it is our belief that the tasks of the journalist include making journalism more alluring, and our initiative helps journalists amplify their storytelling power.
The Initiative Narrative Journalism Netherlands was established after an inspiring visit journalist Mark Kramer made to the VVOJ conference in 2009. He talked about the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism that he had set up, and inspired us to begin a similar event in the Netherlands.
In early 2010, and just because we thought it was necessary, a group of six journalists got together to organize a conference for narrative journalism. Many meetings and mountains of paperwork later, the first conference for narrative journalism became a fact in 2011. It was so successful that we decided it needed an encore, even if only for those who hadn’t been able to get their hands on a ticket. In the meantime, the Conference has become a yearly event.
The Key Elements of Narrative Journalism
I get asked that “What’s narrative journalism?” question all the time. When first starting the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism in 2001, in jest, I tried to evade the term by suggesting that we should call ourselves “The Nieman Program for ‘Contactful’ Journalism,” though ‘contactful’ was an odd, coined word–I meant journalism that doesn’t treat the reader as a robot, journalism whose voice acknowledges that readers know about life, have feelings, snicker and get wild.
Perhaps the seekers’ definition question is really a more truculent one: “What’s up with this narrative stuff?”, a question that denotes factions and dis-ease with the clear movement toward more narrative in news coverage–and the quest for a definition is simply a confrontational conversation starter. Anyhow, here’s a try at a useful answer.
At a minimum, narrative denotes writing with:
- set scenes;
- action that unfolds over time;
- the interpretable voice of a teller, a narrator with a discernable personality;
- some sense of relationship to the reader/viewer/listener;
- all arrayed to lead the audience toward a point or realization or destination.
To comment on these:
- Set scenes: Much unpracticed narrative writing simply is haphazard or naive about painting physical location — objects fly about, are near and far, we’re inside and outside: I call it ‘Chagall-like description.’ It’s easy and quick, with sensory description and locating a few things near and far, to set readers down inside a scene that has an outside, and it’s requisite for narrative, at least for engaging narrative.
- Characters: If the standard news-voice is the voice of a beneficent bureaucracy, the on-the-job speech of informative sentinels patrolling the walls of the city, issuing heads-ups to citizens (“A fire yesterday at 145 Elm St. destroyed … Damage is estimated at … “), then it is a voice that favors civic role and avoids assertions about personality. Persons, in the world of news-voice, are citizens, not characters. They have addresses, ages, arrest records, voting district and precinct locations, official hospital conditions, and military statuses. These are ‘civic traits.’ Narrative journalism is about the same people in their ‘real’ (citizen info + all the rest about them) whole lives, people doing stuff, and to some extent, and in the right places, the literary journalist must reach far past civic traits to portray real folks’ real stories accurately.
- Action that unfolds over time is the essence of narrative construction, the I-beam of a narrative, on which all the rest of the construction leans. Moving action also offers a non-topical principle for organizing material — arraying it mainly chronologically, as it’s experienced by a character in a setting–but also digressively, mainly following events experientially, while crossing topical outline categories. Most narrative articles/books mainly do this, actually representing some sensible truce in the dialectic between chronological and topical organizational principles.
- Voice: a teller of the story with a perceived full personality, one that so engages the reader/viewer/listener/ that he/she has a relationship with the audience.
- Relationship with audience: one defined by readers willingly following the teller through set scenes and unset topical digressions, coming along gladly and interestedly during shifts to other settings and characters and digressions, and back.
- Destination: And if the reader then starts assembling, in mind, a feeling of a sequence of subtextual comprehensions that work toward the reader’s engineered discovery that the story has theme, purpose, reason, insight — that it’s worthwhile to experience it– then we’ve written gotten somewhere, reader and writer alike.
Program maker & coordinator
Hetty van der Wal
Heiba Targhi Bakkali
Roos van der Lint
Committee of Recommendation
Frits van Exter
1001 NJ Amsterdam
C.o.C Nr: 51510693