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Victoria Anderson and Wallis Eates on writing from the inside

The Wings project Kickstarter page is here.

Victoria Anderson and Wallis Eates discuss their experiences of acquiring access to HMP Wandsworth Prison, only to be told to destroy all of their material.

Anderson and Eates first went to Wandsworth prison in 2017 on behalf of Stretch Charity. They had access to the prison for five months, and worked alongside the prisoners to help them make animated films.

Describing arriving at Wandsworth for the first time, Anderson said, “The physical space of Wandsworth Prison is extraordinary. It looks like a dungeon, like a castle,” she says.

“We were part of a charity that has been cleared to take digital equipment to take recording equipment into a prison. We were part of the only charity that had been granted permission to take recording equipment into the prison,” Anderson says. “However despite this, we got taken to security twice as a result. We had to destroy all footage.”

The decision to delete the films was made by the comms department who were worried about the films creating negative media traction. Which is ironic Anderson says, as they were they there to give voice to the prisoners, not demonise them. “We wanted to honour what was going on and the people there, not do an expose on it.”

Anderson and Eates said the prisoners were excited to get their stories out, that they were finally being heard. “They [the prisoners] were tremendous,” Anderson said. “Of all my times working in prisons, I’ve never met people more willing to talk about the big stuff,” Eates says. “Aestheticism, life, death, mortality.”

The issue then resulted into a question of storytelling itself. “How do we visually bring out these men’s stories to audiences? Bring out that their nuance? Not illustrate every single thing, but allow those words to breathe.”

Words by Juliette Rowsell

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Meera Selva and Rachael Jolley on presenting stories to different cultural audiences

Rachael Jolley, Editor of Index for Censorship, and Meera Selva, from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, sit down to discuss writing for a global audience, the art of a successful pitch and the state of journalism.

“People find it really difficult to think about a global audience,” Jolley says. “Everyone is so used to thinking about it from their own perspective. Often the stories people are pitching they have a knowledge in, but it’s a story that ‘s already out there. Stories need to make sense to people in France, Argentina, Spain. You might know that this is the minister for education, but does your audience? You need to be able to take a step away.”

They discuss how important it is to think outside of your social and cultural bubble. They keep referring to how pitches need to look outside of their own perspective and look at their story from an external perspective and whether the story still stands up.

They say it’s important to make it clear, ‘why are you the person telling this story?’. “in your pitch, you have to explain precisely why you’re telling this story. You don’t necessarily have to be from that community at all,” Salva explains. “You could offer a comparative perspective; it could be that you’re politically safer to report on the issue. For example, you could go to Russia, and then have the safety of being able to again leave. You have to quite clearly express this in the pitch.”

Discussing the opportunities for freelance, Jolley asks Selva whether she thinks that a decrease in staff jobs is a good opportunity for freelancers. Selva is hesitant towards this.

“Yes, there’s opportunity, but there’s a risk,” she says. “Budgets are being cut, and this is why there’s more opportunity for freelancers because there are fewer people being employed as staff writers. In a healthy world, it’s a mix of both. Falling budgets are good for anyone. But I do think that there’s the opportunity for freelancers to reach more editors. In the digital age, there’s more opportunity to catch editors attention.”

She goes on to speculate that the very thing that was accused of ruining our attention spans, is the very thing that is liberating longform journalism. “There’s no point in regurgitating the short bits off of social media. Is the world of journalism moving towards long form because they can get so many short snippets of news from social media?”

They both see social media as a place for opportunity. They open up the discussion to the audience, with many speaking about how they have been able to interact with editors online, how they’ve been able to share their work to wider and more global audiences, and the opportunity to find work online.

Salva also talks about how social media helps you build a “personal brand”, which she says is even more important in many ways to global audiences. “Your citizenship matters to global audiences; If you’re British that’s how you’re going to be perceived. You need to define it so people don’t define it for you. Create the image that you want someone in a foreign country to have of you,” she says.

Returning back to the matter of longform journalism, it’s good news, Jolley says.

“We’ve always been an advocate of longform journalism at the Index on Censorship,” Jolley explains. “We think that the world has swung round with us. Four years ago everything, had to be 400 words, we were told that everyone has the attention span of a flea. It’s really interesting how this has changed.”

Words by Juliette Rowsell

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Jill Nicholson on the stories that people actually read

Over the weekend, the word ‘Chartbeat’ keeps popping up throughout various talks. And it’s no secret: Chartbeat has helped change how journalists produce their work.

Jill Nicholson from Chartbeat talks about how to make longform journalism work with the data.

She begins by pointing out how 52.2% of longform articles that are read are discovered through the website itself. People are then most likely to discover longform articles through social media. 28.6% of longform articles are found through social.

However, people who discover articles from social media are more likely to complete the article. “There’s just more intent,” she says if it’s discovered through social.

Chartbeat’s goal is not clicks. It’s about loyal readership,” Jill stresses. “Our goal is to help you use technology to help your job, not get in the way of it.”

Story is key

There were some surprises she said in the trends Chartbeat found towards the most popular long reads of 2019.

“Non-celebrity stories that were just interesting stories did well last year,” Nicholson explains. This is a good sign for journalism, showing that interesting stories are always key to success. However, people aren’t going to be searching for these stories on the web, so they need to have strong social media promotion. Which means tweeting about them more than once to ensure they gain traction.

“Writing headlines is an art”

Despite how journalism has increasingly been listening to reader-behavioural data, she says that the fundamental skills of journalism haven’t gone out of fashion in the age of SEO and clicks, but it’s just that these skills need refining.

