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Narrative journalism in the age of the web: another way to tell the world?

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"Windows", "mirrors", "symptoms"... there is no shortage of names to characterize the media's relationship with the "real". The scientific literature is vast on this subject and there are many different theoretical approaches: research into "effects", analysis of "functions", study of "narratives", etc. The advent of digital technology has only accentuated these concerns, while the recent electoral agenda (Brexit, US presidential election, etc.) has given them a prominent place in public arenas.
As part of an introduction to research, the students of the Master 1 "Journalism and Digital Media" at the University of Lorraine, took up the question of how the media, and in particular the Internet, create worlds. Three texts bear witness to the views they have of the media as journalists in training, digital specialists and also as citizens. Between infobesity and immediacy of information, (new?) narratives, but also (re)productions of gendered uses, they draw a critical sketch of the making of contemporary digital worlds. An analysis that has never been so topical...
Second text " Narrative journalism in the age of the web: another way to tell the world? "by Benjamin Jung, Théo Meurisse, Marine Schneider, Marine Van Der Kluft, and Jean Vayssières.
Photo: Original Pixabay Image - Photo montage Benjamin Jung

Introduction: narrative journalism, a new genre?

Anarrative journalism was born in America in the 1970s, from the pen of authors such as Tom Wolfe (who called it new journalism, 1973), Truman Capote (1924-1984) or Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005). Its origins are, however, more distant, taking root in the investigative journalism of Nellie Bly (1864-1922), a pioneer of gonzo journalism, or in France in Voltaire's Conseils à un Journaliste, published in 1737 (Schmelck, 2014). This hybrid genre, on the borderline between journalism and literature, is known under many names: new journalism, narrative non-fiction, creative non-fiction, literary journalism, etc. However, its different names are based on the same definition: it is about applying the styles and techniques of literary fiction writing to non-fiction, to explain, explore or tell real facts.
According to Lee Gutking, founder of Creative Nonfiction magazine and considered the godfather of the genre, "the primary goal of the non-fiction fiction writer is to convey information like a reporter, but in a way that makes it read like fiction." (Gutking, 2007). As for European narrative journalism, according to Marie Vanoost (2013), a Belgian researcher specializing in narrative journalism, it is part of both the narrative journalism American and in the big French-style report.
 
Narrative journalism is therefore an old genre, which has adapted to the evolution of the media: it is of course present in the written press, especially magazines, where it has its origins, but also in literature: to give just one example, Svetlana Aleksievitch, a Belarusian journalist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015 for her work. She depicts the reality of the Soviet era, building her books around the testimonies she collects, a method that fits perfectly into the tradition of narrative journalism.
 
But the genre is also found on TV and in the cinema with films and series such as Making a Murderer (2015), a documentary series broadcast on Netflix, or The City of God (2002), presented out of competition at Cannes, about the daily life of the inhabitants of Brazilian favelas, marked by violence and hope. It is even present on the radio: Serial (2014), an investigative podcast created by journalist Sarah Koenig, was a great success with critics and the general public alike. Broadcast in weekly episodes, like a radio soap opera, Serial takes up an investigation into a real criminal case.
More recently, we have also seen this type of writing flourish on the web. In February 2016 alone, three newspapers saw the light of day: Soixante-Quinze, LesJours.fr, L'Imprévu.fr. What do they have in common? The same desire to slow down the flow of news and tell stories (Carasco, 2016). With successful participatory financing and numerous subscriptions, these media have, it seems, found their audience and are responding to a certain demand.

A need to counter the immediacy of the web?

The development of narrative journalism on the Internet shows a certain weariness with the hype of hot information formatted identically by many web editors. The idea: take the opposite side of instantaneity to excess and slow down the pace. Vice, Le Quatre Heures, Ulyces, so many other projects that want to emphasize quality, details and storytelling, completely the opposite of flash news (Twitter) or data journalism. But beware, narrative does not mean fiction, and journalistic quality is at the heart of narrative journalism: "information that takes time, in the form of large-format, multimedia, click-free reports" (Le Quatre Heures, accessed November 2, 2016). To mark this total break with the mobile and instantaneous habits of the so-called "classic" online press, certain choices have been made: scrolling the page to read a long format is no longer a problem and, in the case of LesJours.fr, there is no app or mobile version.

