Taking Narrative to the Next Level

By Matt Thompson

Roy Peter Clark, Poynter's vice president and Senior Scholar, has written an article for Poynter Online about a narrative series written by Oregonian staff writer Tom Hallman, and edited by Jack Hart. Not only is it a spectacular model of storytelling, but Hallman and Hart took care of attribution issues with a separate section called "How We Reported the Story." Take a look.

Matt Thompson is a reporter for Poynter Online.

Posted in attribution & sourcing, disaster & rescue, scenes, speakers.Jack Hart, working with editors & reporters on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Dispatch Home

By Lorrie Lykins

Cambridge, December 6, 2003. The wind whipped the snow around in swirling miniature tornadoes that lashed the trees and piled angled drifts against the windows that looked like forgotten sails. I found myself distracted by the drama of the weather, my eyes wandering to the windows to watch the endless rounds of the snowplows trying to keep the hotel drive clear.

As a Floridian experiencing her first Nor’easter, I was fascinated. Between sessions, I walked through the snow, picked it up, sifted it through fingers swathed in Lands End polartech gloves purchased online shortly before my trip north. The snow was an inconvenience to many – for me it was the first snow I’ve walked through since 1970.

Tom French
Tom French

The hotel listed and groaned under the weight of our volume, our numbers. Some rooms were so packed, people sat cross-legged on the floor, notepads in hand, pens poised, others stood in clusters in doorways spilling into the corridors, straining to hear the words of Tom French, Chip Scanlan, Jacqui Banaszynski. Their pens were poised too.

I wrote for three days, scribbling snippets from workshop speakers and conversations in the hallways, writing down e-mail address of new friends, web site addresses, book titles.

“Write as if your life depends on it, because in a way, it does.”

“Be relentless, write quickly, you can edit later – but just get it down.”

“We all doubt our ability from time to time. It comes with the job.”

“I’m dying for Mediterranean food. Do you know of any place?”

I had the good fortune, quite by accident, of sharing a dinner of Thai food with Harvard Fellow Ted Gup one night. Ted responded to my question of what is was like to work at The Washington Post as a cub reporter in the 1970s by telling me about the first week he was there, a green kid from Akron.

Ken Burns

“I ran around the building asking everyone for their autographs,” Ted laughed between bites of chicken satay.

“Later, when I was assigned to work with Bob Woodward, I was mortified thinking he would be convinced I was a complete idiot, but, of course, he didn’t remember me as the autograph seeker.”

Ken Burns took the time to speak to every person who lingered after each of his appearances. When I sidled up, camera in hand and sheepishly asked a friend of his to take our picture, Burns grabbed my camera, grinned and said “You know, I’m a pretty good photographer.” He threw one arm around me and extended the other out and said “Cheese!” Snap, flash. Can’t wait to have my film developed.

Lorrie Lykins is a full-time freelance writer based in the Tampa Bay area.

Posted in speakers.Ken Burns, working with editors & reporters, writing on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Ethics and Real Life

By Elizabeth Walters

Mark Kramer
Mark Kramer

Mark Kramer began the session by talking about the "high principles" of ethics, specifically ethical contracts of any reporter:

  • The writer-reader contract: Truth in disclosure. If you take any liberties, tell the reader.
  • The writer-source contract: Be a writer, not a friend to the source, from the beginning. Make sure your subject has an accurate impression of your relationship. Mark also invoked a key element of the Hippocratic oath: "Above all, do no harm."
  • The writer-writer contract: Writers who cheat erode trust and damage all writers.

(Later, an audience member suggested another contract: the writer-self contract.)

Chip Scanlan
Chip Scanlan

Chip Scanlan talked about one of his own ethical dilemmas in reporting and discussed what he called the "moment of truth" — that point when you have the chance to do what is ethically right or what's ethically wrong (or less right). We should listen for small warning bells within ourselves, he said. "The moment of truth may be a moment of carelessness or laziness," he said. First and foremost, he said, always be mindful of what you're doing.

Chip and Mark then took several questions from audience members, and as different topics evolved, I began to wonder what editors can do to help the ethical process. What should be our foremost ethical considerations? Because the session was ending, we didn't get much time to discuss my question, but Chip said that the reader's interests must be first priority. Second priority: minimize harm.

Quote of the session, from Chip discussing a source who wouldn't let him use her name because, she said, people were after her: "I guess you should always ask — is anyone after you? Are you on anybody's hit list?"

Suggested reading: Chip says everyone should read Mark's book "Invasive Procedures."

(I'd also suggest anyone interested in fact and truth in memoir should read "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" by Dave Eggers, with the appendix, "Mistakes We Knew We Were Making.")

Viewing suggestion: Chip says "Shattered Glass" gives audiences a hint of the pathology of lying.

Elizabeth Walters is a copy editor at the Concord Monitor in Concord, N.H.

Posted in attribution & sourcing, ethical reporting, narrative after Jayson Blair, scene reconstructions, sessions.Applied Ethics 101, speakers.Chip Scanlan, speakers.Mark Kramer on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

OnPoint Radio Series on the Conference

Press Release From On Point

Earlier this month, some of the country's best writers met in
Cambridge, Massachusetts for the 2003 Nieman Conference on
Narrative Journalism to share their best work. As part of a
continuing tradition, On Point brings you a selection of their stories
from across the country, delivered in the authors' own voices. The
conference was organized by Harvard University's Nieman
Foundation for Journalism

In Part I of the series we hear from New Yorker writer Susan Orlean,
UC Berkeley's Cynthia Gorney, author and journalist Adrianne
Nicole LeBlanc, and Pulitzer Prize winning journalists Thomas
French, Sonia Nazario, Jacqui Banasynski and Victor Merina.

In Part II of the series we hear from independent broadcast
journalist and four-time Peabody Award winner Jay Allison,
Washington Post's Anne Hull, director of the Neiman Program on
Narrative Journalism Mark Kramer, co-founder of Mother Jones
Magazine Adam Hochschild, Pulitzer Prize-winning author
Samantha Power, writer Arlie Hochschild and Columbia University's
Patricia Williams.

