Storyboard isn’t the only Nieman Foundation publication with a rich craft archive. Our venerable sister magazine Nieman Reports maintains a trove of material on narrative and storytelling, and we’ll be highlighting some of that work in the coming weeks. Today’s outtake is from the Fall 2000 issue, which featured writers and editors from The New Yorker, The Atlantic, GQ, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and network television. It’s fascinating to jump back 14 years and measure the arguments and predictions against what is happening today in narrative journalism:
When I wanted to go off and write dispatches on the Gulf War, I had a very simple model in mind. I wanted to write the classic correspondent’s dispatch: to simply go to wherever I could go, see what I could see, hear what I could hear, and write only that. I would not attempt any analysis of the war, not attempt any reporting beyond that which grew directly out of the events before me, and to file it in dispatch form for whomever would buy it.
When I went flogging this idea around to various agents and editors, it was pretty roundly rejected, and not only because I was an unknown writer and it was a perfectly reasonable idea to reject me, but because, as various people said to me, frankly, the whole idea was wrong. That this was a war that was going to be filled with cameras. The first night of bombing, there would be cameras there. There would be cameras throughout the war. Everything that could be described would be seen in many cases in real time, so the idea of filing a dispatch that a reader might read a week or even a month later was pointless, and sort of an anachronistic idea.
I see this also in the writing that comes to me as an editor. The thing that I most lament, and causes me most grief in manuscripts that come in from professional writers, from good writers, is the stunning lack of physical description. A writer will go to some interesting, fascinating and dangerous place, and will file a piece that will contain a great deal of terrific reporting on all sorts of levels—interviews, analysis and so on—and the story will simply be bereft of physical description, of the colorful, vivid scene painting that readers continue to love. It’s a myth that readers have turned away from this and that in the age of the picture and now the age of Internet, that readers don’t want it.
I’m always on the Internet. … I don’t think there is anybody extraordinary out there. It’s too new. But when the new narrative storytelling takes place and revives and gets its wings and gets its strength, it’s going to happen on the Internet, I think, not in newspapers. We’re all holding down the hatches. … I think there are fantastic stories out there, but we don’t know how to even begin covering them. We don’t know how to begin covering the reproductive revolution, the genetic revolution, and the information revolution. What do we know about political conventions? And there’s all this other stuff, and it’s changing the way the world is going to be. And how do we deal with those stories?
William Woo, the former editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote about the critical need for clarity in journalism and about false structures in narrative. Not every story can be narrative, he said:
Even in the hands of the most assiduous and perceptive reporter, facts gathered are likely to be incomplete, unconnected and susceptible to many interpretations. The narrative strands necessary to reconcile all these things are not easily handled. This is why frequently the narrative approach is abandoned once the going gets heavy and why stories with anecdotal beginnings are so full of disposable people, characters thrown away as soon as their work of getting readers into the story is finished. You can think of them as the dusting maids who start a play. If Jack and Jill introduced a story about agricultural accidents, we might be left to wonder forever about them once she came tumbling after.
The narrative actually made the writing faster, because it created a rhythm for the story. And it was powerful. The so-called nut graf was in the second graph, which should have pleased even the most narrative-hating editor. And sometimes, the narrative makes the difference between a story that is read and one that is merely glanced at.
If most reporters are modeling themselves on Walter Cronkite and Jane Pauley, what I do is model myself on no one. Instead, implacably, incorrigibly, I try to sound like myself, like the ordinary me.
Carolyn Mungo, an Emmy-winning TV news reporter in Texas, wrote about deadline narrative:
I used to think that good storytelling in local television happened only if a reporter was given a lot of time to do the story and a lot of time to tell it, as was the case in the story about Angie. But I have learned since then that is not always the case. When I set out to tell the story of several nine-year-old boys in a juvenile detention facility, I was able to work on the story for five days and still tell it in a narrative form.