The Plight of Storytelling in the Digital Age

Posted by on Aug 29, 2013 in Blogs, Philip Berman

This special edition of our newsletter is really a snapshot of how a handful of storytellers, who started their careers pre-internet and mobile technology, are coping with the new demands of the digital era.

Award-winning games developer Paul Hayes, a mere youngster aged 32, is probably the exception here – but even he started off his career making extreme sport programmes for Romanian TV!

If you want to learn more about the other end of the story-telling spectrum there are a couple of conferences on in Brighton as part of the festival that might just be worth checking out:

The Wired Sussex Connected TV Conference at the Komedia

Reframed: The Great Storyscape at the Lighthouse


(L-R) The following interview features:

Paul Hayes

Paul Hayes is freelance games developer and technical director of Chroma Collective, a company specialising in media art and performance.

Paul formerly worked as a developer for four years in the Brighton-based and Bafta award-winning interactive entertainment company Plug In Media.


Zoe Sale

Zoe Sale is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker.   For the last twelve years she has been making current affairs and factual programming for the BBC, ITV, ITN, C4, C5 and National Geographic.  She worked on the multi awarding winning documentary ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields and its follow up for Channel Four.

She’s just finished producing ‘No Fire Zone’ a feature length film about the final months of the 26-year-long Sri Lankan civil war, told by the people who lived through it. The film is now on a worldwide screening tour and is being used as an advocacy tool by NGOs like Amnesty International.

Before training as a journalist Zoe worked as a political researcher and environmental lobbyist.


Dr David Campbell

David Campbell is a creator and analyst of visual storytelling, focusing specifically on photojournalism and documentary photography. He has written key research into the opportunities of multimedia, making him quite relevant for this particular discussion.

During 2012-13 David directed a research project for World Press Photo, supported by the Fotografen Federatie, on visual storytelling, photojournalism and multimedia. For the past two decades he’s also taught on various political, photographic and journalism courses at universities throughout the US, Australia and the UK.

His website was named one of the 10 best photoblogs in the British Journal of Photography (July 2011) and one of LPV Magazine’s top photography websites for 2011.


Nikita Lalwani

Nikita Lalwani is a tutor on the MA in creative writing at Goldsmiths University in London, and also the MSt in Creative Writing at Oxford University. She has written for the Guardian and New Statesman, as well as contributing an essay to the non-fiction anthology Aids Sutra, published in 2009 by Random House.

Her first novel, Gifted, has been translated into 16 languages and won the Desmond Elliot Prize for New fiction, as well as longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. It was adapted for BBC Radio 4 and won the Best Radio Drama at the Mental Health Media Awards in 2008.

Nikita’s second novel, The Village, was selected as one of eight novels for the Fiction Uncovered campaign for Best of British Fiction.

Nikita’s website:


John Naish

John Naish is a freelance journalist, author and broadcaster. He has written for all the Fleet Street broadsheets and magazines such as Prospect, New Statesman and the Times.  He is also a columnist for Classic Bike magazine and written at least one best selling book –  Enough


What genre have you chosen to tell stories & why?

Paul Hayes: While I was growing up I was surrounded by three mediums: films, computer games and comics. Film is the most mature of these, and was logically the one I most wanted to emulate. Two friends and I spent a huge part of our adolescence and early twenties trying to be filmmakers.

However, I had actually started programming before all this, and games were a huge part of my early development, but it just didn’t occur to my friends and me that we could be making games together.

By the time I was in my late twenties, I’d found my calling as a software developer, and was lucky enough to be drawn into the games industry. From there I’ve realised there’s a huge potential to tell stories, and in ways that have never been possible before.

Zoe Sale: I’ve always been a strong believer in the power of telling a story through film or TV.  For the kind of stuff I make – issue based – hitting a large number of people at once is a key motivator. Plus you can’t beat TV or film for humanising an event far away from home and seemingly so different from our own day-to-day experiences to make people engage and care.

Dr David Campbell: I occupy a couple of different positions in this debate, having been primarily an analyst of visual storytelling who now also shoots some video and produces ‘multimedia’ projects with photographers. I was a full-time professor of geography and politics who was always concerned with how people and places globally were represented visually.

Around 2008, I became fascinated with the new digital tools that enabled one to individually produce, publish and distribute work. I have been making web-based projects since the late 1990s, but through learning Final Cut Pro, adopting WordPress as my web platform, and embracing social media, I have become more active practically and now work freelance.

Nikita Lalwani: I write novels now, but first attempted to be a documentary maker. The reasons are the same for both approaches – being intrusive, a desire for detail, a kind of unfettered voyeurism, and always asking too many questions.

However, when I finally began to write, it was the written medium that made most sense to me. For a start, there was the freedom that comes with fiction – the fact that you can manipulate life to make something more interesting, or distorted. I read a lot of novels, and envy/hunger for beautiful prose – this makes me very aspirational!

