The Serial… New? Or just New Bottles?




The big story this autumn and early winter has been the success of the US National Public Radio (NPR) series, ‘The Serial.

I don’t want to give any spoilers away, so suffice to say the 12-part series of Podcasts simply tells the story of one journalist’s investigation into an alleged miscarriage of justice case.

Anyone who knows my work will know that this is something I have carried out myself. I have also lectured about it in different countries, given presentations at conferences, chaired conferences on miscarriages of justice-related themes and written academic research papers on the issue too. I know the territory fairly well.

The series is the audio-equivalent of a police procedural thriller or a ‘process’ story. I lecture in these on an almost weekly basis (using case -studies – 50% of them my own) and am constantly reminded that things I take for granted (e.g. Basic forensics; Tracing documents; Tracking down people who want to stay off-grid; Using Freedom of Information laws; Visiting crime scenes where murders have occurred; Doorstepping witnesses who the police have overlooked etc) are second nature to journalists doing investigations. I recently spent time at a family wedding abroad, for example, chatting to a murder-case witness who helped me fill in blanks on a case I was thinking of investigating. A few days later I was walking through the pitch-dark to remote scene where an alleged murder victim’s body had been found in a different case nearer home, when I received a text from my wife with a shopping list for Costco. This clash of the dark and the domestic is normal.

I know other colleagues who lead similar lives, particularly those who do investigations. But for us, it’s the eventual story that obsesses us. The actual process is just the journalism equivalent of what Sir Ranulph Fiennes the Arctic explorer once called ‘The Arctic Plod’. It’s the daily grind. One foot in front of the other. To outsiders even that can look interesting given the context. But we forget that from time to time. Years of training and experience are absorbed and carried out without too much introspection. So when a series like this hits the headlines, you are reminded that what you do is, by and large, familiar to us but fascinating to others. Step back a bit and you have to agree I suppose. I was one of the lead educators in the University of Strathclyde’s recent groundbreaking Massive Open Online Course Introduction to Journalism this Fall and presented two week-long online courses in Feature Writing and Investigative Journalism. The overwhelmingly positive feedback and sheer enthusiasm from the 12.5k registered students globally was a reminder of how lucky I am to do – and teach – such a fascinating job. This series takes listeners into that world. It allows us to watch a professional try to piece together a highly complex story, sometimes tripping and stalling, but always moving forward.

The Serial works really well also because medium of radio is also very intimate and if you have a manifestly fine reporter like Sarah Koenig, the Host and Exec Producer, who also has a great, expressive voice, then that creates a vital, intimate link with listeners. She makes you feel like you are in on a big secret from start to finish. She takes you on a journey and weaves the facts into a powerful whole that’s greater than the sum of its impressive parts. She uses detail brilliantly and leads you from episode to episode with power and style.

The story itself is also fascinating. Again, forgive me for not going into any detail here, because I know I will spoil it if I start blogging about its content. Best to visit the site of the series and have a listen for yourself. There are also a lot of engaging websites out there that link to the programme and contain some fascinating blog comments and conversations. The internal tale in thematic terms is very familiar. Time after time, I have arrived at a story that has already engendered headlines leading to a settled and accepted  ‘Version A’ which, after a few weeks’ work falls apart, and soon leads me to construct a whole new ‘Version B’.

The form of the story is not really anything new as far as I can see. As far back as W.T. Stead, Upton Sinclair, Truman Capote, Joe McGuiness and all the rest… process stories have been used as a way to tell the larger story: The reporter acts as the vehicle that takes you into the action. Or as I say in classes: ‘The particular takes us into the general’. A story told well, with a human at the centre of it, always connects easier than a thousand bland powerpoints. People connect to people. But again, full credit to the producers for knowing how to use the full toolkit of digital technology to unpack this story in a fresh, vibrant and utterly compelling way.

As you’d expect I have no issue with a ‘real-life’ story like this being examined from every angle. Nor so I think calling it a ‘story’ demeans its serious underpinning. I am far more offended by ‘reality’ shows with celebs hawking the last remnants of their being for publicity. The kind of cases this story represents needs public scrutiny and debate – it’s been that way from the earliest alleged miscarriage of justice cases on the public record. Journalists are often the last court of appeal.

Using classic non-fiction long-form narrative techniques to tell us a complex story in an understandable way takes time and skill. This series represents a fresh way in the digital era and the team behind The Serial, do a world-class job in structuring their podcasts and breaking the story down into manageable sizes and varied content. A lot of hard work has gone into this series and much of it is hidden from plain sight by the sheer quality of the slick presentation and deceptively complex script. The team knows their stuff.

The straightforward digital presentation is a revelation. Multi-platform publishing needs a less-is-more approach these days. Too many similar projects have fallen short and not delivered ratings, critical attention or broken through the noisy racket of the modern digital media storm, simply because everything including several kitchen sinks it seems, have been thrown at the sites. These can be overwhelming. They can be bland in their simplistic and desperate embrace of the ‘more is always more’ kind of aesthetic. Sometimes knowing what to ditch on a site devoted to this kind of journalism speaks volumes and helps visitors focus. The stripped-back and clean site design acts as a superb entry to the rich, dark and raw tale that lies beyond  – and that’s how it should be. It clears the way for the documents and so on, to be placed carefully and in design terms, cleanly, on the site in a way that compliments, not overwhelms, the central narrative spine. Looks easy enough – but it isn’t.

In the final analysis, journalists are humans too. Taking a look at a story in development or listening to how the investigation develops should be a transparent and open to scrutiny process where possible. Yes, there are exceptions: Some investigations are sensitive for any number of reasons and often reasons of sheer competition in the business means its unwise to publish too widely, too soon. But reflective stories like this, where blind alleys sometimes can’t be avoided, are to be welcomed.

I never cease to be amazed at how digital connectivity is allowing investigative tools in the modern era to be used on stories from an earlier era. I marvel at how this provides a fresh new window into a world that might have moved at a slower and less transparent pace but was no less violent and shadowed. I often wonder if the protagonist(s) who apparently ‘got away with it’ all those years ago ever wondered, even for a millisecond, if at some point point in the future someone was going to use new tools to turn the clock back and focus attention onto an old, apparently stone cold, case?

In the past few weeks for example, completely out of the blue, I was the recipient of a secret dossier from a stranger, which told the awful story of a man murdered years ago in a rather grand house under extremely dubious circumstances. The dossier’s documents told a nasty tale involving power, corruption, controversial forensics, allegations of government corruption at the national level, police malpractice and secret reports being buried for decades. The victim, incidentally was a Roman Catholic priest.

So what will happen to this story? Is it worth following up? Will I leave home and family for days and weeks over the next few months to investigate it? Who will I speak to? What might they say? What will the documents yield? Who knows the truth of what happened that night, in that room, with those people, and why it ended with that man of the cloth being brutally battered to death?

I am not sure… but time will tell.

As far as The Serial goes. Well NPR are already working on the new series. It’ll be fantastic I am sure.

I am also 100% sure what the next evolution for this kind of project will be: A filmed version, released on a digital platform, with real-time interaction and comments, following another investigation into a real-case recorded across several months.

Remember where you read it first.

I can’t wait.