The Power of Narrative

Staying Savvy, Skilled and Solvent in Journalism's Wired Era; Boston University's 16th Annual Narrative Journalism Conference: April 4-6, 2014; For more information, visit: www.bu.edu/com/narrative/

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Many of our speakers said their best ideas come from brainstorming with other narrative journalists, but you may be wondering how you can find that community now that the 2014 Power of Narrative conference has come and gone.

Lucky for you, we’ve rounded up a few different events where you can find that narrative inspiration again this spring and summer. Stay tuned for information about our scheduled narrative meet ups (pizza, beer and storytelling, anyone?) in New York and Boston, too.

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(Image via CultNoise)

1. Come back to Boston for the Society of Professional Journalists’ 2014 New England conference on Friday, April 25. Tickets are almost gone, so register soon for a chance to hear about journalistic apps and add-ons, algorithms, long form storytelling and personal branding.

2. Feeling international? Head to the Netherlands next month for another journalism conference. Mark Kramer and Amy O’Leary will both be speaking in Amsterdam on May 16th, joined by a dozen other narrative journalists. This conference offers a day of master classes, and a day of conference sessions. Sign up here.

3. We’re a big fan of Grub Street, a Boston-based writing community where new journalists and professionals alike can sign up for classes on a variety of narrative topics. Feeling lonely at your writing desk? Join a Grubbie Write-In, attend one of Grub Street’s many book clubs, or stop in at one of their Lit Week events. 

4. Don’t live in Boston? Conference speaker Jessica DuLong teaches at the Sackett Street Writer’s Workshop in New York and she’d love to see you again. Sign up for 6, 8 or 10-week classes on a variety of topics. 

5. Join the ever-fabulous and helpful Jacqui Banaszynski for a week of storytelling inspiration on Madeline Island in June. During her seminar, “Writing Magic: The Mechanic and The Muse”, Jacqui will focus on a story’s most essential elements: scene, character, emotion and revelatory detail. Register here.

6. Roy Peter Clark may not play the piano again at Teachapalooza (hey, you never know) but you’ll walk away from the event with an arsenal of narrative teaching tips. Roy will be joined by many other Poynter faculty members during the June 2014 event. A full schedule can be found here

7. Speaker and Nieman fellow Cristian Lupsa organizes one of our international sister conferences, The Power of Storytelling, in Romania each fall. Registration for the 2014 conference isn’t open yet, but mark October 17-18, 2014 on your calendar. 

We’ll continue to post must read/ must see/ must listens on our blog as the months go by, and we hope to see you at next year’s conference, too: April 10-12, 2015.

All photos by Katherine Taylor - and more to come!

Recommended Weekend Reading

Conference weekend is chock full of great stuff - we hope you’ll leave feeling both inspired and exhausted. If you’re looking to study up for the sessions while you travel to Boston, we recommend the following pieces by our keynoter speakers.

"AIDS in the Heartland" by Jacqui Banaszynski

"As I Was Saying About Web Journalism… a Bubble, or a Lasting Business?" by David Carr

"Black Pathology and the Closing of the Progressive Mind" by Ta-Nehisi Coates

"The ‘Boys’ in the Bunkhouse" by Dan Barry

"To End All Wars", an excerpt, by Adam Hochschild

"Thank You For Your Service", an excerpt, by David Finkel

Frontline’s “Concussion Watch” by Raney Aronson-Rath

These pieces will also be available on EventBoard, the free conference app we’ll be using all weekend. 

Eat, Drink and Play: 15 Boston Must-Sees

Staying in Boston after the conference and looking for things to do? Hungry after a day of conferencing and hoping for a quick, delicious bite? Trying to unwind with a beer and new friends? We’ve got you covered.

To Eat:

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(Mike’s Pastry Photo via COOKIESLEUTH.COM)

Mike’s PastryThere’s controversy in the North End over who has this best cannoli—Mike’s or Modern Pastry.  Do yourself a favor and put your money on Mike’s.  With bigger pastries and more variety, Mike’s can’t be beat.  Not a fan of creamy, mascarpone-y decadence? Try the chocolate fudge cake.  Just make sure you hit an ATM first, as Mike’s is cash only.  

El Pelon: Forget Chipotle.  Conveniently located near Fenway Park, El Pelon’s burritos are among the largest and tastiest of the genre.  Order “El Guapo,” a steak burrito stuffed with fried plantains and crema, and experience true satisfaction.  Or go with the fish tacos, a delicious and refreshing counterpart to the hefty burrito.  Wash it down with some Horchata, and sit back knowing your stomach and wallet are happy.

