Do the Best Business Storytellers on the Planet Have Shoes?


Journalists, particularly journalists at business and mainstream publications, show the way when it comes to applying storytelling techniques to business communications.

Pick out a story in media properties such as The Atlantic or The New Yorker. Reverse-engineering the content and studying the construction of the story will surface lessons that can be applied in business.

This got me wondering —

Do the cobbler’s kids have shoes? How do these same publications grade out in their own corporate communications?

To answer this question, I selected a cross section of media properties known for fresh narratives and writing that attracts word geeks (yes, like me):

  • The New Yorker
  • The New Republic
  • The Onion
  • The Atlantic
  • Slate
  • Mother Jones
  • Re/code
  • Diginomica
  • Ars Technica

Then, I evaluated each media property’s “About” (or equivalent) section based on the following characteristics:

  • Tell a story
  • Atypical first sentence
  • Conversational language
  • Word choice
  • Differentiates

Spoiler alert —

Our journalistic brothers are still getting the hang of how they tell their own stories.


The New Yorker

Known for its quality of writing, The New Yorker has succeeded with long-form journalism at a time when gnat-like attention spans reign.

About Section

The New Yorker is a weekly magazine offering a signature mix of reporting and commentary on politics, international affairs, popular culture and the arts, science and technology, and business, along with fiction, poetry, humor, and cartoons. The magazine is available in print at newsstands and by subscription. We also publish each week’s full issue in an app for tablets and smartphones, available for download through the App Store, Google Play, or Amazon.

In addition, digital subscribers have access to our complete archive, which includes a digital replica of every issue of the print magazine, from 1925 to today. We also offer an E Ink edition for Kindle and Nook, editions through Zinio and Next Issue Media, and an audio edition of selected pieces from

Our Web site,, features the full contents of each week’s magazine, plus everything we’ve published since 2007 and select older magazine stories. The site also publishes more than fifteen daily dispatches from New Yorker writers and artists, as well as podcasts, videos, slide shows, interactive graphics, and the Cartoon Caption Contest. All readers are able to enjoy the home page, the front page of each section, the video hub, Goings On About Town listings, and six articles per month at no charge before being asked to subscribe.

The New Yorker Scorecard

The New Yorker Chart

Describing the narrative as pedestrian would be generous.

They should ask Malcolm Gladwell to take a shot at the rewrite.


New Republic NEW

Even if you perceive The New Republic as pretentious, there’s no doubting the care put into its writing. The magazine is again up for sale after the failed effort to Facebook-ize the property.

About Section

The New Republic was founded in 1914 as a journal of opinion which seeks to meet the challenge of a new time. For over 100 years, we have championed progressive ideas and challenged popular opinion. Our vision for today revitalizes our founding mission for our new time. The New Republic promotes novel solutions for today’s most critical issues. We don’t lament intractable problems; our journalism debates complex issues, and takes a stance. Our biggest stories are commitments for change.

Today, the New Republic is the voice of creative thinkers, united by a collective desire to challenge the status quo.

The New Republic Scorecard

The New Republic Chart

This write-up wins the worse phrase award, “We don’t lament intractable problems.”

I suppose this means they avoid topics like the meaning of life.


The Onion

I’m a huge fan of The Onion. When you can bring smiles and even laughter to readers, you’re doing something right. But the property’s gift for parody can cause one to miss its industrial-strength writing.

About Section

The Onion is the world’s leading news publication, offering highly acclaimed, universally revered coverage of breaking national, international, and local news events. Rising from its humble beginnings as a print newspaper in 1765, The Onion now enjoys a daily readership of 4.3 trillion and has grown into the single most powerful and influential organization in human history.

In addition to maintaining a towering standard of excellence to which the rest of the industry aspires, The Onion supports more than 350,000 full- and part-time journalism jobs in its numerous news bureaus and manual labor camps stationed around the world, and members of its editorial board have served with distinction in an advisory capacity for such nations as China, Syria, Somalia, and the former Soviet Union. On top of its journalistic pursuits, The Onion also owns and operates the majority of the world’s transoceanic shipping lanes, stands on the nation’s leading edge on matters of deforestation and strip mining, and proudly conducts tests on millions of animals daily.

The Onion is now available exclusively online without charge in order to take advantage of various charity tax benefits.

The Onion Scorecard

The Onion Chart

Finally, a publication that carries the attitude and style of its stories into its About section.

Also includes one of my favorite phrases, “members of its editorial board have served with distinction in an advisory capacity for such nations as China, Syria, Somalia, and the former Soviet Union.”


