Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared in the Fall 2000 issue of Nieman Reports, the Nieman Foundation’s quarterly magazine.
Narrative writing is returning to newspapers. No one has added up the reallocated column-inches to quantify this change, but there are many signs of the increasing interest:
- The Associated Press has expanded its booming enterprise section to 20-plus world-wandering writers who are given time and space to develop the evocative stories they find.
- Each fall, at a conference I help organize at Boston University, about 800 self-identified newsroom renegades come together to learn more about narrative journalism from the likes of The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Mark Bowden, The Wall Street Journal’s Barry Newman, and the Poynter Institute’s Roy Peter Clark.
- 5,000 reporters each year attend the Poynter Institute’s National Writers Workshops, which emphasize, in sessions across the country, not just getting the story right, but also telling stories engagingly.
- Papers have, for years, run probing “series”: multi-day sequences of articles presenting facets of a large topic. Now, scores of papers are publishing “serials,” many-part dramatic reconstructions of events.
- A few dozen papers now identify and free up reporters with a storytelling knack, who not many years ago might have been kept on routine assignments.
- Narrative journalists win prizes. Many have won Pulitzers. One of National Public Radio’s innovative narrative practitioners, David Isay, has recently joined the distinguished ranks of MacArthur Fellows.
- An e-mail discussion group on nonfiction narrative, moderated by Jon Franklin (author of “Writing for Story,” two-time Pulitzer-winner, science writer at The [Raleigh] News & Observer,) attracts 350 reporters, who pay $20 a year to join the nonstop conversation.
“I’m not sure there’s more narrative in papers,” says Bruce DeSilva, who, as the AP’s News/Features Editor, heads the enterprise squad. “But when we do one at AP, the play is phenomenal. We’re also getting a lot of play for short narratives.”
This issue of Nieman Reports, on narrative journalism, shoulders a touchy topic. It aims at the heart of the profession, as it targets how news people pursue reporting and writing. The basic assertion is simple: newspapers might both improve coverage and retain more readers by employing storytelling techniques to convey news. But a discussion of this assertion leads to discomfiting questions about mission and practice and chain of command: most likely, some editors on any paper won’t be able to or won’t want to help reporters approach stories narratively.
Editorial interest in narrative has been stimulated in the course of a search for remedies to widespread current business problems: declining or stagnant newspaper circulation, aging readership, and decreased minutes spent reading papers. The list of antidotes has affected the look and content of many papers over the past decade. It includes running more service pieces up front, more USA Today-like micro-stories, more color printing, investing in sleeker page design, more celebrity and sports reportage, fuller TV schedules, and companion Web sites offering updated news and interactive services. Narrative is on this remedy list too, because it engages readers; in this age of mega-corporate media saturation, Web sites and workaholism, readers still are attracted to stories in which people’s lives and decision-making are vividly portrayed.
When you pause to consider the list, narrative is the “which-one-doesn’t-fit?” item; it alone moves newspapers toward deeper coverage, toward fulfillment of the civic mission that distinguishes the worthy profession. This distinction makes narrative journalism of special interest to many editors and reporters, even as it raises questions about the skills and roles of reporters and editors who might try it out.
An unofficial “narrative movement” has coalesced. Into it has tumbled a small band of itinerant newspaper writing coaches, the often-lonely editors who push their papers toward narrative, a cluster of reporters who have mastered the art of serial-writing and won professional recognition, a few foundation leaders and conference planners who bring these parties together, editors of the handful of anthologies, a few name-brand authors of book-length literary journalism who have crossed over to aid and abet, and most important, the growing ranks of reporters excited by the possibilities of such assignments.
Discussion among them moves beyond recitation of the virtues of storytelling to the on-the-job realities of adding narrative coverage. Satisfactory narrative won’t end up in print until editors and reporters have come to some understanding about some basic issues, such as:
- On what sorts of stories they’ll use narrative techniques
- The process of reporting for narrative
- Who among them should write and who should edit such copy
Once narrative is assigned, those writing and editing it will come up against the limitations of the customary “news voice.” And finally, while the editing is under way, questions of what to edit for – the “mission” questions – are bound to surface.
