I'm minding my own business, quaffing a quiet beer and trying to understand the "fiscal cliff" in the latest issue of The Economist at Scallywag's rooftop bar, when a young woman comes to my table.
"Mr. Knight" she says politely, "we haven't met, but I read your blog on HuffPost ... the story about top news brass at CBC, CTV and Global ... and you really criticized their storytelling ... and they agreed it isn't very good."
I say something-all purpose and cautious like "Ah ... yes," and wait. You never know when some crazy's going to attack you as full of crap to say nothing of a disgusting, ignorant blight on the journalistic landscape.
"I wonder if I could ask you a question? And buy you a drink?"
I'm still cautious, but she doesn't seem violent so I put The Economist down. "Of course."
She sits. We introduce ourselves, shake hands. Turns out she's a reporter for a TV station not a hundred miles from Toronto.
She leans across the table. Her voice is challenging, slightly contemptuous. "We've been discussing your column in our newsroom. What makes you think you know all about good storytelling and those big executives for the three TV news networks don't?"
"Ah ... yes ..." I say again. Maybe I was wrong about the violence.
"Surely they know that they're doing. No?"
I'm careful. "Sometimes no. And a lot of broadcast journalists were trained by newspaper people. Not in oral storytelling, but in newspaper writing. And old habits get in the way."
"How do you mean?"
I segue into storytelling. Seems the safest thing to do. "Want to know why broadcast news still starts so many stories at the end ... tells you effect before cause ... is so hard to understand ... to remember?"
"Let me tell you a story ..."
It's 130 years ago. The Daily Outrage sends reporter Fred Nurk off to some far-flung foreign assignment (Botswana, Minsk, Come By Chance, Khartoum etc.) by boat, coach or mule train.
Our Fred packs his notebooks, whisky and cigars, some respectable suits, a variety of hats and cravats, formal evening wear, a few bibles and, when appropriate, a pith helmet and bush jacket along with a tasteful assortment of beads and mirrors (vital for cheating the natives), along with cleft-sticks in case he needs cleft-stick runners to carry his stories back to civilization. (See Evelyn Waugh's Scoop and Black Mischief).
When he gets to wherever it is, Fred does his research and writes backgrounders on various stories likely to come up. He describes the situation as it is when he gets there. No beginnings. Only context, background and colour.
He sends the backgrounders back to The Daily Outrage by the next coach. Or boat. Or coach. Or mule train. Or cleft-stick runner. Sometimes, they take weeks to get back to the paper.
When they finally do get there, printers set Fred's words in type, leaving room for the opening paragraphs, still to come.
And everyone waits.
Come the big events (war, pestilence, famine, scandal, election, etc.), Fred writes the story lead, condensing the new information into three or four pithy paragraphs, and sends it back to the newsroom by telegraph (later telex) at the enormously expensive rate of a penny a word.
All they have to do back at The Daily Outrage is set Fred's two or three new paragraphs in type. Then they add some connecting words to link the new information with the old backgrounder already in type.
For instance: "The situation had been deteriorating for a considerable time ..." Or the ever popular, all-purpose "meanwhile ...".
This way, the paper only has to pay the big money for the three or four paragraphs sent by telegraph -- instead of the fortune it would have cost if Fred had sent the whole story that way.
Starting the story at its end, its climax, and working back to the context saved newspapers a lot of money 130 years ago. Unfortunately though, it became a journalistic habit over the years. And it's still used in a lot of broadcast newsrooms around the world today.
Which explains why so much of our broadcast journalism remains obscure, murky, opaque, sometimes even incomprehensible.
The reporter for a TV station not a hundred miles from Toronto isn't convinced. "But surely, you've got to grab the viewer's attention, give her the best, latest stuff at the beginning of the story? Or she'll lose interest. You'll lose her!"
"No. You lose her when she already knows how the story ends. When there's no tension left. No drama. No surprise. To put it simply, no storytelling."
I get a touch pompous. "Look ... TV is its own, unique medium. With its own unique rules. Television works on the emotional level which is far more powerful, more human, deeper, basic and elemental than any newspaper. TV journalism is, in fact, the exact equivalent of the storyteller gathering the tribe around the fire at the end of the day and passing on survival information through stories. That storyteller never starts at the end."
She smiles. I'm relieved. "Makes sense, I suppose." She thinks back. "Your column quoted the three network news executives ... who were they?"
"You quoted them as agreeing with you that their journalists don't do chronological storytelling, TV storytelling, very well." She's puzzled. "So why don't these bosses just tell them ... order them ... to tell stories that way?"
I shrug. "Damned if I know. Interested in another drink?"
Knight is the author of Storytelling and the Anima Factor (Lulu.com). His Fred Nurk story first appeared in the chapter The Unfortunate Newspaper Legacy.