Urban Stories Festival |5 tips&tricks on contemporary urban journalism

Feel inspired to share the stories from your city

Despite the early hour on a weekday morning, eager students, architects, designers and other city makers got together at Pakhuis de Zwijger to learn ‘the secrets of city storytelling from an international expert in the field’. As part of the Urban Stories Festival, the workshop on ‘Contemporary urban journalism’ unpacked the act of city storytelling and writing. The workshop was held by Simone d’Antonio, an international expert from Italy, known for his articles in The Guardian and Citiscope. Interested in sharing stories from your city? Here are the best tips&tricks from the workshop.

Urban Stories Festival ©Pakhuis de Zwijger

Why urban journalism?

We can not ignore the importance of cities and the rapid growth they are undergoing. By 2050, almost 70% of the world population will live in urban areas. These transformations give way to all kinds of problems, such as the rise of urban slums, environmental and climate issues, or new threats on human rights and democracy. How is it then possible to guarantee the well-being of city dwellers? Cities are the main drivers of economy and at the same time, sources of creativity. As such, the increase of urbanisation and ways to tackle this situation are at the top of the global urban agenda.

‘Urban journalism means describing how urban change is affecting the everyday life of people’ – Simone d’Antonio 

Within this complex urban scenario, Simone d’Antonio considers urban journalism a tool that can help us learn from each other and understand the various urban transformations. With regards to the rise of cities, he is an optimist: in addition to the complex problems in highly urbanised areas, he also recognises the opportunities which follow the new transformations. The city becomes a testing-ground of innovation on a larger scale.

What is then the role of city journalists? According to Simone, they play a big part in discovering innovative practices. The logic is simple: urban journalists contribute to the understanding of urban problems and shed light on concrete solutions. They expose large national and global issues through the lens of the city, thus making them more tangible. The focus shifts from conceptual discussions towards daily-life practices of city-making.

The interesting twist on urban journalism is that everyone can be a part of this practice. As Simone stated, you don’t need years of experience as a journalist and a fine number of diplomas on the wall. Having a strong passion for the city and an interest in storytelling can take you a long way. It somewhat follows the same line of bottom-up city-making.

Simone d’Antonio during the opening event at the Urban Stories Festival ©Pakhuis de Zwijger

If you are feeling inspired, here are 5 tips&tricks that came up during the workshop:

No #1: Know your audience

Although the passion of creative writing might be overwhelming, always keep in mind that you are not writing for yourself. Who is going to read the story? Which is your target group? Is your publication gonna be read by the mayor, urban planners or other city makers? In order for then to find your piece relevant, always keep in mind their interests with the urban. This will give the story direction.

No #2: Find a topic

‘Cities are big laboratories for solutions to challenges’ – Simone d’Antonio

Why is this story relevant? What is the added value of the information, from a local, national or global perspective? Urban storytelling is about effects in the longer process of urbanisation and the way in which they change people’s daily lives. For example, a story on the rise of Uber taxis in city capitals goes beyond the technologization of services, and tackles issues of mobility, new economies, pollution, governance and security.

No #3: Draft a three minute pitch

Before the write-up, it is useful to create a pitch of your story. A brief summary of a few sentences constructs the overall framework and the writing plan. The key to a good pitch is the focus on 6 basic questions: who? what? where? when? why? and how? This pitch can later on take the role of the ‘heading’ part of the article. Another option is to summarise the story in a tweet. Having to work with 140 characters makes for an interesting exercise, and a provisional subtitle.

No #4: Getting started – with the right perspective

Once the idea is in place and the summary is drafted, it is important to gather the information accordingly to the angle of the story. What are the urban aspects (environmental, economic, social, governance, etc.) your story touches upon?

‘People have the power’ – Simone d’Antonio

Who are the urban characters involved (experts, policy makers, local community innovators)? It is important to relate urban transformations to the way in which they affect people’s daily lives. Is there a hero in your story, someone who inspires you?

No #5: Getting started – with the right format

When it comes to the write-up of your story, there are two formats that need to be taken into account. The first one refers to the writing format. Will it be an explainer story, that provides answers to new urban phenomenas? Or a ‘best practice story’, which targets the ‘how to’ of a successful city, local initiative or policy? From a city report to an interview, the possibilities are multiple. The key is in finding the written format which suits best and makes the information clear. The second format to be considered is the visual one. Together with the written story, images or videos offer another dimension to the information. They add colour to the text and represent a visual manifestation of the subject.

Anything else to be included on the urban journalistic ‘to do list’? As a closing remark from Simone, he stated the importance of keeping a critical eye, having a clear focus and making the story unique but universal. Feeling inspired? Share the stories from your city!

This article was originally written by Saskia Hesta and published on the online platform Nieuw Nederland – Steden in transitie. You can access the publication (in Dutch) here.

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