The importance of narrative

By Felix Salmon
April 28, 2009

Jim Ledbetter gets high-minded in his Portfolio obit:

If Lipman could have collected a dollar for each time one of her staff members talked about the importance of “narrative,” she probably would have collected more than the magazine got in subscription revenues. Narrative is a lovely and often helpful literary tool, but the fact that it works in Condé Nast magazines like Vanity Fair and The New Yorker does not mean narrative is what the business journalism audience wants.

Actually, any audience wants narrative, especially a business audience. It’s not only newspaper articles which are referred to as “stories” — talk to any investment banker about selling a bond or a loan, and he’ll immediately start talking about the “story” of the company in question. Meanwhile, all investors have to train themselves not to get beguiled by stories, and to look hard for counternarratives.

The fact is that narrative is the way that humans communicate information: whether it’s a book or a screenplay or a magazine story, if there isn’t a narrative there, virtually no one will read it, and when they do they will read without pleasure, complaining about how “dry” it is. So if you’re a journalist — if your job is to make stuff that people want to read — then yes, you need narrative.

Insofar as I had a problem with the Portfolio approach to magazine journalism, it wasn’t with the emphasis on narrative, so much as it was with the emphasis on conflict. There was a strong desire for every story to have a protagonist and an antagonist and to be able to boil things down into two opposing camps, when finance is of course generally much more subtle and complicated than that. Financial journalism should try hard not to oversimplify matters, especially when you have the luxury, as Portfolio did, of long lead times and lots of space. But yes, of course it should also tell stories.

7 comments

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The corollary to the mis-perception about narrative is “the numbers tell the story”. Data dumps are not information. Most of CNBC spent hours each day telling us about the numbers and were largely blindsided by the much more important narrative at work.

Brian

“The feature is dead” is a very compelling meme, and you can see it at work not just in some of the changes at the WSJ, but also in the financial trade press, where shorter, newsier pieces have edged aside longer writing. You can also see it at play out in Bloomberg pieces, which legendarily (and possibly apocryphally) ban the use of the word “but”, on the assumption that traders do not like to deal with competing angles in the same article. I’d also like to mention a third actor here – google – which drives greater volumes of readers to sites with a large number of small keyword-laden pieces than a few blockbuster pieces. The blogosphere, which DOES love these longer pieces, might not be enough to compensate.

You say:

\”…all investors have to train themselves not to get beguiled by stories, and to look hard for counternarratives.\”

This might be the tersest expression yet of the lessons of 2007-8, though I still like my own title post http://short.ie/mri

How nonsensical to rail against narrative, as you point out.

I confess that I didn’t see every copy of Portfolio, but one of the shortcomings that struck me was it had a very NY-centric view of business. It was meant to be a business magazine, not a finance magazine, yet for an outsider it seemed clear that the editorial position was that Wall Street was the center of the universe.

That point of view didn’t serve Portfolio well, and as we’re now seeing it didn’t serve the world’s economy well, either.

I loved Portfolio — it reminded me of my first love Spy Magazine, and also the WSJ A-heads. The graphics were delightful. I love stories, and I can handle complex narratives. So can most people I know. It’s a shame if they were trying to boil stories down into clearcut heroes and villains. Wonder what they would have done with the story of, say, Michael Milken.

It sounds like there was some lack of consensus as to who the audience was supposed to be. Traders were reading it? Really? Why cater to them when they bitch and moan no matter what you do? ;-)

I agree with the poster above that it was too NY-centric, but I don’t see how any Conde Nast title is ever going to get over that hump and I doubt that was the fatal flaw.

Posted by SelenesMom | Report as abusive

I’m a business journalist (of a type). I’ve been thinking about this particular subject for a while. I agree fully with Felix that ‘story’ is how humans work. It’s certainly the easist way to remember anythihng At the same time, it’s very rare life falls into neat single narratives (and trying to force it too results in bogusness of the worst kind). I think the answer is to tell stories (plural). Whatever you write, should be well fleshed out with people and above all anecdotes: miniture stories. That will take you wherever you have to go. As an aside, I think the tradition of referring to everything a journalist writes as a “story” is extremely and confusing to those just starting out.

Posted by david s | Report as abusive

I spend most of my time trying to block what Taleb calls the “narrative fallacy” and trying to keep my monkey brain on the data. Calculated Risk, for example, shows how properly illustrated data can be far more interesting than shallow narrative.

Posted by Sunset Shazz | Report as abusive