Conference info

New tools of storytelling: Aid or hindrance?

CIJ Well Told’s panel discussion on “Interactivity vs Storytelling” brought together Zillah Watson from BBC‘s VR studio, Ben Fogarty, CEO of and host Joe Bond from The Spectator to discuss whether new tools and technologies enhance storytelling or whether they just get in the way.

According to Zillah Watson, VR works for journalism by “employing traditional storytelling techniques brought to a new medium”. She explains that VR has changed the way we tell stories. “VR is experiential: audiences are able to see or feel an experience for themselves, it takes audiences on an epic journey.”

For Ben Fogarty,  VR needs to look real. “If we’re creating something, for example, an immersive journey to a new world; it better look real – we don’t want to be gimmicky,” he says. “To be successful, the VR needs to create a real and immersive journey,” Watson added.

The panel also discussed how VR adds to a story and should be used when it can tell a story better than television. The BBC VR documentary Damming The Nile told the story of the great renaissance in Ethiopia and the geopolitics of building a dam and has been successful with VR headsets as it allows users to see and the experience the story for themselves, said Watson.

The documentary had to be re-versioned for YouTube, Watson added. “The VR and 360 elements didn’t work well without a headset, you have to re-version the story for a new version,” she said.

At Holoscribe, journalists also use 360 to “allow a user to control their path, instead of dropping them in and telling them a story,” Fogarty explained. Wilson agreed, “More seeing, less telling.”

Wilson also explained that you need a really strong narrative to carry users in VR. “In 360, users will engage and revisit stories where they can pick characters and stories,” Fogarty added.

Joe Bond also talked about how VR can be used to capture serious topics. Watson told of a shocking experience of VR in Prague [where the participant experience] execution, which was interesting but not something the BBC would explore, she said. Instead, the BBC is exploring audience focused pieces and use audience testing to work out how best to use VR.

In the near-future, BBC VR will bring quality scriptwriters and drama that creates pace and tension to users in an immersive VR experience based around Doctor Who, Watson said.

Words by Molly Dowrick

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Rob Orchard: “We’re at the beginning of a data revolution”

Rob Orchard’s brilliant presentation on the drama in data explores the way that data can provide powerful visual stories, particularly in combination with longer features.

“Data journalism is the antidote to knee-jerk production”, he says and emphasises the power in data stories capturing the big picture and the sheer number of people affected in any given story. “We’re at the beginning of a data revolution,” he says.

“With data, you can tell stories of human emotions in ways other forms of articles can’t.”

For Delayed Gratification, Orchard says he uses data to surprise readers but also aims to link news pegs to interesting figures about people. A particularly successful use of data in Delayed Gratification Orchard mentioned was an article on English peoples’ streaming of Three Lions during the World Cup, juxtaposing a chart that showed Spotify’s streaming figures against the dates key matches were played, providing an interesting and amusing source of information.

Discussions of Brexit can’t be stopped says Orchard. His team monitored comments on online news articles unrelated to the topic, such as the Beast from the East and the time Ed Sheeran broke his arm in a cycling incident and found a huge number of comments about Brexit. This resulted in several pages of engaging material about how many comments were left on a non-Brexit article before Brexit was mentioned, with some commenters even linking Brexit to Paddington Bear and The Ashes.

Ultimately, Orchard captured the beauty and thought-provoking narrative that data journalism can create.

Words by Molly Dowrick


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Sathnam Sanghera in conversation with Mark Kramer: “I had to teach myself how to do longform writing”

Feature writer and columnist Sathnam Sanghera discussed the impact of British-Punjabi culture on his writing and being born to Punjabi parents in the West Midlands, in his amusing Lunchtime Keynote talk with Mark Kramer.

Sanghera comes from a non-literary family, he said. His father is illiterate and his family don’t read his writing despite being the main thing he writes about. He has to “triple check” his stories because when he asks his family for stories and information, they disagree with each other.

“People make things up to hide the pain and can completely contradict each other.”

He writes about his family but they don’t read it, the reverse of the problem of a white middle-class man, he said. “My family are not a literary family and they don’t read what I write, I had to teach myself how to do longform writing”, he added.

