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Nieman hosts ‘narrative journalism’ luminaries at conference


National Public Radio’s Ira Glass of ‘This American Life,’ speaks to a full house at the Nieman Narrative Journalism Conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Cambridge on Saturday, Dec. 1. (Staff photo by Justin Ide)

They are the hard-boiled scribes, the muckrakers, the first on the scene, the late-night newsroom hounds who put a humanistic spin on the tragic. In short, they are the voice of our nation, and on an unsettlingly warm evening of the last Friday in November, they overtook the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Cambridge for some voice lessons.

More than 800 journalists, editors, and publishers assembled in the name of narrative, a fancy – if more powerful – word for story, much like the moniker pasta is “just a fancy word for spaghetti, macaroni and linguini,” said Nora Ephron, the keynote speaker for the Nieman Narrative Journalism Conference. Decked in New York-chic black leather pants that she wore as comfortably as a second skin, the reporter-cum-award-winning screenwriter of savvy blockbusters such as “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle” called narrative the “mode du jour” to suggest the broad scope of work that falls under its province. Such breadth, she noted, makes narrative nonfiction tend to elude definition. Ephron’s observations were confirmed by the procession of diverse, sometimes dazzling, speakers who would take the podium over the next two and a half days.

The conference, the flagship event of the Nieman Foundation of Journalism, brandished a roster of speakers that read like a platoon of Pulitzer Prize winners. The arsenal included Jon Franklin, the first writer to win the award for both feature writing and explanatory journalism; narrative’s trendsetter Tom French; Stan Grossfeld of The Boston Globe; Jacqui Banaszynski of the Seattle Times; and New York Times writers Steven A. Holmes, Isabel Wilkerson, and Rick Bragg. Pulitzers weren’t the only hardware on display. Peabody awards and Pushcart prizes were among the many others.

One sign of the attendees’ significance was highlighted when Holmes of the Times had to make an untimely exit, putting deadline over didactics. To take his place on Saturday morning, conference organizers jolted The Oregonian’s international affairs senior writer Richard Read and his editor Jack Hart out of their anonymity to fill in.

Attendees and speakers alike, who usually identify themselves by their ability to ask questions, were – on this particular weekend – challenged to answer them.

“Is [narrative journalism] a story or is it the truth?” Ephron provoked the audience. She pegged the term an oxymoron, and, like a proper journalist, substantiated her claim.

“It’s an unholy alliance if you have a pure view of journalism,” she said. Each half of the term, she elaborated, is violated, if not discredited, by the other.

Twenty-six sessions in six time blocks addressed, among other issues, the seeming contradiction, and, afterward, the one thing that stood out with certainty was uncertainty: regardless of all the deliberation, the jury is still out on a formula for defining, not to mention creating, narrative.

But the attacks on the problem yielded unquestionably valuable booty. Some speakers, such as the edifying Jon Franklin in his session “Beginning, Middle and End: The Shape and Psychology of Story,” recommended a blueprint for writers to haul back to their desks. Others offered reassurance that persevering in the work writers instinctively do was the most valuable method to improvement. The hundreds who came in hopes of harvesting clues were not disappointed.

“It’s a complicated form of writing because you have to do so much reporting before sitting down to construct it. It’s a complex equation, using scene setting, description, and dialogue. My hope is to hear from accomplished writers the process they go through when they create narrative,” said Susan Reed, a writer who spent 13 years as a producer for CBS News.

Reed can boast such distinctive credits as The New York Times, New Republic, and Atlantic Monthly. But she doesn’t boast. In fact, she claims to feel like a “first-time writer” whenever she sits down to start a new story. She points at an essential humility that seemed endemic at the conference, even among those at the podium.

“If a narrative piece is done well, it’s so easy to read that you think it’s easy to write. You rapidly find out when you begin to write one just how difficult it is and how much there is to learn. All the pros are here. I still feel like a beginner,” said the Oregonian’s Richard Read.

‘Everybody loves a story’

The conference was particularly reaffirming to anyone who has a sense that newspapers are suffering at the hands of cable and the Internet, venues that notoriously pilfer audiences from the pleasures of print.

“What are newspapers going to do to get their readers back?” project director of the Nieman Program Lisa Birks asked – then answered. “Everybody loves a story. Newspapers are the ones to revive narrative and draw people with it. You don’t just get the facts shoved down your throat with the spoonful of narrative as a hook at the beginning. Anecdotally, we’re finding that excellence in narrative not only brings people back to newspapers, but makes them loyal readers and encourages them to trust the writer.”

But there was not much of vying for audiences among this crowd. The organizers arranged the speaker line-up with a clear view to addressing narrative nonfiction without favor to any medium. Book publisher Morgan Entrekin, who has edited works of Kurt Vonnegut and Jayne Anne Phillips and cultivated Brett Easton Ellis’ career, spoke on the writer-editor relationship. Emmy and Peabody Award winner David Fanning, creator and executive producer of “Frontline,” focused on establishing the narrator’s voice in television documentary. And a mass of starry-eyed fans jammed the ballroom to delight in the darling component of the conference, radio host of “This American Life” Ira Glass.

