As audience development editor at Longreads, it’s my job to encourage readers to find and share unforgettable stories. Stories that help us understand this world. Stories that imagine a better one.
“I truly believe writing the stories we write is important, vital, meaningful and often urgent. That’s what stokes my fires when the world is too much with me.” — Susan Orlean
Reading and sharing some of the best narrative journalism out there was the most uplifting thing I did last year. Take away all the word-wrangling, truth-seeking and job-defending those hundreds of stories represent, and not only would I be out of a job, but my interior life, now in technicolor, would rust into sepias and grays.
But for all that they inspire millions of readers, so many of our favorite narrative journalists have felt demoralized in the past year. It’s on those of us who subsist on their work to help them remember why that work is so important, and to offer them something inspirational in return.
As breaking news threatened to end 2017 under so much cloud cover, I needed to hear something good; to put up a second, maybe third finger to calmer wind; to find some indication, somehow, that there might be a better forecast for 2018.
I needed to hear from some of my heroes directly. So I went to the legends themselves.
I reached out to ProPublica senior reporter and New York Times Magazine writer-at-large Pamela Colloff. I emailed Outside correspondent Peter Vigneron, who wrote one of my favorite true crime stories last year. I emailed Megan Garber, a staff writer at The Atlantic, after she made an eloquent case for the importance of making a scene. I emailed Epic Magazine’s co-founder Joshua Davis and Texas Observer’s investigative reporter Melissa del Bosque. I even emailed Susan Orlean through a long-shot webmail account. I wanted to believe that our heroes are out there, listening.
I asked them all variations on the same four questions: Why is narrative journalism worthwhile? When they feel demoralized, what inspires them to work again? What are their hopes for narrative storytelling in the coming year? And finally, what stories would they like to see in 2018?
Their responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Why is narrative journalism worthwhile?
Peter Vigneron: I think it’s probably worthwhile for the same reason that all art is worthwhile: It can open up the world and create a sense of shared experience, across a huge range of experiences. When public interest and investigative reporters find characters and tell stories, their work has the potential to change everything. I’m conflicted about how much journalists should want to change society in the first place, rather than describe it, but the power is enormous.
One story that I keep coming back to is “The Uncounted,” by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal. I can imagine that story instead as a forgettable New York Times newspaper story, where some poor reporter killed himself or herself to dig up terrible statistics about how many civilians the U.S. government killed in Mosul. But because “The Uncounted” was a magazine story, there was a character attached to it. Now Basim Razzo’s story is unforgettable.
Melissa del Bosque: There’s a lot of divisiveness and anger swirling in the world right now. I find the current political rhetoric that punishes and marginalizes refugees and migrants for reasons of political expediency deeply troubling. But it motivates me to find narratives that will grab readers emotionally with the hope that they see the common humanity in all of us, and reject xenophobia. Now more than ever we need compelling narratives that emphasize that common humanity.
“I hope to tell stories that will help the world as it is now to edge closer to the world as it could be: a place that is ever more legible, ever more tolerant and ever more just to all the people who live in it. I hope journalists will continue to be outspoken and vigilant and brave.” — Megan Garber
Pamela Colloff: There is so much information coming at us all the time — seemingly endless bad news, from all over the world — that it’s easy to tune it all out. Good storytelling makes us take notice, think deeply, care, and maybe even take action. One example that really stood out to me this year was Nina Martin’s series for ProPublica about maternal mortality. I had read troubling statistics about maternal mortality before, but it wasn’t until I started Nina’s series — which begins with the entirely preventable death of a 33-year-old neonatal nurse less than a day after giving birth to her daughter — that I felt rage. This is what great storytelling has the power to do, and why we need it now more than ever.
Megan Garber: This year has been such a good reminder of the power of words — not just of how dangerous they can be when they’re misused or weaponized, but also of how productive they can be when they’re used to advance justice. When I think back on 2017, one of the things I’ll remember is how many people made the world better this year just by speaking up and telling their stories. So many journalists used their own voices and their own platforms to ensure that those stories would be told with accuracy and with empathy. Words matter. Facts matter. Truth matters. I’m so grateful for the people who, every day, fight for them.
