Nieman Speaker to Writers: ‘The Business Model Is Broken — You Are Not Broken’


Despite widespread industry layoffs and the closures plaguing many media outlets, 575 journalists, writers and students gathered in Boston over the weekend for Harvard University’s annual Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism.

Numbers were down — last year the event attracted 850 attendees, meaning this year’s number of attendees was down by a third — but while the conference addressed the uncertain future of the media, speakers strove to stay upbeat. In addition to much discussion of business models, several themes emerged throughout the weekend:

Nix the negativity
There’s no way around it — the media is in trouble. But the hand-wringing and the despair currently shrouding the industry? Not helping, according to those addressing the crowd. “We’ve got to stop sitting around and talking about how bad it is,” said keynote speaker Connie Schultz, a columnist for The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Speakers rallied attendees to view this time of change as an opportunity to learn new skills.

Embrace multimedia
Speaker Mara Schiavocampo, a digital correspondent for the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, encouraged attendees to overcome fears of technology, pointing out that many audio, video and other new media skills are not so difficult to learn.

Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab emphasized the need to find new ways to engage audiences. He showcased several short videos designed to make complex issues accessible to viewers, and also heralded beat blogging as a way to encourage conversation and interactivity. “I’m always amazed by how much journalists fetishize their distance from their audience,” he said.

Use your senses
Amid all the Nieman seminars that centered around new media, plenty of sessions focused solely on craft — and, at least one speaker suggested a radical notion that ran counter to most: unplug from technology. Tom Swick, a veteran travel writer and author, told reporters to put away their BlackBerrys and iPods while exploring a new environment. “We have to be alert,” he urged.

Losing a job isn’t losing your identity
Numerous presenters spoke to the personal crises some journalists face amid all the recent professional chaos. “Work shapes our lives,” said speaker Dennis Palumbo, a writer and psychotherapist. “Our identity is wrapped up in work. When we lose our jobs, we lose a sense of who we are.” Other speakers addressed the sense of personal failure among journalists, about which Schultz offered reassurance: “The business model is broken,” she told the audience. “You are not broken.”

The big question
Running beneath the conference’s surface was one key question: What will happen to narrative journalism? No one can say for sure, of course — it’s difficult to predict what the media landscape will look like even a year from now. But the speakers all emphasized that narrative is still relevant, asserting that as a culture, we’ll always need stories. The form in which they’re created and disseminated, however, remains to be seen.

Aline Mendelsohn