Posted in about the conference, speakers.Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, speakers.Anne Hull, speakers.Arlie Hothschild, speakers.Cynthia Gorney, speakers.Jacqui Banaszynski, speakers.Jay Allison, speakers.Mark Kramer, speakers.Patricia Williams, speakers.Samantha Power, speakers.Sonia Nazario, speakers.Susan Orlean, speakers.Tom French, speakers.Victor Merina on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Asking a Question, Painting a Portrait

By Amy Wu and Kelly Carr

Jacqui Banaszynski
Jacqui Banaszynski
There are many types of profiles, Jacqui Banazsynski said, and knowing how and when to use them is a skill of the successful profile writer. The best writers navigate between the cradle-to-current profile (the one we assume we always have to do; a sweeping biography of a person), the niche profile (a tightly focused examination of a person’s role as it relates to a specific story), the paragraph profile (one sharp detail or moment that quickly illustrates a person’s life), and others.

Banaszynski spoke about the ladder of abstraction, stretching from universal themes to precise details, like the story of one individual or family. It helps to actually draw a ladder and write down the subject of the piece at the bottom, and work up to the greater theme at the top.

Interviews are the key to a good profile, Banaszynski said. She offered some tips on how to elicit information from reticent sources, including:

1. Ask questions so deep and sometimes so peculiar that the person is more likely to give you his or her “internal” versus “external” resume. (Banazsynski: “Who you are vs. what you’ve done.”)
2. Putting the subject in a familiar place might make him or her feel more at ease to talk about things.
3. Push back against people, Banaszynski said. Put yourself in the interview a little. Throw some verbal assumptions at them. For example, if interviewing a car accident victim, you might say, “You must be terribly angry about what happened. Did you want to hit someone?” In agreeing or arguing with your statements, they’ll refine your sense of who they are and what they feel — “No, I wanted to throw something.”

Amy Wu is a freelance writer based in New York. Kelly Carr is a reporter for the Battle Creek Enquirer.

Posted in interviewing, profiles, sessions.Profiles in Journalism, speakers.Jacqui Banaszynski on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

More Suggestions for the Blog

By Bob Stepno

Even after the pep talk from David Halberstam on Friday night, which had me up until 4 a.m. scribbling notes for new projects, I didn't make it to Saturday's session through the cold and snow, an unforseen curse of being "local" and not in the hotel. But I got a good burst of "can do" energy by walking 3.5 miles across digging-out Cambridge to get there in time for lunch on Sunday. It's great to have the weblog there
for pieces that I missed.

Here's another idea that didn't come to me until now -- along with the nametags, issue next year's conference-goers registration numbers they can use as personal passwords to the blogging system. If they can chip in from the beginning, you might even get "live" reports from the geeks in the back row with their wireless laptops and handhelds. Passwords also might eliminate the anonymous "this is a piece of crap"
comments--certainly sad to see that as the first note on any entry this week.

You also could give each timeslot in the conference an "anchor" entry for the blog -- just a repeat of the title and the particpants' bios would do. Audience contributions could branch off of there, in addition to being posted on the main page chronologically and cross-referenced with those category tags.

As Ted Nelson said, "everything is deeply intertwingled."

Print and online veteran Bob Stepno receives his Ph.D this month at UNC Chapel Hill. See his website. We welcome your suggestions for the blog.

Posted in about the blog, about the conference on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Suggestions for the Blog

By Bob Stepno

First things first: The menus work! Kudos to all involved. I appreciate
being able to get at the messages from a variety of directions, and
would appreciate it even more if there were more messages. I read the
comments on Halberstam, for instance, then segued from Bill Mitchell's
comment to Neil Shea's entry on Barry Siegel in the Crime & Justice
topic, which I might have ignored otherwise. I like that kind of
serendipity and non-linearity, the "linkage by association" that
hypertext makes possible -- given time and human attention. That's one
"online narrative" technique worth attention: Selective link-making.

Continue reading "Suggestions for the Blog"

Posted in about the blog, about the conference on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Following Susan Orlean’s Earlier Advice That You Might Choose to Describe a Single Physical Feature of a Character, Sort Of

By Geo Beach

Susan Orlean
Susan Orlean

“I don’t think love is silly.”
-- Susan Orlean, “Writing with and about passion” [Nieman Narrative Conference closing keynote session]

Even in a large, high-ceiling ballroom, Susan Orlean’s mouth kisses the back row.

They’re wet kisses.

Her lips are far more red even than her hair, and they are caricatured, inflated, enough to serve as arched eyebrow and wink, toss of tresses, shrug, sway, foot-tap. Breath and swallow, bit lip and lick, valuable purse. Susan Orlean’s lips are twisted into a comma at one corner, at both corners then, and mark an apologetic quote, the wry shared words that become now a mutual friend.

And her lips are the world that has swept in, spinning out yarns the whole nine yards of whole cloth. No, not that. Her mouth is not clichéd.

Susan Orlean smiles a Hollywood projector but not mere incisors, remember, a smile happens everyplace else, cheek, chin, the delta of experience that flows from a blue pupil lateral to her temple. Her dimple is an edit, the thing more beautiful because something is taken away.

Her lips make words. Her mouth loves, telling stories.

“And during the next song she crossed the room and kissed me.” -- from “Devotion Road” [“Passion” session closing quote]

Independent journalist Geo Beach contributes commentaries to NPR, columns to the Anchorage Daily News, and essays to TomPaine.com.

Posted in character, profiles, scenes, sessions.Making It Matter, speakers.Susan Orlean, writing with passion on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

First Time at Bat

By Nancy Wright Beasley

David Halberstam
David Halberstam
I entered the president’s ballroom on this, my introductory visit to the Nieman Narrative Conference, not sure what to expect. David Halberstam, one of my best friend’s idols, was to give the opening keynote address. “You lucky dog,” my friend, a baseball fanatic, had said. “I’d give anything to go with you. Just remember everything he says, especially about baseball,” she added.