Sanghera finds the most effective journalism he reads is when the writer admits “There’s no such thing as the truth”, and tries to develop stories fully. He said: “I did ten years of journalism at FT and I never talked about myself.” He added: “So when I first started writing memoirs, I read about 30, I was looking for a model to steal!”

Sanghera emphasises having a reason for starting writing memoirs. He said: “You either have to have something new or interesting to say or you have to make a joke and entertain.”

Writing about your family is atypical in Punjabi culture, Sanghera said. He added: “In an Asian family, you don’t air your problems” and explained how his brother, who is all about image, questioned the way Sanghera shared memories and stories from his family.

Additionally, writing in the West Midlands is interesting, he says. “The West Midlands is full of self-deprecating writers – no-one would ever gloat about Wolverhampton”, he joked.

But growing up in the West Midlands gave Sanghera lots of things to talk about. He guiltily admitted writing can be a “long, painful process” and each chapter of his recent novel had about 40 drafts.

Although his family are happy about being written about, Sanghera wishes he’d thought about what he was sharing about himself. He said: “I didn’t think enough about what I was revealing about myself, all those embarrassing stories about my teenage sex life and incompetence with girls in university – I didn’t need to share those.”

Ultimately, however, “There’s something intrinsically funny about British-Punjabi culture”, Sanghera said and he hopes to bring this across in his memoirs.

Words by Molly Dowrick

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CIJ director James Harkin on using media as a weapon

CIJ Director James Harkin began his brilliant talk on his investigative work in Syria by playing a clip of an “incredibly courageous” revolutionary singer who performed at a demonstration and called out President of Syria Bashar al-Assad with the repeated lyrics “Get out Bashar”.

In a journey that took him from rural Syria to continental Europe for GQ, James Harkin tracked down the fake and then the real story of a daring revolutionary singer in Syria who either did or didn’t end up with his throat slit by government loyalists. The article narrates the singer’s story, and Harkin noted the courage for the singer to speak out publicly against the president and call him an ass.

Tragically, three days after the demonstration, the singer, Ibrahim Kadoush was thought to have had his throat slit and vocal cords cut out by government loyalists. However, Harkin notes “the legend took a life of its own”. The story of the singer chanting a demonstration was picked up by the BBC, Associated Press and CNN in “very detailed terms” on social media and from media reports from Beirut.

Harkin’s harrowing detective work fills us in painlessly on the tangled and deadly political allegiances protecting the regime.

Read his piece here.

Words by Molly Dowrick 

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The basics of narrative with Mark Kramer


Mark Kramer, co-founder of Well Told and a leading expert on the teaching of narrative journalism, joines today to discuss key storytelling techniques for narrative journalism, particularly focusing on the impact of voice and the importance of creating suspense and tension.

Kramer began his talk by discussing narrative journalism as a form is often unexpected. “Most people who read narrative journalism have no idea they’re reading it,” he says, but acknowledging that “people still have trouble writing it because they’ve learnt a bunch of rules.”

For Kramer, however, it’s not about writing by rules. He focuses on voice and characterisation in his writing, and is not afraid of having to write “37 drafts”. Kramer explains the impact of voice by suggesting narrative journalism should capture ‘a different voice’.

He says that in narrative journalism “you speak in a voice that allows knowledge and it signals to others that they should be open to it. It’s a different voice to the voice you use when you text your best friend”.

Voice is important for three reasons, he says. Firstly, a tasteful and respectful private voice signals that the writer has ‘authority’ for the subject at hand. Secondly,  voice allows the “human sensibility of other people”. Lastly, a strong voice in narrative journalism promotes “acknowledgement of your [own] sensibility.”

Kramer also sees significance in creating suspense and tension in narrative journalism. He notes the significance of punctuation, particularly brackets, in helping to control readers’ pace when reading and also enjoys nice words like ‘swooping’ that invites the reader into the narrative.

When writing, Kramer eliminates the verb ‘to be’. “You should always try to activate your verbs, it makes things more intimate.”

Kramer also comments that he tries to always “take account of the five senses”. He does this by writing detailed notes to help him fully develop his narrative.