This peaceable kingdom of communications was further evidenced by a stroll through the hotel’s grand lobby. Radio producers conferred with reporters from dailies and writers from Internet sites to buzz about workshops and grill each other about upcoming projects.

“The whole [conference] hits me on three levels: as an editor, a freelance writer, and a first-time book author. The people here help me out on all three fronts,” said Pamela Paul, an editor at New York-based American Demographic whose book on marriage is coming out next year.

Bob Giles, Nieman Foundation curator, commented, “It’s evident from the size of the attendance that there’s great hunger to learn about the narrative form. Many people who came deeply believe narrative journalism is important to the future growth of newspapers. Nieman’s ability to attract great speakers drew people. We started [on Saturday] with a full house at 9 a.m. and at 7 p.m. we still had a full house listening to Ira Glass. That says a lot about the power of information and the storytelling going on.”

The real thing

Like the painter who goes to a museum to scrutinize the works of the masters to pick up their techniques, few methods are more effective for writers in the market for craft-enhancing tips than reading. Perhaps that’s why jet-lagged attendants rubbed the bleariness out of their eyes for Friday night’s reading, the first of three such sessions.

“This is what it’s all about, after all the talking and framing and theorizing,” said Mark Kramer, director of the Nieman Foundation Program on Narrative Journalism and Writer-in-Residence at the Foundation, staring out into a sea of unblinking eyes after Wilkerson read from her “Cruel Flood: It Tore at Graves and at Hearts,” a New York Times article on the floods that ripped through the Midwest in the summer of 1993. The piece scored her a 1994 Pulitzer.

How did Wilkerson feel about reading her story aloud to a packed room? Not as comfortable as the fluid ease of her petal smooth voice appeared to indicate.

“It’s awkward to be reading words when you’re so used to seeing them on paper. This feels like something poets do. As journalists we don’t have the luxury to think beyond the moment when reporting on deadline. When you’re on a deadline, you’re not thinking about a day you’ll read it aloud with the gravity of poetry. But it’s nice to know that the words continue to hold meaning and the hold up long after the fact,” she said with modest understatement.

‘Violent, dangerous, beautiful’

The draw of Rick Bragg cannot be understated. With the success of his most recent book “Ava’s Man,” Bragg not only packed in the main ballroom for his talk, but was pegged as a chief draw by many who crossed dozens of state lines to reach Boston.

“I got to see Rick Bragg. I wanted to see if the myth met the man, and he was everything I imagined he would be,” said George Watson, a reporter with the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Calif.

Though many imbue Bragg with a mystique akin to that held by pop icons in the eyes of teenage girls, the pudgy-faced, Southern-twanged writer possessed none of a pop star’s pomposity. He was all contemplative deference as he alluded to the “beautiful” coverage of the hideous Sept. 11 tragedies to drive home his points.

“We have a greater responsibility than ever not to let these things that are so important that we write about not to fade, bleach, lose their flesh and blood. A million mute statistics won’t make anybody cry, but you paint them a picture and you can [make people cry],” Bragg told the throng.

Bragg chalks up his celebrity status (once you get him to confess it) to providence and passion.

“I’m no expert,” Bragg said Saturday night after the crowd dispersed. “I’m not even sure I know the technical definition. To me, narrative is a good feature held together with images and detail. I’m lucky in doing newspaper stories that are compelling, violent, dangerous, and often beautiful. It’s nice to know people see the value.”

Encouraging boldness

The ability not only to see, but feel the value was the main reason many attended.

“You hear things on a theoretical level that never really gets put into words, but it all squares with what you do everyday. It’s not like a class, though. It’s more like a forum for sharing ideas,” said Mathew Schwarz, a freelance journalist based in Arlington.

That proverbial stamp of validation is what Nieman’s Kramer hopes every attendee take away. He is driven to impart to each individual that the principles and perceptions they strive for are indisputably credible and appreciated standards.

“Frequently, the people here are the only ones in their newsrooms interested in this kind of writing. Here you get the feeling that there is a widespread community and a thoughtful process going on. It encourages boldness,” said Kramer.

The substantiation resonated with those doing the validating. Ira Glass construed both a boyish sense of wonder and relief with deadpan when he noted how hard it is for him to believe he’s hearing “narrative journalism” spoken ceaselessly “as if it’s a real thing, not something that just exists in your own head.”

Every story has a beginning, middle and an end is a lesson that recurred like a refrain of the weekend. The end of this story, when everyone traded cards and parted ways, their craniums crammed with new information, inspiration and approaches, blurs with hundreds of new beginnings. We can rest assured each one will be marvelously told.