The web, a medium conducive to narrative journalistic expression?

Narrative journalism is struggling to find its place in the print media: like its cousin gonzo, it dwells at length on the details; narration still serves the information, but finds itself a central pillar of the editorial structure. Thus, the most convincing examples of essays in this genre swap their journalistic essence for the characteristics of the modern novel, notably its narrative arc and length; witness the mythical Hell's angels: The strange and terrible saga of the outlaw morotcycle gangs by Hunter S. Thompson's mythical Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Morotcycle Gangs (1967) and its more than 250 pages based on the author's experience in a biker community.
 
The web, on the other hand, offers freer writing perspectives (Maalouf, 2014; Moutot, 2014). At a time when hosting a website costs less per year than a meal at a fast-food restaurant, when more than 80 % households in the United States and France have access to the Internet, the web medium makes it possible to reach a wide audience at a lower cost. The ideal tool for an outsider genre such as narrative journalism.
 
The Internet, the media par excellence for flash consumption, hides a completely different potential: that of attracting the younger generations, who nevertheless tend to favour this new type of information snacking. LesJours.fr makes this potential a reality by presenting subjects in the form of seasons and episodes, presenting their characters and plots in the style of television series. The web pages stretch to infinity, where the structure of a paper newspaper is subject to the arrangements of a modeler concerned with organizing information. Within this immense playground, the gonzo journalist no longer builds an article but a narrative, immersing the reader in an atmosphere and a narrative arc to keep him loyal and prevent him from running away at the sight of a 10,000-character paper. He combines text, image and sound and accentuates the immersion of the readership, even in a long format: "Digital formats have broadened the perspectives of storytelling journalism, which is now free of the constraints, particularly space constraints, imposed by paper," confirms Alain Lallemand, of the Association of Professional Journalists (AJP, 2012).

Can online narrative journalism survive?

There is a clear willingness to develop cost-effective business models based on the quality of information. This is the bias of Ulyces, "publisher of true stories" who relies on his subscriptions to make his business profitable. The site relies on in-depth, high-quality surveys, far from the hot news: "We hope readers will understand that this type of information has a cost" (Braun, 2014).
 
The same applies to the LesJours.fr information site. For its launch, the public was in any case ready to pay. The platform anticipated this involvement by proposing participatory financing. In forty days, LesJours.fr raised 80,175 euros thanks to crowdfunding on the KissKissBankBank participatory financing platform, whereas the announced target was 50,000 euros. A promising start. In May 2016, Le Monde analyses: "three months after its launch, Lesjours.fr claims a little over 5,500 paying subscribers. It has set itself the objective of gathering 8,000 by the end of 2016 and 25,000 within three years, which would enable it to reach its economic equilibrium point. This figure has been calculated for a team of about 25 people" (Piquard, 2016). A very good start, which needs to be qualified now that the site has been set up. On 19 October, Nicolas Cori, co-founder of LesJours.fr, announced 6,000 subscribers and a break-even point at 13,000 subscribers; this represents an increase of 500 subscribers in four months which, if it stabilises, would not allow them to reach their objective of 8,000 subscribers by the end of the year. LesJours.fr is based on an original business model inspired by Médiapart: refuse advertising and aim for profitability based on subscription revenues. The nine founders hold the majority of the capital and the rest is owned by private investors and readers. The originality of their model lies in the fact that readers are shareholders. LesJours.fr is indeed the first media outlet to embark on this new shareholding model. The goal is clear: to remain independent. Although Médiapart has found financial equilibrium since 2010, there is no magic model that is profitable every time. The LesJours.fr model, which is totally new and very recent, has yet to prove itself and take up a major challenge: to survive over the long term. This is true for all new information websites.

Conclusion: Is the web the ideal medium for narrative journalism?

By its multi-media nature and thanks to the infinite possibilities it offers, the Internet has positioned itself for many years as a major tool for journalistic expression. Some alternatives to daily and instantaneous news sites are doing well; this is the case of the giant Vice which, with its publishing house, its television, and its translation into more than ten languages, is worth several million dollars. However, it is difficult to assess the sustainability of narrative journalism sites.
 
First, we note the difficulty of these platforms in finding optimal financing systems. In addition, there is a lack of data on the traffic of most slow journalism sites. The web seems to be a possible solution for the historical continuity of narrative journalism, where it probably has its place and a readership; but this medium will undoubtedly be led to evolve further according to technological and economic advances, as well as the imagination of its users.
 
Benjamin Jung, Théo Meurisse, Marine Schneider, Marine Van Der Kluft, and Jean Vayssières  ©Mundus Fabula
Many thanks to Laurent Di Filippo for relaying this text. 
 
Bibliographical references
 
AJP, 2012, "Narrative journalism and new writing formats". On line : http://www.ajp.be/blogs/multimedia/journalisme-narratif-et-nouveaux-formats-decriture/. Accessed on 12/11/2016
 
Braun E., 2014, "Can the long-form article survive on the Internet? ». Online: https://rslnmag.fr/cite/tl-dr-larticle-long-format-peut-il-survivre-sur-internet/. Accessed on 12/11/2016
 
Carasco A., 2016, "The new adventurers of the press". Online: http://www.la-croix.com/Economie/Media/Les-nouveaux-aventuriers-de-la-presse-2016-02-28-1200743034. Accessed on 12/11/2016
 
Gutkind L., 2007, "Fame and Obscurity (with Appreciation to Gay Talese) and our Search for the Best Creative Nonfiction", What's the Story, No. 32. Online: https://www.creativenonfiction.org/online-reading/whats-story-32. Accessed 12/11/2016
 
Les Jours, 2016, "Become a shareholder of Les Jours", lesjours.fr. Online: https://lesjours.fr/obsessions/les-jours-c-quoi/les-jours-la-campagne-anaxago/. Consulted on 12/11/2016.
 
Maalouf Z., 2014, " Le journalisme " long format " fait sa rentrée ", rfi.fr. Online: http://www.rfi.fr/emission/20140920-1-journalisme-format-web-quatre-heures-ulyces-ijsberg-streetpress. Consulted on 12/11/2016
 
Moutot A., 2014, " Une nouvelle génération de médias fait le pari du long format en ligne ", lesechos.fr. Online: http://www.lesechos.fr/17/08/2014/lesechos.fr/0203704240897_une-nouvelle-generation-de-medias-fait-le-pari-du-long-format-en-ligne.htm. Consulted on 12/11/2016
 
Piquard A., 2016, " Lesjours.fr, heureux de son premier trimestre d'existence ", lemonde.fr. On line : http://www.lemonde.fr/actualite-medias/article/2016/05/11/lesjours-fr-heureux-de-son-premier-trimestre-d-existence_4917350_3236.html. Accessed on 12/11/2016
 
Schmelck C., 2014, "Le journalisme narratif, une invention française du XVIIIè siècle? ", rfi.fr. Online: http://atelier.rfi.fr/profiles/blogs/le-journalisme-narratif-une-invention-fran-aise-du-xviii-si-cle. Consulted on 12/11/2016
 
Thompson H., 1967, Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, New York, Random House.
 
Vanoost M., 2013, "Narrative journalism: a proposed definition, between narratology and ethics". Les Cahiers du Journalisme, No. 25, pp. 140-161. Online: http://www.cahiersdujournalisme.net/cdj/pdf/25/9.Marie-Vanoost.pdf. Consulted on 12/11/2016
 
 

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