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.

  • Historically speaking, and I’m harking back to the dawn of the first stories of human culture, storytellers have always had that role that you assign to journalists. Storytellers – writers, playwrights, screenwriters, comedians, novelists and their ilk, are, and always have been, community organisers, teachers, curators, filters, etc. Maybe this is a semantic argument but the role of the storyteller is not one that is limited – rather, it is journalism that is limited in its scope because journalists are not, actually, storytellers in the true, original sense of the role. Just as the printing press didn’t eliminate oral traditions and the spoken word from storytelling, neither will digital media and technological advancements eliminate the need for those that are good storytellers. There’s an argument that the role that storytellers – rather than journalists – has never been of greater importance.

    • Andrew H

      Hear hear David, well put.

  • I would argue that at the end of the day, the story teller being the center of the story is something that is very, -very-, modern. It has not always been that way. Everyone today wants to be at the center of attention. This problem has found its way into journalism.

    As Dave argues in the previous comment, think about story tellers from the old man around the camp fire to the journalist of today. Take the behaviours that are key over that timeframe to understand what a story teller is. Don’t focus on the last 10 – 20 – 30 years.

  • Storylistener, Storyteller – to me, stories play an essential role in journalism. In the past, journalist´s work was mostly finished when it was published or broadcasted. Nowadays journalism seems to be an ongoing process after publishing with lots of consumer interaction. Maybe journalists can be seen as “Storyevokers”?

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  • The argument is by nature circular. Cronkite was certainly a journalist and a storyteller, but kept himself OUT of the center.

    On the other hand, current anchors insert opinions that Uncle Walter would not have approved of (and he said so before his death), thereby making themselves not JUST the center of the story, but often THE story.

    Bloggers? They seem to aspire to be old-school journalists because the old school is defining their acceptance into the club by that barometer. But let’s be frank: it’s all a “look at me” game now. Jeff Jarvis: you yourself tweet incessantly about details that no one really needs to hear . . . “look at me”.

    Journalists still tell stories. The question that’s left begging is who IS a journalist.

    I vote for: me. But then again, of course I do.

    Jeff Yablon
    President & CEO
    Answer Guy and Virtual VIP Computer Support, Business Change Coaching and Virtual Assistant Services

  • Jeff, I agree with the idea that journalism is now open to all kinds of reporting, information, and interactions that it wasn’t before. And that the kind of control that journalists used to have is in many ways a thing of the past. But I think storytelling can be just as collaborative as reporting can. Interactive narratives can involve data, images, and actual process (see Twitter’s @inarratives links to projects).

    Right now, with interactive narratives, there’s an approach that brings to mind a concept from gaming/storyboarding: there are “tentpole moments”–points that hold your narrative up so that an audience can understand a story. Even really interactive innovators often keep control of certain points in/aspects of a project to make sure people clicking through interactive elements come across enough tentpole moments to “get” the larger story.

    In the long run, I think journalism’s “storytellers” will run the gamut. People will still be out there (perhaps mostly at mags) doing traditional narrative journalism. But others will make use of collaboration to shape and shift a story in conjunction with readers/viewers’ input (think more radical versions of the Washington Post story lab). And in some situations, the mechanism for story generation will be with the reader, though as with projects like, the limits on the data set often determine the possible range of stories an audience can generate.

    So, I’ll be willing to accept that storytelling is changing as fast as reporting is, and that the storyteller is less in control of how the world influences or experiences his/her work. But I would argue that new *kinds* of journalists are emerging as storytellers, and that the possibilities are really intriguing.

