Narrative Conference Focuses on Long-Form Journalism

BOSTON, 1st April 2016: Boston University's annual Power of Narrrative conference kicked off today. (Photo by: Nikita Sampath/BUNS)
Written by Carly Sitrin

By Carly Sitrin
BU News Service

Day one at Boston University’s Power of Narrative Conference focused on reporting depth and telling stories across platforms.

The now-18-year-old conference features workshops and lectures by prominent names like Boston Globe Editor Brian McGrory and author and BU narrative professor Mitch Zuckoff.

Building off the previous night’s keynote by New York Times investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, Saturday’s breakout sessions picked up a common thread of time-intensive reporting. Whereas breaking news can be live-tweeted, long-form narrative pieces can take months or years of on-the-ground information gathering and fact-checking.

In BU professor Lou Ureneck’s case, more than two years of research and interviews about the 1922 genocide in Smyrna translated to a 500 page book.

“I came to this with a lot of humility,” Ureneck said in his session about choices and ethics in narrative nonfiction. “We have to remember that always the story belongs to the victims.”

Ureneck said his research process took him all over the world to speak with foreign relations experts, diplomats and Smyrnian citizens. All in the pursuit of crafting a story about an often overlooked tragedy. Ureneck said writing his book was “like building an airplane as I flew it.”

John Barth, chief content officer at PRX, mirrored Ureneck’s desire to accurately portray the struggles of a story’s subject. Barth just prefers to use audio.

In his session about the new journalism of audio, Barth played audio clips of podcasts that feature harrowing stories. Live, raw sound from court hearings, battlefields and hospitals. He said that the difference between audio reporting and print is intimacy;  he said sound is more personal.

Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory in conversation with Mitch Zuckoff  defended the honor of narrative print journalism against the rising tide of new media. Citing Globe reporter Sarah Schweitzer’s piece The Life and Times of Strider Wolf, McGrory said that the Globe is investing in good people writing important stories.

“We have to be real human beings. We have to get down into the trenches, develop characters and give [readers] a reason to turn the page,” McGrory said. When asked about including media like the VR and 360 cameras, McGrory said the Globe has been dabbling, but he doesn’t see it playing a bigger role.

“People go to a newspaper site to read,” McGrory said.

But cartoonist and cross-platform expert Jessica Abel thinks differently. Abel’s session outlined the importance of telling a story in as many forms as possible. Her comic book Out On the Wire demonstrates in print how Ira Glass and other great minds in radio produce the stories that make us stop and listen.

Abel said if you want the most out of your work, you need to be prepared to publish in as many different iterations as possible.

“Doesn’t it just suck when you work so hard on something and it just kind of stops there?” Abel said. “It comes down to following your curiosity and being brave. Choose a story you love and translate it to a new medium.”

Multimedia and technology as a whole, however, were left out of keynote speaker Gay Talese’s midday address. The journalistic icon said he takes great pride in the fact that he doesn’t use a recorder or even take notes during an interview. He said he prefers to invest in his subjects and will often return to them at later points to give them an opportunity to refine their quotes. Talese said his greatest assets are his curiosity and powers of observation.

“I imagine nothing but I observe deeply and sometimes at length,” Tales said. “I try to make it look easy. But it’s never easy.”

Talese’s speech hit a nerve in the Q and A session however, when the 84-year-old journalist could not come up with a name of any female journalist who inspired him.

DAY 1 TAKEAWAYS:

  • Podcasts are our future. Do not resist.
  • Print is not dead! Longform, investigative pieces are in high demand and when they’re done well, they can incite change. Re: “Spotlight.”
  • Do your research. Do more research.
  • Select your medium according to the story you’re trying to tell. Some stories need to be written out, others demand audio or video. Follow your heart there. And don’t be afraid to do a few versions.
  • Editors are your friends and mentors.
  • Narrative nonfiction is a beautiful and noble endeavor. We should all do more of it.

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