I was early, but Halberstam was already in place, sitting just a few feet from the podium with Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. I sat down a few feet from the two men still hearing my friend’s admonition ringing in my ears.

Several minutes passed while I struggled with whether I could, or whether I dared, approach him. My mother always said, “Nothing beats a failure but a try, so I decided to try. I slipped from my seat and knelt on one knee beside Halberstam. He leaned his left ear slightly toward me.

“My best friend so admires your work,” I began, “especially about baseball. I just had to tell you hello for her. She won’t believe I’ve had the chance to meet you.”

“Well,” he said, “let’s write something for her. Do you have any paper?”

Surprised at his request, I held up two empty hands.

Halberstam quickly rifled through the manila folder on his lap and found a half-size sheet of Nieman Foundation stationery with a message that began, “Dear David Halberstam. Welcome to Cambridge and to the Nieman Conference…”

“This is my schedule for while I’m here,” he said. “What’s your friend’s name?”

“Barbara Irby,” I replied.

With a swift few strokes, he wrote, “Dear Barbara. Wish you were here. Best, David Halberstam.”

The conference hadn’t even begun, and I had already scored a home run.

Nancy Wright Beasley is a freelance writer and adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Mass Communications.

Posted in sessions.Keynote: The Pleasures of What We Do, speakers.David Halberstam, working with editors & reporters on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Freelancing From Both Sides: An editor-turned-writer on having your narrative published

By Lorrie Lykins

Jim Collins
Jim Collins
I figured this session would be packed with battle weary freelancers in search of a revelatory bolt from the heavens, or at least some insider info on how to successfully pitch narratives. But Jim Collins, journalist and former editor of Yankee Magazine, conducted a relaxed discussion that was interactive from start to finish with an audience that held as many editors as freelancers. And the editors were eager to share their experiences and preferences when it comes to how they prefer to be approached with story ideas.

The following points may sound like plain old common sense. But the editors agreed it’s amazing how often freelancers (and other writers) forget that, in the end, it’s all about the writing (Jim’s suggestion for the unofficial subtitle of the conference)—and a little attention to detail doesn’t hurt either.

  • Query via hardcopy. Most editors want to see it in writing. This is your first chance to begin a conversation with an editor, and voice comes across loud and clear in a query. Skip the e-mail unless you’ve already established a dialogue.
  • A follow-up e-mail is fine, but stay off the phone. Calling an editor who is up against deadline is no way to score points.
  • If you have a solid clip you’re proud of, include it with your query, but forget sending stacks of your most riveting clips – they just don’t have the time to read everything, even if it’s your personal “best of…” and Pulitzer worthy.
  • A good cover letter is golden. But make sure you spell the editor’s name correctly. Take the time to check and recheck. As one editor commented, “If they’ve spelled my name incorrectly, it’s in the trash can.”
  • Explore niche publications. Trying to break in to Harper’s right out of the gate isn’t realistic and niche magazines are more likely to consider unknown writers and run longer narrative pieces.
  • Read the publications you’re trying to break into.
  • Do some up-front researching on the story and make sure it shows in your query. Invest some time. It will show in your work.

Lorrie Lykins ([email protected]) is a full-time freelance writer based in the Tampa Bay area.

Posted in freelancing, publishing, sessions.Freelancing From Both Sides, speakers.Jim Collins on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Come With Answers

By Robin Sloan

During the question and answer period of Samantha Power's Sunday afternoon session, she tossed off a phrase that I think is worth dwelling on:

"Win trust by knowledge."

Power spent many years reporting and writing her book "A Problem from Hell," a review of America's response to genocide in the 20th century, and became an expert on the subject. She often knew more about the subject than the government officials she was interviewing -- more about the history and about the personalities involved.

It sounds grimly sixth-grade: The low-level officials wanted desperately to know what their bosses, the national security advisors and secretaries of state, had told her. These high-level policymakers in turn asked her: Well, what did those below me say?

Power told former NSA Tony Lake about Prudence Bushnell, an deputy assistant secretary of state who was one of the first to warn of trouble in Rwanda. Lake asked: If this was so important, why didn't she call me at home?

Power mentioned this to Bushnell, who wondered: "Who does he think I am?" It would have taken an incredible amount of institutional self-esteem, Power says, for Bushnell to call the national security advisor at home and argue the case for Rwanda.

I think it's crucial that Power moved beyond surface explanations and down into the human gears of policymaking. It must have been a huge asset: Who wouldn't want to talk to a reporter who, besides posing questions, could also provide answers?

Robin Sloan works at The Poynter Institute.

Posted in book-length narratives, reporting, sessions.Against Neutrality, speakers.Samantha Power on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Raising Your Voice: Who speaks when you write?

By Neil Shea

To hear Mark Kramer and Susan Orlean tell it, finding your writerly voice involves a lot of self-editing.

Voice drifts through our narratives, and whether we realize it or not, readers respond to the author’s voice, drawing conclusions about his personality and even the story itself. So, says Kramer, voice should appear “like the casual walk of a tightrope walker.” Voice should seem simple and read easily, but it should carry the weight of your training, experience and authority with a subject.

To get to this sublime level of “voice” we must pare down our writing and make it clear and clean. Get rid of abstractions, unclutter the text or the meaning—and the voice—remain hidden. Intense self-editing leads to self-discovery and to a better understanding of voice.

In the search for voice, Susan Orlean recommends thinking about how you would explain an exciting or interesting story to your friends. Or read your piece aloud to divine your voice. Ask, who is speaking here? Am I writing with a patchwork voice that I picked up along the way? Some jumble of newspaper-voice mixed in with the voice of a writer I admire? Read and edit your work closely, learn to identify your crutches or gimmicks.

