The Case For Long-Form Storytelling

In 2012, only 20% of the local television stories exceeded a minute while 50% lasted less than 30 seconds.  That is according to Pew Research Analysis.  That was four years ago, and there is no reason to believe news stories have gotten longer since then.  

In light of the tendency to create shorter clips, suitable for fast digestion online, eight seniors on “HTV Magazine” staff just produced a 38-minute special with the theme, “Defining Moments.”  The show includes five stories that averaged around seven minutes each.  Some places, they call those a “mini-documentaries.”  I like “stories” better.  And I like long format storytelling a lot.  So yes, we are going against the grain, fully aware viewers may not sit still for even one of those stories, let along the entire show. 


So why do it?  Why not just cover things that you can shoot, write and edit in a few days, or maybe a week?  Why take a thematic approach and spend over three months compiling footage and interviews, and figuring out how to weave it all together? 

Because I am more interested in teaching storytelling than creating something that looks like every other local newscast.

Because I see more teaching moments in long form stories than in just about any other format.

Because at the end of the process, I see an incredible sense of pride and fulfillment in my students.  

The long form show, full of long form, journalistic stories, is worth the time and effort it takes to plan and execute it.  It is also not something I recommend to beginning broadcast teachers, or beginning broadcast students.

If you are interested in taking this approach, in getting away from short pieces that are a mile wide and an inch deep, here are some tips gleaned from 27 years of trying to produce the deeper, and yes, longer, segments for special shows:

*Pick a dedicated group of students for the team, but keep it to 7-10 kids.  And emphasize “team” every step of the way.

*Pick a topic that the team is interested in covering—they have to buy into it.  Spend weeks if necessary discussing and debating the subject of the show.  The best topic will always originate with the team of students producing it.  And it should have many layers.

*Cover an issue that you have access to cover.  If you can not get unique access to people and events, the show will never come together. 

*Come up with a loose production schedule, and make sure the kids understand they will be working on other projects as well as the special, because day in, day out, there may not always be something for each team member to do for the special.  There is down time during a long production process.  Fill it with other assignments.

*Have a student leader who helps hold everyone accountable.  A go-between who keeps you updated when you are dealing with your regular duties.  I call this person the Executive Producer, and they are in constant communication with me.

*Meet.  Regularly.  Get the production team together and go over where you are, where you need to be by this time next week.  Do screenings of work in progress.  It helps establish consistency.

*Leave your ego at the door.  When it comes time to decide who will anchor, or even report, go with your strengths.  Your best reporters and on-camera talent get those slots.  Why spend two or three or four months on a special show, and not use your strongest talent in talent spots, and your strongest shooters in editors in those spots?  

*When the show is ready, prepare your social media campaign to get the word out.  Use every avenue available to get eyeballs on the final show.  If it is truly “special,” then get it out there.

There are many ways to put together a special program, one that takes time to tell layered, compelling, in-depth stories.  The key is having a committed group of students, a great topic, and the time to do it right.  As the teacher, you have to lead, but you also have to find leadership within your student team. 

I hope you will give it a try.  We do not produce one every year.  But when we do, and the show wraps, the students involved will have their own stories to tell about creating something truly memorable.

Here are the last three special editions we have produced:

2016:  “Defining Moments”

2014:  “Spare the Child”

2013:  “Homeless in the Heartland”