Talking About Narrative Journalism
Jack Hart [writing coach for The Oregonian]: We ran a narrative series last week about a basketball coach and his problems with crack cocaine. My girlfriend was at a meeting of women who were putting together an event to honor high school athletes at the local high school, and she said they talked about that series through the entire evening. She said, “You know, in five years that I’ve been going to those things, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard anybody talk about a story.” I think there are some universal human themes in good narratives that take real events in the real world and make them meaningful to all of us. In newspaper stories, [these themes] bring in not just the public affairs-oriented, older readers who are the traditional backbone of the newspaper, but attract a much broader audience, maybe the folks who have been feasting on “junk narrative,” who finally get a chance to deal with a real narrative.
Michael Kelly [editor in chief of The Atlantic Monthly]: There does seem to be an increase in audience for fiction and nonfiction narrative among younger readers. We have been experimenting on our Web site, Atlantic Unbound, which is mostly literary in nature, with some politics, but also a good deal of writing and talking about writing narrative. It’s very popular with a much younger crowd than reads the print magazine. In fact, it drives subscriptions to the print magazine at a very interesting clip, like 300 or 400 new subscriptions each month. These are what we think of as quality subscriptions, people who actually want to get the magazine, care passionately about it.
Walter [Kirn] talked about people’s hunger to get away from this awful bombardment of topicality, and to be told what they used to be told: stories about things they didn’t already know. And there’s a whole range of stories out there. The New Yorker used to own [this kind of story], especially with the kind of stuff that Joe Mitchell would go out and do. He would go to a sea turtle farm or would go and spend time with a street corner preacher who was waging a campaign to get rid of vulgar language in New York City, a failed campaign, as it turned out. These were stories that had absolutely nothing to do with topicality, had nothing to do with celebrity news in any conventional sense, and were only nonfiction in the most generous sense of the term. They were as much fiction as nonfiction, I think, and stood on their own legs simply as stories and were, by definition, fresh to everybody. No one knew any of it before. And the immense confidence that The New Yorker had then to simply tell stories and let them stand on the strength of storytelling and the magazine’s understanding that this would be terrifically rewarded, that’s still true today.
What isn’t true [any longer] is that people are given those stories, at least, as often as they used to be. It is much harder, I think, for a writer to go to an editor at most magazines now and get a story [assignment] about nothing in particular, except, “I want to go to a sea turtle farm and write it up.” I found as a writer immense resistance by editors in all sorts of areas. Generally, many editors are resistant to anything that could not be packaged as a profile of some sort, centered on one person of news interest. I think magazines, writers, editors, who recover what Walter was talking about, the sense of telling people stories they don’t already know, will be terrifically rewarded. There’s a great audience out there waiting for that.
I think the great competitor for the reader’s time is video rental. Aside from the fact that people spend a lot of the time they used to spend reading watching a movie at home, the kind of open-ended attention that they used to give a magazine like The New Yorker, when they said, “Tell me about something I don’t know and transport me,” that kind of open-ended attention they’re now giving to the movie. You’ll rent a movie and check it out, and if it’s kind of boring, well, you’ll stick with it until it’s time to go to bed. But you don’t do that anymore with a magazine. You expect a written article to deliver much faster and much more sharply, I think, than you used to, or one used to as a reader.
Robert Vare [senior editor, The Atlantic Monthly]: Some critics suggest that most of the narrative nonfiction techniques that are in use today differ very little from those that were practiced in the 60’s and 70’s by Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and Gay Talese. Do you buy that proposition? Are we in an era of kind of an experimentation gap or an innovation gap? Or are writers out there that are really shaking things up and doing interesting things with this form? Or are we really kind of stuck in a revivalist mode at the moment?
Walter Kirn [contributing writer to Time and literary editor of GQ ]: It’s my contention that we don’t live in a very experimental time, literature-wise, in fiction. How could it be that radical in nonfiction? I mean, the 60’s and 70’s were times of invention of meta-narrative. We had Goddard films that took everything, cut it up into a million pieces, and threw it up in the air. We live in a very conventional time, aesthetically, when it comes to storytelling. I’ve noticed this in novels, and I think it’s probably true in nonfiction…. I don’t know that we have a healthy and confident enough atmosphere in general to support much real innovation. It’s going to be a while. As Michael [Kelly] said, once we’re fully engaged in telling stories again for their own sake, and once the audience has once again been trained to respond to storytelling form, we’ll have people who shake it up. But a little neoclassicism first wouldn’t hurt. I wish I could be the one who’s out there in the avant-garde discovering strange new narrative geniuses. But they don’t seem to be out there, probably because they’re not indulged, and probably because the aesthetic culture of the culture in general doesn’t support them….