Voice is a tool and sometimes a trap. Thinking too much about voice pushes some writers to choose first person narratives—even when first person isn't a good fit for the story. Well done, voice gives readers a feeling of connection with the author without the need for “I”. Orlean and Kramer don’t believe writers can invent voices for themselves. It is more than words on a page. It is the subtle thing that allows us to guide and accompany our readers, even though we're not sitting next to them. That's why, Orlean says, "understanding who you are and why you're a writer is a big part of this."

Neil Shea is a reporter for The Providence Journal.

Posted in editing narrative, sessions.Raising Your Voice, speakers.Mark Kramer, speakers.Susan Orlean, voice on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Collaboration - Writing narrative books with a co-author

By Lyn Millner

Last night at 9 p.m., very tired, I went to the cafe session with Sarah Wernick. Even though I’d been up since 4 a.m., she was such a lively speaker I forgot my fatigue. Wernick has collaborated on several books and she offered some down-to-earth advice about collaborations, including: Be sure the author can say three unique things about her book topic that would appeal to an editor. If not, the person probably doesn’t have enough of a focus or a realistic idea about the book’s potential audience or viability.

Wernick also covered collaboration agreements – most co-authors work out a 50-50 split – and discussed nightmare stories she’d heard from co-writers. Some authors have written a proposal with an expert only to have the expert switch writers once the proposal sold. For this reason, she advised that every collaboration agreement include a “way out” – so you’re paid for your work if the process ends unexpectedly. I hadn’t realized how lucrative collaboration can be. Wernick only pursues a project if she thinks it’ll be a six-figure deal. For some projects, she may work as little as four months.

Lyn Millner is a Freelance Writer.

Posted in book proposals, sessions.Writing With a Co-Author, team reporting, writing with co-authors on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Saturday Readings

By Jesse Millner

Reporting from the Nieman Conference here in snow-bound Boston. The presenters have been fabulous, and I just listened in on a great reading that included Cynthia Gorney, Melissa Fay Greene, and Barry Newman. In less than a half hour, I heard the story of a mother dying from alcoholism, a mining disaster in Nova Scotia in 1958 and a cool piece about a man’s fascination with the bugs of Florida. I was particularly inspired by Gorney’s piece about her mother, and the way she did what all good writing does: the abstraction of dying from drink became the horrible and real specific thing of her mother dying of liver disease. Great stuff.

Jesse Millner is an English Instructor at Florida Gulf Coast University.

Posted in speakers.Barry Newman, speakers.Cynthia Gorney, speakers.Melissa Fay Greene on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Control Your Sentences

By Matt Thompson

Mundane Nuts & Bolts Tips for Controlling Sentences by Mark Kramer:

  • Virtually ban "to be" in all its forms. Mark Kramer: "'Is-ness' is the donkey by which meaning is conveyed in saddlebags."
  • Mark Kramer grants you a crate loaded with full stops. There are literally trillions of periods in there. When they run out, he says, e-mail for more.
  • Get rid of abstract verbs like "presents" or "suggests." One you get strong verbs in your sentences, your style will take care of itself.
  • Go down low on the ladder of abstraction -- not "creature," not "cow," but "Old Bossy."
  • No clichés: Kramer's convinced that nothing is whiter than snow.
  • Give up the words "when" and "as." Transform simultaneity into action, unless simultaneity is the purpose.

Matt Thompson is a reporter for Poynter Online.

Posted in sessions.Raising Your Voice, speakers.Mark Kramer, speakers.Susan Orlean, style, voice on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Weighty Waves, An Impression (After William F. Woo)

By Geo Beach

Snow like light; white, crystallized rain dragging up the Eastern seashore. A short song, the Boston Herald truck spins out in front of the small store, still closed, early morning, that sells beer and lottery tickets later in the day. The sky falls down and the newsprint is wet and the weather collates the sections, news into sport -- an acrostic that deconstructs hard copy.

There’s a story still flying, created on earth and launched into the heavens above this fractured firmament. Radio tells the story. And indie Jay Allison has been telling public radio how to tell it since a friend loaned him a tape recorder one day in 1977 and he began collecting the voices of regular folks. Jay’s audacious vision -- or, audition -- helped launch transom.org, a place to learn to make radio, and prx.org, an online audio distribution system, tools that are transforming the methods and content of broadcast journalism.

Jay Allison is introduced, once, twice. Then the microphone is his.


He whispers. “We’ll start with a human voice.” There is a room full of journalists, and many eyes are closed. A 15-year old boy is talking to himself. A morbidly obese 15-year old boy in his “mood time”, 1:15 a.m., talks to himself. He wants to be skinny, he wants to eat the ice cream in the fridge.

“Radio likes the first person,” Allison can give a wry smile with his vocal chords. “It’s a voice in your ear.” He is irresistible. “We don’t have earlids.”

Jay’s First Laws of First Persons: Self-indulgent; no, too easy. Self-absorbed; no, too much. Self-aware; yes, that resonates.

Then like a bio-digital jukebox, Jay rocks through his countdown of Firsts: The Witness, The Guide, The Natural, The Forced Confession, The Buddy, The Explorer, The Diarist, The Reluctant Allison. This last by Jay, calling classified ads in Chicago, looking for a dog, maybe looking for friendship on a big planet, looking. Heads are cocked, listening -- “His Master’s Voice”.

There is a room full of journalists, and there is an odd air in the room -- a wonder, a marvel, a nonplussedness -- as if Allison might have come from outer space, or at least another place. More eyes are closed or askance, and pens laid down.

To Jay, “Do you ever miss the visual?”

“I miss eyes.”


“What you get with all the pieces is: you hear the hearts.”

The newspapers are wet. Somewhere a radio is playing.

Independent journalist Geo Beach contributes commentaries to NPR, columns to the Anchorage Daily News, and essays to TomPaine.com.

Posted in film & radio, memoir & personal essay, sessions.What About Me?, speakers.Jay Allison on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Wolfe’s Secret

Tom Wolfe is, if not the father, then at least the funky uncle of narrative journalism. His essay “The New Journalism” was the manifesto for a new style designed to fill the cultural vacuum that he said novelists had left by abandoning realistic fiction.