The Atlantic

I had high hopes for The Atlantic, a brand with serious cachet.

About Section

The Atlantic is America’s leading destination for brave thinking and bold ideas that matter. With an all-star roster of writers and thinkers covering the world’s most intriguing topics, The Atlantic is the source of opinion, commentary, and analysis for the country’s most influential individuals.

The Atlantic Scorecard

The Atlantic Chart

The publication that serves up James Fallows can certainly do better than “… brave thinking and bold ideas that matter.”


Slate NEW

Thought we should pull from the pool of media properties spawned by the Internet.

About Section

Slate is a daily magazine on the Web. Founded in 1996, we are a general-interest publication offering analysis and commentary about politics, news, business, technology, and culture. Slate’s strong editorial voice and witty take on current events have been recognized with numerous awards, including the National Magazine Award for General Excellence Online. The site, which is owned by Graham Holdings Company, does not charge for access and is supported by advertising revenues.

Slate Scorecard

Slate Chart

No sign of that “strong editorial voice” or “wit” in the narrative.


Mother Jones NEW

Figured we should include one outlier in this exercise. Plus, I thought the publication’s black-coffee strong advocacy might show up in its description.

About Section

Mother Jones is a nonprofit news outlet that delivers bold and original award-winning reporting on the urgent issues of our day, from politics and climate change to education and the food we eat. We investigate stories that are in the public and the nation’s interest. From revelatory scoops to deep-dive investigations, Mother Jones journalism is penetrating storytelling that informs and inspires an engaged readership of 8 million monthly readers.

Mother Jones delivers 24/7 reporting online and produces a bimonthly print magazine. We are headquartered in San Francisco and have bureaus in Washington, DC, and New York City. Mother Jones also spearheads Climate Desk—a journalistic collaboration (partners include The Atlantic, the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Guardian, Grist, the Huffington Post, Mother Jones, Slate, and Wired) dedicated to exploring the human, environmental, economic, and political impact of a changing climate. Mother Jones is also home to the popular science podcast Inquiring Minds.

Mother Jones Scorecard

Mother Jones Chart

One of the better ones.

Still, the phrase, “revelatory scoops” lowered the conversational grade from a “yes” to a “kind of.”

Revelatory Definition



It’s possible you haven’t heard of Diginomica which represents the new wave of online pure plays.

About Section is a new type of media property that seeks to differentiate based upon two main things:

1. The business model is based upon meaningful partnerships between the vendor community and editorial experts.

2. A deeply experienced team of practitioners, consultants, analysts and content creators.

The 21st century buyer is very different to that which existed in the past. Today’s buyer is just as likely to be a line of business manager as it is an IT specialist. The diginomica founders believe the new and emerging class of buyer is not well served by mass technology media.

We believe that the old world of advertising driven media models is dead and is currently in zombie mode. The relentless drive to attracting ever more eyeballs creates a race to the bottom where dwindling revenue squeezes publishers who in turn demand more content for less. It is a self defeating model because there is no attention paid to the value of anyone’s attention. The drive to ever higher page views becomes dependent upon two things – a ton of content and content creators who are driven by the catchiest headline.

We believe this is wrong at multiple levels. It certainly does little to serve the needs of hard pressed buyers who want high quality, reliable information delivered on any device as part of their decision making process.

Even where attention spans are reducing, content should be sufficiently attractive in its own right that readers are prepared to invest their valuable time in consuming content. We do not believe the current models allow for that.

On the other hand, the traditional analyst approach doesn’t serve either. The analyst community has locked itself into a model that has atrophied. They do not provide the information snapshots required by today’s busy decision maker. Instead, they have become ‘tick box’ providers of expensive reports that are frequently out of date and often inaccurate.

diginomica wants to fill that gap, providing rich, informed reportage and opinion based upon our daily contact with buyers and practitioners.

Diginomica Scorecard

Diginomica Chart

For my money, the best one of the group. It actually tells a story.

Equally important, it embraces the opportunity to deliver a point of view like “old world of advertising driven media models is dead and is currently in zombie mode” and “analyst community has locked itself into a model that has atrophied.”

It’s fair to say that “challengers” are less vested in the status quo, paving the way for diginomica take such an approach.



When Mossberg and Swisher ditched the Journal to embark on their own, they came with the promise of “doing things our way.” Even after selling to Vox, I was curious if this bent came across in its positioning.

