For the better part of the last decade, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism ran the most popular narrative journalism conference in the country. For three days each spring, hundreds of journalists gathered in Cambridge or Boston to hear notable storytellers talk craft. The first speaker at the first of eight conferences was Nora Ephron, joined by fellow inaugurators Jill Lepore, Isabel Wilkerson, Gay Talese, Rick Bragg, Jon Franklin, Adam Hochschild, Ira Glass and Jacqui Banaszynski. The following conferences featured notables such as David Halberstam, Seymour Hersh, Norman Mailer, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Ted Conover, Anne Fadiman, Melissa Fay Greene, Ken Burns, Samantha Power, Tom Wolfe, Katherine Boo, Joe Sacco and Jamaica Kincaid. Thanks to Mark Kramer, who brought the conference across the river, from Boston University, the Nieman Foundation attracted an enthusiastic, loyal audience of storytellers.
From 2007 to 2009, journalist and editor Constance Hale ran the Nieman narrative program, and she oversaw the final conference. (The Nieman Foundation ended the conference as a cost-cutting measure, but the public part of our narrative initiative remained online, as the Narrative Digest, the precursor to Nieman Storyboard.) Since 2009, Hale has been writing language books and running journalism conferences on the West Coast. On Nov. 8 she’ll relaunch a national narrative conference at her alma mater, the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. “The Latest in Longform” will be a “daylong exploration of nonfiction storytelling,” with an attendance limited to 75. We chatted.
Storyboard: Why a new longform conference at Berkeley?
Hale: It’s actually not new, in that the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley has hosted a number of professional development conferences for the past 15 years, with many of them about longform, even if we didn’t use that retronym. Midcareer journalists deserve the chance to come back to a top-tier J-school for an intellectual booster shot — we don’t always get on-the-job encouragement to aim high, or to experiment with the form, or to think about the most meaningful way to approach a story. Fortunately, the new administration at the J-school, led by Dean Ed Wasserman, sees the conference as a way to invite a national audience to partake of the incredible riches of this particular school and this particular part of the country.
How will the Berkeley program differ from the conferences such as the ones at Boston University and the Mayborn School of Journalism in Texas?
Those are first-rate events, but there are differences. First come the obvious ones: BU’s conference is on the East Coast, in the cold of a Boston spring, and Mayborn is in the South, in the heat of a Texas summer. This will be on the West Coast, in the fall. Berkeley is beautiful in early November. Then, more importantly, the J-school is exclusively a graduate school, and has long focused on deep investigative reporting, magazine writing, digital storytelling, full-length radio reporting, and documentary film and video, so it’s natural that the school would want to foster an exploration of edgy genres and innovative ways of telling important stories. Finally, Silicon Valley is just a tad south. Our location makes us immersed in the tech world and naturally engaged in refining ways to join the traditional universe of narrative fluency to the dazzling expressive tricks of multiplatform journalism. It’s no coincidence that magazines like Wired and happenings like Pop-Up Magazine and new ventures like Byliner and Matter and Medium and Shebooks were all hatched in the Bay Area. The Knight Digital Media Center is even housed at the J-school.
You spent several years running the Nieman narrative program, and you edited the online aspect of our program when it was the Narrative Digest. What did you learn from that experience and how will it affect the conference?
At Nieman, I learned that a tremendous amount can be taught about narrative journalism, and that it sinks in better when the “students” are accomplished reporters, skilled at organizing a lot of material into longer pieces, and already having developed their own narrative voices. Veteran journalists are ready and eager to take their writing to the highest level. So a conference like this is key for the evolution of the craft. And a little inspiration is such a gift; it’s easy to get beaten down by the exigencies of jobs in journalism. My hats go off to Mark Kramer and others in Northampton, Massachusetts, who had the original vision for such a gathering. And to those who have worked at various iterations of the Narrative Digest and Nieman Storyboard. They have spotlighted wonderful work being done, sometimes against considerable odds.
When I arrived at Nieman I felt that the term “narrative journalism” was a creature of the newspaper world. (At Wired we just called it The Feature Well.) And the Nieman narrative program was too centered on — and dependent on — the newspaper world. I tried to expand the concept, including more digital media and magazines and books. Nevertheless, when newspapers collapsed, the conference collapsed. Papers stopped sending staff. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the conference had become this behemoth at a downtown hotel with big ballrooms and ridiculously expensive food. Newspapers collapsed, the financial world collapsed, the Harvard endowment collapsed — the whole thing became unsustainable.
So at Berkeley we are stripping things down to what really matters. Journalists don’t need a fancy hotel, or $40 box lunches. They just need each other.
Who’s on the first lineup and what are they going to talk about?
Narrative conference stalwarts like Jacqui Banazynski and Adam Hochschild will be there. But so will some new faces. We won’t be announcing the lineup until July, but a peek at last year’s program will give a good idea of the high-concept, high-octane level of discussion.
Why limit the attendance to 75?
Like you, I taught narrative journalism to fellows, and I loved the teaching. My conferences tend to be a little less about panels and (albeit inspiring or interesting) war stories and more about pedagogy. I want conference speakers who are not just marquee names, but generous souls and great teachers. I prefer ample small group sessions and master classes and lots of networking. In fact, my favorite Nieman event was the Seminar for Narrative Editors, which brought about 60 editors to Lippmann House for one weekend. I loved the intimacy. Happily, it turns out that 75 people is the perfect number for a conference at North Gate Hall, home of Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. We all fit in the library, where we have our plenary sessions. We can have breakout sessions of 12 or 15 people — like real seminars. We can get to know each other over the course of the day. We can insist that all attendees are experienced journalists — catnip for the editors we fly in from the East Coast. And we can build a speaker/attendee ratio that allows the possibility of meaningful conversations between them, not just lecturers and listeners.
How much does it cost and where will it happen and will there be a view?
The conference is held in the beautiful, rustic, unfancy North Gate Hall — it’s a classic example of California architecture, and started life nearly a century ago as the home of the School of Architecture. All the rooms are arranged around a lovely courtyard that is graced with wisteria and camellias. That counts as a view, right? We sought a price point freelancers could afford: $275 to the general public, plus $50 for extra master classes on Sunday, for those who want it. There will be a simple but delicious lunch and a California reception (i.e., wine and cheese) at the end of the day.
Narrative conferences have become a thing. Why?
Everyone needs a tribe.