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Long Live Long-Form Journalism

COM’s narrative journalism conference: Bill Keller, Gay Talese, Buzz Bissinger

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Isabel Wilkerson, a COM professor of journalism, with narrative journalist Gay Talese at the kickoff to the weekend narrative journalism conference. Bill Keller (below), executive editor of the New York Times, spoke on Saturday. Photos by Vernon Doucette

Gay Talese was all set to read from his most famous work Saturday afternoon, bringing to a ceremonious close the College of Communication’s two-day conference on narrative journalism The Power of Narrative: Timeless Art in an Urgent Age.

There was just one problem: Talese had a cold.

It was the sort of neatly circular detail that a nonfiction writer hopes for and occasionally gets, and the irony was not lost on the crowd of roughly 100 writers, BU students and professors, and others. Talese, a journalistic legend whose 1966 Esquire article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” — a 15,000-word profile written without a single interview with Sinatra — is a classic of the New Journalism style, was a good sport, certainly a better sport than his famously uncooperative subject.

“I will read this with the understanding that I’m perfectly suited to the task,” he said with a sniffle.

The conference drew several marquee speakers to the Photonics Center in the name of long-form journalism, a genre that has become increasingly marginalized as newspaper, magazine, and publishers’ budgets continue to shrink. Despite that shrinkage, the mood was more celebratory than elegiac.

“We wanted to show the breadth and depth of narrative nonfiction, both its classical roots … and its future applications,” said primary conference organizer Isabel Wilkerson, a COM professor of journalism.

The lineup reflected that diversity. Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights, Boston Globe Red Sox columnist Dan Shaughnessy, and best-selling fiction writers Ha Jin (GRS’94) and Allegra Goodman, both faculty in BU’s Creative Writing Program, joined Talese for a weekend of panel discussions, talks, and readings.

The event was part of a larger effort at COM to emphasize storytelling, the shared focus of the school’s many majors, from journalism to filmmaking to persuasive communication.

“The larger hope is that we will over time be the place where, if you’re a 17-year-old high school student with a burning desire to be a writer or a documentary filmmaker, you’ll come across BU and say, ‘That’s where I can do that,’” said Tom Fiedler (COM’71), dean of COM.

Talese opened the conference on Friday afternoon with a casual conversation with Wilkerson about his long career and his tips for narrative writing.

“Just show up,” he said, sharing a personal motto that has served him well over the years, whether getting a copy-boy job at the New York Times fresh out of college or procuring anecdotes for his stories on subjects like Muhammad Ali and former Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger.

Good long-form writers, Talese said, need “sincere curiosity,” patience (what he calls “the art of hanging out”), and the ability to build trust with their subjects — “to be able to sell yourself.”

“You can’t rush this kind of writing any more than you can rush a personal relationship,” he said.

Wilkerson defended the relevance of well-crafted, thoroughly researched — and yes, long — narratives. (Her forthcoming book on the northward migration of African-American families over the course of the 20th century, The Warmth of Other Suns, took 15 years to research and write.)

“The Web makes the basic who, what, when, and where of any news event available to anyone in the world in a nanosecond,” she said, citing the volcanic eruption in Iceland and the earthquake in Haiti as two recent examples of instantly covered events. “What we don’t know — and where narrative comes in, whether long or short — is what is happening to the people, what is it like to go through this, what are the consequences of it, what does it mean?”

Technology provided an unofficial theme for the weekend: to what extent could narrative journalists embrace multimedia storytelling tools without devaluing their written work? The speakers and the audience, mostly writers and editors, were divided.

Keller said that he worries about the shrinking attention spans of online readers and the glorification of online news aggregators and citizen journalists, trends that herald the decline, if not necessarily the death, of narrative journalism. Still, he said, the Times prides itself on seeing “the Internet not as an existential threat but a great opportunity and tool.”

“I love print,” Keller said. “But I’m often delighted to see long-form narrative pieces make the most” of video, photographs, and interactive graphics on the Web.

Fiedler cautioned that “just keeping up with that technology could become an end in itself.”

“There’s some danger in this chase,” he said.

Bissinger, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and author of several nonfiction books, preferred not to dwell on changing newsrooms, arguing that even in the age of the Internet, good narrative journalism thrives.

“F*** the past — it’s over with,” he said, galvanizing a panel-weary crowd. “We have to drop this bull**** that we are dead.”

Bissinger laid out his methods for infiltrating a subculture, as he did in the small football town of Odessa, Tex., for his best seller Friday Night Lights. He described his writing process and encouraged writers to focus on what the reader wants.

“Readers are smarter than we give them credit for,” he said.

As it turned out, the conference itself was a metaphor for the state of narrative journalism. Previously presented by Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, the conference (a descendant of one started at BU in 2000 for journalism) was slated for suspension because of lack of funds when BU stepped in, with Harvard’s blessing, to create a similar event.

“We really benefited from Harvard’s support,” Fiedler said, adding that he hopes to host the conference again next year. “Our challenge now is, what in the world can we do to top this?”

Wilkerson said the weekend’s events offered those attending a mix of camaraderie, networking, inspiration for story ideas, and advice on how to connect with an audience “in a timeless and enduring way.”

“We hope they’ll leave the conference energized and optimistic about the possibilities and urgency of their work,” Wilkerson said.

Journalism major Amanda James (COM’11) came looking for inspiration — she was about to start writing a profile of a student veteran she had spent six weeks interviewing.

“I liked that this was a celebration of writing, of all the legwork that goes into it that no one knows about,” James said. “It reinvigorated the spirit of confidence that I have in myself and my writing.”

Katie Koch can be reached at katieleekoch@gmail.com; follow her on Twitter at @katieleekoch.

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