There is the fact that it is solitary and you don’t need a team to write a novel, you basically do it in your pyjamas without anyone looking. Anything is possible. And of course, this leads to despair as well as elation.

John Naish: Traditional ones; newspapers, magazines, books and radio broadcast. I trained as a print journalist in the late 1980s and it remains a natural home. I was involved in creating some of the UK’s earliest corporate websites in the 1990s. We won awards and it felt exciting for a while, but soon I found the format restrictive. This was before broadband. Also, national newspapers kept offering me jobs with nice titles that felt jagged with kudos.

I like to tell longer stories, non-fiction narratives with an arc, and for that you need someone’s attention. In print, you have more of a chance. The page margins are not constantly beeping away, promising something much more interesting elsewhere.

And let’s be frank, there is still money to be found in newsprint. Especially if you are a specialist. I specialise in health, medicine, science. Readers want good reliable gen on that stuff and remain willing to pay for it.

Has the new digital landscape affected the way you tell stories?

Zoe: In a sense yes.  Independent documentary filmmakers who work at the harder end of the spectrum (current affairs docs or ones with a strong campaigning message) are increasingly realising in the UK (something which the US grasped a while back) that if you’ve done your job well you can monopolise on the ‘halo moment’ your audience will experience at the end of the film. It affords more online follow[-up opportunities through donations, kickstarter appeals, signing up to campaigns, tweeting etc.

It doesn’t last for long, but during that time you can make your audience act.

For films which want to promote some kind of change, this is dynamite.  Many filmmakers are now not only making a good product but also actively extending the life and impact of that product. In my case we’ve attached a campaign to our film, No Fire Zone. The screenings of the film feed the campaign which we actively encourage the audience to get involved with during the end credits.

David: Personally the new digital tools have made it possible for me to be my own publisher and broadcaster, and that allows me to reach audiences that were not available through traditional academic publishing (where paywalls are impervious to the public). For that work, interactivity is not an issue because I am presenting a particular analysis or story and the narrative is structured according to the issue or subject, and thus not open to redirection.

Looking at the field of photojournalism we are seeing big changes in how image-makers are telling stories. In addition to still images and galleries, they are now multiplatforms, and many are using HTML5 templates to bring together different formats. The New York Times “Snow Fall” is the most obvious example, but TIME’s One Dream is excellent. Web video is a booming area in terms of both production and consumption, and media organisations report that it is hugely popular with users.

John: Newspaper writing has changed to assimilate some of the conventions of web pages. It tends to be more bitsy, garlanded with fact boxes and such like. Done well, it makes the paper far more entertaining and accessible. Done badly it just looks shallow, dumb, disappointing.

Which brings me on to radio broadcasting, of which I do less and less. There is the fear among many programme commissioners that the listeners’ attention span will not last beyond ten minutes. That means you can’t develop a continuous narrative over a half-hour feature slot, taking the listener from a premise, through an argument and to a novel conclusion.

Instead, you are expected to keep repeating the same story in a different way each ten minutes, in case someone has just tuned in, or tuned out. Hence that ‘you’re listening to … blah’ ident that keeps popping up. With complex subjects such as medicine and science, it can prove far too limiting. I think it also patronises the listener.

I believe that if you make something sufficiently enthralling, folk will stick with you. It is not that people’s attention spans are shrinking. Rather, audiences have learnt to ration their scant resource amid an abundance of infotainment. They are no longer going to sit watching a potter’s wheel during the intermission, they will move right on.

Paul: The last 8 years have been a period of radical change in the game industry. It’s player demographic has broadened out, loosing it’s “nerdy” stigma in the process, finally becoming the highest earning entertainment industry in 2011. Part of the reason for this has been the blooming of gaming on mobile devices, and more accessible interfaces such as the wiimote and the kinect. However storytelling is still very much within the bastion of the bigger budget AAA games titles, those with the million pound budgets, while the casual gaming trend tends to forego storytelling almost entirely. The really fantastic thing about this big shake up has been the flourishing of a popular indie games scene. Many of these indie game makers, who are not too dissimilar from their bedroom dwelling forebears of the 1980’s, see story telling as their big selling point. Games such as the fascinating Gone Home or the ultra violent Hotline Miami succeed in telling stories that would be almost impossible in any other medium, and on low budgets.

How about the opportunities for interactivity in the storytelling process that the digital age now affords?

David: While interactivity is a great feature when appropriate for the story, linear narrative video remains very important, not least because many of the interactive stories are comprised of modules built around linear narrative video. Linear narrative video is easily shared in a media landscape that is increasingly mobile and social, while large interactive projects tend to require browsers or native apps, and demand a lot of user attention.

