I walked into the beautiful and heavily used Shepard Building, the hub of the University of Rhode Island’s downtown campus. As I headed down the familiar hallway towards the auditorium to attend The Essay in Public: The Way We Work Now conference, I recalled other times I had hurried down this hall. I taught night classes in this building in the 1990s, a lifetime ago, when online learning entailed access to a more up-to-date list of available library books. Then, newly minted with my PhD, I taught American women’s history to twelve female students, most of whom were older than me and came with life experiences unlike my own. But each semester we cobbled together a shared narrative of why it mattered to study women in history. The way I worked in the 1990s has been made strange by technological developments but much also stayed the same, despite the rise of digital cultures. I told stories. We crafted stories. Technology supported us in our endeavors. Little did I know that my musing perfectly forecasted a theme at the conference: the way we work today relies on the oldest, least technologically transformed aspect of our very human meaning making process: story and argument. These do not change.
Today as I hurried along, I saw few students standing in the hall or reading in the library’s reading rooms. It was March and quite possibly URI’s spring break. But as I rounded the corner and headed into the auditorium, the room had the same charged atmosphere I felt in any classroom I ever entered. What would happen next?! This time I would listen and learn and find a way to join into the collective effort to make sense of the impact of technology on the practice of journalism. I was eager to hear how the digital age—the new culture of 24/7 news cycle and the voracious consumption patterns of readers—is changing how journalists work, how readers read, and how newspapers gather the news.
The first keynote speaker, Sarah Schweitzer of the Boston Globe, laid out the promise and perils of long form investigative journalism in an age where many readers “stay on” stories for only a handful of seconds. Not only do journalists need to get their facts lined up, they must now invent or rediscover ways to hold readers’ attentions. Schweitzer argued for narrative storytelling. Readers—even distracted ones—stay with stories that have characters, plot, tension, conflict, and resolution. Schweitzer used the example of her story “Chasing Bayla,” a 2015 finalist for the Pulitzer in feature writing, which follows the fate of a young right whale ensnared in multiple fishing nets. The story of Bayla and the scientist who cared for her is well worth reading but for now let it suffice to say that Schweitzer’s words rang true to me—narrative story is an old technology for drawing us in, giving us an emotional context, and helping us to care. The digital components of Schweitzer story—the photo essay, the immersive visual experience, the sounds and the links—each support the arc of the single complex story of one whale. While technological innovations are generative of so much and have the potential to unleash multiple thoughts spinning out in multiple directions, the nuts and bolts of storytelling hold the limitless possibility and the knowable together. The story of a single whale and the scientist who struggled to save her translated vast and impersonal changes brought about by global economies and global warming into a narrative that readers could relate to.
I thought I might have to lay down after that talk, so full was my brain.
We next heard a panel of our local journalists talk about the ways they work today. These were Ambar Espinoza, Rhode Island NPR; Matthew Guterl, Brown University; Sunshine Menezes, Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting at URI; Kendall Moore, University of Rhode Island; Lucas Mann, The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth; Alisha Pina, Providence Journal. Each spoke with passion about the intersection of their journalistic practices with the challenges of less money, less reliable attention, less commitment to the way things had always been done. I found myself moved by the creative talent on display.
The second keynote speaker, Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press, who won the Pulitzer Prize for for Commentary in 2014, referenced the power of returning to stories, returning to problems and themes, returning to arguments as a way to refine them, and ultimately to see them in a new light. He calls this recursivity, the gesture intrinsic to argument to return and revise over and over again. Argument works most successfully not as a single iteration but as a repetitive motion. Henderson’s case study focused specifically on a single house on a single street in the city of Detroit. The Tuxedo Project is named for Tuxedo Street – paying homage to his childhood home, now in decay on a street spiraling deeper into poverty.
Henderson raises the question of what obligations we have or should have to the places we come from. His personal and professional answer involved going deeper into his past and the past of the city and street where he lived. Again, as Henderson demonstrates, the larger story of deindustrialization narrated through characters, plot and place, pulls readers in and helps them care.
At that point, my head and heart full to the brim, I snuck out the back door, and hurried down the long hallway of Shepard and back out into my city. How incredible that for all the change we are living through and learning from, for all the ways that digital culture has altered what is possible—knowledge production still rests on the essential unchanging impact of story and argument, made to fit a human scale.
Click here to enjoy a podcast with Sarah Schweitzer, Boston Globe reporter and 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist for feature writing, and Stephen Henderson, Detroit Free Press reporter and 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner for Commentary.
Jane Gerhard is a historian and writer living in the Elmwood neighborhood of Providence. She earned a PhD in American Studies from Brown University in 1996 and never left. She is the author of two books, the co-author of an American women’s history textbook and is currently at work on on her next book, The Monkey King of Madison. More information can be found at janegerhard.com.
Jane is blogging for the Council as part of the Pulitzer Prize-inspired commemorative series, What is the 21st Century Essay? to help us explore the changing nature of journalism and the humanities in the digital age with a focus on environmental issues because of their urgency and relevance to our health, communities, and economy.