  • I find it intriguing that the Wikipedia article on Journalism[1] says that: “A story is a *single* article, news item or feature, usually concerning a single event, issue, theme, or profile of a person.” (*Emphasis* added) My guess is that if this definition has been allowed to stand without modification by the hordes of journalism practitioners and students that have undoubtedly read it, then it must have some currency among those in the field of “journalism”…

    As Jeff points out, much of what people claim is the future of journalism can’t really be represented as a “single” article, item, etc. Streams of news, databases, topic-pages, etc. do not seem to conform to the “single” item model… Thus, the mere use of the “story” word may be a significant constraint on the ability of journalists to think productively about the future of their business.

    bob wyman


  • Jeff,

    Great entry…I think that you really hit the nail on the head when you refer to journalists as those who “story-evoke”. Ironically earlier today, Google announced a partnership with the New York Times and the Washington Post to create “living stories”. Journalists are neither the source nor the destination of information, but merely a middle-man that wields tremendous power and influence. The paradigm shift resulting from the evolution of the Internet is that journalists are almost guaranteed to have their work evaluated and assessed by subject matter experts in the crowd. If we call their work “stories” or “conversations”, they are merely the writers of the story’s introduction or the conversation starter. How long they are relevant contributors to the dialog depends on the extent of their access, personal network and possibly expertise. Who gets to shape the story or steer the conversation should depend on who proves to be the most credible in the context of the story.

    -Toma Bedolla

    Veracious Entropy & Inforesting

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  • I don’t believe I have ever, in 40+ years, heard anybody suggest that we “limit ourselves to” storytelling. Isn’t this a bit of a red herring or straw man? (I can never recall just which means what).

    • I’ve just heard a bunch of journalists and educators define themselves entirely as storytellers. I say that’s limiting and controlling.

  • I disagree with several statements in the post. Data is not, in and of itself, journalism. The reasoning of the person collecting the data, whether it be to highlight a disparity in wages or simply finding the safest route home, is the journalism. Algorithms are also not journalism. Journalism is putting the news of the day into context and explaining why it matters.

    • cm

      Absolutely correct. In computer science there is a very big difference between data and information.Data needs some intelligence to reduce to something of meaning.

      In the past, access to data was limited and generating the data (ie. reporting) was hard work. There were few reports and filtering was simple. Most of the value was generated by just getting the report.

      Now the data is abundant, particularly if you include all the tweeting, youtubing and blogging etc, but most of it is low quality, and the hard part is filtering it to convert that data into information (ie. that which informs). The value is in doing really good filtering.

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  • Kyle

    Isn’t telling a story what Don Hewitt always demanded? And I think 60 Minutes always did a great job of educating viewers too.

  • Paul Evans

    I am, perhaps, old since I graduated j-school about 30 years ago. But at my first daily I hit upon a distinction that has stuck with me since. Journalism is reporting and storytelling. Some journalists are better storytellers than reporters. But in a pinch I always trust the good reporters.

    The difference is a reporter is a digger, a questioner, a searcher, a listener. Reporters develop sources, look for facts, pour endlessly over documents, read bureaucratic gobbledegook for the salient information hidden in the legalese. They sit through endless meetings and talk to countless witnesses of events significant or mundane. Then they tell people what it all means, trying not to distort or misrepresent. They don’t have to be artful, just clear and concise. A great reporter who is a good storyteller is wonderful and rare.

    Algorithms, twitter feeds and some aspects of crowd-sourcing are very much like reporting. At worst they provide raw data and at best they expose salient points. But the beauty of reporting and storytelling is to take something deep, complex, technical, arcane and make it clear, concise and compelling.

    A j-school graduate is not necessary for journalism. It never has been. In my 30 years in newspapers I have worked along-side doctors, lawyers, housewives and high school students. I have had colleagues with PHDs and GEDs. Anyone can be a journalist. But journalism seems required to take the ever multiplying streams of data and connect them to a place, time and purpose so that some who would not otherwise even care to look at them would both see and understand.

    I remember attending seminars where storytelling was taught as the new technique for newspaper folks. It was exciting to some of us as a different approach to doing what we were doing. It worked very well for some stories. But I never saw it as the only or even best way to do journalism. Storytelling on its own offers too much potential for fiction. Hopefully journalism, no matter how its done or by whom, has a different (even higher, maybe) purpose.

