Last weekend (March 23–35, 2018), I had the fortune to attend the Power of Storytelling Conference at Boston University. A gathering of reporters, editors and researchers of narrative journalism, it consisted of keynotes, panels, workshops or simple presentations on issues connected to narrativity in journalism, which seems to have become a new paradigm after the internet as crushed formulas that existed in print journalism. During those events, speakers and listeners referred to a wide range of exemplary work. I have tried to assemble some of the mentioned texts that appear to me somewhat tied to the overall experience of the conference. And so while the selection is necessarily influenced by the talks I attended, I try to provide ample reasoning for why the texts are included and be transparent about whether or not I have read them.
So here we go:
- Don Van Natta’s profile of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones: Van Natta opened the conference with a keynote in which he emphasized the importance of willpower in journalism. He referred mainly to male figures that influenced him (for which he was subtly criticized, for which he apologized, and to which he added that former New York Times editor-in-chief Jill Abramson was one woman the influenced him greatly). He also spoke about the genesis of his profile of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and urged listeners repeatedly to „just read it“. I haven’t yet.
- Mark Bowden’s Huê 1969 is another work which I haven’t yet read but I have heard Mark talk about it on stage and on the Longform Podcast about finding and interviewing Vietnamese survivors of the battle. Additionally, Mark’s diplomatic yet unambiguous answer to my question regarding his perception of the difference between his book Black Hawk Down (which I have read in its original form as a series published by the Philadelphia Inquirer) and the movie adaptation (which I disliked) makes me kind of want to read the book even though I have only so much time to read books.
- Bjørn Asle Nord’s „Five Feet Under“ however, I have found time to read since he told me about it on our way to the conference reception on Saturday night. Just recently translated into English, it’s a well-designed and intensely dramatic yet beautiful story of an avalanche in the Norwegian mountains (no, don’t worry, anything but another cheap copy of Snowfall). At the reception, Nord (he organizes a similar conference in Norway) told me that it was inspired by a national debate about Norwegian values and identity and I can see how. I definitely cried repeatedly which doesn’t happen often.
- Ellen Gabler’s „The Price of Being Wrong“ about the arbitrariness of standards in newborn screenings and one boy’s tragic fate would probably make me cry too, albeit for different, darker reasons. I haven’t read it but plan to do so in the near future. I went to two of her talks in which she not only talked about her work but also cited the following stories as role models for her own work: L.A. Times journalist Chris Goffard’s story about a couple who decides to ruin a woman’s life, Boston Globe reporter Jenna Russell’s story about a man diagnosed with mental illness, Ken Armstrong’s Pulitzer-prize winning „Unbelievable Story of Rape“, and Gene Weingarten’s „The Peekaboo Paradox“ about a clown called „Great Zucchini“, which is the only story here that I have read and remember adoring too.
- Gabler was only one of a lot of women I way very impressed with at the conference. Another one was a seemingly larger figure. To my shame, I had not heard about Roxane Gay before her appearance on Saturday afternoon. Reading and answering questions on stage, she seemed not only full of much-justified confidence and true knowledge and abundant skills but also driven by an iron will and great courage which truly fascinated me. I certainly intend to pick up „Bad Feminist“ soon and I have just finished „The Price of Black Ambition“ which seems to serve as a good introduction to her work.
- Unlike my knowledge about Gay, I had heard of Lydia Polgreen before she spoke so eloquently about the meta-narratives competing to influence collective U.S. identity and the importance of civic engagement and solidarity. Unfortunately, her speech is not available to read online (yet?) but in it she referred to a recent story about millennials which Michael Hobbes wrote for her Huffington Post and which has garnered a lot of attention and praise. Another one I haven’t read but saved for later.
- Similar to Polgreen, Boston Globe reporter Eric Moskowitz exuded a sense of deep understanding of journalistic ethos and passion for his work. In his talk filled with tips about how to use ancestry.com or read historical pictures for clues, he also referred to some of his most popular stories like the one about a Boston streetcar crash in 1916 or the reception of the news of JFK’s assassination in Boston (neither of which I have read) all influenced by deep historical research.
These texts may be just a fraction of the ones highlighted at the conference and even only a small selection of the ones I have taken down. But they are the ones that are most memorably connected to experience of the conference; a necessary closure. And – while I have not yet read them all – I am convinced they may help readers experience the – as conference host Mitchell Zuckoff put it in his closing statement – irresistible power of narrative to open, not close, minds.
Image © Power of Narrative conference, Boston University, College of Communications.