The Taiwan Cafe: What’s a trip to Boston without grabbing a meal in Chinatown?  Owned by the same family as the popular Gourmet Dumpling House, The Taiwan Cafe is the hip cousin of the dumpling family.  With late hours and filling food, it’s the perfect place for a post-session pig-out.

The Daily Catch: A Boston institution, The Daily Catch now has three locations—the North End flagship, the South End, and Brookline—to fulfill all seafood and pasta demands.  Feast on squid ink pasta, salmon, tuna, or gnocchi.

FuGaKyu:  For a different kind of fish dinner, try FuGyaKu near Coolidge Corner.  Relax after a long day of conference-going with smooth sushi and sake, all provided against a traditional (and upscale) Japanese backdrop.  

To Drink:

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(Eastern Standard Photo via EUROPEIA)

Eastern Standard: Located in Kenmore Square, this hip bar and restaurant offers some of the best cocktails in Boston. The restaurant has high ceilings and an open feel, but the booths are cozy and outside dining is available on nice days. Plus, it’s steps away from the conference. Saturday night drinks, anybody?

Yard House: It’s Red Sox opening weekend, so there’s no place better to drink than the streets surrounding historic Fenway Park. At Yard House, choose from hundreds of craft beers and cocktails. Feeling extra thirsty? Order a yard of your favorite beer (yes, a whole yard).

Drink: A bit out of the way (ie. take a cab), this speakeasy-style bar serves up the best cocktails in Boston, hands down. Drink is all about the experience and the expert, part-chemist bartenders who can make just about anything taste like candy. Try their small bites - especially the grilled cheese.

Bukowski Tavern: Wander over to Hynes Convention Center (a ten minute walk from Kenmore Square) and stop in at this self-proclaimed no-bullshit joint. They serve up great craft beers, burgers and hotdogs with a heaping pile of Boston sass on the side.

Deep Ellum: Hidden in the college ghetto of Allston, Deep Ellum is a chill place to grab a drink with new friends (plus it’s surrounded by some of the best late night eats in the city). The hipster bartenders make a stellar cocktail and there’s always a nice variety of beers on tap.

To Do:

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(Fenway Park Photo via WIKIPEDIA)

Watch Baseball at Fenway Park: Sticking around after the conference? Buy a ticket to a Sunday afternoon baseball game at Fenway Park. As the 2013 World Series Champions, the Red Sox have everything to prove. Too poor to buy a ticket? Watch from the nearby Bleacher Bar - it’s (almost) as good.

Walk the (abbreviated) Freedom TrailWander through Boston in the (seriously welcome) Spring weather. Take the T to Arlington and walk through the Public Garden and Boston Common, where you’ll find the start of the Freedom Trail. The 2.5-mile red line will take you to Boston’s most popular historical sights (the site of the Boston Massacre, Fanieul Hall, and more). Follow the line to the waterfront, then turn off course and grab dinner in the North End.

Wander the Public Library: The historic Public Library, located in Copley Square, is part-history museum, part-outdoor cafe, part-library. Bring your laptop and use your conference inspiration for good, or walk through the building like a tourist. We won’t judge.

Catch a show at the Coolidge Corner Theater:  Unwind from a day of heavy conferencing with a movie at the Coolidge.  A beautiful independent theater, the Coolidge’s gorgeous art deco showrooms are almost as interesting as the films themselves.  The snacks in the lobby include beer on tap and chili-chocolate bars, perfect to satisfy a grownup movie-going palate.  For the truly bold, this weekend’s midnight movie is Big Trouble in Little China.  

Go on a Ghosts and Gravestones TourShriek your way through a history lesson on one of Boston’s many ghost tours. Wander through ancient cemeteries and dark alleys.  Go to the Harbor and spot the Black Lady, or look for the spectres of Revolutionary soldiers.  Boston is one seriously haunted town, and this tour revels in the spookiness.

The Power of Narrative conference offers the best tools of the trade to improve your own writing.  Last year, author Isabel Wilkerson spoke on finding characters in a narrative non-fiction work.  ”We’re looking for people who are not perfect …I needed people who were beautifully, acceptingly flawed.”

Radio Boston

—Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shines Spotlight On Backup Singers

Recommended Listening with Lisa Mullins:

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Photo by Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP, via Radio Boston

Interested in radio production? Catch up with Lisa Mullins at the conference. Mullins anchored “The World” for 14 years and was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 2009. In this "Radio Boston" piece, Mullins discusses "20 Feet from Stardom", the winner of the 2014 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

At the conference, Mullins will moderate Dan Barry and Adam Hochschild’s keynote session. She’ll also introduce the members of the pitching panel.

