The Nieman Conference: Into Something Rich & Stranger

Originally published: March 23, 2009

Not everyone around me was a seasoned conference attendee. I’m certainly not. And maybe after years of being imbedded in gatherings of journalists, a person forgets to be impressed. For my part, as cool as I tried to be – you can’t really enthuse around journalists as it’s considered gauche unless you’re drinking together - I was mentally slack-jawed, encountering an openness and generosity I hadn’t imagined would fly in such a competitive line of work. This, at a time when the profession is reeling under the forced march of Change or Die. 

A strange thing came of all this. Because of my own dubious entry into the field (practically tripped and fell into it, never paying my dues as a beat reporter, stumbled through the learning of such skills as interviewing while actually interviewing, absorbed my schooling on the job and under the bloodying strokes of an editor’s blue pen) I have generally felt an outsider. I’ve resisted referring to myself as a journalist, always qualifying, not wanting to profess something at which I was so woefully under-pedigreed. But even though the people around me had the experience, had the lingo, the skills, the discipline of the profession, still, I was seated among them. And despite my habitual separateness and lack of regular attachment to a known entity, despite having no office Christmas party to be invited to, suddenly I realized I was one of them. 

The more I talked with people, the more it occurred to me it was time to stop qualifying. A young and gracious magazine editor from Cleveland told me over drinks - after I’d explained my unusual history under his reporter-like inquiry - “You were first published 10 years ago? And you’re still writing for them? I’d say, yeah, you do this.” It was as if, un-solicited, I had been granted a waiver, and awarded unqualified membership. He then offered me invaluable book proposal advice. And I hadn’t even bought him a drink.

At such a conference, speakers and presenters are paid to share their talents. But in every class and session I attended it went beyond that, from Connie Schultz’s keynote address about why journalists shouldn’t turn up their toes just yet, to Tom French bouncing with boyish delight as he illuminated everything from the art of invisibility to the joy of dashing out a spontaneous A-B graph of Slumdog Millionaire (assuring us it can all come down to mapping if you chill out and expand your mind!). 

I heard Adam Hochschild, on the role of suspense in narrative journalism, take us from the Three Little Pigs to the tyrant Leopold, and I watched as June Cross and Callie Crossley delightedly ganged up on Walt Harrington regarding the power of the documentary film producer. Sydney Trent and Maria Carrillo discussed the irreplaceable nature of serials and long-form narrative and the still-fledgling multi-media web links that bring them new dimensions. There is a primal power in story telling that no slapdash blog or disembodied head of a sound-bite could ever replace. 

I am now vibrating with intention and courage – a weird feeling in an era when some are reporting the death rattle of journalism. They’re wrong. Journalism may be operating on deadline, but don’t mistake that for dying. The rattling sound you hear is that of metamorphosis, of kicking back the old and squeezing outward into the new. We know enough about evolution to understand that change is usually good. In fact, change is life. 

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