I think we live in a fairly politically and culturally complacent and quiescent time. I don’t think those edges or borders are being pushed yet…. A lot of this is a feature of not having great stories to tell. There is not a Vietnam War going on. You have to seek far and wide to find some of these stories now. There is not a march on the Pentagon or a riot at the next political convention. Political convention reporting as a barometer of nonfiction narrative in general is probably a good thing to look at. You had an entire genre of books that was generated out of going to the convention and telling the story of the candidates and the deals, and so on. And just as the political conventions have ceased to have much of a story to them, so has the writing about them. Naturally, you can’t detach the storytelling from the stories. And if our stories are less complex and perhaps less gripping and overwhelmingly emotional, so will the writing be. That’s a matter of history, not any lack of effort.
Alma Guillermoprieto [author and staff writer for The New Yorker]: I want to disagree strenuously. We’re all a bunch of old fogies sitting here, all from the previous millennium. And if there is an innovative storytelling form going on, we don’t know about it because we’re not on the Internet.
Walter Kirn: I’m always on the Internet…. I don’t think there is anybody extraordinary out there. It’s too new. But when the new narrative storytelling takes place and revives and gets its wings and gets its strength, it’s going to happen on the Internet, I think, not in newspapers. We’re all holding down the hatches…. I think there are fantastic stories out there, but we don’t know how to even begin covering them. We don’t know how to begin covering the reproductive revolution, the genetic revolution, and the information revolution. What do we know about political conventions? And there’s all this other stuff, and it’s changing the way the world is going to be. And how do we deal with those stories?
Michael Kelly: I like the idea of some sort of brief return to the neoclassical approach. I think we’ve done plenty of experimenting in the last 30 years, in magazine writing at least, and I think lately it’s about as much as the reader can bear. I know I can’t read another magazine profile that turns out to be largely an exploration of the writer’s inner psyche and his deep, deep inner joy of being in the presence of an actually beautiful movie star lady, at lunch briefly, where she pretends to be interested in him. We’ve had an awful lot of indulgence on the part of writers in magazines. And it’s causing great pain and suffering among readers.
Jack Hart: In the newspaper world, I think we are doing some very new things. And it’s not so much with forms, although you see newspaper writers using indirect characterization now, where Richard Harding Davis would have used direct characterization. So there are more modern techniques at work. One of the most exciting stories for me to read lately was on molecular genetics. It was written by Jon Franklin at The (Raleigh) News & Observer called “To Make a Mouse.” It’s a narrative story of one graduate student’s quest that taught me more about what’s going on in inner cell genetics than anything I’d seen in the way of straight-ahead reporting on that kind of thing. Tom Holman has written stories about a mentally retarded boy who moved out and got his own apartment. He’s written stories about a deaf and blind woman who went to go to guide dog school to see if she could get her own guide dog. He’s written stories about a man who took his children, who had been raised in the inner city, back to see if they could find their rural roots in the Mississippi delta.
All those stories don’t sound like much of great significance if you just list the topics that way, just like a story about the odyssey of a French fry doesn’t sound like much. [See story by Richard Read about his Pulitzer award-winning narrative series about French fries on page 23.] But that’s not what they’re really about. The French fry story was about the Asian economic crisis. And those other stories were about very universal human themes that were tremendously significant. And in terms of the lives of readers, I think, as significant as the Vietnam War or any of those other big, high-profile political stories that some of us lived through in the 60’s.
Audience members were invited to ask questions of the panelists. Wendy Kaminer [author and contributor to The Atlantic Monthly and The American Prospect]: I have a comment, not a question, but I would like to hear the panel react to it. I think there is a downside to storytelling and to journalistic storytelling that hasn’t been addressed and that is the creation of an anecdotally driven public policy. I’m not saying that there’s no important role for such stories, even in political writing. Anthony Lewis, I think, does a really good job of alerting people to the inequities of immigration law by telling stories about its victims. Maybe even the Elian saga has a silver lining in that it helped Republicans discover the Fourth Amendment.
But there are a lot of places where this becomes kind of dangerous. We have sex offender registration laws that are named after children who are killed. It’s much easier for a legislator to vote against a sex offender registration law, if he thinks there are some inequities in it, if it’s called a sex offender registration law than if it’s called Megan’s Law. Suddenly, he’s voting against a little girl and against the family of a little girl. There are a lot of examples of this. You can take a story and use it to help people understand or think about a larger issue, or you can take a larger issue and reduce it to a story or an anecdote.