Q&A: Staying Savvy with Graphic Novelist Josh Neufeld

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Josh Neufeld talks comics journalism and digital media in today’s Q&A. Neufeld was a 2013 Knight-Wallace fellow in journalism at the University of Michigan. His bestselling graphic novels focus mainly on political and social upheaval, told though the voice of witnesses.

What does your storytelling process look like?

First, I sit and think about why I’m responding to a certain event. What’s the narrative that’s compelling for me? I let it settle. Then I craft my piece with a narrative feel. I don’t use an inverted pyramid, but I find my storyline, my character - I try to find a character who wants something but has trouble getting it. Then I report and research the story. I try to conduct in person interviews as much as possible. Finally, I write a detailed script in prose. I break that up into narrative beats that become my comic panels. Then I start drawing.

Do you gravitate towards certain types of stories?

I don’t usually think about this specifically. It’s more of a visceral thing – I’ll be drawn to a certain story. That being said, I think nonfiction comics work best when there’s a character you can really relate to - someone you can intimately connect with. You want to see a story through their eyes. I look for stories with action, too - I need something to actually happen. I stay away from financial stories or stories with complicated politics. Those require symbolism and metaphorical imagery. Studies show that people’s eyes are naturally drawn to faces when they look at comics. I think we want to connect and we want to be drawn into the story that’s being told. People read my Hurricane Katrina book and said they connected to various characters and understood the storm in a new way. That’s the goal.

Comics journalism is a pretty new thing. What’s difficult about it?

Joe Sacco’s the guy who has done this for a long time. There’s not really an established process, though. Sacco only draws a scene if he’s been to the location himself, but comics journalism borders on fiction sometimes for me. There have been times when I’ve had to recreate scenes because I wasn’t there - and it’s a slippery slope. People need context along with the story. The rules are different for comics.

What’s great about this new genre is that there are more venues for getting comics into the world. Back in the day, my stuff would end up in an alternative weekly newspaper. The Internet allows it to be seen by everybody. Comics have also evolved for web presentation. Now you have the ability to do what we called panel narration. Tap on the first panel of a comic on your tablet and it’ll zoom in. Then you swipe it – you’re passing from one panel to the next, which replicates the eye movements of looking at a regular comic book page. This reminds you that the small panel is a part of a larger page. It’s really cool.

Any other graphic novel trends we should know about?

Symbolia integrates sound and sight and animation. They stay on this side of a line – it’s still comics, not animation, but it’s cool experimentation. Some sites are playing with making word balloons appear and disappear. I’ve also seen horizontal scrolling. And I’ve seen a stronger partnership between technology and creative storytelling. I work closely with web developers at Aljazeera America, where my next project will be published. 

You’ll discuss comics journalism at the conference, and you’ll sit in on a panel about how much or little storytellers can make up. Why should people attend? 

I can only speak for myself, but I’m excited to rub shoulders with people who work in other media. I want to learn more about their processes, what stories they’re working on, what technologies they’re excited about. These things are also great because they show that we all have something to offer. Even if I’m doing something unorthodox, it’s interesting to this kind of audience.

Register now to hear Neufeld speak in Boston, April 4-6.

Why should you attend the Power of Narrative conference next weekend? BU Journalism Professor Mitchell Zuckoff calls the craft skills sessions invaluable. “You can be a great writer, and you can be a great storyteller,” he says, “but if you don’t have the goods, if you haven’t assembled the materials that allow you to tell a truthful story in narrative form, I think you’re just kidding yourself.”

Recommended Reading: 68 Blocks: Life, Death, Hope

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Vaughan AvenuePhoto by SCOTT LAPIERRE

Why has violence flourished for decades in the Bowdoin- Geneva neighborhood? Five Boston Globe reporters spent a summer living in the neighborhood, searching for answers to that tough question through a collection of multimedia stories.

An excerpt from Meghan Irons’ notebook:

"SHE SITS on the top step of her porch, legs on either side of her boyfriend who sits below her, his back turned. She has a jar of hair grease beside her, a comb in her hand, and her infant son in his rocker. Music blares down Mt. Ida Road like it is coming from next door. On this sleepy afternoon, she takes her time pulling out each of his fuzzy braids and replacing them with fresh, neatly parted cornrows. Afterwards, the two sit back, listening to the music and the sound of girls squealing at the Ronan Park playground. Then boom! She tenses up and looks first at her son. Boom! She turns her gaze to her boyfriend. Boom! He doesn’t flinch, then shrugs. “Firecrackers,’’ he says calmly. She exhales, reassured, and leans on the rail “Oh good,’’ she says and goes back to savoring the May afternoon.”

To hear more about this project, register for the narrative conference and attend Meghan Irons’ solo session.

