webify it for them, changing the storytelling from the outside in. Folks like Outside.In and Everyblock treat content like data and tear it apart just to reassemble it into infinitely browsable, non-linear experiences (like Amazon does for shopping).

But this leads to an odd stratification: On one side you have parties that produce what were once finished products, but are now just data for parties on the other side who take that fodder and reconstruct it. It'd be much easier for everyone if the authors took matters into their own hands, and wrote stories in a new language, with new tools, for the web.

So why this hasn't happened? The tools haven't changed. Whether it's Microsoft Word or Wordpress, it's all still word processing. The workflow in newsrooms hasn't changed. Authors, rarely being software developers themselves, can't develop the tools they would want. Usually some third-party CMS company makes it for them. (Jonathan Harris wrote his own software for Whale Hunt, but that combination of talents is rare.) Publishers haven't committed significant R&D to the development of new tools. If they, did they'd have a competitive advantage, much like Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) developing its own chips or Amazon tinkering with its shopping experiences.

New forms of storytelling could (a) make readers happier; (b) extend the lifespan of stories, making arcs from what are now transient and ephemeral events; and (c) create new sponsorship opportunities. And perhaps save a few trees as well.

An open question to all the renaissance journalist/designer/developer triple-threats out there: What will be the norm for a "written" work of journalism in 10 years' time? More like Whale Hunt, or more like Dewey Defeats Truman? What can be done to bring more design and user experience creativity into newsrooms? Can newsrooms afford to? Can they afford not to? What other examples of fresh, web-native storytelling are out there?

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