Paul: As a young medium, and one that attracts people for very different reasons than film, games are extremely difficult when trying to convey satisfying stories. There’s somewhat of a conflict between a game’s story and its interactive elements. A classic solution for this has been to break most of the story into “cutscenes”, which are sandwiched between the playable sections of the game.

These are the least imaginative and least satisfying of all storytelling mechanisms. Instead the really impressive innovation is in stories with simulated elements, which are never the same twice. That’s something no other medium can do.


Zoe: Although possibilities for interactivity haven’t  really affected the way I tell the story yet – its allowed the story I tell to be amplified in ways which in the past could only be achieved if you were lucky enough to get a TV commission.

Nikita: It hasn’t affected me yet, other than the internet sucking me in and away from work, daily, as I have such little willpower. I am about to switch on MacFreedom in five minutes’ time, a programme which will seize up the innards of my computer so I can’t surf. Yes I am that old-school.

But what about desire among ‘younger digital folk’ to have some involvement in the story, help shape its destiny. Are we now becoming much more narcissistic? Everything has to revolve around us?

Nikita: I don’t think wanting to be involved in the outcome of a story is narcissistic. I think it is just a natural, evolved version of choose-your-own-adventure stories, which I used to love as a kid. It could be accelerated in the age of video games, too, of course, the desire to have an immersive experience and to wield some control over the narrative outcome.

Margaret Atwood is really interesting on this. She has embraced all forms of interactive storytelling, and is now seventy-four years old. There’s a reason she has a huge Twitter following, she has embraced it with a passion, saying ‘twitter is like having fairies in your garden.’ Her friend and mentee, the writer Naomi Alderman has developed a best-selling zombie game app for the iPhone, ‘Zombies, Run!’, in which you run away from zombies to get fit.

These things may not float my boat, but I am definitely a fan of cross-fertilisation when it comes to the narrative arts – the more magic in the garden the better.

John: Not only younger folk are getting involved. Everyone is encouraged to get involved. Having spent a good deal of time punting books by talking at festivals, I know that older people enjoy nothing more than to spend hours pitching their ideas at a captive author.

Some of this can be useful, even inspiring. And in newspapers, if I have to follow up another publication’s story for a later feature, I will trawl the online comments section beneath it for ideas on how to develop the idea.

Actually, that’s a trade secret I’m giving away there. On the other hand, there is some truth in the claim that you only have to read 12 comments before someone starts calling someone else a Nazi and then the whole debate grenades. (Editor’s note: It’s called GODWIN’S LAW)

I’m not so sure that it’s all actually narcissistic. It’s more like downright aggressive in the case of the anonymous bedroom Stalins of this world.

Nevertheless, much of the debate does fit Tim Berners-Lee’s hope that his worldwide web brainchild would enable humanity to create a meta-mind, where global group thinking can create greater answers, and maybe better stories. (Let’s not talk about the rise of extremism.)


How do you think the way you work will have changed in 10 years’ time?

Paul: Tools, practices, tropes and methods. Games are still relatively young, and we still lack a complete vocabulary. People are still discovering the best way of telling stories. It’s a lot like the cinema of the early 30s. There are established genres, but there’s still a lot of experimentation going on. We are seeing our Hitchcocks emerge now; inventing, perfecting the art form, it’s an exciting time. I think the writer of the future must be a writer of computer code as well as a craftsman of human language.

Zoe: Telling stories will never go out of fashion, stories have been a way that we have made sense of the world for centuries.  But in the future, more people from more places will have the tools to tell theirs and share them far and wide. Through this, the world will shrink even further while our understanding of people and places will increase. Surely no bad thing.

David: Given the constant revolution in the media economy and the pace of change, that is hard to say! But I think we will see more and more tools being made available to make production and distribution easier, and that will only benefit storytellers. In the end, though, it is still going to require a great story, whatever the tools at hand, and that part will not change.

John: I rather think that my modus won’t have changed that much. I believe that the market will remain OK for quality, expensively and extensively researched writing. And particularly so where that information gives someone a competitive advantage, either directly through business, or more obliquely through their feeling more culturally and intellectually informed.

Forgive me for being pompous in that last par. Of course, maybe my stuff isn’t that good anyway. But a lot of commissioners and editors have abandoned the idea of selling quality to a diminishing audience, and instead remodelled their products to suit readers who don’t read and listeners who don’t listen. Is that really a good business model?

The quality-info market will shrink further, for sure, but that doesn’t mean it will disappear. The core market may indeed prove larger than the cynics suspect. As for books. I am keen to keep writing them. But I have a problem with having to become transformed into a full-time personality-guru, trailing my fairy-dust of wisdom at every appearance at every lit festival, ideas festival, talking festival, etc, 24/7 and 365/1.

Nikita: I’ll be older, and hopefully, better able to deal with all my technological addictions with wisdom rather than self-loathing. So there we are, it will be work of rare and astounding clarity, yes?


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