So he wrote that journalists ought to appropriate the traditional tools of novelists: dialogue, socioeconomic details, scene descriptions, and point of view.

But Nick Lemann, the new dean of the Columbia j-school, thinks there’s another tool in Wolfe’s toolbox, one that isn’t listed in “The New Journalism.”

Lemann says that much of Wolfe’s work has an “idea track,” a stream of “constructs and rubrics”—mental organizing devices—that runs concurrent with the flow of novelistic details and dialogue.

For instance: Wolfe’s book “The Right Stuff” seems to be the story of a bunch of tough test pilots. Not so, Lemann says. It’s actually a very smart public policy analysis of NASA and the human spaceflight program.

The title is the give-away. Wolfe isn't just describing the test pilots; he's defining The Right Stuff as an abstract macho mystique that was central to the status of 60s astronauts as Cold Warriors first, scientists second. Or maybe that's public relations representatives first, Cold Warriors second, and scientists last.

If you listen for the idea track, Lemann says, “The Right Stuff” is “way deep.”

The verb “listen” is apt. Here’s the analogy: If a piece of narrative journalism was a movie, the scenes and details would be the frames of film, the pictures that everyone focuses on. The ideas would be the soundtrack—subtler, but no less finely constructed, and no less important. (Try watching a movie on mute some time if you don’t think the sound is important. And try closing your eyes if you don’t think the soundtrack is incredibly complex, especially on modern movies.)

And sometimes, Lemann says, in movies as in narrative journalism, the soundtrack rises up to meet the visuals. Think of Jack Black picking up the guitar in “School of Rock”: you suddenly become aware of the music because it’s made visible. He calls moments like these “marriage moments,” and says they’re the prime time to make a big point—when the world of ideas pokes up into the world of actions, when a policymaker makes a big decision, when a nation launches a man into space.

Robin Sloan works for The Poynter Institute.

Posted in speakers.Nick Lemann, theme, idea, point on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

The Curious Cynic

By Madeline Bodin

Cornelia Dean, currently on leave as editor of The New York Times’ science section, said she was concerned that her presentation, “Political Science: Science narratives for an election year” was too bleak.

She gave example after example of the pitfalls that await even the elite of science journalists. That, it’s true, may not inspire anyone to run out and beg for a science beat. But as someone who has covered science, I can tell you her examples rang true. I’ll use many of the tips she gave in my next article.

But for me, the overarching “tip” was this: In speaking about science and science journalism, Dean shows a remarkable mixture of cynicism and wonder.

She recalled a colleague who called some breakthroughs in microbiology “new hope for the dead.”

Dean once pitched a story on a fountain of antimatter in space for the front page of The New York Times with the argument that it was just really cool. Sometimes, she said, in science journalism, the answer to the question, “What is the implication of this?” is just that. (“Because it is really cool.”)

That balance of cynicism and wonder in myself is something I’ll be thinking about the next time I sit down to write a science story.

Madeline Bodin is a freelance science writer.

Posted in mistakes in reporting, science, sessions.Science Narratives for an Election Year, speakers.Cornelia Dean on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Five Ws and an H -- With a Twist

By Kathryn van der Pol

I was so glad to see Victor Merina’s name on the program. I first met him a couple years ago at a University of Missouri workshop on diversity. His writing had kept me spellbound then so it was with great anticipation that I went to see him at the Nieman Conference.

“Remind me if I walk out the door to take off my mic; a friend of mine at The New York Times forgot to do that and went to the bathroom,” he said, as began his talk on the personal essay. He reviewed reasons we may resist writing the personal essay, such as the fear that “nothing about you is interesting enough.” Or, “There’s not enough time,” to which Victor said, “Write faster!” He asked the audience to think. To think about what makes us angry, what makes us laugh, what makes us sad. This was a good exercise. After a few moments, he urged us to consider the 5 Ws and the H, but with a twist -- “Who are you thinking about? What does the scene lead to? Where were you when it happened? When did you first become aware of the emotion? Why does this scene resonate? How? could you convey this scene? Great questions. I was inspired.

What made his talk special, as I thought it would, was his writing. I have some great pieces he wrote about a 66-hour long bus trip across the U.S. Another on a failed conference in New Orleans to encourage writers to be more sensitive to diversity (failed because only six people attended). These are great pieces for me and my students. The audience agreed, spontaneously applauding.

Victor ended his presentation with hip hop. “The Shoop Song – A Narrative Writing Tip Sheet” was enthusiastically rapped to drum beats and maracas. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a personal essay published, but I know one thing. I am hooked on Victor.

Kathryn van der Pol teaches Latin and advises the school newspaper The Review at St. John’s School in Houston, Texas.

Posted in memoir & personal essay, sessions.Personal Essays in Daily Journalism, speakers.Victor Merina on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Crime Scenes: Building scenes and finding the universal in criminal justice stories

By Neil Shea

Narrative writers are scene-obsessed. We mine scenes, collect them, hoard them and endlessly chase them. This can be a problem. Scenes can be show stoppers. Scenes, as Pulitzer-prize winner Barry Siegel said, are not narrative.

In his discussion on building scenes in writing about crime, Siegel said that scenes are the windows that allow us into a community, into a life; they’re the points along our narrative trip where we stop to look around. But too many scenes—and poorly chosen ones—transform a story into a series of long pauses.

Scene overload is especially tempting in crime writing, Siegel said, because usually there’s a haul of court transcripts, police reports, and previous media interviews that a writer can use. But equally important to a story are the narrative threads that connect scenes and keep readers moving from window to window.

When choosing scenes, find the most telling and dramatic ones, the scenes that reveal character. The crime itself isn’t necessarily what interests Siegel. Probe for scenic details in the gray area surrounding the crime, he recommends. In the U.S. we tend to use the court system as a kind of adjudicated therapy, where judges must carve black and white decisions from a body of gray evidence. Examine the impact of the crime on the people involved and on the community; this is often where the story lies and where writers discover universal themes that reach larger audiences.