About Section

Re/code is a tech news, reviews and analysis site, from the most informed and respected journalists in technology and media. Because everything in tech and media is constantly being rethought, refreshed, and renewed, Re/code’s aim is to reimagine tech journalism.

Led by the team who formerly built the trusted AllThingsD site and the legendary D: All Things Digital conferences, Re/code launched the site and inaugural Code Conference in 2014. Within a year of launching, Re/code received the Excellence in Online Journalism Award from the U.S. National Press Foundation, a nonprofit journalism organization.

Re/code is wholly owned by Vox Media, which is redefining the modern media company by empowering the smartest digital voices with the technology to create and distribute premium content, and connect with an audience of 170 million affluent and educated young adults worldwide.

Re/code Scorecard

Re-code Chart

It’s time to “reimagine” the About section.

Feels like a Dragnet episode … “just the facts, ma’am”.


Ars Technica

Another pure play online publication, Ars Technica doesn’t enjoy the profile of competitors like Wired, but in my view does a better job of balancing technical complexity with narratives that can be understood without a Ph.D. in molecular physics.

Ars Technica Staff

About Section

Ars Technica was founded in 1998 when Founder & Editor-in-Chief Ken Fisher announced his plans for starting a publication devoted to technology that would cater to what he called “alpha geeks”: technologists and IT professionals. Ken’s vision was to build a publication with a simple editorial mission: be “technically savvy, up-to-date, and more fun” than what was currently popular in the space. In the ensuing years, with formidable contributions by a unique editorial staff, Ars Technica became a trusted source for technology news, tech policy analysis, breakdowns of the latest scientific advancements, gadget reviews, software, hardware, and nearly everything else found in between layers of silicon.

Ars Technica innovates by listening to its core readership. Readers have come to demand devotedness to accuracy and integrity, flanked by a willingness to leave each day’s meaningless, click-bait fodder by the wayside. The result is something unique: the unparalleled marriage of breadth and depth in technology journalism. By 2001, Ars Technica was regularly producing news reports, op-eds, and the like, but the company stood out from the competition by regularly providing long thought-pieces and in-depth explainers.

And thanks to its readership, Ars Technica also accomplished a number of industry leading moves. In 2001, Ars launched a digital subscription service when such things were non-existent for digital media. Ars was also the first IT publication to begin covering the resurgence of Apple, and the first to draw analytical and cultural ties between the world of high technology and gaming. Ars was also first to begin selling its long form content in digitally distributable forms, such as PDFs and eventually eBooks (again, starting in 2001).

The Ars editorial team didn’t fret over journalistic innovation, however. Ars fused opinion, analysis, and straight-laced reporting into an editorial product long before commercial “blogs” arrived on the scene and claimed to reinvent journalism by doing the same. The company pushed the ideals of transparency and community before these were buzzwords. It is these ideals that have kept the company growing since its birth, and readers can expect more of the same in the future.

Ars Technica Scoreboard

Arts Technica Chart

Finally, a long-standing media brand that gets it right.

Nice turn of a phrase, “catering to the alpha geeks” with a photo equal to the task.

I question whether being the first IT publication to cover the resurgence of Apple is a deserving milestone — most of the readership probably doesn’t even know Apple needed a “resurgence” — but that’s a nit.


A quick glance through the scorecards paints an unflattering picture.

Many of these terrific media brands that feature “show, don’t tell” journalism don’t bring the same care to their own communications.

The Onion, Diginomica and Ars Technica were the exceptions.



  • Steve Grey

    I keep dipping my toe into the story telling movement in the hope of figuring out what it is about and this is a useful resource as it has examples that are classified as being with or without stories.

    While I can see the story in Ars Tecnica’s material and the Onion’s material has several threads I could characterise as stories at a stretch, it is hard to see why the diginomica material scored Yes for telling a story.

    Am I missing something? Does this use of the word Story allow for material all in the present tense?

    Any assistance with my confusion will be much apreciated.

    • Lou Hoffman

      Hey Steve,

      Defining what constitutes a story tends to be a subjective exercise. In the case of diginomica, jumping to the copy that starts “The 21st century buyer,” there’s a beginning, an end and some “bad stuff” in between so it works for me as a story.

      Still, I come back to the belief that storytelling techniques, not the classic story arc, are the way to improve business communications.

      There’s a fair amount of nuance to this broad topic of business communications. For example, you chose to craft your LinkedIn summary in the third person which can bring a more authoritative bent. Putting the same words in the first person can “warm up” the narrative. One isn’t better than the other. Just an example of how nuance impacts things.


Leave a Reply