Great Audience Inspired Great Speakers at Harvard Conference
By Mark Kramer
Special to Poynter Online
The ‘come hither’ letter inviting prospective speakers for this year’s Nieman/NWW Conference on Narrative Journalism (also co-sponsored by The Boston Globe and, new this year, The Oregonian), started with a boast, and this selection of reports from 2002 attendees should start with the same boast—about the attendees themselves:
…The best part of the show is always the audience. They’re exciting to address. In each of the past few years, there have been half-a-dozen or so Pulitzer-winners just among the crowd, unannounced. Reporters made up the biggest block of participants this year, and we drew more than 200 editors -- nearly a quarter of the crowd. About 15 percent of attendees were freelancers, and about 6 percent authors. For the most part, we attract the self-selected, narratively-inclined, restless minority from mainstream newsrooms who yearn to reach past standard news-fact and into exploring character, structuring presentation, and developing high-level craft technique – they’re reaching for artistic skills of writing. We draw some public radio, TV and documentary folks and about 20 CBC folks from across Canada. Foreign reporters come, too – from Australia and New Zealand, England, France, Denmark (a group of 24 reporters), Germany, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Ukraine, Russia, Mexico, Chile, Columbia, and Peru.
We’re an official National Writers Workshop, BUT probably because of our specialized topic, we seem to draw an older, more national and international crowd further into their careers than do the regional NWWs in April and May. Attendees include reporters and editors from Newsweek, Newsday, the St. Petersburg Times, the Chicago Tribune, the L.A. Times, Canadian Public Radio, NPR, the New York Times, Scientific American, Sports Illustrated, GQ — and a hundred more publications and stations.
The level of the audience’s questions reflects that experience. The writers who attend are practical and "tips-hungry." And they really do take the conference back home. They start new projects, make new policies at their papers, and acquire new books for their publishing houses. They organize narrative groups at their own newspapers. Many write afterwards and tell us what happens next, and send along the works that grow from their attendance. So we feel useful.
This year, we had a sell-out crowd of about 950 -- up from about 800 last year. An impressive gallery of speakers, all volunteers (unpaid), came to address this extraordinary crowd. The number of speakers grew from 22 to 39, including many winners of Pulitzer, Peabody, MacArthur, and National Book Critics Circle awards as well as former Nieman Fellows.
The state of narrative is shifting perceptibly, if not yet dramatically. A narrative writer speaking at an NWW a decade ago often got asked, "How do I keep my narrative-phobic editor from savaging the story?" But this year's conference included so many editors -- uncommon and exceptional ones, but real-live editors nonetheless -- and it was good to see them in the thick of the discussions, asking, "How can I help writers do good work?" Our speakers had many answers, as the accompanying articles indicate. (Tapes of all sessions are for sale on the Nieman conference web site).
The conference itself was built with the advancing state of narrative in mind. A keynote panel explored ways to move narrative "Beyond Mawkishness and Mayhem." It suggested that simple ‘cliffhanger’ or ‘endangered child’ narrative mobilizes readers’ curiosity and enjoyment, and help induce these readers to come back tomorrow – such elemental narratives are useful readership-builders.
But the panel also suggested that narrative has powers to grip readers and lead them far beyond mere cliffhanging through the richest sorts of reporting -- narrative journalism has proved to be effective for organizing complex material around human stories, for exploring the routine, the personal, for handling events with complex histories, for describing processes of discovery and of personal change (for better and worse), for coordinating examinations of complex activities by dispersed parties. Such work demands skilled writers and editors, and comes out best when they coordinate their efforts with photo, layout and other departments of the news organization and work backed by strong and sophisticated institutional support. That’s what’s starting to happen and these signs of growth make the narrative conference exciting.