As you search out scenes, Siegel said, know that some of your best ones will never make it into the story. Avoid overload. Learn to recognize which scenes are the most revealing. Then, Siegel said, remember that scenes need narrative threads—the timelines, the movement, the authoritative insight—to make a story complete.

Neil Shea is a reporter for The Providence Journal.

Posted in crime & law, scene reconstructions, scenes, sessions.Crime Scenes, speakers.Barry Siegel on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

20/20: 20 Tips from short pieces

Want to get a story? Get a life.
By Lorrie Lykins

Lane DeGregory’s list of instructions on generating story ideas that grow into memorable narratives is probably opposed to any advice your mom may have given you—talk to strangers, play hooky, hang out in bars, eavesdrop on strangers, take down the numbers of people who post notices on Laundromat bulletin boards (and call them), hand out your own number to everyone, and be sure to hang around with the rough-looking crowd.

DeGregory writes stories about people who are on the edge of their communities, and she goes out there with them. Her list of tips may be about where to find the often quirky characters she writes about, but beyond that, her message to narrative writers is to look for stories everywhere, from the moment you walk out the front door in the morning. The person in line behind you at the grocery store might be your next great story, but you won’t learn this if you’re not open to conversation with strangers.

Scan your environment. Look for stories where there don’t appear to be stories. But most importantly, DeGregory reminds us, the best way to write compellingly about the lives of the people in your community is to be part of it. Get out of the office and attend a little league game, stop at the corner pub on your way home and listen to the conversations around you. Read the smaller free newspapers that are tossed in your driveway, read the classified ads in your own paper. Talk to anyone. Narrative is about life, and in DeGregory’s words, “Get a life, get a story!”

Lorrie Lykins is a full-time freelancer based in the Tampa Bay area.

Posted in identifying the story, sessions.20 Tips from 20 Short Pieces, speakers.Lane DeGregory on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Narrative Tools: Old Newspapers, Private Records, Implicit Structure

By Bill Mitchell

Chip Scanlan has help for colleagues who are writing memoirs -- or are using the techniques of the memoirist in pursuit of stories of all sorts.

For openers, he quotes Patricia Hampl's observation that the real power of the memoir is not so much for reminiscence as for exploration.

For example, Scanlan says, "Old newspapers give me a window into my life when i was too young to understand it."

He has used the microfilm edition of the Greenwich Time, his hometown paper, to recreate the day his father died -- March 25, 1960. And he has used the microfilm editions of New York City newspapers to recapture his grandfather's role in the Tammany Hall scandal in May of 1932.

See also Scanlan's discussion of the ways private records can fill in the gap of a narrative. Example: his Dad's report card from 1933.

If all this research generates so much good material that you're struggling with its structure, Scanlan suggests looking within the material to see if "there is a structure implicit in the material itself."

Example: He used such newspaper section heads as Weather, Real Estate, Personals, Classifieds and Obituaries for his Reading the Paper piece.

Bill Mitchell works for Poynter.

Posted in memoir & personal essay, sessions.Reporting the Past, speakers.Chip Scanlan on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Writing About Science: No Easy Answers

By Matt Thompson

This could all be very controversial.

Cornelia Dean, science writer extraordinaire, former science editor of The New York Times, takes issue with the notion that newspapers are supposed to educate the public. Not so, says Dean. Our job is to give the news, to tell the truth about what's happening in the world.

A quibbling distinction?

Consider the prostate cancer screening test, widely recommended for men over 50. Although, as the adage goes, "early detection saves lives," the mortality rate for prostate cancer has not dropped since the screening test became widespread. And the test itself carries the risk of making men incontinent or impotent.

Basically, it's not at all certain whether the screening test saves lives or damages them in the big picture. The science journalist's job, Dean said, is to report this uncertainty, not to hold back from fear of discouraging people or confusing them about testing. Our impulse to be didactic shouldn't distract from our responsibility to tell the truth.

"If the issue is confusing," Dean said, "then confusion is an appropriate response."

Posted in ethical reporting, science, sessions.Science Narratives for an Election Year, speakers.Cornelia Dean on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Narratives and Investigations: Strange Bedfellows?

By Wim Jansen

I still haven’t found an answer to the main question I took from Amsterdam to Boston: Is investigative journalism by nature opposed to narrative reporting, or is the ideal journalist that carries both genes in the making?

Florence Graves, a famous investigative journalist here, was to shed some light on this mystery. Her conclusion: little investigative journalism is narrative – and there are reasons for it. We have to bear in mind that our audience is much bigger than the regular readership. There are the powers that are the subject of the investigation, there are the lawyers, there are the persons who can be damaged by our story. So we have to be accurate, stick to the facts, she said, implying that this is not always possible in narrative.

But is that so? Unfortunately, after her sparkling presentation of some very inspiring projects, there was no time left for questions. So I remained with mine: are investigative journalists a different breed from narrative ones, and shall the twain never meet?

This is important to me, because my newspaper is doing an in-house program to upgrade the quality and quantity of investigating reporting. The next step is getting the findings across to our readers. Could there be positive chemistry between investigative and narrative reporters? What if the investigator tells his or her colleague: you research the first billion web pages with these criteria in mind, I’ll do the rest? What if the narrative reporter’s answer was: Yeah, and you interview that guy at home, pay attention to the paintings on the wall, the color of his hair, and how he speaks to his kids?

P.S. Florence Graves told us about a story she would rather not write as narrative. Why? Because she thought the subject was worth a place on the front page. So there is no room for narrative stories on page one? Maybe editors of newspapers should change their perception of news. I would have published Graves’ narrative story without any hesitation on the front page, knowing that this is the story my audience would read first, the one that would even make them come late to work.

Wim Jansen is managing editor of Trouw, a daily newspaper based in Amsterdam with a paid circulation of 130,000.

Posted in investigative, sessions.Why Is So Little Investigative Journalism Narrative?, speakers.Florence George Graves, team reporting on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

A Narrative Scene That Worked

By Robin Sloan

In his Saturday session on personal essays, Victor Merina shared some great tips: Write with authority, but not arrogance; write with emotion but not emotionally.

