Why Narrative Matters As Newspapers Struggle
Now more than ever -- when outmoded notions of "he said/she
said" fairness, avaricious owners and new media all threaten
newspapers' primacy -- narrative journalism has the chance and the
vital mission of bringing context and emotion to reporting. Amid
tips on leads, endings and everything between, that
message highlighted the annual Nieman Narrative Journalism conference in Boston.
More than 950 reporters, editors, freelancers and students had their
choice of 69 talks, panel discussions and nighttime sessions arranged
by Mark Kramer, writer-in-residence at Harvard's Nieman Foundation for
Journalism and co-sponsored by the Boston Globe, The Poynter Institute and The Oregonian.
New Journalism's patron saint, began by calling nonfiction the one
literary form that never goes out of style. "You are riding the wave of
the most important writing done today," he said at a keynote session
Friday afternoon. "The future is yours. Go get 'em! The time is right."
Nearly four decades ago, Wolfe famously defined New Journalism as
injecting four fictional devices into conventional coverage: scenes,
dialogue, status details and point of view. Now, he said, narrative
journalism is sorely needed to show the "emotional side" of a story.
As an example, he cited recent articles about thieves who force
homeowners to give them their valuables. He said they focus on the
robberies but ignore the most compelling angle: victims' fear.
Wolfe isn't confident about newspapers' future. He said, "It would
be a shame to lose print journalism, which explains why and puts things
in context, but it could easily happen" as so many turn to the Internet
Former Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll also praised the narrative form while worrying about the future of newspapers.
He termed narrative's attraction "eternal," from the days when
primitive people sat around campfires and told stories. The genre is
"never needed more than today, when we're bombarded with facts with no
context," he said. "We need to gratify the reader's emotions and
intelligence (to help them) make sense of the world."
But as corporate media owners cut news budgets and news holes while
readership drops, Carroll said we'd "better get adjusted to a digital
During his five years as editor, the Times won 13 Pulitzer prizes. But he said he quit earlier this year because
of an "increasingly testy relationship" with superiors and a reluctance
to make further newsroom cuts "in the absence of strategy." Although he
certainly doesn't embrace the vision of News Corporation owner Rupert
Murdoch and his Fox executives, Carroll credits them with the "guts of
a cat burglar and vision," qualities he said other chain owners lack.
Instead, he charged, those corporate bigwigs see papers as mere assets
of a larger corporation, and have little interest in their future.
As a major shareholder urges Knight Ridder to put itself up for sale or sell some of its 32 papers,
Carroll said he's not sure who the "good guys" are, because, he said,
the news company has been slowly "diminishing" its papers with staff
cuts. He said breaking up the chain and selling papers to local owners
would be the best outcome.
Narrative shouldn't be confined to massive enterprises, he
continued. "Any story should surprise and delight" –- even a short
As critics from all sides of the political spectrum allege
journalistic bias, panelists tackled the eternal question of how to be
Cheryl Carpenter, managing editor of the Charlotte Observer,
said narrative reporters shouldn't be seduced by their extraordinary
access to their subjects. "Think of narrative journalism as a way you
get at the messiness of truth" and you'll be fair to both readers and
Mark Singer, New Yorker staff writer, said, "My fundamental
sympathy is sufficient protection against the subject feeling ripped
off." To him, and several other speakers, fairness means not lying, not
misrepresenting yourself, and clarifying on- and off-the-record ground
rules. He tries to get people doing something they're passionate about,
not just in the "static place" of the formal interview, but will leave
the room if they want to talk to someone else confidentially.
Gerald M. Boyd, former New York Times managing editor,
bemoaned what he called the increasing tendency for reporters to tell
subjects, " 'If you play ball and give me access, you'll get better
treatment' ... We should feel passionate about fairness and not get
caught up in the issues of access and cooperation."
Orville Schell, dean of the
University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism,
said, "Fairness is not a place on the 50-yard line, the middle between
a lie and the truth ... You have to have a very strong compass, and let
the story unfold to readers the same way it unfolds to you."
Philip Gourevitch, Paris Review editor and New Yorker
staff writer, said suspending judgment about your subject is "a bad
notion, and a way to avoid seeing reality ... (While) we bend over
backward to find someone who backs a bogus claim, people are turning
away from newspapers because they don't tell (them) what it all comes
Gourevitch was one of several speakers charging the press with being
too defensive in the face of increasing political attacks. He sees
"broad incuriosity about pushing stories beyond where they're supposed
to go," saying "politicians are more sophisticated about how to work
the press than the press is sophisticated about pushing back." He said
journalists follow politicians' agendas too closely, and depend on the
opposing party to tell the "other side" when the real two sides are
"true" and "not true."
