My best friend and Daily Tar Heel managing editor Katie Reilly went to a big conference on narrative journalism this weekend so when I caught up with her about it tonight I just wrote down everything she said so you guys could see it here.
What was your favorite session?
My favorite session to go to was from a reporter who works for The Marshall Project. It’s a new website all about criminal justice reporting. She’s a criminal justice reporter and her whole talk was about when you’re telling stories about crime that it’s very easy to fall into the trap of writing about good guy, bad guy in very strict dichotomies. But the best kind of story recognizes that it’s far more complex and grey than that. She talked about one finding a compelling criminal justice story to tell and then the difficulty of interviewing criminals and victims and people within these very sensitive story areas.
Her whole goal is to humanize people and all of these characters that would be involved in that situation. She is a very good writer.
So who was the keynote?
There were four keynotes. Sarah Koenig was the keynote today. Jill Abramson was Saturday.
Tell me more about Koenig.
She introduced the audience to the premise of Serial and she lifted up the curtain even further for how she went about the reporting of it. She talked about how when it first started she didn’t even know what a podcast format should be like. So she came at it like what she does for radio and This American Life just longer.
Basically she talked about podcast as a medium and how it’s totally distinct from radio or how you would approach a written story. I approached it like this is going to be a book told in different parts. And they were like no you have to make it like really good TV.
She said that that’s where the idea “previously on Serial” and the theme song came about. So it was this idea that Serial was something listeners could either return to or tune into for the first time and pick up wherever the story was.
The huge response to it she thinks was in part to people weren’t used to appreciating journalism in the same way that they appreciate entertainment which is essentially what happened with that. And on that note, when they started last summer, she and Ira Glass said they would be satisfied with 300,000 subscribers. They reached that in five days after they launched. And now they average I think it was 6.5 million downloads per episode.
Did Jill Abramson talk about getting fired?
I think the word she used was summarily. She goes, “As many of you know I was summarily fired from my job last year.” And so she has, in that time since she was fired, she has focused on what she called three buckets of narrative journalism.
First bucket was teaching at Harvard. And so she kinda went through her whole syllabus which was really fascinating. The most important writer she talked about is Gay Talese and she said he is just unmatched in his skill. He’s 83 now but he still writes. He wrote the 50th anniversary Selma story for The New York Times because he covered it for them 50 years ago.
He doesn’t record anything because he doesn’t want to make people feel more nervous. He takes notes on these little squares that he keeps in his shirt pocket. And he keeps all his notes afterwards in these big legal boxes that he stores in his basement and one time she went to his house and saw them.
Then he decorates the legal boxes. Afterwards as part of his creative process, he paints them as like a “I’m now done with this interview but all these notes will forever be stored here.”
His story he’s most famous for is “Frank Sinatra has a cold.” He wrote a long feature on Sinatra without any quotes from Sinatra. Frank Sinatra said he had a cold so he couldn’t be interviewed. I haven’t even read it yet but now I will read it. It’s renowned for its narrative skill.
The second bucket is the book that she’s writing about the rapidly changing industry.
She didn’t really expand a lot on the book, she just said she’s writing it. She thinks the fiercest competition in media right now is to get a button on Snapchat Discover.
She thinks there will always be a market for narrative journalism and in-depth storytelling will always be a skill that’s valued. She said there will be somedays that she goes to her desk and then somehow it gets to be noon and she’ll have done nothing but read the day’s news.
The third bucket?
The start up that she’s working on with the man who founded Court TV. She wouldn’t say what their bsinesss model is but that she’s very confident in it and there’s more to come. They’re producing nonfiction novellas that are 20,000 to 30,000 words because she thinks theres a space for something between a long form magazine piece and a book.
Can you imagine writing 20,000 words? That’s so much.
One of my favorite things was all about Instagram storytelling. The people that ran this panel were all writers not photographers. One of them is a National Geographic writer and every time he went out to write a story, eh would take a picture of someone on his phone.
Oh and you’ll love this. Another writer was saying “I don’t want to kill all the darlings maybe there’s a place for them to live somewhere else.” All of them are people that he comes across that are going to end up on the cutting room floor.
They all post them on Instagram and it’s a story that’s different from but related to whatever their published piece will be about. I thought it was so cool. It’s sort of Humans of New York-ish but they don’t have to be people.
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