Audio journalism II: Forms and formats

  • Creative journalists can use the tool of sound as an effective in their reporting. They can start with traditional formats, but the web will allow them to develop their own.

Reporters and journalism students must stop thinking about sound as an exclusively radio format — an argument made in the first of these three posts — and adopt it as a reporting tool that can be learned and used to effectively deliver information to readers or listeners.

In this post, we will explore some of the forms and formats that are available in this new era of audio journalism.

(A third post in this series looks at how journalism students should be trained to be audio journalists.)

We begin with two principles:

  • Every journalism student should know the basics of recording and editing.
  • Sound can be the dominant form in a story package, or it more likely will supplement other parts of the web package.

With that, we should examine the formats that are available to online journalists who want to use sound as a part of their reporting.

Sound supplement formats

The audio clip is the first and easiest for the students to master. This is simply a short piece of sound, maybe as short as 15 seconds or as long as two minutes, that accomplishes a single purpose. It allows the audience to hear the voice of a source answering a question or making a salient point about the subject of the story. It is easy to produce and requires little or no editing.

(A good example of the use of an audio clip is in this profile story on a University of Tennessee soccer player.)

Given the ease with which audio clips can be produced, it is surprising that their use is not more widespread. Their absence shows that reporters are simply do not think about using audio, not that the hardware or software is difficult.

Another format is the reporter interview. Here, someone on the news staff other than the reporter interviews the person who covered the story. These interviews vary greatly in length, but they rarely run past five or six minutes. The New York Times (image at right) uses them on a regular basis to give background information on the story. With a minimum of scripting and editing, these reporter interviews can also be easy to produce and effective in enriching the story.

A variation on the reporter interview is the reporter round-table. Here several reporters who have interest and information on the same topic can tell what they know, ask each other questions and exchange views. Length on these pieces may vary, and they should be long enough to give a full airing to the information and views of the reporters. On the other hand, as with everything else on the web, generally shorter is better.

Yet another format is the reporter round-up. This format allows the reporter to tell the story in a one- to two-minute sound clip, much like a radio version of the story. The story is told as completely as possible and is read from a script written by the reporter.

These formats have many variations that will depend on the story that is being covered and the
inclinations of the reporter. At this stage in the development of audio journalism, reporters and editors should be encourage to experiment with these formats and even try to create new ones that may aid in the storytelling.

Sound dominant formats

Sound dominant formats take the audio tool from being simply a supplement to the text or pictures of a presentation to being the major way in which the story is presented. Such formats include:

  • radio stories, which derive from the longstanding conventions and customs of radio. These stories are a mix of reporting, interviews with sources and ambient sound, and the best of them come from news organizations such as National Public Radio and Voice of America. At their best, these stories require high-quality sound and professional word and sound editing skills.
  • audio slide shows, a web-originated format that is growing in popularity. Audio slide shows mix still pictures with sound, often but not always the photographer’s description of the pictures that he or she has taken. Audio slide shows require photography, writing, speaking and editing skills, but they can be highly effective and entertaining in their presentation of information. (Read more about audio slideshows on
  • long-form sound stories, those where time and brevity are not major considerations. These long forms allow reporters, producers and editors all the time they need to tell their stories. They can include all of the sound elements previously mentioned. One of the most creative of these long-form formats is This American Life, an hour-long public radio that deals with only one topic during the hour. This American Life gives ample time for sources to tell their stories, but its editing and production are intelligent and clever so that listeners can easily get caught up int he story.
  • talk-show and call-in formats, where audiences are invited to participate. The talk-show format is a highly popular one for traditional radio, and it is growing in popularity on the web with the advent of sites such as Journalists can create their own call-in shows, advertise them and increase their audiences. Some news web sites, such as the Tennessee Journalist, are experimenting with this format to see what it will add to the richness of the site.

The list of formats here is not meant to be inclusive or prescriptive. It simply shows some of the possibilities of the use of sound as a reporting device. Imaginative and creative reporters will undoubtedly develop other formats and standards as online journalism itself develops.

Read the other two posts in the series:

Audio journalism I: Defining the field – the power and importance of sound

  • A clarion call for journalism instructors to think beyond the strictures of radio and to teach audio journalism — using sound as a reporting tool — to all of their students.

Audio journalism III: Teaching j-students about recording, editing and distribution

  • Beginning journalism students, in their first news writing classes, should be taught the basics of audio journalism and should put those basics into practice.

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