Here’s a closer view of these steps in the process of bringing a narrative article into a paper.
Defining Narrative-Worthy News
Some months back, Boston Globe editors urged staffers to include more “feature ledes” in their stories. An in-house parody passed among some reporters there, a mock news story that didn’t arrive at its banner-headline-worthy burden – “a tidal wave overwhelmed all of New England and part of New York State” – until paragraph 10 and instead began something like this: ” ‘Does your leg feel damp?’ Mrs. Rosalie D’Amato asked her husband after awakening suddenly in their Duxbury home at approximately 4:15 this morning.”
Editors and reporters, even those more open to narrative, often fear mandated irrelevancy, having pursued for years a mission of sorting out the urgent, the essential, the basic. They don’t want some commercial fashion, ordered by management, to push them to absurdly personalize plain ol’ news. These editors voice concerns, as well – the more so after recent fabrication scandals – that in assigning narrative, they’ll hand away the ability to check on factuality, as only reporters on the spot will have sensed and seen events. These fears run contrary to the ballast of tradition, which tilts toward depersonalized, sober accounting, and toward the prevalence of editorial good sense.
Perhaps more to the point, the prospect of writing narrative exhilarates many reporters and editors, but also makes them nervous. It exposes their craft to individual scrutiny. It’s undeniably more fun to write, and to read, that “Clowns stumbled, lions pranced, and a glittering trapeze artist swooped over the crowd as trumpets blared Sousa marches yesterday. Bella the Clown has led his Big Apple Circus back into town again.” than it is to read “The annual visit of the Big Apple Circus commenced yesterday. According to spokesman Joe Doakes, this year’s show includes the featured clown, Bella, as well as lions, costumed trapeze artists, and a live circus band.”
Almost any news story can benefit from a morsel of narrative, because sensory reports engage readers, drawing them into the pleasurable illusion of immediacy. And narrative also opens more material for reporting – the revealing, nuanced lives of not just the prominent, but of ordinary citizens. Dull but crucial stories can be invigorated. For example, trade-offs involved in spraying pesticides in restaurants might be more readable in an article that includes a scene portraying an exterminator’s visit than by simply quoting a dry report, and a narrative approach enables such coverage proactively, even when there’s no new pesticide study to report.
In sum, there’s no mandate to crowd away crucial news or present every blizzard from the perspective of a 90-year-old shoveler, and every fire from the perspective of a weeping child clutching a singed blankie. But narrative moments add a lot. Narrative articles and serials are powerfully engaging. But both expose editors and reporters to testing, and demand honing, of their skills. An editor who accepts the vision of a Page 1 that fascinates readers by moving in close to stories with human moments will lose sleep and gain a worthy life of hard labor.
Reporting for Story
It’s surely different, reporting for story as well as for fact. It means paying attention to what Tom Wolfe terms the “status life” details about people – the clues to emotion and character and class in their outfits, turns of phrase, even their desk clutter. It means recognizing, while reporters are still in the field, potential story-tracks through events and identifying the set scenes that might lead readers through the general muddle of information. It also means doing richer background research, so that narrative foreground can be used emblematically. Narrative touches in shorter assignments need not take more reporting time; they just require more attention – a finer-grained, heads-up apprehension of the events at hand.
Who Should Write and Edit Narrative?
Heads-up apprehension implies personnel with the skills to discern and comprehend character and organizational structures. There’s no question that reporting for story engages reporters’ and editors’ erudition, sophistication, discernment, even their wryness, more than conventional reporting for fact does. And that might prove a challenge to some. Obviously, reporters who have the knack, edited by editors who have the knack, should be the ones to work narratively. That requires an evolving, candid assessment of skills and consequent tampering with shifts, protocols of assignments and story quotas. Adjusting the chain of command so it’s receptive to narrative is sensitive business, as old hands – and some young old-hands, too – just plain don’t see the world narratively.
