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05/23/2006 09:01 AM

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Columns by Ted Vaden
Published: May 21, 2006 12:30 AM Modified: May 21, 2006 02:50 AM

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A time-saving alternative for readers?
TED VADEN, Staff Writer Caution to readers: Today's column is not in the traditional format. Instead it's inspired by "Alternative Story Form." WHAT IS ALTERNATIVE STORY FORM? "Alternative Story Form," or ASF, is a new trend in journalism designed to streamline communication between newspaper and reader. This format strips excess verbiage from traditional journalism and boils information down to just the facts, ma'am. News articles now may turn up in question-and-answer format, "bulleted" info morsels (a bullet is one of these: * ), news presented entirely in graphic or chart form, abbreviated stories that don't leap from the front page to inside the paper, and other formats that depart from the old "inverted pyramid" narrative style. CAN YOU GIVE ME AN EXAMPLE? WHAT'S BEHIND THIS NEW TECHNIQUE? Alternative story forms are designed to address the reason that people most often give for not using newspapers: "I don't have time to read." The ASF is intended to make reading the paper easy, useful, even fun. "We know readers are time-starved," said Thad Ogburn, The N&O's assistant metro editor, who is designing a style manual on ASF usage. "That's one thing we hear all the time -- they want us to just give them the facts." Story Tools
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Andy Bechtel, an assistant journalism professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, teaches alternative story form to his students. A former N&O editor, Bechtel says he sees increasing use of the style among newspapers across the country as they try to broaden their appeal to readers, especially the youth market. "This is another way to convey information to your readers," he said. ISN'T THIS JUST A SHORTCUT TO MAKE NEWSPAPERS' WORK EASIER? ASFs usually are shorter than traditional stories. But Ogburn says the extra effort required to boil stories down and enhance their visual appeal often makes more work for the reporter and editor. WHEN ARE ASFS APPROPRIATE TO USE? The best deployment I've seen has been The N&O's treatment of college graduations. Instead of a series of long boring narratives on the speeches and every-year ceremonial trappings -- usually of interest only to the grads and their families -- stories are broken into digestible info nuggets such as "What the speaker said," "What parents were saying" and "Not mentioned" (at Duke last week: "The word, 'lacrosse.'") These quick hits from the campuses, accompanied by lively art, were so popular last year that colleges were calling to make sure their ceremonies were treated the same way. WHAT DO READERS THINK? Sometimes, readers aren't sure what to make of them. At last month's meeting of The N&O's Community Panel, recent alternative stories brought ambivalent reaction from this group of readers recruited by The N&O to advise us on coverage. "I think that works in some sections but not in others," said Nancy Kaiser, of Durham. In January, the paper received puzzled reactions when it ran a full-page graphic on the Samuel Alito nomination, in a Monopoly game format complete with cartoon depictions of Alito and the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I was embarrassed myself and for the paper," said reader Bob Havely of Raleigh. "To cover the opening of Judge Alito's Supreme Court confirmation hearings, you used a full-page cartoon more fitting for 'My Weekly Reader.'" Ogburn readily acknowledges that ASFs don't work for every kind of story. They aren't suited for investigative projects, for example, except perhaps for supplemental sidebars. They don't work for long narratives where story-telling is as

Page 1 of 2 | A time-saving alternative for readers?
important as the information conveyed. And, used profligately, ASFs could translate into a dumbing-down of news that insults readers' intelligence. "I think those are legitimate concerns and something to be guarded against," said Bechtel, the UNC prof. "On the flip side, the story form may be just as informative, or even more so" than traditional stories. "And they may get more people to read them." SO WHICH IS BETTER, ASF OR TRADITIONAL FORM? I'll let you decide. I actually wrote two versions of this column, one with a nod to ASF style, and one traditional. You can read the conventional at The Public Editor can be reached at or by calling (919) 8365700.
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