Words by Molly Dowrick 

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‘I’m against the idea of pinning down the story before you go to the field’ – Christina Lamb

Chief foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times, Christina Lamb, joined the Well Told festival on Skype from Congo and emphasised the importance of immersing yourself in the field and not just relying on research.

Her journey as a reporter began with an unexpected wedding invitation which led her to move to Peshawar aged just 22 to cover mujahideen.

Lamb spoke to attendees at the festival from her hotel room in Goma, Congo, where she is currently in the field reporting, and also talked about how her reporting has introduced her to amazing people, many of whom have got through awful circumstances.

Lamb believes reading about events and circumstances in foreign countries from a distance isn’t enough. She is against the idea of pinning down the story before you go into the field, she explained.

She talked about how as a foreign correspondent covering conflict around the world she was seeing more violence against women than ever before in her career. In addition, journalists, in general, have become targets.

“We’ve become targets in a way we never were which has made this job a lot more challenging.”

She also goes on to explain that all she wants to do is tell stories about people whom she’s met. “Women in the Congo have thanked me for reporting. They can’t believe the things that are going on here and no one is doing anything about it.”


Words by Molly Dowrick



Conference info

Sam Knight on the Queen, the importance of jargon, and why longform is reporting, not writing

Sam Knight, author of celebrated longform article London Bridge is down: the secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death, and reporter for The New Yorker with a fortnightly ‘Letter from the UK’, was the first speaker of this year’s Well Told festival with an engaging and amusing talk on how he researched and wrote his memorable article and how “reporting is storytelling.”

Knight began his talk by explaining how the initial idea for the article came about. His planning for the longform piece began with a simple thought, “Oh, the queen’s going to die”, and this lead to the decision: “I should maybe just sort of…write about that,” he said jokingly.

Further influence for the piece came from Evan Osnos, a fellow writer for The New Yorker, known for his article “President Trump’s First Term’. Evan’s piece taught Knight “There’s a way of doing this [reporting on the Queen’s death] responsibly and well.”

Totalling 8000 words, Knight’s article was the longest piece the Guardian had ever published on the monarchy. In fact, Knight told us how the Guardian acknowledged that the long form article could have formed a series of news articles instead, but by choosing to write it as a longform; Knight made a statement about the form, as well as the content of the piece. The article didn’t need to be a short one, Knight explained, “We wrote 8,000 words about the queen dying and everyone read it.”

In his talk, Knight also discussed his interest in speculative reporting and explained that exploring this kind of writing gave him an informed outline of what his own article could become.

Knight explained that it is “hard to assemble” smaller news stories together into a longer piece. He said: “This is a way I like to receive information: I would rather read a long complicated story about a long complicated thing.”

When writing his article on the plans for when the Queen dies, Knight was particularly interested in centric writing but had concerns on reporting this kind of event. He said: “I wanted to report it properly and something like this is sensitive”.

“I liked this idea of centric writing where you start far away and get closer and closer to the people you know,” he added.

For Knight, research was intrinsic to his article. He read The context, performance and meaning of ritual: The British monarchy and the ‘invention of tradition’, c. 1820–1977. He said it was vital for two reasons: firstly, because the Queen has been Queen for a very long time, and secondly, because royal funerals are theatre.

Ultimately, Knight said: “Reporting is storytelling”. He explained: “A really useful thing I think about when I’m writing these kind of articles is ‘what kind of genre is this?’ Is this a love story? Is this about an invention? Is it about two rivals?” For Knight’s longform about the Queen, it’s about theatre.

When writing, Knight saw his article as commentary, choosing to “luxuriate in the details” that he knew would interest and amuse readers, such as the exact time a certain procedure would take. He also realised he needed to use royal jargon in order for interviewees to trust that he’d done his research.

Referring back to his original pitches keeps Knight on track. Usually researching and writing four longform pieces per year, Knight tries to always remind himself of his pitch when it gets tough.

For Knight, interesting worlds do not always give interesting stories. By this, Knight means that in order for a world or idea to make a story, it needs something interesting or unusual within it. It’s a good sign for him if the story has a twist, or, like the plans for when the Queen dies, provide a “piece of theatre”.

Words by Molly Dowrick