    • Well said! I think Jeff consistently conflates news reporting with investigative journalism. News reporting (“the suspect exited the building at 4pm, was chased by police, and aprehended two blocks away at 4:15”) is barely-organized data, and has become the province of the “news stream” that Jeff refers to. Investigative journalism (“the governor denied the allegations, but they were later confirmed by two other people who were in the same meeting”) requires research, resources, access, and yes – the ability to tell a coherent story. This can exist outside the confines of the modern “news institution,” but it’s often more than just crowd-sourced tweets and blog posts…

    • Andy Freeman

      > But the beauty of reporting and storytelling is to take something deep, complex, technical, arcane and make it clear, concise and compelling.

      Making it clear, concise, and compelling makes for good storytelling, but doing so while abandoning truth makes for horrible reporting.

      Journalism’s problems have nothing to do with a lack of storytelling or because reports are not clear, concise, or compelling enough.

      And yes, this applies to “investigative journalism”.

  • Paul Evans

    As one addenda, the best thing I ever learned from the storytelling seminars I attended was to try and find the human face of the story I was reporting. Certainly a valuable tip. It served me well. But it isn’t the end-all be-all of journalism.

    • Andy Freeman

      > the best thing I ever learned from the storytelling seminars I attended was to try and find the human face of the story I was reporting.

      Ah yes. When reporting on the bad consequences from doing dumb things, it’s important to find a sympathetic face so the message becomes “shouldn’t we help these pretty people” instead of “don’t do dumb things, bad things will happen”.

      That’s just one of the ways journalism makes things worse for society.

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  • I’m with @Dave as this is nothing new for a (good) journalist.

    I’m with @Jeff as there are not too many journalists thinking and acting this way and using their (new) chances to get beyond the single story and their “classic” role.

    On the other side: Are we talking about journalism or publishing here? Are we talking about writing or investigating? Are we talking about storytelling or distributing?

    I’m not sure if a journalist has to be a publisher (etc.) as well? It is possible, for sure. But is it today’s imperative as well?

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  • If Jeff really believes such bald statements as “data is storytelling” then he’s utterly wrong. But it’s a provocative post and it’s certainly attracted my interest, so it’s worked. Once data is interpreted and presented decisions have been made about how to tell the story. I could develop this further by posting the theory that therefore journalism is transmission. But it’s all semantics, argument for it’s own sake rather than for a purpose. What matters is how we use newer technologies and forms to create better journalism. Thinking we are limited by storytelling suggests a limited view, I’m afraid.

  • A more pressing problem is iPhone predictive text inserting typos. “it’s” (sic) !!!

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  • Locomotive Breath

    “Cronkite was certainly a journalist and a storyteller, but kept himself OUT of the center.”

    I remember that when the Viet Cong were almost wiped out as a fighting force during their Tet offensive, Cronkite told us it was a war we couldn’t win. Way to keep yourself out of the story there Walter.

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  • Data is certainly not journalism, but using statistics you can tell a story about data. I think the journalist should be the narrator in a real-life stories about important events. I think it’s your definition of telling a story that is too narrow and old-media.

  • I think the whole journalist-as-story-teller thing is just one very small group pf journalists — magazine journos, narrative journos, etc.

    Most journalists are who, what, where, when, why types who give you only a part of the story, not the whole thing complete with plot, well-developed characters, etc.

    In fact, it’s quite rare to find a journalist who can really tell stories as opposed to identify them.

    The good story tellers are safe as theirs is a rare skil.

  • More and more I feel like you’re writing about journalism from a technologist’s point of view – it leaves me wondering how thoroughly those two are linked together.

    Many storytellers are judged by the media they fall into. Some brilliant news anchors on television might write like a two year old, and I’ve certainly seen enough failed efforts to go the other direction as well. It does make one wonder just how the future journalists will behave? Will we see a few mavericks who dive into real time reporting on Twitter as lead-ins to traditionally broken news pieces? Or will it all just flash in the pan?

    At the end of the day journalism is communication. Human beings are wired to accept storytelling as much as we like to claim we’re fans of easy-to-digest facts. There’s a floating point on the line between hyperbole and statistics that all journalism, in any venue, has to respect. Storytelling is nice. But it’s a term that belittles the amount of transmitted information that journalism has to contain to keep itself from becoming pulp.