And I think that’s one of the dangers of this.
Michael Kelly: The Clinton scandals were trivialized, in my estimation, by their reduction to soap opera-type stories. I think that a template was placed over that set of events in which an affair between an intern and the President, and their romantic adventures, and its discovery by a puritanical prosecutor, all of which replaced that which was of real import in the story. And so I agree that story in its most popular and broad sense often obscures important matters that might otherwise be explored. At the same time, I wonder what else it is that motivates people. Bottom line, you talk about policy driven by anecdotes. Well, we came out of a period in which policy was driven by science or research or study groups, and I don’t know that it’s that awful that it be driven by something else for a change. But I do see a way in which journalism gets together to impose broadly appealing narratives on what are complex and difficult matters that it prefers not to organize in more interesting ways, and the result is a Monica Lewinsky affair.
Lori Olszewski [’00 Nieman Fellow and reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle]: Jack, you named a couple of writers at your paper and a couple of writers at other papers who we have all heard of as models on this. And I just wanted to express a little bit of a concern that I see as a trend in our business in recent years. We tend to give those [writers] the resources to do a narrative piece. Most papers are only doing a couple of those pieces a year, and it’s a handful of people who get those resources. I say this as one of those people who has gotten those resources. But I see that that very process suppresses the unusual voice, the thing Michael Kelly was speaking of. Before there were so many more people contributing to that that you were more likely to develop a young talent. I just wondered what you all could offer as perhaps a better model because I don’t think that the model we’re using is tapping all the talent out there. I think most beat reporters are totally overlooked, and we only target a few of the stars at each paper for these resources.
Jack Hart: That may be true at some papers. I certainly don’t think it’s true at mine. We do all kinds of writing, some narrative, some not. Very often we do a lot of deadline narratives when there’s a dramatic event. About a year and a half ago, we had a terrible flood in a wilderness valley that killed several white-water rafters and stranded a number of others, and created the need for some very dramatic Coast Guard rescues. Two young writers jumped in and did a narrative reconstruction with a young editor who was doing her first narrative reconstruction. The accident happened on Tuesday and the story ran in the Sunday paper on A1. At the same time, another team of reporters was doing a narrative reconstruction of the ordeal of the parents of one of the Mormon missionaries who was taken hostage in the former Soviet Union. There were a lot of people involved in narrative storytelling that we thought was meaningful for our readers. And you can do a narrative that’s daily, too.
Lori Olszewski: But what I’m asking about is how many people get the six months or four months, usually, a year?
Jack Hart: Well, thank God, not very many, because we don’t want to fill the paper with that kind of thing.
Lori Olszewski: How many long-form narratives would you run a year?
Jack Hart: Maybe 15. But that’s plenty for a paper our size. Peter Howe [reporter with The Boston Globe]: One thing that Jack said really resonated with me. The Boston Globe is definitely trying to get the narrative wave, usually with considerable success. But the point Jack made that an inverted pyramid story that’s slightly off is palatable, but a narrative attempt that misses is screamingly awful. It seems like there’s a little bit of an operating assumption that all narrative writing is good. And certainly there are some examples of bad writing out there. I’d be very interested to hear thoughts from some or all of you for tips for avoiding bad narrative writing, examples you’ve seen, why it went wrong, how it could have been done better. Just guidelines for people to keep in mind to make this work.
Michael Kelly: I have some personal expertise in bad narrative writing, so I could start. When I worked at The Cincinnati Post, I worked for a managing editor who lusted after the Pulitzer with every fiber of his being, every hour of the day. And I was one of those sort of pets in the newsroom who was plucked out to do Pulitzer-worthy narratives. I did four or five of them…. And my greatest bad narrative happened when the opposition paper, The Cincinnati Enquirer, ran a pretty good narrative: 24 hours in the life of the Greater Cincinnati Hospital emergency room. People were dying and things. It was sort of like “ER.” And one of my editors thought we could imitate that or top it. And I did, with a team of reporters, but I was the proud lead writer; 24 hours in the life of the Greater Cincinnati International Airport. There is a flaw that you will quickly get at in this idea: unless a 747 actually crashes on that particular day, what you have is what I wrote. Sort of like, “5:02 a.m.—It’s quiet here in terminal C. No one here but Mabel Schwartz, mopping the floor.” And then a quote: “‘Not much happening,’ said Mabel.” So I don’t know what that tells us about tips to avoid it. But you are right that not all narrative writing is good, and when it’s bad, it is simply awful. It’s the reason editors should be scared, I guess.
