Stories endure. A story — with characters, a narrative arch, a deeper meaning — does much more than just inform, it also make you feel part of the story. Initiative Narrative Journalism Netherlands has as main goal to stimulate the use of narrative journalism, also known as literary non-fiction in Dutch media. This includes journalistic productions for daily, weekly and monthly print media, as well as books, radio, internet and television.
It is our belief that the task of the journalist is also to make journalism more attractive, 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, preparing for the 8th edition now.
What is narrative journalism?
Our founding father, Mark Kramer, also founder of the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism at Harvard (now Boston), wrote a little ‘manual’ about what separates narrative journalism from traditional forms of journalism. Throughout the website you will find journalistic productions that show the effect of such elements on the impact your story can have. They can hopefully be a source of inspiration for anyone who wants to learn how to make a story that the audience will remember.
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.
Since 2011 we organize an English-language Conference about narrative journalism in the Netherlands. The roughly 300 participants get to enjoy the inspiring stories of journalists from the Netherlands and abroad.
Every year, we publish the best Flemish and Dutch narrative journalism in Meestervertellers. It doesn’t matter whether the medium is image, text or sound, and we always have a short explanation from the makers about how their brilliant piece of work came to be.
We have started a development track for front-runners. Editors, and their Editor-in-Chiefs come together to learn from each other about how to best integrate narrative journalism in their different newsrooms.
In our narrative intervision group, journalists work on their own narrative project, and get together to give each other feedback.
In December, we organize the Gerard van Westerloo Lecture, where a speaker who works in the manner of the great Dutch journalist talks about method. Up until now, we have had: Alan Cullison (WSJ), Alex Tizon (the Seattle Times), Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (Random Family) and Ted Conover (Coyotes).
We organize different master classes on Narrative Journalism throughout the year, often in cooperation with other organizations such as the VVOJ (the Dutch Association for Investigative Journalists).
To stimulate the production of beautiful narrative projects, we award narrative scholarships since 2016. The funding is meant to carry out research towards a beautiful narrative project. So far we have awarded funding for the development of a good narrative podcast, for a print story and for the preliminary research for a good online project.
Our website must be an inspiring display of exemplary pieces of narrative journalism. For inspiring stories, check out our Dutch-language yearbook, Meestervertellers.