    But then, I’m just a blogger. What do I know about reporting on substance?

  • To cut a long story short
    As long as there is an urgency to tell a story one could define journalists as storytellers.
    That’s where a lot of socalled journalists seem to fail; there’s simply no need to read, see, hear the story, they become ‘whorenalists’. (to their own need for attention or worse: only for the money)
    Journalism in itself needs to be aware that it serves (and is) the public eye, and therefore obliges itself to deliver content that needs to be communicated.
    You tell journalists to open themselves up; any good journalist is (and has always been) an open book; enabling, linking, teaching, filtering pointing, etc.

  • Jeff,

    is it possible you haven’t stumbled upon David Weinberger’s excellent post on this very matter:

    One of his most interesting arguments against journalism as storytelling is that both writers and readers have a number of plots in their mind in which we try to fit events that happen. Attached to the plots are expectations of outcomes and different roles for the people involved which bias our perception of the current unfinished event.

    Following this argument, journalists should actively resist storytelling – if it were commercially viable and humanly possible, that is ;-)

  • Sorry, the link got mashed up. Here it is again:

  • stephen strauss

    In this regard people might be interested in a small piece I wrote on the dictatorship of the reporter and the narrative which was reprinted at

  • Good topic. Thinking about video games, the nature of story as my kids think of a story, is changing. Is journalism storytelling? It seems there is a continuum of content, from a 140 character comment, to a fact, to a database, to an article, to a story. Journalists might be storytellers so long as they have stories valuable enough to survive. The fascinating shifts, to me, are that stories are told by unexpected tellers. And that stories now must handle unlimited points of view. In my reporter days, finding 2 people to comment on the school levy, pro and con, was a challenge and considered good work. In contrast, the challenge now is how to tell a story that includes 100s or 1000s of people and their views.

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  • Robert Levine

    We all tell stories. These days, most companies tell their own stories. The question is, should we believe them?
    Maybe not:

  • Rob Layton

    Journalists describe society to itself. We reflect society. We present facts in an unbiased manner so the public can form their own opinions. We do not (or should not) editorialise. We report. Stories are what we tell our children at bedtime.

    • Andy Freeman

      > Journalists describe society to itself. We reflect society. We present facts in an unbiased manner so the public can form their own opinions.

      That’s not true. It might be nice if it was true, but it’s not.

      Advocacy journalism is the standard now.

      > We do not (or should not) editorialise.

      You do. If you want readers to treat you as if you don’t, you have to stop.

      • pavel

        > That’s not true. It might be nice if it was true, but it’s not. Advocacy journalism is the standard now

        Ok then, let’s give up the whole idea of journalism. It just doesn’t work! Cut the reporting staff, let’s have “crowds” do world-class coverage. Who needs investigative journalism and critical reporting? We’ve got now!

  • Christo

    I suggest you scribblers need to stop agonising and get back to the original sense of the word, which is simple enough:
    ‘Journal n. [a. OF. journal a day, a day’s work late L. diurnl-em of or belonging to a day, DIURNAL.] 
    . . 6. A daily newspaper or other publication; hence, by extension, Any periodical publication containing news or dealing with matters of current interest in any particular sphere. Now often called specifically a public journal.
    1728 POPE Dunc. I. 42 Hence Journals, Medleys, Merc’ries, Magazines . .

    Journalist n. 1. One who earns his living by editing or writing for a public journal or journals.
    1693 Humours Town 78 Epistle-Writer, or Jurnalists, Mercurists . . ‘ [OED]

    The question you should be asking is: what nowadays counts as a ‘journal’? I suggest that they key point is the ‘periodicity’ of the publication: blogs that are published daily or weekly or whatever to a schedule are journals and those that write ’em are journalists. Those that do not keep to a schedule are not. I am sure that Daniel Defoe and the other first Grub Street hacks would agree.

    • Rob Layton

      So long as you understand the difference between journalism and social commentary. “Our existence will hang on whether we can keep false information from proliferating too rapidly. If our power to verify facts does not keep pace, then distortions of information will eventually choke us.’ – Norman Mailer. That is journalism.

