Nieman 2006: Tips and Tales from Some of the Best in the Business
"If these are the last days of disco, dance!"
New York Times correspondent Marc Lacey's challenge seemed to be the weekend's mantra, as narrative journalism conference speakers defended their genre's value -- even while predicting further erosion of newspaper circulation.
Some 900 journalists attended the [Nov. 17-19] Boston sessions, co-sponsored by Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism, The Poynter Institute, The Boston Globe and The Oregonian. They got tips on how to sidestep surly editors, burnish routine stories and launch careers on a shoestring.
"As circulation shrinks, we have more opportunity" to tell compelling newspaper stories, said conference organizer Mark Kramer. "Nobody younger than your grandparents gets breaking news from print."
Oregonian managing editor and writing coach Jack Hart, who has edited two Pulitzer Prize winners and contributed to a third, cited research showing readers prefer the narrative form to the traditional inverted pyramid. He and others noted that narrative -- including short deadline pieces as well as what Hart called the "200-inch goat choker" -- can supplement online issue-oriented front page stories or add depth to news broken online or on cable.
Hart and Daniel Okrent, former public editor of The New York Times, see papers becoming smaller and more elite. "Newspaper circulation will continue to fall rapidly," Okrent said. "They'll be read by selected audiences that appreciate finely written and fair narrative. People who want serious journalism will pay more for it."
But "don't be paralyzed by the news about the future of our business," said Lacey, a correspondent in the Times' Mexico City bureau. "As the business changes, narrative journalism may be the only thing that saves papers."
If it doesn't, Lacey appreciates one editor's advice to dance 'til the music stops as much as he does desk people who "watch a reporter's back and is her newsroom advocate. Great editors are great thinkers. They know how to analyze, ask questions, get reporters excited."
St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times Managing Editor Stephen Buckley said effective editor-reporter relations require high standards, brutal honesty, support and humility. [The Times is owned by The Poynter Institute.] "The biggest editorial insult is not letting a reporter grow -- and that's why people stay or leave. ... Give reporters specific reasons why their story does or doesn't work. ... Tell the reporter, 'I'm completely in your corner. I want this story to be as good as it can be.' ... Both reporter and editor must admit, "I don't know it all."
And if an editor callously rips your prose, 2005 commentary Pulitzer Prize-winner Connie Schultz suggested asking yourself: "Are you going to get mad and stop, or are you going to get mad and better?" The(Cleveland) Plain Dealercolumnist said reporters frustrated by insensitive desk people should "editor-shop [for] someone in your newsroom who appreciates your effort and your ambition."
Appreciation doesn't mean over-involvement. Schultz and her editor, Stuart Warner, agreed that the best editors keep their hands off reporters' stories. "If I rewrite, I change your voice, your flow, your writing," Warner said, advising reporters to keep "your fingerprints on your own writing."
Schultz said journalism success "is all about pushing yourself; it never gets easier." Warner, The Plain Dealer's investigative team head and writing coach, and a key member of two Pulitzer Prize-winning entries while at the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal, echoed that sentiment. He asks reporters, "How good do you want to be? Are you willing to make [your story] the best it can possibly be, or just get it into the paper? Are you willing to keep pushing?"
Pushing turned what Warner called a "perfectly good" five-part series on an unjustly imprisoned man into what Schultz wanted: a "bell-ringer." In a weekend flurry, and with Warner's help, she rewrote it -- including 12 drafts of the first story alone. The result: an October 2002 "Burden of Innocence" series that was a Pulitzer feature-writing finalist and won two major awards.
"The key to short narrative is vision, not length. Don't gather a lot and compress. Be selective from the start. You have to choose. You can't develop everything.""All good writing is a matter of ceaseless, ceaseless revising," he said. He asks friends to read drafts for clarity, repetition and, above all, to "tell me where you get bored." As so many others advise, Hochschild reads a late draft aloud. "It slows you down and makes you more aware of clunky or piled-up phrases and over-long sentences. It you have to catch a breath, it's too long."
Kramer, the prolific magazine and book writer who directs the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism, advocated the "painful process" of micro-editing. "Watch for strong verbs. Make it clean and simple. Add more periods as you go. There's plenty of slack in daily journalism. Raise the bar on sentence construction. Lose the 'to be's,' the 'also's,' and the 'when's' and use fewer adverbs and adjectives."
Jan Winburn, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution enterprise editor who collaborated with Pulitzer Prize winners at The (Baltimore) Sun, also thinks reporters can make everyday stories more compelling. She wonders why we keep doing journalism "the same old way -- telling a story from the same middle distance." On a shark-bite story, for example, try for a victim's first-person account.
With papers squeezed for space and reporters for time, Winburn said we should "think quicker and think smaller" about 15-inch narratives. "The key to short narrative is vision, not length. Don't gather a lot and compress. Be selective from the start. You have to choose. You can't develop everything."
Diane C. Tennant, a prize-winning member of The Virginian-Pilot's narrative team, recommends writing "what amuses you" to enliven routine beat reporting. She pointed out this recent incident: A 77-year-old was charged with assaulting a
fellow school board member over the issue of whether meetings should open with a
moment of silence or a prayer. She said the reporter covering the story had probably not seen the
incident because it happened so late at night, but if he or she had, it would
have been a perfect opportunity for narrative off the news.
What if you're a young J-school grad stuck churning out stories for the National Notary Association? That was Joe Sacco's plight as he dreamed of overseas assignments.
So sleeping where and scrounging when he could, he said he "bumbled" his way through Palestine and Bosnia with no institutional support until finally getting Time and New York Times Magazine assignments.
His message: "Nobody's going to knight you and say, 'Go forth and be a foreign correspondent,' " said Sacco, an American Book Award winner who uses cartoons as a vehicle for his journalism. You have to jump start your own success.
Tina Sussman, who covered Africa for The Associated Press and Newsday, agreed. She tells ambitious young reporters to "go out and make it happen on your own," including unpaid internships to get clips and filing stories during vacation. And hold down those expenses. "Be cheap on the road," she said. "If you can get a big bang for the buck, editors will like it."
CORRECTION: The original version of this article inaccurately characterized Diane Tennant's take on her paper's treatment of a recent school board story. She noted that a straight news story could have been enlivened as a narrative if the reporter, who had had to leave the meeting to file on deadline, had been able to witness the incident. Tennant is a member of The Virginian-Pilot's narrative team, no longer a science writer, as the article originally stated.