Why is narrative journalism important? Is there space for it? How can
journalists effectively use its techniques? Can narrative journalism be
done on deadline? These are some of the questions that participants
considered as the third annual narrative journalism conference opened
in Johannesburg, writes Bate Felix.

Pulitzer Prize winner and keynote speaker Tom French told participants
that there is no doubt that narrative journalism can make a difference
in the work of every journalist.

“No matter what kind of story we write and how much time it takes us to
write them, there is always a place for a narrative,” he said.

“There is a belief that narrative only works in in-depth or long
time-consuming work, and there is always the question – Is it possible
to do narrative on deadline? The answer is yes.”

French said that on deadline, journalists can come up with powerful
stories with vividness and vision using narrative story-telling
techniques because narrative does not only go into the heart of the
news, but also into the heart of the story. There are lots of
opportunities and space to do this.

To achieve this, journalists must be ready to recognise that it is
possible, he said, and they must also recognise the little things that
bring a story to life and be able to capture these in their stories.

“I believe every story needs a touch of narrative,” he said. French
advised journalists to move away from the traditional rigid pyramid
structure of writing.

The importance of narrative techniques in news writing was also highlighted during the day’s plenary session.

“We cut out a lot of stories when we use the inverted pyramid, we cut
out a lot of voices, the story telling format in narrative allows use
the power to go back and tell the story fully,” said veteran
journalist and conference organiser Paula Fray.

“It helps us focus on the why and the how, because it links the story
to good social science, it engages reader’s views and takes them to
places they could never go. It is not a human interest story, and it
goes far more than that,” she added.

However, there are several challenges. Narrative journalism does take
time, skills and resources and presents complex ethical issues. This is
why such conferences are organised, said Fray.

“What I hope we do in the next two days is to use the things we have
learnt here to craft our own way of doing narrative stories”.

The two-day conference features plenary discussion sessions on various
aspects and issues around narrative journalism. There will also be
breakaway learning workshops on the various techniques of narrative
journalism. An extra day-long workshop with French will be held on

The conference is convened by Paula Fray and Associates in partnership
with the Wits Journalism Programme and the Nieman Society in Southern