NY Times’ Abramson: ‘Long-form narrative is not only alive but dancing to new music’

Forget the digital doomsayers, said Jill Abramson. “Long-form narrative is not only alive but dancing to new music.”

Other prominent journalists echoed The New York Times managing editor’s optimism about thriving in a Twitter age at Boston University’s annual narrative journalism conference last weekend.

Abramson said devices like tablets and iPads give long-form narrative new ways to reach new audiences. She said her paper focuses on integrated storytelling in series like "A Year At War," with multimedia “freshening” the story by letting readers “see, feel and almost taste” soldiers’ and families’ experiences.

She added that new tools can’t trump journalism basics. Wary of “narrow specialists,” she worries that journalism schools’ new technology training may detract from traditional shoe leather reporting values.

Abramson, a former Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, said she hires “passionate storytellers who go the extra reporting mile.” Her mantra: “report and report some more.” Her favorite example: Gay Talese’s classic 1966 Esquire story, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”

The 15,000-word profile includes a short scene in which the singer hassles a young writer whose footwear offends him. For details of that minor event, Talese tracked down the unfortunate scribe.

That dedication sparked Abramson’s three-word reminder for aspiring narrative writers: “Harlan Ellison’s boots.”

Two prominent New Yorker writers -- Ken Auletta and Susan Orlean -- see great narrative opportunity in the new media world.

Drop the “woe is me” attitude to new technology and use blogs to get attention for your work, Auletta advised. When researching his latest book, “Googled,” he was struck by the founders’ “why not?” attitude. Writers should do the same, he said. Instead of whining, nonfiction writers should adapt. As an example, he said, multimedia can enliven --  not threaten -- printed books.

Auletta said engineering and traditional journalism worlds are coming together, with techies discovering the value of quality content and writers learning how to use new techniques to enhance their work.

Orlean sees a thriving narrative scene because, “There’s never been a better time to be a teller of stories.” New technology trends might be disturbing, she said, but writers should remember that those just affect the packaging. She said basic content isn’t threatened as the delivery system changes and that the difference between an e-book and a bound volume is the difference between white and manila envelopes.

The author herself is using new technology to promote her eighth book, on canine film star Rin Tin Tin. As part of her talk, she read an excerpt about the four-legged performer in advance of the book's October publication. Orlean has even come to like tweets, enjoying their informality and comparing their 140-character limit to haiku.

Worrying about nonfiction’s problems “gets us nowhere,” she said, noting that a strong narrative voice can cut through the “clutter” of Internet information.

How to develop that voice? Like Abramson, Orlean said every good piece springs from good reporting. To spin a routine story into something richer, Orlean said, “be a storyteller, make it a yarn, lead people through the emotional experience of learning. You’ve got to be the best, most excited learner you can possibly be, tug on the public’s coat sleeves and say ‘this is really interesting.’ ”

Talese, one of narrative journalism’s godfathers, has been making the mundane interesting for six decades. At 79, he said he does the same thing he’s always done. “I just hang around. Anyone can do it.”

But, he said, not everyone knows how “to get the unstated permission of people to hang around them. It’s a courtship.”

To Talese, that courtship begins with knowing how to behave. “Journalism classes don’t teach politeness and traditional good manners,” said the famously stylish writer. Meticulous attire shows respect. “You have to dress up for the story.”

  • Bill Kirtz

    write on media topics for trade and general circulation magazines; teach varity of print journalism courses.


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