I started a narrative group at the Akron Beacon Journal in January 2004. We meet roughly twice a month to discuss narrative techniques, how to apply them and improve the newspaper’s storytelling. Our meetings have ranged from a handful of participants, discussing narratives we have written or seen in other publications, to more than two-thirds of the newsroom attending a two-day in-house seminar.
Overall, the group and its e-mail component touch every department in the newsroom.
To start a narrative writing group, you need to:
- Understand the culture of your newsroom.
- Identify the people who would be excited about delving into narrative writing.
- Analyze how narrative writing techniques could help department heads produce better sections.
- Determine that the meetings are discussions, not lectures.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Then listen, listen, listen.
You also need a newsroom that values good writing. The Beacon Journal has a history of good writing, and folks here get excited about discussing new writing techniques. To create a narrative writing group I simply tapped that passion.
First I met with each department head to discuss narrative writing and ask how the techniques could help their sections. I asked them to identify reporters to approach. I also told them about the narrative writing group I was going to start.
Then I went to the reporters the editors identified, as well as others I thought would be interested. Some had attended Nieman workshops on narrative writing. Others simply liked to talk about good writing. I told these reporters about the group and suggested they spread the word.
I made sure I contacted folks in all departments, including the copy, photo and design desks and the graphics department.
To work well, the group needs representation from as many departments as possible. The first meeting included the editor, the news editor, the business editor, the editor in charge of presentation, the training editor, a features editor and reporters from metro, sports, features and business. In all, about 25 people attended.
We defined narrative. I handed out examples of good narrative writing. The meeting lasted about an hour, as do all our meetings.
I followed up by writing notes from the meetings and distributing the notes via e-mail to those who attended, as well as to the department head editors.
We have since met about twice a month, although sometimes more often. The e-mail list has expanded, as has the group of participants. We meet during the noon hour. People provide their lunch; I provide the cookies.
I moderate the meetings. There are no lectures here. We are learning together. I just run the discussion.
I usually set a topic and communicate it via e-mail before the meeting. For instance, I once distributed Jon Franklin’s “Mrs. Kelley’s Monster” and told folks we would dissect it at the next meeting. We did, and identified some interesting aspects.
I have taken care not to bury people with lots of reading. At most meetings, I provide a narrative story downloaded from another newspaper. Or I distribute an article on narrative writing. The point is to give people interesting things to read without burdening them.
Our discussions translated quickly into stories. Features reporter Kim Hone-McMahan has written stories on a dog musher and a woman who lost her son in a car accident. She has used narrative techniques in other stories. We recently ran a six-day narrative series on a woman recovering from an attack at the hands of her estranged husband, who used an acid solution to burn her face and much of her body. The series attracted more than 45,000 hits on our Web site, Ohio.com, and during the days the series ran, single-copy sales were up more by more than 1,000 papers.
Photographer Ed Suba proposed following a spelling bee contestant. Education reporter Stephanie Warsmith decided the story would be a good narrative, and she found the contestant who would grant access.
Overall, the newspaper published at least 60 stories that were either narratives or used narrative techniques.
Our news editor has been a part of the group from its first meeting. He has given stories good display on A1. Other sections have benefited as well, with narratives or stories with narrative elements appearing in all sections of the paper.
This has not all gone smoothly. Reporters, editors and photographers are busy. They have daily deadlines, weekly deadlines, limited resources. Narratives have taken a back seat to the daily demands.
But many of us know that if we continue the discussion, we can begin to apply these techniques to improve the daily product and to produce short-form narratives on a regular basis.
We have a passionate, intelligent group of journalists. So this effort has been thought provoking and challenging. In other words: fun.