Andreas Harsono [’00 Nieman Fellow and Indonesian freelance journalist]: I would like to address the question to Alma Guillermoprieto. When I came here last year from Indonesia, I was pretty surprised to realize that there are so many magazines like The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, etc., here in the United States. Indonesia has no such kind of magazine, not even a single one. Of course, there are smaller, the equivalent of The Atlantic Monthly, but their subscription is pretty small, 1,000 or 1,500. You told us that in Mexico City there was an effort to set up these kind of magazines, but it failed because the market is pretty small and the cost is pretty expensive. This means that a country of 100 million people, of Mexico, or 220 million people in Indonesia, cannot afford to have these kind of magazines. My question is pretty simple. What can we do? Or perhaps, is it not important to have this kind of magazine?
Alma Guillermoprieto: I think it’s tremendously important to write stories and to have narrative and to have forums where narrative can take place, and that’s why I do it. By the way, similar efforts in Colombia and similar efforts in Argentina haven’t failed. They’re kind of stumbling along. And I think to the degree that they survive, now they’re feeling the biggest hurt in the lack of writers of narrative who can provide the kind of sustained, long, well written material that these magazines could publish. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve begun writing in Spanish and why I’ve begun trying to publish first in Spanish and then in English. Because the economics of the situation are such that it’s much easier for this would-be magazine, would-be Vanity Fair, would-be New Yorker in Colombia, say, to simply reprint translations of things that have already been written in the United States. And somehow to me that isn’t a satisfying alternative. And I think what has to happen is that maybe you would like or would be interested in going back and starting writing these pieces and publishing them and not charging very much for them. Because that’s the only way it’s going to happen. That’s the only way you’re going to create some kind of a following.
How clear can I make it that this is not a presumptuous thing to say? I want somebody to read me in Mexico and say, “My God, I would want to do that. I would want to write a story like that. I would want to make my living like that.” Just to create the kind of excitement and the possibilities, and to generate the writers, and the form of looking, and the discipline of looking at things in a nonfiction, honest and disciplined way. I don’t think it’s easy. I think the economics are against it. I think we’re poor countries, and this is a rich country. Everything I said before was just to say you live in a very rich country, and you have that enormous privilege, and that’s what allows you to do what you do.
Carol Eisenberg [’00 Nieman Fellow and a reporter at Newsday]: I agree there has been a rebirth of narrative form in newspapers, and that when it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work. I think you were talking stylistically. As a beat reporter, I’ve also seen people working under very tight deadlines with what Michael was talking about. [These are writers without] an innate or disciplined or seasoned feel for narrative, who go into deadline situations and in a very short time attempt to write a narrative form about something that has occurred, recreating dialogue and thoughts. When I know something about [the topic], I have huge ethical problems with what’s been done. It’s often not only not good writing, but it’s terrible journalism. We’re also in a different time speed now. Bill Kovach has a book called “Warp Speed,” and I think competition from the Internet, from cable, has quickened news cycles so you’re seeing people attempt to do this without a lot of background or experience, and sometimes news background, in very quick news cycles, and getting it all wrong.
Jack Hart: Well, there’s a lot of bad journalism out there, and some of it is narrative. It’s been our philosophy that exactly the same ethical standards apply to writing narrative as apply to any other form of journalism. Manufactured dialogue is beyond the pale.… Whenever possible we will do observational narrative. We’ll be there and see what it is we are describing. I know when I’m editing with a narrative writer, the most frequently asked question—it is just a drumbeat—is, “How do we know this?” We make every effort to explain to our readers how we gathered information for a story. We will, at the risk of destroying the sort of dramatic force of the narrative, attribute, when necessary. I just do not think that slipping into the narrative form relieves you of any of the customary journalistic responsibilities.
By the same token, I think a lot of journalists who are seeing new forms in their newspapers and in other newspapers are tremendously suspicious of them, and they are rightly skeptical. And they sometimes apply standards that probably ought to be applied to some of the more traditional journalism that is already appearing, much of which would be found wanting. So I think we can do good narrative storytelling in newspapers that meets the very highest of ethical standards, the most stringent of standards of evidence, and do them very well. And I guarantee you there will be plenty of bad and ethically wanting narrative done in newspapers just as well. The only thing you can do about that is to be an extremely intelligent consumer.