When you feel demoralized, what inspires you to work again?
Susan Orlean: Without trying to sound self-aggrandizing, I truly believe writing the stories we write is important, vital, meaningful and often urgent. That’s what stokes my fires when the world is too much with me. Narrative journalism is elemental to the human experience: We’re storytellers, have always been storytellers, and will always be storytellers. The gloomier the times, the more stories shine a light.
Peter Vigneron: Reading good work. I spend a lot of time outdoors too, which helps settle me down, especially if I’m around other people. But the main thing is reading, which makes writing well seem less impossible. I also read to avoid my feelings of failure and disappointment, so it’s a tricky balance!
Pamela Colloff: When I write, I get depressed. The writing is never good enough, in my mind, and the process of trying to arrange words in just the right way, and of bringing the story in my head to life on the page, can be an agonizing experience. But whenever I read other journalists’ work, I marvel at what they’re producing, and I feel rejuvenated.
I often thumb through my collection of favorite articles, which I’ve printed out over the years. (I think I have hard copies of nearly every story Katherine Boo and David Grann have ever written.) I also keep certain books on my desk when I’m writing, perhaps in the hope that they can exert some sort of supernatural powers over my keyboard. I’m writing a crime story right now, so the books I have beside me are Lawrence Wright’s “Remembering Satan, Philip Gourevitch’s “A Cold Case,” and Robert Kolker’s “Lost Girls.”
I’m constantly looking for inspiration online, trying to find stories where the craftsmanship floors me or moves me in some way. This summer, I stumbled across Lizzie Presser’s story “Losing Gloria,” in California Sunday. Presser wrote about an Arizona family torn apart by a mother’s deportation to Mexico. The details in her story made this family’s struggle so vivid that I was in tears by the end. I was also ready to get started writing.
What are your hopes for narrative storytelling in 2018? What stories would you like to see?
Joshua Davis: We spend a lot of time at Epic talking about this and have come to a simple conclusion: There’s nothing else to do besides get out there, meet people and keep telling their stories.
Us versus Them won the election. It’s dominating domestic and international politics. But it’s making us feel more separate and isolated than we have in decades. Each article or film is a bridge, no matter how small, that helps us understand each other. And, at this point, every bit of understanding helps.
“Good storytelling makes us take notice, think deeply, care, and maybe even take action.” — Pamela Colloff
Peter Vigneron: I want more narrative journalism about homelessness and our country’s mental health crisis. These are areas where there are really important new ideas and solutions, and the stakes for the people involved are extraordinarily high.
Pamela Colloff: As a writer living in “flyover country,” I hope to tell stories in 2018 that bring voices to the forefront that we don’t hear from as often as we should. I would love to see more media organizations invest in reporters who are already situated between the coasts, who know the culture and the landscape, rather than send reporters out for quick anthropological trips that are often more superficial than substantive. There was a big push to understand the middle of the country after the election; I hope those efforts don’t falter in 2018.
Megan Garber: I hope to tell stories that will help the world as it is now to edge closer to the world as it could be: a place that is ever more legible, ever more tolerant and ever more just to all the people who live in it. I hope journalists will continue to be outspoken and vigilant and brave. We’ve had so many good reminders, this year, of all the good that comes from that.
In one year’s time, I hope we’ll be sharing stories that fit all of this criteria and more: stories with characters, substance, humor and heart.
I hope we all remember how important it is to tell the stories that won’t be told without us, next year and every other. I hope you’ll write to your heroes. I hope you’ll donate to the Nieman Foundation. I hope you’ll read Katia Savchuk’s brilliant series, The Pitch, and dig into some of the phenomenal stories that followed. I hope you’ll share all the stories that gave you hope, that helped you learn, that made you smile, and made you better.
Our heroes are out there, listening.