New York Times executive editor Bill Keller thinks the death of narrative journalism has been greatly exaggerated—and he brought some examples to Boston University’s 2010 narrative conference Saturday to prove it:
A man standing in line at a store, scrolling through Dexter Filkins’ 10,000-word magazine cover story on Afghanistan, for instance—on his Blackberry.
The lede of Gene Weingarten’s Pulitzer-winning feature on parents who inadvertently left their sleeping children to die in overheated cars, which he read out loud during his Saturday keynote address . . . then defied a listener not to want to turn the page.
Keller also read Times writer Dan Barry’s 761-word sprint about a man who caught a baby from a two-story drop to save it from burning in a house fire in 2004, a story that stuck with Keller, even though Barry’s use of the words “wafting” and “roiling” felt too much like “writing with a capital W.” (Another Keller pet peeve: long anecdotes that scream, “Look at me! I’m writing!”)
He may not be outright cheerful about the fate of long-form journalism, but he’s hopeful. It’s maybe even time for people to quit asking him how he’s doing “in a hushed tone you use for someone who’s just been through rehab or divorce.”
Keller’s main qualm about narrative writing: There’s just so much bad narrative out there, stories that indulge the writer while ridiculing the subject; articles devoid of rigorous reporting, complexity, rich characters and scenes.
He held up David Barstow’s riveting 5,700-word account of the murder of abortion doctor George Tiller. It worked because it was full of “enlightening ambiguity,” with three-dimensional anti-abortion activists as well as a flawed victim.
Keller shot down what he called three “perceived existential threats” to narrative writing:
• The decline of publishing and economic stresses that have led to newsroom downsizing and the dumbing-down of copy. Wall Street Journal editor Robert Thompson may think there’s no more room for stories that “have the gestation of a llama”—which is a year, according to Keller’s research. But Keller declared au contraire, citing the Times’ collaboration with Pro Publica on doctor-assisted death in a New Orleans hospital post-Katrina, which won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting.
“We’re feeling a little more hopeful about our life expectancy,” he said. “Our ad revenues are beginning to rebound.” (Keller later worked in another jab at the WSJ: “Just because we’re nice to people we might want to partner with doesn’t mean we don’t want to kick the shit out of Rupert Murdoch.”)
• Steve Jobs’ claim that people don’t read anymore (a claim Jobs made in 2008). Keller cited the way his paper’s long-form stories routinely make the list of most e-mailed articles. “Not only has the Web not killed narrative, but it’s pushed it out to people who don’t have home delivery.”
Story link sharing via Twitter and Facebook help, too, as does the Times’ embracing of online storytelling. Here, he showed Tom Bissell’s “Climbing Kilimanjaro” interactive graphic as well as reporter/videographer C.J. Chivers’ “An Afghan Farmer or Bombmaker?” video.
“Jobs said people don’t read anymore two years ago—before he introduced the iPad. . . . But I see the iPad and imitators bringing about a renaissance in the kind of journalism we’re talking about.”
• The notion that newspapers’ authority is falling into disfavor as crowdsourcing and user-generated content trump professional journalism. While it’s good that the conversation isn’t as one-sided as it once was, Keller believes readers get what they pay for from citizen journalism. “If I need my appendix out, I’m not going to go to a citizen surgeon.”
What persuades him that Wikipedia and Digg won’t put narrative out of business is the ability of writers like Filkins to write in a voice that “no algorithm can imitate.”
“The human yearning for great stories, writing them and reading them, is just not so easily extinguished,” Keller said.
Beth Macy is a 2010 Nieman Fellow for Journalism at Harvard. Macy covered Gay Talese’s keynote speech from the same conference for the Storyboard, and she blogs at intrepidpapergirl.com, where you can find more details on the Boston University conference, as well as her thoughts on life, reporting and narrative journalism.