The term “narrative news story” refers most broadly to any sort of nonfiction storytelling, but more specifically to a news story that begins with an anecdote rather than a summary lead and then is organized in temporal sequence rather than either by inverted pyramid style or analytically. Narrative news has a long and varied history, an interesting connection with literary history, a vibrant present, and a hopeful future.
Many of the earlier formats of news were narrative in form. Ballads and news-books dwelled on spectacular events – shipwrecks, murders, executions – and told their stories from beginning to end. One common form of narrative, especially for crime, was first person, as in the standard “gallows speech.” This form was common enough to work as a template for fictional narratives, the most famous being Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders.
Newspapers also featured items in narrative style. Early newspaper content tended to be composed by printers and other non-writers; stories appeared in vernacular form. Reports often included the provenance of the information – “The ship xxx, captain yyy, arrived Wednesday, carrying a letter from a gentleman in Warsaw, which states that . . .”.
Though common sense to early modern readers, this form, which takes so long to get to the point, became cumbersome by the mid-nineteenth century. Three developments encouraged a less intuitive style: pictures, popular journalism, and bureaucratic efficiency, which in turn promoted the inverted pyramid style.
Pictorial journalism developed quickly in the middle of the century in the various western countries. Using engravings, usually woodcuts, rather than photographs, these news pictures compressed time and freely combined elements to allow for narrative effects and a pointed representation of character. Only at the beginning of the twentieth century did narrative illustration yield to photojournalism, a less lucid form of picturing that provides traces of a story rather than a full account.
At the same time, mass circulation newspapers appeared – in the 1830s in the US, and in following decades in other western countries where taxation and censorship retarded their appearance. These papers featured more routinized forms of earlier narrative content, especially crime news – the police court reports of the New York Sun, for instance. War correspondence – the Crimean War for British papers, the Civil War for US – and a second wave of “penny papers” in the last quarter of the century intensified the development of narrative style by coupling it with the persona of the reporter.
This “story model” of journalism competed with an “information model” that came to rely on the inverted pyramid style. Although it became common only in the 1890s, examples of the inverted pyramid style appeared earlier in newspapers in items like the Civil War dispatches of war secretary Edwin Stanton. Designed for efficiency, it became the preferred style of bureaucrats first and then reporters, as they became subject first to the rigors of the newsroom and then to the teachable styles of the new university-level journalism courses and schools. The inverted pyramid style never fully conquered journalism, though. It was resisted by a verbose tradition of reporting, by the cross-fertilization of journalism with literature seen in the careers of storytellers like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, and by magazine journalism, especially as practiced by the great muckrakers, like Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, who focused on telling compelling stories and often inserted their own pursuit of the truth into the story. The narrative news story survived in the twentieth century, though it was eclipsed by long-form expert journalism, which became the new gold standard in the high modern period. Narrative inspired innovations in the theory and practice of journalism, including emerging styles of broadcast journalism, especially live journalism, long-form documentary, and the literary work of the so-called “new journalists.”
Narrative currently is experiencing a revival in print media. As newspapers recede further from mass circulation and breaking news, they have developed a new openness to narrative and literary styles. Harvard’s Nieman Center has hosted annual conferences on narrative news since 2001, and among other US newspapers the Virginian-Pilot has a narrative news team. The revival of narrative follows a generation of theoretical analysis of how narratives are constituted across a range of literary genres. Although scholars of journalism are occasionally attentive to this literature, the impulse toward storytelling in the working press comes from more pragmatic sources – the desire to captivate readers foremost among them. But the construction of a storyline out of reporting raises inevitable questions about accuracy and detachment and invites the perception of a blurring of the line between fact and fiction. The enduring fascination with narrative classics like Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood underscores the liminal status of the form.
As a result, the narrative form remains on the margins of hard news reporting, deployed more for color or human interest than for public affairs reporting, which still prefers the more apparently neutral inverted pyramid style, with its obvious capacity for balancing sourced opinions and quotations.
- Barnhurst, K. G., & Nerone, J. (2001). The form of news: A history. New York: Guilford.
- Clark, C. (1994). The public prints: The newspaper in Anglo-American culture, 1665 –1740. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Mindich, D. T. Z. (1998). Just the facts: How “objectivity” came to define American journalism. New York: New York University Press.
- M. (1978). Discovering the news: A social history of American newspapers. New York: Basic Books.
- Stephens, M. (1996). A history of news, 2nd edn. New York: Wadsworth.