Anyone interested in narrative journalism at newspapers should see David Duwe Stanton’s master’s thesis “The Miami Herald and the Miller Effect: Literary Journalism in the 1980s,” submitted to the University of Florida in 2005. It’s a fascinating look inside The Herald, analyzing the influence that editor Gene Miller had on the paper’s identity. (Miller worked there 48 years altogether, first as an investigative reporter then as an editor.)
Stanton writes that he’s not putting forward his piece as a template in how to do now what was done then—he’s just looking at how they made it happen in Miami in the 1980s. A patient reader will find a lot of good stuff in there.
The thesis assesses the newsroom culture and includes detailed looks at Edna Buchanan and Carl Hiaasen, two top writers at The Herald during that period. Here’s Hiaasen interviewed on using long-form literary techniques for all kinds of newswriting:
It’s the same chore, and you’re still a storyteller. If you’re covering some dreary zoning board meeting or whether you’re covering the crash of a 737, you still have to go out, gather the information using all of your senses and then tell a story in a compelling way. That’s any journalist’s job, because if you can’t tell a story, no one is going to read it. And if no one is going to read it, you’re wasting your time and you’re wasting the space.
And here’s Hiaasen on Miller:
Gene believed that no matter what kind of project we were working on, the whole trick is impact. And there is no impact without any involvement of your readers. You have to get them involved in a story. If you can’t get them past the jump, you’ve failed not only as a writer but as a journalist. That was Gene’s point, and he was right. It made for a hell of a lot more interesting newspaper.
The spirit of the paper’s shift to a kind of storytelling that was—at that point—alien to most reporters and editors might have lessons for us today. Check it out on Gangrey.com, which talks about and links to the paper.
[UPDATE: Just found out thesis author David Stanton is now a Technology Fellow at the Poynter Institute. He researches news design and cognition.]