Breaking Bad’s Story Design Applied to Journalism

Check out this great article from Inside the Story Magazine:

It sounds pretty much like “New Journalism” to me. And great ideas for all types of storytellers… though a team that large working on any one story is pretty rare in the “news” biz – but why not use this as a classroom approach!

(Sundance Channel’s The Writers Room is also a must watch. There are lots of great writing processes discussed on the show. There’s one with Vince Gilligan and the Breaking Bad folks too, as well as other shows like New Girl and Dexter, etc.)

You can’t really tell from today’s TV news product on most channels, but the approach discussed in this article (on a much faster timeline) is actually the goal that committed video-based journalists strive for everyday. Something has gone wrong in many/most TV markets and the “stories” get lost in favor of crap. But TV news done right is just stories that serve to illustrate important things/happenings/issues. These are the stories that win Emmy awards, which is why this prize is so valued in the TV news industry.

Everyone can focus on finding characters, arcs, etc. I have students sit around and brainstorm stories from idea, like a pitch meeting, then go through the process of improving the storytelling together, coming back at various points to examine their progress. The idea is to focus on storytelling. I love the idea this article suggests – using the index cards like you do with a book or long-form academic piece or script… and doing a team project. I’m going to try that next semester… and start it all off with this article! Thanks for sharing!!
Personally, I encourage students to spend a significant time planning up front and doing varied research. Then finding characters for their stories, not just using the first random person they find. This is why they are supposed to pre-interview people. Then they look for nuggets at the shoots that help tell the story and ask informed, well-researched questions that lead to good SOTs/quotes. Then they log every piece of audio and video they shoot. You do that, then pick out your best stuff and build your story from that. No index cards involved but printing out logs and highlighting best stuff and numbering it can serve the same purpose. Then they write from that outline of sorts. Oh, they complain about all these steps. They are very resistant at first but eventually they (or at least some of them) come around and realize that all that work leads to better stories… and actually saves them significant time in the end.

A much longer but recommended read is Al Tompkins “Aim for the Heart: Write, Shoot, Report and Produce for TV and Multimedia.” I use this book for the TV news class I teach. It has a strong storytelling focus for anyone doing video stories or thinking of learning those techniques. It’s a storytellers version of TV news focusing on quality producing, reporting, shooting and editing… and making everything an interesting story, not the sausage making of what we mostly see in TV news but the stuff award-winning, standout, memorable stories are made of.

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