In fact in the age of digital, Nicholson says, headlines are more important than ever. “For your digital reader, all you have is the headline,” she says.

She shows statistics about what makes headlines successful. Chartbeat found that negative words, interrogative ‘whens’ and ‘whats’ and demonstrative pronouns like ‘these’ and ‘this’ produced the most clicked on headlines.

“Unfortunately it seems that the human beings that you’re trying to reach just like the sadder stories,” she jokes. “Do with that what you will. It doesn’t mean you have to be doom and gloom all the time, it’s just something to be aware of.”

She also said that it’s important to keep headlines human and use approachable language that you would use in conversations. Especially in an age of fake news, “people like to feel that these stories have come from human beings and not ‘The Media.'”

She also warned against questions in headlines: “question headlines have been associated with clickbait”. She reassures audiences that if they’re feeling overwhelmed with all this data on headlines alone, that “headline writing is an art.”

“It’s hard,” she says. “It’s just a skill, but these are just things to remain aware of.”

Fundamentally, all these statistics and data is simply about gaining greater reader relationships, which leads to more money for news organisations.

“The more engagement, the more loyal, the more revenue,” she says.

Words by Juliette Rowsell

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Young audiences: stereotypes and strategies on how longform can flourish on youth-focused platforms


Louise Ridley, the former longform editor from Buzzfeed heads a panel discussion on young people and longreads with Pink News’ Ellen Stewart and Imran Rahman-Jones from BBC Newsbeat.

It’s good news for longform journalism. The panelists all agree that the myth that young people don’t care about longform, that they don’t have attention spans, just isn’t true.

“There’s a lot of stereotypes which can be restrictive about young people,” she says. “That young people are not interested in news or they have short attention spans – but the evidence for this is ‘waffley’ and not conclusive,” begins Ridley.

“I don’t think young people have shorter attention spans,” says Rahman-Jones. “Young people do stick with articles to the end. You’ve got to look more widely around the web.

Look at Netflix, they’re producing true crime stories – that’s long form storytelling. It’s just a different format.”

All three panellists agreed that longform doesn’t just have to mean more words. It means more storytelling.

Stewart pointed out that even though she doesn’t write traditional longform stories as Pink News‘ head of Snapchat, the platform has an unusual high dwell time on their interactive Snapchat stories. A whopping dwell time of two minutes, whereas their website only has an article dwell time of about 40 seconds.

For young people, the importance of visual elements cannot be understated. “Young people will switch off if you don’t grab them. If there’s an interesting visual and graphic, that’s the best way to grab. Don’t ever use black and white. There should be a ban on that,” says Stewart. 

But it’s also important to just get creative with the ways of storytelling. Rahman-Jones describes how a piece he wrote last year involved transcriptions of voice messages, text messages, and video footage. For young people, Ridley concludes, “it’s how you can sell it.”

While news outlets might need to get more savvy with how they tailor their long reads to reach young people, she says it’s still just about good journalism.

“You need to ask, is there really a story to tell here? Not just a long story. Why are young people going to give up their time to read your story?” she asks. “Who are the characters in this? It has to be that there’s a person and that leads to the topic. Always start with the people.”

According to them, longform articles are still succeeding with young audiences, and they’re not going anywhere soon.

Words by Juliette Rowsell 

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Jonathan Shainin on what makes a good long read

Longform journalism is a big operation within the Guardian, with the Long Reads department producing around 150 articles each year.

Editor Jonathan Shainin – speaking at Well Told on Friday 1 March – estimates that more than 500 long reads have been produced since its inception in 2014.

Each story “involves an investment”, he explains, comparing the process as similar to that of documentary-making, along with writer contracts and expensive commissions to consider and justify.

But Long Read stories bring something new to the table. Much like the BBC produces both the News at Six and Newsnight, the Guardian’s Long Reads team and general news desk both have a vital role to play, he argued.

“We’re a little bit like a film production studio that sits within the paper… It’s a different form, but holds an equally valid place in journalism”.

Tips for longform journalism pitches

Having read and published hundreds of longform stories in recent years, Jonathan has plenty of tips to impart when pitching a deep-dive article.

One to avoid in particular, is anniversary pitches. When Guardian Long Reads was first set up in 2014, he received countless pitches for stories to mark the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And five years later, he received the same pitches again.

But an anniversary is not cause for a story, he argued: “If it was a good story it wouldn’t matter that it’s the 25th anniversary,” he said. “The story should be its own justification.”

Every longform article also needs to have a greater social and cultural meaning he added. Jonathan referred to an article by Sam Knight (who spoke earlier at Well Told) about what will happen when the Queen dies – also the most read Guardian Long Read ever – as an example of a story that goes deeper than may first appear, diving into the “fucked up psychological relationship we have the monarchy”.

In addition – as is a generally-accepted rule in good journalism – he reiterated the need to find stories that will capture the public imagination and take root, and get that across in the first few lines of the article.

“Writing longform articles in a newspaper is about discipline,” he said. “The headline has to be clear on what this is, about, it’s got to have a flicker of the story in the first paragraph.

“It’s like a movie trailer, you’ve got to get it into the beginning to give people an idea of how to read it.”

Looking ahead

From a statistics point of view, the future of longform journalism looks bright. The Guardian has an in-house analytics tool called Ophan, which is used to track engagement with its articles.

Jonathan said that longform stories tend to defy the theory of short attention spans online.

The execution of these pieces means that they continue to do well despite behavioural trends, he added. “You take more time on the story, you put more effort into it, you spend more money. There’s an idea that there’s a value in the detail.”

Words by Juliette Rowsell