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Washington Post Heightens Wonk Wars With Storyline

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WASHINGTON POST STORYLINE
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NEW YORK -- The Washington Post escalated the wonk wars Tuesday with the latest addition to the growing field of policy journalism.

The Post's new online vertical, Storyline, will cover policy topics through articles, videos and charts -- or "chapters" -- that follow a particular storyline.

Jim Tankersley, a Post economics writer who serves as Storyline's editor, told HuffPost the new vertical will avoid “hypothetical policy debates” and the ins and outs of Washington sausage-making. Storyline, he said, will distinguish itself through narrative journalism.

"We are going to tell stories with people, with characters, with human drama, in a way that other policy sites don’t do very often," Tankersley said. "And we’re going to do it every day."

While the Post's newsroom covers beats such as health care, Storyline's small team will instead tackle a specific question like,"How is the Affordable Care Act changing us?” The storyline begins with a piece about a woman's Medicaid travails, followed by charts, statistics and related stories. Other storylines will revolve around rural America and the “uneven” economic recovery. The team's work will appear first on washingtonpost.com, and may also appear in the newspaper.

The Post released a teaser video Friday that described Storyline's mission as "all about people and policy." In just over a minute, the video emphasized telling "stories" seven times.

Journalism is rooted in storytelling, with reporters often seeking out an individual's experience to put a human face on a broader issue. So in a way, Storyline follows in a well-worn journalistic tradition.

But Tankersley emphasized that Storyline will depart from traditional newspaper narrative writing through extensive use of data and by publishing a cluster of stories around topics it will continue to follow for days or weeks at a time.

Managing editor Ryan McCarthy, a former HuffPost editor, wrote in an “Owner’s Manual” for the vertical how “each day's storyline is like a small meal -- an entree and a whole mess of side dishes.” Those dishes, he said, will include "visual data journalism, videos, reader response pieces, columns, short-form narratives, as-told-to interviews, oddball versions of oral histories and stuff that’s just plain fun."

The Post announced plans for a new initiative focused on the “real-world impact of public policy” on Jan. 24, which happened to be Ezra Klein’s last day at the paper. Klein, who started the Post’s Wonkblog, left to co-found Vox.com, which joins a burgeoning data-journalism and policy space alongside ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight, The New York Times’ The Upshot, and The New Republic’s Q.E.D.

Tankersley, who joined The Post in December 2012, recalled speaking with colleague Eli Saslow last fall about the need for “a great hub" around the paper's storytelling and policy work. Since billionaire Amazon chief Jeff Bezos purchased The Post last year, managers have sought news ideas from the newsroom, and there are more resources to support them. Tankersley drafted a proposal in December and management signed off the following month.

It's unlikely The Post would’ve launched a project like Storyline a few years ago. Ravaged by print advertising loses, The Post shrank its newsroom and retrenched nationwide by closing bureaus in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Publisher Katharine Weymouth described the paper's focus a few years ago as “for and about Washington.”

The newsroom has grown significantly this year and management's ambitions now stretch far beyond the Beltway. Weymouth recently told staffers the Post was “pivoting” in an attempt to increase its national and international audience, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.

Tankersley said reporters will regularly get out of Washington, noting that several urban and rural areas are located within a few hours of the nation's capital. And signaling the Post's national ambitions, Tankersley said that Storyline writers have already trekked to Colorado, Illinois and Missouri.

"We see our audience as national and we see our audience as Washington," Tankersley said. "We want people in Washington to understand the country better and we want people around the country to better understand Washington."

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