The future of narrative journalism

A collection of writing experts held a panel at Portland State Thursday to discuss the history and importance of narrative journalism, as well as possible effects on the field of journalism in the future.

A collection of writing experts held a panel at Portland State Thursday to discuss the history and importance of narrative journalism, as well as possible effects on the field of journalism in the future.

The panelists discussed how to best use narrative writing styles to spice up news writing while highlighting possible pitfalls to avoid when doing so.

Unlike standard news writing, which relies more on facts and less on the writer’s personal style, narrative journalism creates a story and leads the reader through a series of scenes and characters.

Around 50 aspiring writers and other people attended the event at Smith Memorial Student Union to hear local and national celebrities in journalism give their opinions about narrative journalism.

Throughout the discussion panelists often joked about writing and told personal stories about their experiences with narrative journalism.

“Nonfiction is on a really exciting cusp,” said Debra Gwartney, writer and adjunct instructor at PSU. “And not only in newspapers, but magazines and books. Nonfiction is really coming of age right now and this is a great affirmation of that.”

Gwartney, who presided over the discussion, said she has previously requested panelist Jack Hart to be a guest speaker in her classes, and that he is wonderful. Many of Gwartney’s students attended the discussion, she said.

Hart, managing editor and writing coach for The Oregonian, spoke about the patterns in the history of journalism. Hart said the field has changed from narrative style in its early years, to a strict, hard news style in the mid-20th century. Now, Hart said, the field is moving back toward a more narrative style.

Many classic literary writers in history were once journalists, Hart said, from Charles Dickens to Ernest Hemingway. In time, however, the art of narrative journalism began to disappear, he said.

“By the time I came into the business, all the fun was going out of it,” Hart said.

At The Oregonian, Hart said, the focus is more on narrative storytelling forms. He said he feels it has contributed to The Oregonian’s success.

“You can write about anything using these techniques,” Hart said. “Readers not only love it, but they get a lot more out of material presented in this form.”

Panelist Mark Kramer, founding director of the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism at Harvard University, said newspapers are in a crisis. Newspapers are losing 2 or 3 percent of their readership every six months, Kramer said, and adopting narrative writing techniques is a business solution that can help to save declining readership.

The three-person panel said that there is often poor narrative journalism writing, one of the dangers of using the style.

Kramer said he thinks the key to using narrative journalism successfully is being able to expand a story’s emotional impact. Writers should not rely on simple stories and simple writing techniques, Kramer said, or it will create a false reality, or “paper utopia.”

More than looking for facts at events, writers should sometimes just sit back and watch, Kramer said. Writing should be reader-based, giving readers the details they will find interesting, he said.

“The shape of the narrative voice is to make friends with the readers,” Kramer said. “‘A fireman wrestled with the hose’ is different than ‘The fireman applied water.'”

Oregonian staff writer Inara Verzemnieks, the third panelist, said what people are looking for when they read a story is a larger truth rather than just the facts. She said she believes in the beauty of the unexpected, the wonder in the everyday and the power of stories that aren’t breaking.

Getting to the emotional truth of a story often relies on lots of groundwork and time, Verzemnieks said. One story she wrote involved so much time with a subject that he joked that he was worried she might end up moving across the street, she said.

“You want to be there when things are happening, but you also want to be there when things aren’t happening. Sometimes that tells you more,” Verzemnieks said.

Chris Miller, a student in Gwartney’s advanced news writing class, said he always enjoys hearing Hart speak and that he found the event very helpful. The idea of spending time with subjects to develop your story was specifically informative to him.

This discussion is not the only journalism-based event in Portland this week.

The National Writer’s Workshop will be in Portland this Saturday and Sunday at the Jantzen Beach Red Lion Hotel. The event will be hosted by The Oregonian and the Poynter Institute, a nationally recognized journalism school. The event is designed to teach writers, editors and reporters how to improve their journalism skills. Kramer and Hart are featured speakers at the workshop. The cost is $95 per person or $75 for students.

“This weekend is a rare opportunity for those who are interested in journalism and who love journalism to spend some time with these esteemed researchers of journalism,” Gwartney said.

Roy Peter Clark, senior editor and writing coach from the Poynter Institute, was scheduled to speak at the May 31 event, but could not attend due to illness.