Infrastructure changes will help reporters working with narrative avoid conflict with editors averse to such work. In-house writing coaches, empowered editorially, have helped reorient some newsrooms. A few reporters will move away from assigned shifts and beats and function more independently. As this happens, the differentials in reporting time and role may create in-house tensions needing tactful resolution. However, a paper that makes clear that reporters might reliably do narrative journalism will have its pick of able employees. There’s no mystery to the ways in which such reorganization can occur: It’s been done in Eugene and Raleigh and in many other cities, and consultants can sketch and smooth the road.
News Voice and Narrative Voice
At some newspapers, changes such as these can loom large. Reporters and editors are trained to report, in the almost military sense that a police lieutenant might mean, ordering a patrolman to report facts about a house fire, pronto, excluding all trivia. The last thing on a police officer’s or reporter’s mind when reporting is presenting the story artfully, so the audience might especially enjoy it, and so it might resonate with the profound nature of the event. To the contrary; the fire story that results reads like a memo to an insurance clerk:
A __ alarm fire at __ destroyed a __. There were __ fatalities and __ injuries. According to Fire Chief __, the blaze started at __ o’clock and was caused by __. Damage is estimated at __.
Newspapers do also run features on fire-displaced families, backgrounders on firehouse life, even occasional spotlight articles on the politics of fire chief selection. But let’s consider the default fire story itself, because its voice is diagnostic.
Reporters are sent out to get the information crucial to the orderly running of the city, nation and world. They are neither artists nor social workers, nor need they be. They’re guardians of the city and, as such, given special (albeit shrinking) protections under the law. They’re trained to spot situations and facts that perturb civic life and to present them in order of degree of urgency – lucidly if possible. They also laud events that reinforce and improve civic life. The bureaucratic “report” tone springs from a wholesome tradition – that the press has a vested duty to guard the population. Reporters and editors have serious business to pursue, and that mindset is reflected in the official edge to the newspaper voice.
Its very “personalitylessness” makes the voice so handy, and thrifty. It can be imitated by any reporter (unlike the personal voices each reporter might use describing the same fire to buddies at a tavern down the street from the newsroom) and it can be deployed to good effect by writers of moderate verbal skill. It enables sending reporters where needed, like police officers sent to changeable beats. In both cases, the workers’ probity and devotion to duty count, intelligibility counts, but eloquence and imagination will be controlled, if present, by the superior officer on duty. News voice is intentionally bland, nonjudgmental, quirk-free, responsible and sober, a useful presence interested in names and affiliations and times and numbers. It’s the voice of the town crier who once shouted “All’s well” through the night.
If “style is personality,” as the rhetorician Richard Lanham says, readers may detect little companionability in that persona. The news voice does not acknowledge the readers’ savvy or know-how or sophisticated comprehension of motives, people, organizations or the world. It always starts explanations from scratch. Its job is to record, explain, to create a record, report – hardly to entertain. For all its civic utility, the news voice also limits the newspaper as good company for readers. That trade-off can be moderated by narrative, without threatening the crucial mission of newspapers.
Refreshing the Mission of Newspapers
The role of “entertainer” troubles many reporters, I suspect for at least two reasons. First of all, it involves dealing with non-official considerations, acknowledging the idiosyncratic natures of people (who are then not merely citizens) and situations (which are then not merely fire sites). Effective storytelling requires just that and not just for a feature lede’s few paragraphs.
Still more alarming, narrative journalism requires an unofficial ambition to make and hold personal contact with readers. It seldom demands first person, at least that’s only called for in the occasional pieces about a reporter’s unique experience (in one recent serial, a reporter recounts donating his kidney, over his family’s objections, to an old friend). But a narrative writer must always set out to sculpt the reader’s experience, from the first to the last paragraph, and to handle that control artfully and genially. In this sense, narrative can be seen as a method of engaging readers by portraying the stories of events.