He also shared a trip -- his cross-country Greyhound bus ride on Sept. 11, 2002, that was the subject of a story for the LA Times.

Victor read us a scene from the story, and I have to tell you, there was a change in the room as he was reading. You can sometimes almost feel attention -- and Victor had ours.

For his audience, Victor's work satisfied a definition of narrative that Chip Scanlan suggested earlier in the day: Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, it made us want to know what happened next.

Click below to read the scene, and see if you agree.

Robin Sloan works at The Poynter Institute.

Continue reading "A Narrative Scene That Worked"

Posted in memoir & personal essay, scenes, sessions.Personal Essays in Daily Journalism, speakers.Victor Merina, travel on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Lemann to Nieman: How 'Bout Some Rules?

By Robin Sloan

During Saturday's Ethics Keynote Panel, Nick Lemann made a suggestion to the assembled attendees of the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism: Set some standards.

Lemann is a member of the Society of American Historians, a group of "historians who can write" and journalists interested in serious history. He proposed a code of ethics to the group -- something that would go beyond plagiarism to address issues such as scene reconstruction and quotes that an author didn't witness him- or herself. But, he says, "I've had absolutely no luck with this."

He said it was especially important for the book industry, because -- and this was a big surprise to me -- non-fiction books are not fact-checked. So standards and norms matter a lot.

He encouraged the Nieman Foundation or some other group to take up the task. He thinks it would be very useful -- just a short statement that declares what is and isn't ethical. "Of course," he says, tongue in cheek, "the result of all this is that people love us, trust us, revere us even more than they already do."

Robin Sloan works at The Poynter Institute.

Posted in attribution & sourcing, book-length narratives, ethical reporting, scene reconstructions, sessions.Keynote Panel: What's a True Story?, speakers.Nick Lemann on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Analog Evangelism in the Digital Age

By Bill Mitchell

After Lane DeGregory's session on stories and the ideas that spark them, Ben Montgomery of the Times Herald-Record stood up during the Q&A and told the St. Pete Times reporter:

"You're good. We print you out. We pass you around."

Nice testimonial for Lane. Nice snapshot of learning in a newsroom.

Bill Mitchell works for Poynter.

Posted in newsrooms, sessions.20 Tips from 20 Short Pieces, speakers.Lane DeGregory on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Describe, Don't Decide

By Elizabeth Walters

"Make every word count" is a phrase many beginning journalists are instructed to remember and write by. It can be a difficult process cutting out all those little extras we constructed so carefully. But in his session "Shaping Realities," Jack Hart showed us that we can't stop at a spare, accessible style and call an article ready. In our exercises, we learned that, in fact, every word does count, so we'd better be sure that we mean each word we place on the page.

The assignment seemed innocuous -- we were given some facts and a description of a man and then had 10 minutes to write a narrative lede about him. In the first exercise, he'd won the lottery; in the second, his son had died in Iraq. We wrote our paragraphs, using only the information on the paper -- and then found out that much of our writing was based on assumptions we couldn't prove.

How did we know he'd change because he won the lottery? How did others of us know he wouldn't change? How did we know the drought was to blame for the failed crops? Maybe he was just a lousy farmer. How do we know he's sad about his son? Maybe they hated each other.

And so on. We quickly learned that much of what we hold to be truth in a story, especially in description and characterization, is based on our own assumptions and values. But Hart made it a painless lesson -- after all, once we're aware that we're working from assumption, we can do more legwork and work from truth.

But Hart cautioned that we shouldn't shy away from description. "We also go wrong," he said, "by holding back too much of ourselves."

P.S.: He also said everyone needs to read "The Art and Craft of Feature Writing" by Bill Blundell.

Elizabeth Walters is a copy editor for the Concord Monitor in Concord, N.H.

Posted in ethical reporting, mistakes in reporting, sessions.Ethics of Framing the World with Narrative, speakers.Jack Hart on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Keep in Touch

By John Currie

David Halberstam has been there, writing from the heart, the words his editor cut forty years back still intact.

Stay in touch with your sources, he said. I’m going to do that when I get back to B.C. I’m gonna call up the ex-street girl I profiled last year; see what’s new. Four men staying in touch, knowing each other sixty years, knowing the moment will never happen again — that was the seed Halberstam grew into his baseball book. Make your editor say, Damn, why didn’t I have that idea? he said. Get that time you need from your editor.

It’s not just dogging it, it’s thinking of ideas and asking the best question any reporter can ask a source: Who else can I see? The more views, anecdotes, perceptions, the better. Get too much and use your best stuff.

  • Read, read, read. A book a week. Everything.
  • Love talking to people. Don’t bullshit people. Don’t try to be more on their side than you are. It doesn’t work and it’s just not nice.
  • Good reporters know nuance and set up the interview ground rules. Make interviews congenial.

The more you do it, Halberstam said, the more you’ll have a sense of human nature, and there’s always a pattern there.

Good writing comes from tons of legwork. The keys, again: the perception of the story and legwork. “As you get older you waste less time.”

John Currie is completing his Master’s of Journalism at the University of British Columbia.

Posted in reporting, sessions.Welcome, speakers.David Halberstam on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

The Gold Standard of Ethics

By Terry Farish

I couldn’t leave Jack Hart. I stayed with him for two sessions, “Ethical Narrative Reporting and Writing in the Post-Jayson Blair Era” and “Shaping Realities: The Ethics of Framing the World With Narrative.” He was talking about all the things I have been struggling with for two years. I want to keep him with me, or would he take me back to Oregon? All these questions I have spun round and round with.

Attribution? Jack says go ahead with it, even if it’s clunky in the storytelling; it reassures. Reconstruction of a scene when the writer isn’t there? OK, if clearly set up and attributed. Assumptions? Of course, that’s what they pay you for. Just be aware. Does what you see warrant the assumption? Or is it your own autobiography filling in the gaps? (My paraphrase, Jack Hart, who I want to write for.) “We are fragile vessels,” Jack says; we have selective perception.

