When she spoke at BU’s Power of Narrative Conference, former New York Times Editor Jill Abramson described the current world of journalism as a “riptide” environment, a place where even strong swimmers can be carried away from success by a freak turn of the tide. And yet, her speech, titled “Why I’m an Optimist about Long Narrative,” was refreshingly upbeat about the evolution of her field.
Many of today’s most reputable journalists acknowledge
changes occurring to the form, distribution and style of journalism but instead of trouble, they see these changes as opportunities for innovative, moving storytelling.
Case in point, Memoirist and Pulitzer winner Alex Tizon.
Tizon’s memoir “Big Little Man” is a partly introspective and partly historical examination of what it means to be an Asian-American male in America.
“Twenty years ago,” Tizon said at the narrative conference, “memoir was considered a cradle to deathbed story…nowadays, the term memoir is used to tell a story through the prism of one individual’s particular experience, or idea.”
Books such as Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild,” Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love,” and Piper Kerman’s “Orange is the New Black,” join “Big Little Man” in using the “self” as a vehicle for exploring a larger theme.
In the last decade or so the meaning of the term “journalism” itself has exploded from a print form of news dissemination into about a thousand different directions.
Jill Abramson mentioned a few of these cutting-edge multimedia forms. She praised VICE News for its gripping TV stories from around the world. She lauded The New York Time’s Snow Fall, which wove together maps, moving images, videos, interviews, blocks of texts and pictures to tell the story of skiers in an avalanche at Tunnel Creek in Washington state.
She also talked about a start-up she’s working on that will produce news stories of novella length, which will combine in-depth character portraits with hard-hitting issues. (Here, Abramson took the opportunity to tell the audience that her writers will be properly paid for these stories. “Why do we live in a profession where good work is not rewarded?”)
So change is occurring, no denying that. The question is how do journalists respond to these changes? The answer given again, and again by Abramson, and just about everyone else, is so simple. Continue writing quality stories. Continue creating a high caliber portfolio. Continue honing in on the elements of your craft and thinking about how you shape your material (for help see Kurt Vonnegut). Continue asking questions. Continue drawing out the humanity within your stories.
When, at the conference, someone asked what sort of skills are useful for up and coming journalists, Sarah Koenig, the creator of “Serial” said “When I went into ‘This American Life’ I had no experience in radio, Ira [Glass] had to teach me everything. What I did have was a portfolio of work that showed who I was as a journalist. Don’t worry about learning new technology, we can teach you. If I were hiring someone, I’d want to see quality work. Can you write? Can you tell a compelling story?”
This idea gets at the issue of resonance, a phenomenon easy to spot and impossible to define. If a story is told with sincerity, genuine understanding and craftsmanship, chances are, despite its form, it will get read.
As journalistic establishments are broken down and re-stitched, and as the lines between journalist, blogger, multi-media reporter and Buzzfeed quiz creator blur into a hazy, lost-my-contacts landscape, there are a million ways to become confused about the state of journalism, overwhelmed by the haters, the naysayers and the awful doomsday predictors (it’s the end of journalism, it’s the end!) Abramson, and other titans of the business, reminds us that in addition to turbulence, journalism’s shifting landscape has created fantastic opportunities for those who care about telling truthful, thought-provoking stories.
That, in essence, is what journalism has always been about.