At annual narrative conference, storytelling's power remains as it changes

It begins with "once upon a time." The stories she tells and wants to tell through "Frontline" all start that way -- as stories. There's journalism embedded inside that phrase, Raney Aronson-Rath told Poynter in a phone interview. And for Aronson, deputy executive producer of "Frontline," one of her once upon a times happened in Taiwan.

Aronson was just 22, a young reporter attracted to journalism through economics and politics, watching democracy unfold in Taipei. She couldn't get at the big political stories, though. There was a senior reporter for that. So she found another way. Aronson started spending time with a group of young Taiwanese. They'd vote for the first time, their parents never had that chance. Through them, she told the story of mainland China and Taiwan.

Before then, it never occurred to Aronson that she could tell a story about real people that would resonate beyond just those people and their lives. But it did.

After that, "I just wanted to do narrative storytelling with journalism inside."

Aronson is a keynote speaker for the Power of Narrative conference at Boston University April 4 through the 6 (Poynter is a co-sponsor). The conference, in its 16th year, has its own story.

'It was in the air'

As a young writer, Mark Kramer, director of the conference and writer in residence at BU, was drawn to narrative storytelling. That was true, too, as a reader. News stories were typically plain-voiced with civic facts. They felt de-selfed to him, he said in a phone interview with Poynter.

When he read that a young man was arrested for burglary, he wondered, how did that person feel? He wanted to know about him, "and his brothers and his mother and his school teachers and what happened and those were never in the story."

While the narrative journalism movement started with Tom Wolfe in the '70s, Kramer said, by the '90s it was taking hold as an appropriate voice for institutions that once used "group voice."

"It was in the air, people were telling stories to explain what had previously happened in institutional voices," Kramer said.

In 1998, he thought up a narrative conference that would bring together people who worked in medicine, psychology, academia, anthropology, history and journalism.

"Journalists rushed to the conference," Kramer said, "while other people ambled."

That year, the conference featured a number of voices, including Rick Bragg, Anne Hull, Tom French and Susan Orlean. Four hundred and fifty people attended. The next year, 1999, the conference geared more toward journalists.

In 2001, the conference moved to the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. By 2002, 1,000 people attended.

As times became harder at newspapers, Kramer said, editors and publishers realized getting people to read engaging stories may get them to read the rest of the news.

"Hence for a half dozen or so years, the conference was packed and the typical conference-goer was a daily reporter whose way was paid by his or her newspaper," said Adam Hochschild, a journalist and co-founder of Mother Jones now teaching journalism at UC Berkley Graduate School of Journalism, in an e-mail to Poynter. "Mark’s conference was definitely the premier one on this subject, but other conferences and training programs on narrative also thrived..."

"Then, of course, newspaper owners realized that nothing was going to stem the decline of print readership, big layoffs began, and they largely stopped paying reporters expenses to attend conferences like this one," Hochschild wrote. (He's also a keynote speaker this year.)

Kramer's last narrative conference was in 2006, and he left Harvard in 2007. The conference returned to BU, and he got involved again in 2011. Now, it's rebuilding and refocusing, from long-form and print to multiplatform storytelling for print, digital and more.

It's a meeting point, Kramer said, a center of action in narrative journalism as it grows and changes.

But at the heart of narrative and the conference "is a concept that informing the public involves telling true stories," he said. "And stories don't only involve a sequence of events, but they involve a storyteller."

'Shakespeare would be great on Twitter'

New York Times reporter David Carr is among the planned speakers. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

Speakers at this year's conference include names from print and online establishments, such as David Carr, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Dan Barry and David Finkel, journalism educators and people from radio, documentary, publishing and graphic novels.

The conference itself focuses on narrative across platforms. That's necessary now for anyone working as a journalist, Hochschild said, and there are exciting ways to apply storytelling principals to many forms.

"Good stories are good stories," he said, "and we can all learn important lessons in technique from them no matter in what medium they are told."

Aronson's seeing that shift herself at "Frontline," where through partnerships and collaborations they've started exploring different ways to tell stories. Sometimes it's a long documentary. Sometimes short. Journalists now have to be flexible, she said, able to tell strong stories and open to how best those stories work.

"When you're paying attention to what the story is, it will tell you what the right form is," she said.

Roy Peter Clark, Poynter's vice president, a faculty member and a speaker at this year's conference, agrees. Narrative endures, he wrote in an email to Poynter, but how it's delivered has changed.

"Shakespeare remains our greatest writer, but drama delivered in verse is no longer current," he said. "Mark Kramer and his colleagues have done great work in keeping the narrative conference up to date, attuned to all the tumultuous changes we have seen in technology, multi-media, social networks and all the rest. If he were with us now, Shakespeare would be great on Twitter."


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