About Monnow Media

Monnow Media is the name Shirish Kulkarni uses for his media production company. Through the company, Shirish works on investigative journalism, production, editing, drone filming and technology training. 

My career formed the foundation of my Clwstwr project.

For two decades, I worked for some of the UK's major broadcasters in London, producing breaking news programmes, documentaries and investigative pieces. I moved back to Wales to become freelance. It was through colleagues at BBC in Wales, who I freelance for, that I found out about Clwstwr. I didn’t have an idea at first for a project, but when I reflected on what was important to me it became obvious: what we're doing in TV and online journalism isn't working.

Fundamentally, there's something wrong with the way we're telling stories.

Flagship bulletins on television and articles on news websites are unappealing to many, and trust levels in journalism are incredibly low. I think this is because the purpose of journalism has become disconnected from what journalists do. It ignores what the audience wants and needs; instead, journalism operates from a top-down template where journalists decide what we think people need to know. I think that we need to move away from personalities and opinions and start presenting facts with context in an accessible, useful and interesting way. 

I wanted to explore innovative ways of presenting news.

Journalists use a metaphorical ‘inverted pyramid’ to format the structure of their story, putting the most important facts at the top, with further details then becoming gradually less important. When I applied for funding from Clwstwr, there was an idea that we might create something like a branching, non-linear way of telling stories. However, my Clwstwr project ended up being something much deeper that explored the fundamental purpose of journalism and how to reach younger audiences. 

To start, I researched the concept of storytelling.

I read some nonfiction books about storytelling, where I learnt that we are hardwired to like stories as part of our genetic and anthropological makeup. We have an inbuilt desire to know what’s going on. I also carried out a series of interviews with storytellers of different kinds. I spoke to comedians, puppeteers, game designers and other people about how stories help them connect with their audiences. 

Focus groups showed how skewed journalistic values are.

We did a focus group with young people from ethnic minorities, who are massively underrepresented in the thinking of newsrooms and in academic analysis of these areas. We watched a BBC bulletin together and they switched off within 15 seconds. I could see why. It wasn’t talking in the right tone, it wasn’t about subjects they’re interested in and it wasn’t presenting things in a way that’s relevant to them. It emphasised how news values - which are largely defined by white, middle-aged, middle class men in London - aren’t objective; they maintain the power structures that already exist. 

I created principles or building blocks for a new type of journalism. 

Using the data, I identified the things that this new form of journalism needed to think differently about, namely: narrative structure, content, context, the agency of users, the tone of the writing, diversity, inclusion and transparency about how the news is made. 

From this, I constructed a definition of what this new journalism should do, which I call ‘orientation’: ‘Journalism should help us understand the world, locate us in our environment and enable us to meaningfully interact with it. Journalism should help us form views, which are consistent with the needs and interests of our families and our communities.’

To put the building blocks into practice, I made seven prototypes.

Each prototype brought in some of those ideas. I then wrote seven articles based on a BBC article about HS2, using a different prototype as the structure for each of them. In all of the prototypes, the tone was different to what you’d find on the BBC website; it was cleaner, more concise, provided context and took out lots of filler.

Over 1200 users tested the four strongest prototypes against the BBC article.

After the users read each of the articles, we asked them questions about the story to see if they picked up the key information. While the BBC article and the prototypes all managed to convey the information, the overall enjoyment and engagement levels were much lower in the BBC article than in the prototypes. This is a really big finding, and it gives us a good insight into why younger generations aren’t as interested in traditional news storytelling.

The best prototype was what I call the ‘narrative accordion’. 

To construct the article using the ‘narrative accordion’ prototype, I identified five key questions that a typical person might want answered on the story’s subject. These included: What is HS2?; What are the problems it’s trying to solve?; Is it actually a green solution? 

I wrote the answers to the questions in a paragraph, then presented them in such a way that you just see the questions. You can expand or collapse them in any order you want to see the answers. Or, you can read them through from the top, which makes a nice linear story that fits together. 

I went into this thinking that I’d be researching to find something I didn’t already know. I thought I might come up with a new way of telling stories. However, what I did was something much more important than that, something much more fundamental. 

I’ve produced a reimagining of journalism that has hit a nerve within the industry. 

My ‘narrative accordion’ and my construction of ‘orientation’ are both doing things that are fairly obvious, but they‘re causing a stir. They both ask questions and pull apart the traditional inverted pyramid, forcing us to take a step back from how we write things.  

They also push us to reconsider what we in the industry think we know about audience attention spans. It’s not that young people don’t have the patience to watch anything over a minute long; they watch feature films and play lengthy video games, which prove that if the content is engaging enough they will sit it out. We just need to change how we present news to younger audiences so that they aren’t disengaged with it.

We have secured a second round of funding from Clwstwr to develop things further.

I’m excited to build on the work that’s been done so far. I’m going to see if there’s a way to overlay these new storytelling techniques onto artificial intelligence based content creation models. 

The future of journalism will be based around artificial intelligence and natural language generation. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it will free up journalists to carry out more investigative work and features. I can see a time where we can use AI and the new journalistic principles I’ve outlined to put news stories together and present them in a much more engaging way.