Hardboiled reporters don’t routinely seek to engineer the sequential emotional responses of readers. They don’t mess much with their readers at all. Storytellers do. The two roles are in conflict. But the conflict has often been resolved, even by some of those hard-boiled reporters. There’s a compromise voice that Tom French, Jon Franklin and Roy Peter Clark know how to use, and it’s on display in their effective serials.
A useful narrative voice for newspapers puts to work shared social knowledge, to the extent that such knowledge is our common, ever-developing heritage. That’s more easily done in papers (such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or weeklies such as The Village Voice) with delimited readerships. But it’s been accomplished admirably in one-paper-for-all cities as well. The sense that writer and reader are sharing an understanding that the subject at hand might not be party to is the gist of the powerful literary device called dramatic irony. With it, a writer gains the freedom to put his or her whole intelligence into play while making readers feel in-the-know.
It’s a given of newspaper narrative that the reporter can’t reliably address the peculiar sensibility of any sub-group of readers and still address all readers. A story for everyone, slow or knowing, naive or sophisticated, politically correct or bigoted, pious or doubting, can’t go just anywhere the writer wants without insulting or puzzling or boring some sector of readers. At that snag, a paper’s mission to explain to all and its business interests part ways. No editor wants to abandon readers.
That “given” about readership may be minimized. Narrative stories, in general, use various “emotion sets.” One that works well in newspapers can be termed a “civic” emotion set; other “emotion sets” that might work well in books, or perhaps in The New Yorker, where writers can appropriately play even with the concept of voice itself, may be termed “private” emotion sets.
“Private” emotion sets are as various as the inventiveness and natures of the writers who use them. They obviously can include emotions that might alienate newspaper readers’ godless rage, impassioned piety, bitterness, prejudice, arrogance, shrillness, sneakiness, hazy softness – the list is instinctive and endless and subtle, and outside the mission of most newspaper stories. On their individual authority, book writers such as Tracy Kidder or Joan Didion may freely include levels of explanation that upset readers, that cleave instead of bind community.
“Civic” emotions are community-integrative. They include patriotic feelings, love of children and aged parents, respect for education, anger at criminals, praise for the charitable and job-providing, sorrow for the dying and ill, gratitude toward police and fire fighters, rage at corruption, and many other feelings. It is, in fact, a rich set of emotions, and everyone in town can share in them. They draw a town together. I don’t slight work with this set of emotions. They’re quite sufficient for the craft of building intense, gripping, revealing, accurate, useful and rewarding narratives.
Advertisers have long since stepped away from the bland voice of civic probity and explored the “civic emotion set” adventurously in making personal contact with audiences. Advertisers these days (Super Bowl ads on TV are an example) stay in touch with audiences by kidding around with personal fragility, by mocking lesser pieties, edging toward titillating taboos, in short, by admitting non-Hallmarkian, all-too-human truths everyone knows anyway, by belching on camera, then selling sneakers.
To date, not many news organizations have thought much about the personality of their publications, in spite of financial hardships brought about by not doing so. Until the “narrative movement,” no one has taken the news voice toward emotional engagement with readers (at least since the days of yellow journalism), except for the odd story that shares outrage or warms the heart. The obvious and continuing casualty of this tardiness has been the Sunday magazine. Its potential for adding substance and fascination and varied comprehension to newspapers has dissipated in awkward features while the number of Sunday magazines has shrunk.
Engaging readers more deeply by presenting a braid of human stories is among the feasible remedies for newspapers’ circulation woes. Any editor who has run a successful serial will assert that it builds and binds readership. By understanding the aspects of it that make them uneasy, editors can decide when to say “no,” and so find their ways forward to offering readers good storytelling while improving news coverage.