      • Andy Freeman

        > If our power to verify facts does not keep pace, then distortions of information will eventually choke us.

        That’s true, but journalists don’t seem to be up to the task.

        All too often, they lack the basic knowledge required to verify facts.

        No, quote checking isn’t fact checking.

        For example, the “climate gate” files included several source code files. A group of journalists reviewed the text files and concluded that they didn’t reveal any evidence of misbehavior. That alone reveals ignorance of basic scientific principles. However, their inability to read code means that they didn’t even have a chance to look at whether the manipulations were kosher. (They weren’t.)

        Then again, there’s nothing to distinguish that effort from a planned coverup so ignorance may not be the problem in this case. (Their conclusions aren’t even consistent with what the authors of the e-mails have admitted.)

  • Dermitt

    This is interesting
    Add in O.R. and you are onto something here.
    “What is useful is well-defined marketing tools for the discipline that convey with real examples: here was the problem, here’s how the technical mastery was applied, and here are the business benefits.”

    – An executive at a Fortune 500 company

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  • Dermitt

    “We are able to look 12 months in the future to see the development of active customers, sales, and profit.”
    That sort of capability cannot hurt the newspaper business that has been looking into the abyss. In the future I can see the development of active stories, if I’m living. Active Stories might be a better name. Say the newspaper headline is 300 killed. Then what?

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  • There goes Jarvis again, fetishizing the tools. Data streams and Twitter streams and Flickr photos — these are just tools. Tools that need indeed to be wielded by a central character, a story-teller — and *that’s ok*.

    Since ancient times, the story-tellers of societies have been revered — they are trained, and the good ones immerse the listener in the story and don’t get in the way of the story with their own persona.

    This fetishistic call to remove the narrator in fact only dissolves us into a million unacknowledged subjectivities masquerading as “science”. The narration power in fact merely shifts to the coder, the data-scraper, the widgeteer, who grabs the streams and reproduces or filters them. Jarvis, with his always-on adulation of Google, fails to acknowledge the actual fictionalizing that occurs by those wielding the “server truths”.

    Give me the authenticated and respected journalist-narrator any day. He can be informed by more streams and be more interactive, but let him tell the story — and let people pay for his work.

    “Who will stay the dyer’s hand?”

  • Jeremy G. Burton

    The notion of what it means to be a storyteller may change, but data aggregation, crowdsourcing and all these other new media technologies are fantastic ways to further the narratives of our communities and ourselves. Isn’t that still storytelling? An intricate database of crime statistics, for instance, is all well and good, but worthless if it does not mean anything. It tells the story of what is happening and, hopefully, begins to provide some sense of why.

    Storytelling isn’t just about (one-way) telling. It is also about delving head-on into the world around you, and the world talking back. I hope we don’t lose that spirit in journalism.

  • Enjoyed this entry. Enjoyed your book too. Great mind you have.

  • pavel

    i can’t make much sense of your article.

    even contextless, not fact-checked, “raw” data of a twitter stream from iran *will* be processed by the recipient in form of a story with the conventional media coverage serving as a backdrop. the story appears to be a fundamental mode of human understanding. the “storyteller” might or might not vanish, the “story” is here to stay.

    finally, journalists as “enablers, community organizers, teachers, curators, filters, tool makers, algorithm writers” are in desperate need of stories as well. try “organizing a community” without a story around it.

    • Amelia Favela


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  • Michael Gentry

    Journalists describe society to itself. We reflect society. We present facts in an unbiased manner so the public can form their own opinions.One of the greatest opportunities of multimedia journalism is the ability to make different design choices.

    Michael Gentry

    “dofollow”> Melbourne

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  • Tim
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  • The Story in the best case is the antform of a myth. It’s the lubricant, that helps to get in long-term memory. Its subjective like hell, but it helps for real deep objectivation. But only in the best case.

    Thanks for broadening the term journalism & to start new thuoghts about storytelling!

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