CULLS, LEADS, NUTS AND ENDINGS
Many conference sessions focused on the nuts and bolts of culling compelling stories from reams of material.
Kramer was one of several speakers who recommended taking "lavish
notes" and interviewing as little and as late as possible. "The more
you just watch, the more you fade into the background," the more
intimate details you'll get, he said. To help decide your central
theme, think of your "destination." After you "scoop up everything,"
read your mass of notes to someone to identify the most interesting
Adam Hochschild, the co-founder of Mother Jones magazine
whose latest book is, "Bury the Chains," also favors editing by
conversation. "We're all quite good editors of ourselves as talkers"
because we're aware of our listener's time constraints and attention
span. So "as you tell someone what you think the story is, you'll see
the structure as you talk."
Hochschild and others said a clear idea of beginning and ending
scenes helps them sort out research. He tries to come back from every
assignment with two or three characters, and two or three scenes,
including dialogue, setting and action.
"Listen to your material," he advised. "It might steer you in a very different direction" than to the story you envisioned.
A master at being steered by material is Jacqui Banaszynski, a
Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer who now teaches at the Missouri
School of Journalism. She tries to "turn subjects into story tellers,"
even in phone interviews, by asking them, "What's in the room? What are
An interview should not be a Q&A, she insists. Get subjects "out
of the box of the predictable (and) ask them a non-traditional layer of
questions." For example, she asked an AIDS patient, "What did the nurse
say?" and "What was your first reaction?" as she broke the grim news.
She urged writers to pick the "revelatory detail." In one case, this
was the hands of a surgeon performing delicate facial reconstruction on
a young girl. Before cutting, he braided her hair -– a gesture that
takes readers as close to the story as the reporter was.
Banaszynski warned against leading with your most accessible
interviewee, the one who gives you the most time. "Don't go for the
easy, dramatic lead if it's not the heart of the story ... A lead is a
contract, my promise to the reader and I have to deliver."
"Don't think about how you write, but about how you read," she said.
Her own test is her mother: if Mom isn't hooked by the eighth
paragraph, she'll quit. So weave "nut graph" information throughout the
story, giving information and statistics after you've got the
reader. Instead of traditional definitions of direct and indirect
leads, she likes to think in these terms: one kind tells you the news,
and another the story.
Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger feature writer Robin Gaby Fisher,
a two-time Pulitzer finalist, suggested that immersion journalism is
narrative taken to its highest power. "Narrative is the private story
behind the public story, and it takes time to get that." Spending every
waking hour for nine months watching two burn victims fight for
physical and emotional survival was "stressful, emotional but so
incredibly rewarding." Choking up as she detailed their struggle,
Fisher shares her own struggles with her subjects. "Give up yourself,
because you ask so much of people."
She thinks too many reporters flaunt their own importance to, and
"talk over," their subjects. Instead, "Be quiet, listen, let things
unfold, and you'll get remarkable stuff."
Fisher believes, "You can become a great writer -– or at least tell
great stories -– through immersion ... Don't just parachute in,
hang out and expect them to open their hearts to you. It's being there,
being a reporter –- a reporter, not a writer ... If you can get in
(subjects') heads, you're home."
Practice immersion with "day in the life" profiles, she said. "You
can teach yourself, and if you're passionate (about in-depth reportage)
your editors will be passionate with you."
Baltimore Sun health reporter Diana K. Sugg delivered a similar message.
"I won the Pulitzer
(in 2003, for beat reporting) because I did the stories that really
matter to me ... Too often, we ignore the stories (we) really want to
do, that nag at you, that you talk to others about. (But) the questions
that haunt you are haunting a hell of a lot of other people."
Pursuing delicate end-of-life stories has led her to crack houses
and a glare that made her feel like "scum." But she persevered. "You
can go much further than you think. You have to go the distance (amid)
rejection. The best stories have no deadlines. You can get any story
you want if you just keep going. Too often we give up. There's buried
treasure on your beat and in your heart. Don't let the cynics get to
you; you have to be your own champion."
Tom French, the Pulitzer-winning St. Petersburg Times serial narrative specialist, offered many tips for immersion reporting, including these:
When deciding whom to follow, "look for texture, vulnerability,
contradiction, a clear line of action that will engage the reader and
reveal character and theme."
Zoom in. Find a simple frame. Follow one love struck teen, not the whole seventh grade.
Get the details: the dog's name, the song title, the brand of the beer.
Keep asking: for their diary, for the contents of their purse.
"Never assume your subject will say no. Time and again, you'll find
that people are more generous and brave than you would imagine."