Boston recently hosted an assembly of smart and passionate people focused hard on the buzzword "change." The event wasn’t a political rally, but the 2008 Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism, themed "Storytelling in Many Voices, Many Media." The three-day conference ably met one of the goals of new Director Constance Hale: “Showcasing journalists who are creating exciting work in digital forms while at the same time celebrating those whose work reflects the intelligence, integrity, depth, and creativity that have long been the hallmarks of the best of traditional media.”
From the Pulitzer-Prize winning veterans to J-school students, there was an undercurrent of job anxiety, peppered with optimism, at the conference. Speakers and attendees together tackled tough issues including declining print subscriptions, rapidly evolving technology, and what exactly today’s consumers of news want. There were few definitive answers to that question, but some exquisitely well-informed guesses. Senior Producer at nytimes.com Derrick Henry helpfully pointed to the concise and prescient report, "Creative Destruction: An Exploratory Look at News on the Internet" (pdf). Henry spoke on a panel alongside Russell Contreras, multimedia reporter for the Boston Globe, who also hosts the Globe podcast on minority issues called "Across the Divide." Both Henry and Contreras are doing amazing audiovisual work online and, most importantly, training others--which is crucial to satisfying twenty-first century news' consumers. It seems today that slideshows and sound are important tools in storytelling that are only starting to be used to full advantage.
I was struck by how often I saw the ID "multimedia journalist"--Jane Ellen Stevens was one prominent example--and how many of the speakers’ bios began with a website, like Jessie Scanlon, senior writer for BusinessWeek.com. I think it’s a powerful sign when the nation's top journalists say that they regard their stories placement on the home page as the equivalent to front page, above the fold. And I was excited by the wide range of online work I saw, impressive and varied content beyond the static page--including James Pindell's politicker.com; Josh Benton’s blog; and Brian Storm's multimedia production studio.
Like everyone in book publishing, I think often about the future of the written word, and the viability of our current forms of print. As a book editor, I go to conferences like the Nieman to look for potential projects, and I find journalists--who are working with shorter and shorter word counts as print editions are trimmed--invariably attracted by the length and depth that a book can offer. I'm most encouraged by the journalists who are adapting to new technology with integrity, but who also overwhelmingly continue to find value in what is still one of the fullest and most satisfying forms of storytelling--the printed book.
Allison Trzop is an assistant editor at Beacon Press.