Is journalism storytelling?

It’s accepted wisdom in the news tribe that journalism is storytelling. They have become synonymous. Journalists are storytellers. I hear that over and over again, especially in discussions of journalism education, and when I do I see everyone’s head nod. Lately, I’m not necessarily nodding.

I’m not so sure journalism is storytelling anymore.

One reason: There are so many new forms of journalism emerging. Data is (are) journalism. Platforms that enable communities to share what they know and need to know are becoming journalism (Fred Wilson: We will cover ourselves“). Algorithms that aggregate and cluster and prioritize news are journalism. Collaboration and crowdsourcing yield journalism that doesn’t necessary end up in story form. Journalism can be a stream (see Twitter from Iran). Journalism can be a snapshot of current knowledge (see Wikipedia). Journalism is a process (which make take the form of Waves soon). But stories are products.

Another reason: By taking the role of the storyteller, journalists claim a position at the center of the story. They also claim possession: It’s my story to tell. I’ll decide what the story is. I’ll tell it my way. The storyteller is in control. Storytelling remains essentially one-way (comments and questions come after the story is told). Storytelling is about telling.

Now, of course, stories and the telling of them will still be a part of journalism; often it is the value a journalist can add. Look up storytelling and journalism on Google and you’ll find no end of effort to update storytelling in multimedia.

But if we continue to assume that our role is that of the storyteller, and to limit ourselves to that, then we risk closing ourselves off from forms of gathering and sharing information that do not end up in the form of stories, that are not structured and told. When we open ourselves up, we can think of journalists as enablers, as community organizers (not just of information but of a community’s ability to organize its own information), as teachers, as curators (how could I get through this without using the word at least once?), as filters, as tool makers, as algorithm writers.