On a late fall weekend in 2001, the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism convened its first conference. More than 800 journalists traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts to take part in three days of interactive seminars, lectures and readings with many of the nation’s leading practitioners. By the end of the conference, there had been 26 seminars, four plenary sessions, and three group readings, and it is from words spoken at these sessions that Nieman Reports compiled the report that follows.
To replicate on our pages the verbal experience of the conference is impossible. Many journalists who spoke about their work and offered their advice peppered their remarks with vivid anecdotes. Some of these made us laugh, while others left us hushed with the sadness of their stories. Such emotional experiences aren’t easily reproduced. So instead of trying to walk readers through the entire narrative conference, we have constructed a wholly new document of what was said. Though we use participants’ words, we have excerpted and edited them in a way that we hope will enlighten, inform and inspire those who weren’t there. And for those who were, this written journey offers a different view and the chance to hear from those whose sessions you could not attend.
Our journey begins with a panel of accomplished narrative practitioners whose job it is to reflect on what it takes to do fine narrative writing. Author Gay Talese then engages our curiosity with a discussion about his own. Curiosity, he said, “is seeing nonfiction as a creative form of telling the story of your time.” And the stories he prefers to tell are those of ordinary people “whose lives represent a larger significance.” Nieman narrative journalism director Mark Kramer shares some of his secrets for how to fill a notebook with the ingredients necessary to do good narrative journalism. Among his hints: “The function of setting a scene is to foster the reader’s sense of immediacy.”
New York Times writer Isabel Wilkerson, in her discussion about sources, peels away the layers of the onion to reveal what the goal of a well-done interview ought to be. Like the onion’s center, an idea expressed well by a source, in her words, “requires little slicing because it’s already small, and it’s compact, and it’s highly concentrated.” And author Stewart O’Nan helps those of us who struggle to find time to write to find time to do just that. “Use your time, steal the time, manage the time somehow,” he says.
Seattle Times Assistant Managing Editor/Sunday Jacqui Banaszynski acknowledges the familiar newsroom tug of war between editors and reporters, but reminds us that if narrative journalism is going to work well, then, “quite frankly, we need each other.” What follows her remarks is a series of Tips for Reporters, led off by New York Times editor Steven A. Holmes, who uses his reporting experience for the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series on race relations as a way of passing along advice. “Observe everything,” he says, “take everything in, don’t let anything pass, not a thing. But then don’t regurgitate everything you see in your story. Be very selective.” Former Yankee editor Jim Collins passes along 10 lessons he’s learned from his best writers, including that “the confidence in a piece is directly related to the depth of reporting behind it.” And Poynter Institute faculty member Chip Scanlan reminds writers that words must be written before they can—and must—be rewritten. Jacqui Banaszynski shares the lessons she learned when she was writing narrative accounts, one of which won a Pulitzer. “Stories are oral,” she says, so if you are writing a narrative, it must “be able to be read aloud.” Compendiums of additional tips follow for both reporters and editors.
At the conference, several award-winning journalists joined book authors in reading from their collections of narrative work. On our pages appear some of the readings that have been published in newspapers, written by Steven A. Holmes, Isabel Wilkerson, Tom French, Stan Grossfeld, and Rick Bragg.
When three journalists—Bruce DeSilva, Chip Scanlan, and Jon Franklin—playfully argue about which element of narrative journalism is most essential to its success, their audience learns that voice, theme and story all matter. Writer and visual artist Emily Hiestand challenges journalists to develop a personal voice to layer onto their reporting. “News voice and personal voice do different things,” she says, “and we really need them both.” Jacqui Banaszynski calls upon friends and colleagues to remind us why we need stories, and one reporter replies, “I need stories to tell me I’m not alone. That is reason enough.” Journalism professor and narrative expert Jon Franklin urges journalists to seek out ways to insert meaning into storytelling. “Meaning is something we’re not supposed to put in stories,” Franklin says. “For one thing, we mistake meaning with opinion. But by meaning, I really mean the shape of the story and what the shape of the story says.”
Former journalist and author Adam Hochschild delves into the melding of scene, suspense and character, and urges each writer to “think as if I were a filmmaker.” Pick compelling characters, he advises. Think in scenes and create suspense. Bruce DeSilva, who directs The Associated Press enterprise department, walks us toward endings by reminding us that “if you want to write narrative, your stories must have resolutions.” And St. Petersburg Times staff writer Tom French, who specializes in serial narratives, explains how and why “that delicious sense of enforced waiting” works so well as a way of drawing readers’ attention to the story. Historian and author Jill Lepore compares ways in which the writing paths of those who write history and those who report news converge. “The revival of narrative and historical writing parallels the emergence of narrative journalism,” she says, even though crucial differences still separate these two genres.
The words of other participants—Nora Ephron, Nan Talese, Jack Hart, Richard Read, Ilan Stavans, and David Fanning—can be found in accompanying boxes or in our final section of commentary called Conference Diary. In our diary section reside an array of comments and observations whose home is in the world of ideas.
All photographs of conference participants were taken by Herb Swanson.