A serial killer. An Afghan teenager in London. A porn star with an immense knowledge of shell corporations.
“Gee," you might say, "is that the cast of the latest Wes Anderson film?”
Actually, these characters are all real people, featured in stories by the speakers at the “Longform Investigative Journalism: Stories on Different Platforms” panel at the IRE Conference in New Orleans.
Another thing they all have in common? They’re characters with the clout to keep audiences reading, listening or watching a story.
When it comes to longform stories or reporting through a narrative, classic storytelling elements are still key: a beginning, middle and end; compelling characters; access to scene and dialogue; a central conflict that drives the story.
But narrative reporting today isn’t exactly the same as it was fifty years ago. These days, journalists don’t just write. They film. They produce. They animate. They design, code, and record.
Greg Borowski, editor of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel investigative unit, Alice Brennan, investigative producer at Fusion, and Susanne Reber, executive editor at Reveal, discussed how they work with different platforms to produce narrative stories.
Newspapers embrace multimedia
Now that news consumers follow stories on a range of devices, it’s important for newspapers to reevaluate a purely textual way of thinking, Borowski said. That’s the reason his team puts together multimedia packages for their investigative stories, such as “Unsolved,” a story about a teen found dead in the 1970s — a case that remains open until this day.
The story is combines text, a podcast, documents, video, interactive graphics and maps, among other elements. To put together multimedia pieces like this one, the Journal-Sentinel team needed to re-think their approach to the story altogether.
Journalists asked themselves, “How can we best tell this story for an audience?” Borowski said.
It’s not simply a matter of repeating the same story on each platform, he added. A video on the page should not repeat exactly what’s already been written in the text; it could complement the text. In fact, each element should be complementary, adding new parts or angles of the story for audiences to explore.
But with this new way of thinking comes another challenge: how to strategize and plan for the story.
Everyone must come to the table at the beginning of a story, Borowski said. That includes the graphic artist, producer, designer, photographer and any other members of the team. The piece is not solely the reporter’s; it’s a team effort.
The intimacy of audio
Reporters often beg for more space, more words, more time. But when there’s an entire hour of audio to play with — well, that can sometimes turn into a greater challenge, said Reber of Reveal, a longform investigative radio show and podcast.
Reveal steps up to the challenge by finding captivating characters who can carry listeners through a story. In one episode, a young Afghan man who’s lived in London for eight years might be sent back to Afghanistan by the British government.
But it’s not just the characters who are important. Reporters must be able to find scenes and guide readers through conflict. For that reason, quite a bit of time is dedicated to pre-production, vetting not only the characters, but also the audio potential of scenes.
Why exactly are characters so important to Reveal?
That has everything to do with the platform, Reber said. Radio is a particularly intimate form of storytelling. The reporter speaks to listeners – quite literally in their ears, as audiences listen through headphones on a morning commute to work. For that reason, characters must have dimension and their stories should shed light on a larger issue.
Perhaps most importantly, characters should elicit a sense of empathy — the best way to get listeners to stick around.
Brennan calls her investigative unit at Fusion “platform agnostic.” Fusion publishes everything from longform writing to documentaries and interactive graphics, but it focuses on its core audience, which is sometimes ignored by investigative journalists: young people.
Fusion asks several questions when planning a story, such as: How do we communicate to young people? What’s the best platform to use? And how does the language change to be appropriate for each platform?
All of these considerations came into play when the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists brought on Fusion to report on the Panama Papers. The ultimate challenge: “how to make tax sexy to 14- to 35-year-olds,” Brennan said.
It was particularly difficult for platforms heavily dependent on visuals and audio. Needless to say, 11.5 million pages of documents isn’t the most visually stimulating material.
So, Fusion brainstormed ways to make taxes interesting to millennials. In the end, they rolled out a longform text piece, a one-hour documentary, several graphics, social videos and tweets — all different content, no copying and pasting from the story into a tweet.
They also got creative, sending a journalist to create She Sells Seashells, LLC for her cat and enlisting porn star Lisa Ann to explain how anonymous shell companies work.
“These lawyers and accountants help these scumbags evade the law,” Lisa Ann says in the video. “And y’all think the porn business is dirty.”
Kasia Kovacs is a master's student in investigative journalism at the University of Missouri. She is currently a summer fellow at the American Press Institute, and she is the editorial associate for the IRE Journal.