A Critical Look at the Academic Work Done on Narrative Journalism
by Joe Marren
Special to Poynter.org
Back in the mid-1970s, just when the hurly-burly days of New Journalism seemed to be waning, there was, perhaps, a sense of befuddlement in newsrooms and in the hallowed halls of academe about New Journalism: Where did it disappear to? Who was still doing it? Where were the writers and what were they writing?
John Hartsock, who teaches journalism at the State University of New York College at Cortland, said the so-called new journalism is still out there, it’s now called creative non-fiction, or even sometimes narrative journalism.
"The interest hasn’t died, it’s just that it’s cyclical," he told a roomful of attendees at the annual Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism in Cambridge.
That may mean the academy is again taking note of the genre and is willing to open it up to critical study. Such a move is necessary if journalism schools are to nurture and help develop young journalists who can, in turn, convince the stereotypical cigar-chomping, politico-despising city editors to allow narrative prose in the newspaper’s hallowed column inches.
"Young journalists will need exposure to this and that will require course work," Hartsock said. His own book on the subject, "A History of American Literary Journalism: The emergence of a modern narrative form," traces the history of the genre from the turn of the 20th century to modern times.
And Hartsock argues that the reason there are Luddites on college campuses and in newsrooms may be because of a lack of understanding on even what the terms mean.
"This is still a form that the academy is waking up to," he said.
For proof, just take a quick look into the "Help Wanted" columns of The Chronicle of Higher Education. There are precious few job openings to teach narrative journalism. There are plenty of openings to teach the craft of writing, but so far only the University of California at Irvine seems willing to offer a degree that offers not only writing skills, but critical examination as well.
Hartsock says first of all because deans and provosts and college presidents, along with the usual suspects, don’t know what department to put it in. Most are found in English and journalism departments, but there might be a glimmer of interest found in American studies and even history departments. So narrative journalism is the poor waif still looking for a home in the academy and looked on with suspicion by the working press as well.
Hartsock is not one to see the glass as half-empty, though. He says the place where more good narrative journalism can be found is in the pages of the small literary journals that pay in contributor’s copies and in good intentions.
"I see that as a positive development because those journals are dedicated to nonfiction of literary merit," he said.
Among the offerings are Fourth Genre, out of Michigan State; River Teeth, out of Ashland University I n Ohio; and Point of Entry.
Notice, too, that the examples have an academic partner, which means there is a home-grown movement in academia who see the value in starting courses of their own.
That means that although academics are having a hard time defining narrative journalism, they are still working on giving it a high profile in course catalogues. That broader meaning leads to unstable boundaries between forms and, who knows, may even convince some grizzled city editor in these downsizing times to look for "a good story" once again.
Joe Marren is an assistant professor in the communication department at Buffalo State College. E-mail him at email@example.com.