“It’s never OK to deceive the reader,” Jack says. I find that a measure I can hold on to. Jack gave a history of piping, a not uncommon practice in earlier days, “making up stories out of old cloth.” Most of all Jack says, narrative writing has every reason to be questioned since there are so many opportunities for ethical lapses. Read Walt Harrington, Jack suggests. “This guy’s the gold standard.”

Terry Farish writes novels, including If the Tiger, and is at work on a nonfiction book about teenagers from Sudan. She teaches writing at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.

Posted in attribution & sourcing, ethical reporting, sessions.Ethical Reporting Post-Jayson Blair, sessions.Ethics of Framing the World with Narrative, speakers.Jack Hart on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

A 24-Hour Job

By Larry Schooler

I remember learning just before I became a camp counselor that the job I was about to take — at a salary of $100 for the summer — was a 24-hour-a-day job. Even my rudimentary math skills convinced me that my employers were “exploiting” me (albeit lovingly and thoughtfully) for a job that would keep me busy even while sleeping. Naturally, they were right: my seven-year-old campers would wake up with nightmares and run home in the afternoons with insect bites.

But I loved my underpaid camp counseling job, just like I love my underpaid journalism job, and after hearing Lane DeGregory’s 20 tips for finding compelling narratives, I understand why. Lane does her job in such a way that she’s never really not doing it. In a way that makes me uncomfortable, since I’ve always wanted to maintain a work-life balance — and leave work at work. But my mind races, regardless, and Lane’s tips, from hanging out in bars to joining bowling leagues, seem like ideal ways to put that racing mind to good journalistic use.

I learned something else from Lane, too, something that she might not want to know. When she began her presentation, I saw a bubbly, bright-eyed blonde whom I expected would focus on the kind of sugary sweet stories I try to avoid reading or watching. Instead, I found a journalist who seems to crave telling stories of notable failures and less notable successes in ways that paint more accurate pictures of the world. My misperception of Lane reinforced one of the ideas she spoke about — not to discount someone because their culture and mine differ.

Read Lane DeGregory and learn. And remember — you can never really clock out at the end of a day on this job.

Larry Schooler is a public radio journalist based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Posted in reporting, sessions.20 Tips from 20 Short Pieces, speakers.Lane DeGregory on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Media Reality vs. Actual Reality


By Matt Thompson

What's the poorest city in the U.S.? asked Bob Herbert.

"Detroit!" some participants shouted out. "Baltimore!"

One guy got it right ... Miami.

Miami? Like, "Golden Girls" Miami? South Beach Miami?

That's the media picture we get of the city, reinforced by news headlines screaming football and glamor, strangely different from the actual picture. Much like the recent news about the dip in unemployment. "If you look at the headlines in the past couple months," said Herbert, "you would think we were approaching some sort of economic nirvana." Unemployment plunges to 5.9 percent! crow the headlines. Best numbers in nine months, say economists!

Too many of us journalists, Herbert said, forget that nine months ago, everyone was decrying the post-apocalyptic state of the economy.

But ordinary people -- those searching for jobs in this supposedly sizzling economic upturn, social workers who say it hasn't been this dire in years -- they remember. They'll give you some reality, said Herbert.

Get out of the newsroom; that's Herbert's idea. Get off the phone with the economist, and talk to that guy on the street. What has the economic upturn done for him lately?

Matt Thompson is a reporter for Poynter Online.

Posted in business, economics, & work, cross-cultural reporting, mistakes in reporting, sessions.Real Lives and Tough Times of Ordinary Americans, speakers.Bob Herbert on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Do the Leg Work

By Robin Sloan

David Halberstam doesn’t put much stock in great writing. Solid journalism isn’t about fancy verbiage, he says; rather, "it’s about ideas, about narration, about setting things out, about telling the story."

And what really comes first is legwork, "The more the better." The more interviews you do, the better. The more anecdotes you get, the better. Because when you’ve got a hundred different angles on a story, Halberstam says, you can write with authority. When you’ve got a hundred different anecdotes, you can leave the lame ones out.

Do both, and your writing will have -- and this is a key characteristic, Halberstam says -- it will have density.

"I can always tell when a writer is cheating," Halberstam says. "I can tell when it’s a two phone-call story."

It’s not surprising, then, that he says you have to actually enjoy talking to people to be a good journalist. The legwork has to be fun. You have to look forward to asking Halberstam’s Best Question That Any Reporter Can Ask a Source, which is: "Who else should I see?"

Robin Sloan works at The Poynter Institute.

Posted in reporting, sessions.Keynote: The Pleasures of What We Do, speakers.David Halberstam on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Best Beat for Narrative Journalism?

By Bill Mitchell

David Halberstam says it’s cops -- the beat with “maximum human collision…the place where the best stuff happens.”

Halberstam acknowledged the burden of daily stories that falls to police reporters. But he said cops and court slots yield the best shot to uncover stories that, given some digging and some time, can blossom into compelling narratives.

When told by young journalists that they're starting out on cops, he says he has a stock answer: “Best beat on the paper.”

If you can’t cover cops or courts, Halberstam recommended general assignment as fertile ground for narrative journalism.

“The most interesting stuff falls outside the bureaucratic beats that newspapers tend to create,” he said.

Bill Mitchell works for Poynter.

Posted in crime & law, sessions.Keynote: The Pleasures of What We Do, speakers.David Halberstam on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Welcome to the Narrative Journal

Welcome to coverage of the 2003 Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism, set up by the Poynter Institute. You can use this blog to read news and share ideas about the conference with both attendees and non-attendees.

Next year, the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism will be launching the Nieman Narrative Digest, a more comprehensive resource on narrative nonfiction. Please help us make it useful: send us links to noteworthy narrative pieces, and questions you'd like to pose to leading practitioners of the craft. We welcome your thoughts!

Posted on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink