Storytelling Insight

“News for All” – Week Note 7

Tense about the present

In Daemon Voices, his incredible collection of essays on Storytelling, the author Philip Pullman talks (a lot) about how he tries to resist using the present tense. He says the present tense is:

“like those Venetian blinds that, instead of having horizontal slats, have vertical ones. I don’t like being in a room that has those blinds, because you can only look up and down. But life isn’t vertical, life is horizontal. Friends and neighbours and cats and dogs and cars and the postman come along the road, not down from the sky. The present tense is like that: what it gives you is a vertical slice across a horizontal life.”

I think about this a lot, because although Pullman is talking about writing fiction of course, the focus only on the present is perhaps the biggest problem with “news”. It takes a vertical slice through a horizontal life – completely decontextualising events and failing to see them as part of patterns and systems.

Expanding on his thoughts in an article for The Guardian, Pullman called on present-tense storytellers to “stand back and show me a wider temporal perspective. I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later and so on: to use the full range of English tenses”.

I wonder what journalism would look like if it did more of what Pullman asks from novelists? Couldn’t we provide more value to readers, viewers and listeners by focusing on that wider temporal perspective rather than the narrow sliver of life which “news” reports on? Audiences keep telling us that they want more context and systems thinking in our journalism – I wonder if stepping away from our narrow understanding of news might be the first step towards that.

Kicking off and connecting

It’s been an exciting couple of weeks, with the highlight being the start of the Participatory Research programme which sits at the heart of our News for All project. In partnership with the Grange Pavilion and EYST we’ve brought together a group of 20 people with whom we’re going to be learning how we might create more accessible, inclusive and effective journalism. The kind that might meet the needs of the many people who don’t currently get any value from journalism.

This work isn’t about focus groups, or testing the journalism we have. It’s more thinking about what we’d invent if journalism didn’t exist. That will probably be very different from what we actually have, and I look forward to sharing more of what comes out of the sessions in the coming months.

However, it’s important to us that we do things differently – working on Design Justice principles, in the hope that what we develop will support our most marginalised people and communities, rather than harming them. For that reason, our first session was spent building connection and relationship, and we’re already seeing the value of the work being facilitated (beautifully) by Rhiannon White and Amira Hayat, who are themselves members of the community. 

More to come on that, but a theme which is already starting to develop is something around collective memories and histories – and I’ve got more to say on that later in this note.

Taxed by the “burden”

This decontextualisation and lack of systems thinking is just one of the (many) reasons I end up shouting at the TV whenever there’s a budget or an autumn statement – as there was this week.

All our discourse is framed in terms of the tax “burden” and taxes as almost intrinsically A BAD THING. But taxes pay for things – things that lots of us use. The people that DO benefit from more money in their back pocket are the people who rely less on public services than most of us, because they have the money to use private healthcare, private schools etc and are probably not working class, disabled, marginalised because of their race or ethnicity etc.

Surely tax isn’t really a “burden”? Isn’t it part of a collective responsibility and promise that we all hold for each other? Of course we can debate the best way to manage and spend our taxes, but that has to be a balanced and useful discussion.

For example, despite lots of excellent analysis by organisations like The Resolution Foundation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and others, you’d have to look very hard to find much coverage in mainstream news about the future cuts to departmental budgets that Jeremy Hunt’s announcements this week have made inevitable. That is the kind of information that would enable citizens to make rational decisions and participate in democratic systems effectively, and we’re simply not getting enough of it. I imagine Philip Pullman is raging.

Gaming the System

For all those reasons, I was really interested to see the UK Government Policy Lab launch “Systemic” – a game that simulates how policy making systems work – this week.

I absolutely love the language they use around it, for example they say:

You might want to consider trying “Systemic” if the following resonates:  

  • Working within complexity. The issue you are working on is bound together and interconnected with other policies – for example, health is as much about housing and education as it is about medicine.  
  • Working with the problems we face today. The thing you are working on did not exist when the rules of the game were initially designed.    
  • Tackling deep roots problems, not symptoms. Your policy is tackling surface level challenges, rather than looking at the fundamental structures or patterns that remain unchanged and are causing the problem.   

I wish we could do more of this in journalism, but (thinking systematically of course) our newsroom structures basically make this impossible. For example, if we’re very lucky we might have a health correspondent, an economics correspondent and an environment correspondent in our newsroom. However, if one of those journalists treads an inch over the imaginary dividing line between those subjects, there is generally a big row, a senior manager has to be brought in to mediate and everyone is eventually ordered to retreat onto their own territory.

But in 2023, do we seriously think that health, economics and the environment are SEPARATE topics? Until we move beyond newsroom silos we’re never going to be able to properly reflect the complexity and interconnectedness of the world. Put simply, we’re not going to be able to reflect reality. 

As the Policy Lab puts it, “The problems we face today, such as climate change, ageing populations and inequality, cannot be fixed by one team or department alone.” I look forward to trying out the game, and will report back.

Growing shared memories

I’m involved in a number of other projects alongside my work on News for All – one of which is the People’s Newsroom Initiative. This is something that my friend Megan Lucero and I started when we worked together at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism but now lives under the umbrella of Opus Independents. Our “tagline” is “Building Community Power through Journalism”, and the aim is to tell stories from the ground up to connect, support and lift up our communities.

We held a three day “sprint” in Sheffield, bringing together a range of (superficially) disparate organisations like Civic Square, Maia, Greater Govanhill, EYST, AM and Now Then magazine. It quickly became clear just how many shared values and aspirations we have, and the exciting storytelling possibilities that open up by creating horizontal networks.

I particularly loved one exercise we did (with Charlotte Bailey from Civic Square and Sam Walby from Now Then) where we told a story about what 2050 might look like. In my group’s possible world a tree was at the centre of our society because it contained (and communicated to us) a long-term shared history which stopped us repeating the mistakes of the past. This was a history shaped not just by its own experience, but by the shared wisdom gleaned from its mychorrhizal network.

I suppose the last few weeks have left me wondering whether a journalism that captures these kinds of shared memories and histories – oriented downwards through time and horizontally in time – using the full range of tenses as Pullman might put it – might be one of the answers I’m looking for.

Has this sparked ideas for you?

Do get in touch if you want to pick up on any of these thoughts.