Q&A: Amy O’Leary of The New York Times on Staying Savvy

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This week, we chatted with Amy O’Leary about the role of digital trends in a newsroom. O’Leary currently works as a reporter, editor, and multimedia producer at The New York Times.  More of her work can be found here, or you can follow her on Twitter @amyoleary.

What are the best and worst new digital trends in journalism, and which ones do you believe will be around for the next few years?
Twitter remains a rising and necessary part of the breaking news ecosystem. The rise of social feeds in general is probably one of the most transformative trends that journalists are either capitalizing on, or being outflanked by. They have created both new challenges, but also new opportunities for the promotion and distribution of stories. When people expect, as they do today, that “the news will find them,” how do you make sure your stories do just that? It’s a question I’m deeply interested in.
 
I think the worst new trend in digital journalism is probably the breathless, riddle-me-this headline style that really peaked last year on a range of viral sites, like Upworthy, Viral Nova and a host of other promotion-driven clones. They are a modern-day version of carnival barkers, shouting at us from every possible social media platform. They tease, beckoning us to look behind the curtain. Headlines like: “You Just Won’t Believe What Happened To Make This Depressed Porcupine Twerk!” are fundamentally irresistible, but like attractions at the fair, rarely live up to their hype. Now, I love a good mystery as much as anybody, but the story that follows has to pay off on the sensational headline’s promise. If it doesn’t, after awhile, people will refuse to be duped anymore. They’ll stop being curious, and that’s a terrible outcome.
 
But if you ask me what I’m most interested in right now, what makes me excited? Anticipatory computing.
 
How does a traditional publication like the New York Times filter through all the new digital ideas? What kinds of ideas actually make it to fruition?
The New York Times is a large news organization and ideas spring up from every corner of the newsroom. There is no single process, mostly because I think we stopped thinking of “digital ideas” as something separate from the practice of journalism awhile back. Today, every editor on every desk is in charge of their digital report and if they see an idea they like and can execute on, it’s very much left up to their judgment whether or not to execute on it — in the same way stories they run in the paper are under their control. That said, we also have a very talented cadre of specialists on teams like graphics, interactive news and social media who frequently generate their own ideas and work closely in collaboration with reporters and editors on projects big and small. The best digital ideas tend to attract the attention of interested people across the newsroom who want to work on them. So there’s kind of a democratic force at play, where really wonderful ideas kind of “float to the top,” as they get more attention by virtue of their quality or ingenuity.
 
What types of stories work best with different mediums?
Certain mediums convey certain types of information more efficiently than others. Audio, for example, is wonderful for hearing the emotion in someone’s voice, or getting a sense of authenticity in an eyewitness account. Images can have very strong emotional resonance, set a scene quickly and well and provide layers of meaning in the relationship between people, things and their environment. Text is perhaps the most flexible medium, since it engages most directly with the imagination. Moreover, text has unique strengths to provide abstract analysis, conceptualization and to do the most important thing of all that a story can do: make meaning. In the hands of a skilled craftsperson, written stories can be so broad as to reach every kind of person, but so deep as to pierce your very own heart.
 
Why do you think the narrative conference is worth attending?
It’s rare that we get to take a chance and really step back and think about our work in a broader context, which the Power of Narrative conference lets us do, with fellow travelers. It really centers you on what is so deeply satisfying about this work. I’ve enjoyed attending especially in the last few years because I’ve had so many wonderful conversations with other speakers and attendees, and have always found it to be a refreshing weekend where I’ve brought  lots of new ideas back to the office — but more importantly, have made new friendships among other writers, editors and journalists who have proven to be a really wonderful network and support. It’s always a good weekend when you’re reminded about how powerfully important good, true stories about our world are.

Recommended Viewing

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Combat photographer Nicole Tung travels to the world’s most dangerous conflicts. The above photo, from Istanbul, is part of a series on anti-government protests. Tung also spent time in Syria photographing civilian casualties. To see more of her work, visit her websiteRegister for the conference to hear Tung’s advice about navigating the freelance world.

Last year’s keynoter Ann Friedman talks about her tenure at GOOD magazine and the changing landscape of journalism.

Q&A: Pulitzer winner Jacqui Banaszynski on Staying Skilled

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This week, we chatted with keynote speaker Jacqui Banaszynski about the eternal importance of storytelling craft. Banaszynski is currently on faculty at the Missouri School of Journalism and the Poynter Institute. She won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and she spent 30 years working in newsrooms across the country.

You teach storytelling to students all over the world. Can you tell us about your own writing approach?

