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.

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