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How to write stories on development that people actually want to read


How to write stories on development that people actually want to read

Picture of Cristina Romero
Cristina Romero — Project Manager
April 05, 2018

Seven European media outlets share their experiences, tricks and insights

This is exactly what seven media organisations recently awarded with our European Publishers Reporting Grants are exploring. Experimenting with innovative storytelling ideas and new formats, their approaches are worth taking a look at.

Mobile first treatments

CNN’s As Equals is reporting on gender equality and women’s health through mobile-first treatments. “When we talk about creating broader links with women on one side of the world with the other, the phone is a connection point for the audience”, explains CNN International’s digital producer Eliza Mackintosh.

As Equals focuses on making the stories as immersive as possible and puts creating engaging mobile experiences first. One example: They published a mobile-first interactive that allows users to see how some of the world’s least developed countries ranked for women, based on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap report. The numbers proved the success: “There was an almost 100% completion rate for those who swiped right”, adds Eliza.

The closer to the interviewee, the better

Captivating stories usually come from individuals themselves. And yet, “gaining trust and access to individuals takes time”, admits The Warriors’ Christina Asquith.

With a particular focus on local heroines, ELLE UK’s goal with the project is to appeal to a wide audience by “telling their story intimately”. The stories put the emphasis on women who are at a moment in their struggle, where the stakes are high and their situation is unresolved. “This added tension engages readers and makes the story feel alive”, Christina explains.

The “what’s in it for me” angle

How to feed ten billion people by 2050 is the ultimate question that de Volkskrant’s project aims to explore whilst focusing on Africa. However, “we find that ‘Africa’ and ‘2050’ are abstract and faraway topics for our readers”, says De Voedselzaak’s coordinator Stan Putman. That’s why their stories “always look for the ‘what’s in it for me’ angle”.

For example, this webtool provides readers information about the environmental impact of their groceries shopping. This interactive data visualization about population growth allows readers to scroll through facts about the past, current and future state of our planet.

Screenshot from De Voedselzaak website
Screenshot from De Voedselzaak website

Looking ahead; reporting in parallel

In The race to feed the world, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) is reporting on two farmers in Germany and Zambia, on their day-to-day goal to increase food production.

“We are switching from abstract and data-based journalism to grounded observations”, says FAZ editor Jan Grossarth. The long-time perspective allows them “to look behind the scenes of conventional wordings of political parties, industry and NGO lobby groups”, because “the aim is to get a more honest answer to the questions: who is feeding and who will feed the world: is it smallholder farmers or the industrial food production systems?”.

“The bottom up” perspective

“The bottom up perspective”, as VPRO’s Wim Amels describes it, is how the video project Metropolis is tackling the coverage of development topics. Local reporters tell stories on gender, education or health issues through the personal experiences of unique individuals.

One example is the story of 26-year old Yves from Kinshasa, who makes a living for himself and his son by selling make-up dressed as a woman.

Photo by Paul Shemisi. Project: Metropolis
Photo by Paul Shemisi. Project: Metropolis

Spark the reader’s imagination

A compelling mix of podcasts, sounds, animations, infographics, pictures, classic long-form stories, and yet no videos, is the backbone of Good Job!. The project of the French magazine Society puts the focus on day-to-day and remarkable jobs in some of the least developed countries.

“But we wanted to avoid the current most common lens for transmitting an experience today, which is video”, comments head of development, Brieux Ferot. “We want to use images, but not the ones animated in a traditional way; we want to use sounds, but not as the soundtrack of images. Sounds can make the imagination work by themselves. So, that’s why we use sounds and podcasts, but no videos”, he added.

Screenshot from Good Job! website
Screenshot from Good Job! website

Actions and reactions

Powerful journalism helps audiences form opinions, make decisions and act upon them. Additionally, reactions to distinctive stories on development can come from the audience, the political sphere, and the media themselves.

Health and science reporter for The Bureau, Madlen Davies, explains how The Global Superbug Crisis report on the antibiotic colistin, advertised as a growth promotion, led the company to stop advertising it as such.

“Within India the story was published in The Hindu, India’s second largest English-speaking newspaper. It also led to other newspapers in India carrying out their own investigations and producing similar findings to ours”, says Madlen.

Photo by Rahul M. Screenshot from The Global Superbug Crisis website
Photo by Rahul M. Screenshot from The Global Superbug Crisis website

For CNN producer Eliza Mackintosh it has been “very interesting and encouraging” to see what stories have broken through. Their piece about 12-year-old Halima, a Yemeni girl whose father is planning her wedding, was mentioned in a House of Commons session on February 20 as part of a question on what steps the UK Foreign Office is taking to support the delivery of girls’ education in Yemen.

ELLE UK’s Facebook post of Moyna’s, a 13 year old Bangladeshi girl whose husband sold her to a brothel story, provoked lots of feedback clamouring for action. The Warriors’ Christina Asquith claims that “this huge reaction is not typical” and she credits it in part “to the powerful story writing”.

Photo by Allison Joyces. Screenshot from The Warriors website
Photo by Allison Joyces. Screenshot from The Warriors website

Have we convinced you?

Writing on development topics can be exciting, fresh, innovative and ingenious. If you want to take a closer look into the projects mentioned, stay tuned. There is plenty more due to be published on the following subsites:

  • As Equals, CNN UK, (United Kingdom)
  • The Warriors, ELLE UK (United Kingdom)
  • De Voedselzaak, de Volkskrant (the Netherlands)
  • The race to feed the world,Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Germany)
  • Metropolis, VPRO (the Netherlands)
  • Good Job! Society (France)
  • The Global Superbug Crisis, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (United Kingdom)

The European Publishers Longterm Reporting Grant is a media-funding programme operated by the European Journalism Centre that aims to enable a better coverage of international development issues. It is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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