My approach is much more efficient and methodical than it used to be. I used to sit at the keyboard in panic and bash my way through a story. Now I give myself permission to think about the story for a long time before I actually write it. It’s still messy, but I make laundry lists with key topics and scenes. Then I write little mini stories around each of those items. I still sit down and do a cohesive write through, but I don’t fight the need to figure out what I’m trying to say while I write.

In terms of revision, I look for my habitual weaknesses and patterns. I try to teach my students to identify their weaknesses early on, too. Mine are that I overuse adjectives, and I have a tendency to describe things more fully than I need to. I also have a tendency to put everything in patterns and lists of three. I mostly ‘squeegee edit,’ just taking out words and phrases. I get my copy down 15 percent by doing that. And I look hard at how I can beef up my verbs and make them do more of the work.

How have you changed your teaching methods based on the changes in the journalism industry?

I think my teaching has gotten stronger now that many of my students are multimedia journalists. If you understand the core of storytelling – great content, structure, a strong focus - that becomes raw material that better informs multimedia choices. For example, a reporter who understands the difference between great dialogue and fill-in-the-blanks quotes can see what would make for good audio. Finding details that reveal character will tell you whether or not video could work for that scene. Learning the sub-components of a good story will help you make better decisions about what multimedia you should use and why. I think too often we jump ahead and say we’re going to do a multimedia piece without thinking about it, and we end up with bad TV. So I drill down on craft even harder now.

You’re used to working in print. Have you started using multimedia for your own writing projects?

I was traveling recently and I made it my mission to tell a mini story on Facebook every day - and I learned so much. Now I’m trying to do the same thing on Twitter. I’ll write something appropriate for Twitter that’s also my writing. I’m also currently in the beginning phases of a project on interviewing and listening. I’m thinking hard about what kind of format it should be in - simply writing about interviewing might not help people understand it, because interviewing is a three dimensional sport.

You’re a repeat customer at this conference. What keeps you coming back?

It’s a chilly world out there for writers and journalists. There’s the chaos of the digital revolution and explosions in places we’ve long thought to be our processional writing homes. It’s tough. If writers can find a place to remind each other why they do what they do, and if that place also creates community and gives hope, that’s a good place to be.

Recommended Reading: The Story of a Gun, by David Finkel

"The gun is useless now. It is tucked into a dirty plastic bag, which is stuffed inside a cardboard box, which is stored in the basement of the Prince George’s County Courthouse in Upper Marlboro. It is in the courthouse’s evidence vault, which used to be a jail cell, locked away. The room is musty. The door is solid. There are no windows and only one weak overhead light. But even in the dimness, it’s obvious the gun has been through a lot.

Take the gun out of the bag, and you can see that its dark finish is nicked and worn down to bare steel in places, especially around the trigger and tip of the barrel. Bring it close, and the smell, which should be faintly of oil, is nothing but bitter metal. Bring it closer still, to eye level, and the view is of an empty barrel that hasn’t held a bullet in more than a year.

November 1989: That’s when the gun became a piece of evidence, following a series of well-publicized shoot- ings in Prince George’s County. At that point, the gun had been in existence for 13 1/2 years. It had been made, sold, traded and given away. It had been in Massachusetts and New York, Georgia and Maryland, and it had been fired hundreds of times at bottles, at cans, at tar- gets and, in its last weeks, at people.

“It was a nice gun,” says Daniel Payne. He was the gun’s first owner, who bought it for target shooting. “It was fairly accurate.”

“Look here,” says Eugene Grimes. He was the gun’s last victim, and he is running his fingers over a circular scar on the top of his left forearm. “It’s a little indention there you feel.” He turns his arm over and shows another scar, bigger, more of a bubble, this one from where the bullet came out. “It’s in the muscle,” he says, flexing. “See how it twitches?”

The gun — one of an estimated 200 million in the United States — is a Smith & Wesson 9mm semiautomatic, one of the most popular guns around. It fired bullets about one-third of an inch wide, up to nine in a row, as fast as the trigger could be pulled. Because of the way the barrel was made, the bullets would always leave it spiraling clockwise, a rush of gray lead or copper emerging from the tip of a gun that, for its first years, sported a dark even tint. The tint was the result of bluing, a process intended to prevent corrosion. These days bluing is done by dipping a gun frame into a chemical solution, but when the gun was made in the mid-1970s, the process meant baking the frame in a mixture made from pulverized cow bones, which would come to Smith & Wesson by the truckload. “You talk about a room,” James Slachetka, a Smith & Wesson employee, says of the place where bluing used to occur. “It was filled with ovens and bones and smoke everywhere.””

Finish reading this story here and register now for BU’s Narrative Journalism conference, where David Finkel will be presenting a keynote speech.