I love this question! What the heck is a documentary anyway?
I think you are right in that one thing that distinguishes a documentary most is that it isn’t news. Traditionally, I believe, a documentary is an in-depth exploration of a subject (person, place, issue, event), whereas a news story is much more limited in scope. Also, while both documentaries and news stories are based on fact, a documentary usually follows a narrative arc, while a news story usually starts with a headline and works down to the nitty gritty (aka Inverted Pyramid).
But! Pubradio innovators have been getting creative with this stuff. The Third Coast Festival hosts a competition each year which includes a Best Documentary category. Their parameters are super liberal. Length can be as short as 2 minutes, and their guidelines recommend only “innovation and creativity in storytelling, sound design, and/or overall production style.”
The Third Coast Festival also hosts another competition called the Shortdocs Challenge. This competition asks producers to produce a short audio work which follows a different set of parameters each year. In 2007 the Shortdocs challenge asked for a 2:30 – 3:00 audio piece inspired by one of the following items:
- mug with feisty feminist banter printed on it
- 4-pack of wooden mousetraps
- old-school bicycle bell
You can hear the winners and all of the submissions here. My Life As a Cup is one of my favorites — you certainly couldn’t even call that one nonfiction. But listen to them all!
Wikipedia has a pretty comprehensive list of Public Radio’s mainstay documentary producers.
Some of my favorite docs and documentary producers on PRX include:
Paul Ingles on The Beatles
Issues and Ideas:
The Kitchen Sisters, like the ubiquitous This American Life, take a creative approach that’s heavy on storytelling. They consider their work to be documentary, nevertheless.