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POSTED 19.6.2020

Can you write the news in three lines?

Inspired by the work of French art critic and literary stylist (and perhaps the first person to ever tweet), Félix Fénéon, StoryLab's Erin Fox asks a collection of writers in journalism and poetry to write the news in three lines.

—A criminal virago, Mlle Tulle, was sentenced by the Rouen court to 10 years hard labor, while her lover got five.

That’s just one of thousands of pieces from News in Three Lines, a daily column, published in 1906 in the Parisian newspaper Le Matin, written by the enigmatic and elusive art collector, publisher, editor and anarchist, Félix Fénéon.

And several of them, along with Fénéon, are the subject of an online exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York.

Félix Fénéon (1861 – 1944) was something of a PR powerhouse for up-and-coming artists. He championed the careers of young, avant-garde artists such as Georges-Pierre Seurat, Paul Signac and Henry Matisse. He translated, published and even discovered many late 19th and early 20th century writers such as Proust and Rimbaud, and was the first French translator of James Joyce.

But he rarely affixed his own name to any work and carefully maintained his anonymity —in part due to his contributions to anarchist publications which were under police scrutiny at the time. When urged to publish his own literary accomplishments, he famously said: “I aspire only to silence.”

While many of his accomplishments were in service of other artists, Fénéon was renowned by his contemporaries for his sharp wit and nerve. And this is what ignited his anonymous column Nouvelles en trois lignes (News in Three Lines) for Le Matin.

These short news stories were what the French call “fait-divers” or “sundry events” of three lines each. Due to the paper’s layout, Fénéon was limited to just 135 characters —so he may well have been the first person ever to tweet!

Fénéon reported on everything from murder, the courts, political protests and workhouses, and his sardonic humour and sharp pen painted a picture of scandal, violence and unrest in the France of 1906.

Fénéon turned the news into literature. Satirical in tone, many of the three-line news stories also read as poetry —you could even call them ‘journalism haiku’.

Inspired by the literary style of Fénéon’s work, we asked a collection of journalists and poets to write the news in three lines. Like Fénéon’s work, the following pieces reveal a lot about how we consume news and our individual perception of it.

As the layout of News in Three Lines in Le Matin is different to StoryLab’s Newsdesk, some of these pieces flow over three lines.

Susan O’Keeffe

Bristol slave trader Edward Colston’s 6-foot bronze statue will be preserved in the ropes used to drag him to the depths of the Avon river. 

Rebecca Kennedy

The murder of George Floyd triggers protests against police brutality and systemic racism in America. Meanwhile, paler Americans are upset they can’t get haircuts.

Donal Conaty

Félix Fénéon wished for anonymity. His life’s work is being celebrated by the Museum of Modern Art. Poor Fénéon.

Martha Kearns 

GAA announces summer camps to run despite Covid-19. Children dig out dusty football boots as working parents weep tears of joy.

Alice Lyons

Irish government dissolves, installs Holy Trinity in top position, miffing Our Lady. New (male) taoiseach is declared in Ireland. New (male) taoiseach is declared in Ireland. New (male) taoiseach is declared in Ireland.

Julianna Holland

As visits to prisons are prohibited, video calls are the replacement, allowing inmates to see their homes and gardens –a first since confinement.

Erin Fox

A criminal has been caught red-handed with counterfeit money. The 8-year-old’s toy banknote has been confiscated and he will have a record until 2032.

Ciaran Byrne

President Trump said it was a ‘great day’ for George Floyd, after the US posted better than expected job numbers. Trump was speaking a week after Floyd died in police custody.

Patrick Karl Curley

Linda Tirado, a photojournalist, is now blind in one eye, having been shot by police armed with rubber bullets – for her safety.


*Featured image: portrait of Félix Fénéon by Paul Signac which is the cover of the accompanying book with the exhibition in MoMA.

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