As a journalist you are always under pressure, going from place to place chasing the story. How do make the time to write your narrative pearls?
That is the question that Diana Sugg asked herself years ago. She was a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, where she won a Pulitzer for the way in which she covered health care. Now, she guides other journalists at her newspaper so they can make impressive stories. “Doing special stories requires a shift in mindset. Don’t expect someone to give you the time to work on a narrative project,” she says. “he best stories are not breaking news stories but tell about the undercurrent. Some of my stories I’ve had cooking for two years. I’d regularly make phone calls, until I found a person who was willing to let me in.”
Sugg was one of the speakers at the 2017 Conference Narrative Journalism, held on 18 and 19 May 2017 in Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam. 2017’s Conference Curator is Pulitzer winner, Professor of Journalism and coach Jacqui Banaszynski. The theme: “Amplify your story. It takes a team to make an award winning story.”
Where at the 2016 Conference, with Amy O’Leary as curator, it was carefully explained why narrative journalism is needed to capture attention in the times of information overkill, 2017’s conference emphasizes the work. And the work starts a day before the Conference. On 18 May, several speakers gave a master class, including Lulu Miller (Invisibilia podcast), Thomas French (two-times Pulitzer winner who gave an overview of narrative techniques), and Jacqui Banaszynski and Kelley French (about coaching narrative projects in the newsroom). With the new all-access pass, guests could attend two master classes, the watch and listen evening, and the Conference, the Initiative Narrative Journalism Netherlands wants to invite journalists to not only be inspired, but also to roll up their sleeves.
Sugg gave a masterclass about strategies to develop special stories on top of the rest of the work. She says: “I believe that every journalist has his own makeup and therefore is drawn to particular stories. My theme is for example life and death. That’s the theme of stories that are drawing me in. I believe we all have that but they don’t come out because most of us are too busy chasing the day to day news. But what I’ve discovered is that the stories that haunt me, are also hunting my readers. All you have to do is follow your deeper curiosity. And find a way to regularly shift out of the day to day mindset.”
About journalists who complain that they’ve been trying to get access for two weeks, she laughs. Sugg can easily chase a story for two years. Like this story, for which she spoke with 18 families who had a dying child. The meeting with the last family was cancelled twice. When a third cancellation was not relayed to her on time, and Sugg was able to meet the mother of RJ, the main person in the story, she did not leave her side anymore. “I build a story outside the purview of my editor. When I am ready, I propose to make a small story. And then the project grows and grows. I didn’t tell RJ’s mother that I wanted to work on a large project right away either, that only scares people away. You follow someone for a while, and in that process, you make the project larger and larger.”
“Ira Glass once said: life is made of joy, surprise, all emotions. And still, you rarely see them reflected in the newspaper. I think that often, when we write about a subject, it’s as if we are sitting on the verandah, instead of going into the bedroom, where it all happens. To reach that bedroom, you need to take your time. You don’t get that kind of access in a week or two.”