From Blog to Narrative: Josh Benton Throws Us a Curve
You can imagine how many writing seminars and conferences I've attended since 1977, so you'll excuse me if I confess to an occasional spasm of boredom. "Writing is a process...find a focus...stories are good...nut graph this...blah, blah, blah." Which is why surprising moments of great learning seem so satisfying and joyful.
I experienced such a moment at the Nieman Narrative Conference, thanks to a young reporter and Nieman fellow named Josh Benton, who offered the most dynamic presentation I've ever witnessed on -- of all things -- blogging. Let me kick it up a notch: The last time I remember learning so much in an hour was the first time the late Donald Murray showed me in 1981 his model of the writing process.
Benton's thesis goes like this: Eyewitness reporting rendered in real time via the blog represents an interesting and worthy kissing cousin to long-form narrative journalism. He derived this thesis from the work of a British writer named James Fenton (new to me), a proponent of something called "reporting in its natural state." Just as natural foods distinguish themselves from processed foods, so natural journalism, in Fenton's view, stands in contradistinction to the kind of processed news reporting that still vanillas-up the typical newspaper. Natural journalism results from the timeliness and enthusiasm of eyewitness reporting, where interesting events come to the reader with immediacy and a clear point of view.
Building on this foundation, our young blogger has created a grid he calls (drum roll, please), The Benton Curve of Journalistic Interestingness. It looks something like this: [see accompanying graphic].
In this case, Benton describes a form of blogging in which several witnesses experience an event in real time and report on it in the moment. ("Blogs can shift you from a news peg to the moment.") From his view, blogging becomes a form of critical reportage rather than a form of standard commentary or self-expression. As an example, Benton described his enthusiasm at following via his computer a live technology presentation in which a number of bloggers in attendance sent dispatches around the world, including everything from physical description to quotes from the speaker to their own takes on the subject and performance.
Benton argued that natural reporting often comes right after the experience, when the reader can catch the spark of the subject and the more authentic voice of the writer. But time passes, and the machine of conventional reporting neuters the point of view, neutralizes the language, and jams facts into standard suitcases. But then, more time passes and an investigative or feature writer recognizes the unrealized narrative potential of the story. Once again, "interestingness" becomes high.
In this sense, reportorial blogging and narrative storytelling are allies against the snore-inducing, monochromatic delivery of conventional reporting. While straight reporting asks, "is it a story?" says Benton, the blogger wonders "is it interesting?" While the traditional report seems fixed in time, the blogger offers "an ongoing series of dispatches." And just as narrative writers try to define character in stories, so bloggers "can make characters out of sources -- and out of reporters, too."
Another strength of Benton's vision is his recognition of old school examples of eyewitness reportage as a form of proto-blogging. He showed us a photo of the earliest wire service dispatches reporting the Kennedy assassination in dramatic bursts of news and information. This example helped me understand the title of one of my favorite journalism anthologies, "Eyewitness to History," compiled by British scholar John Carey. An earlier edition is titled "The Faber Book of Reportage," but what strikes me most powerfully is how many of the entries -- from ancient Greece to the present -- were reported by non-traditional journalists, that is, by authors, historians, reformers, novelists, politicians, along with ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events.
We've seen in the 20th century the professionalization of journalism, only to see in this century the re-emergence of the amateur eyewitness, who uses everything from cell phone images to instant messaging to real-time blogging to get the word out.
The final story in the Carey anthology comes from none other than James Fenton, that apologist for natural journalism, reporting from Manila in 1986 on the fall of President Marcos:
"We ran up the grand staircase and turned right into the ante-room. And there sat Marcos himself, with Imelda and the family all around him, and three or four generals to the right. They had chosen the ante-room rather than the main hall, for there were only a few journalists and cameramen, and yesterday's great array of military men was nowhere to be seen. I looked very closely at Marcos and thought: it isn't him. It looked like ectoplasm. Like the Mighty Mekon. It was talking in a precise and legalistic way, which contrived to sound both lucid and utterly nonsensical. It had its left hand under the table, and I watched the hand for a while to see whether it was being deliberately concealed. But it wasn't...."
At the Nieman conference, Josh Benton wondered aloud whether his Curve of Interestingness had enough curviness to make the Poynter website. Well the answer, Josh, is obviously yes. And more than that, it should help all of us reconcile our hopes for a new genre with the power of a very old one.