When the New York Times announced last week that Jill Abramson had been chosen as the paper's next editor, the New Yorker's Ken Auletta immediately went online to hail the appointment. Auletta praised her work as the Times's managing editor for the past eight years and added this:
"Abramson brings something else to her new job: a fervent belief in narrative non-fiction writing. She . . . has long extolled the artistry of writers like Martha Gellhorn, Joan Didion, and Gay Talese. . . . To separate the Times from the commodified news that floods the Internet, storytelling and painstaking digging for stories that appear nowhere else will be essential. They will be mainstays of the Times under its new editor."
But Auletta might be wrong. Not wrong in what he said about Abramson's belief in narrative but wrong in supposing narrative to be so desirable. Writers of a certain age who grew up on Talese and Didion (Gellhorn, who covered the Spanish Civil War, requires a longer memory) esteem narrative nonfiction—but do readers? Perhaps some readers don't trust a gripping narrative because they don't like to be gripped. They'd rather be free to assemble the truth from found objects of their choosing.
The Internet has made this kind of do-it-yourself journalism quick and simple; even old-school journalists might admit it's easier to object to philosophically than to resist. But those philosophical objections stand on shaky ground. Four years ago the Poynter Institute researched how readers comprehended and recalled a single story—a report on bird flu—packaged three ways. "Prototype 1 was conventional, with headline, narrative and photograph," the researchers reported. "Prototype 2 contained a narrative story with some of the information broken out in a map and some in a fact box. Prototype 3 was very visual with no traditional narrative. It featured . . . a map, a Q&A, a numbers chart and other graphic storytelling." All three versions contained identical information.
Readers read the prototypes for five minutes and then were quizzed on bird flu. Readers of Prototype 3, the one that did away with narrative, got the most answers right. What's more, these readers came away most interested in the subject of bird flu and most open to learning more.
An hour or so before I read what Ken Auletta had to say about Jill Abramson I happened to explore a website that is a state-of-the-art example of Prototype 3. Campuscrime.net was set up last fall by University of Illinois journalism students in response to what either was or wasn't a local crime wave. Professor Eric Meyer, who teaches design principles in old and new media, tells me, "There was a huge outpouring of crime alerts on campus. Everybody was wandering around feeling we were living in an armed camp." Meyer teaches upperclassmen and grad students in one class and freshmen in another. "The seniors said 'Big deal. There's no more crime than there's ever been.' The freshmen were freaked by it and the grad students were freaked by it." In other words, students new to the university got upset.
In response to these concerns, Meyer's students created the site, which offered a wealth of information so creatively that the site won a Mark of Excellence award from the Society of Professional Journalists. Last month an enhanced version was rolled out. I got a heads-up from Ramzi Dreessen, a Chicago junior who made repeat trips back to school after the semester ended to keep working on the revamped site. He pointed me to a short introduction to the site that tells visitors that they're encountering "a 21st-century technique—non-linear storytelling" that's designed "to maximize reader involvement" and allow them "to reach their own, personally relevant conclusions."
A couple that must be relevant to Dreessen—he mentioned them to me—are that on the one hand, campus crime is slightly underreported, and that on the other, there's less crime than there was a few years ago. The site offers info that shows this.
But a wealth of statistics, maps, and historic comparisons is no more than you'd expect. The exploration of racial fears isn't. Click on the loudspeaker icons and listen to accounts of students who were jumped, and decide for yourself whether a local phenomenon known as "polar bear hunting"—gangs of blacks looking for the biggest white guys they can find and flattening them—is fact or fable. Watch surreptitiously taken videos of cops at work in a black nightlife area, and decide whether accusations are true that cops deal with black and white students by a double standard. In the section on crime alerts, listen to students and campus and city cops have their say. Take a quiz offering crime scenarios that differ from actual incidents only in minor details; guess whether these crimes did or didn't prompt alerts and decide whether there's rhyme or reason behind the alerts.
If campuscrime.net were a narrative, a lot of readers would probably decide it was a tale told by a skeptic; some would dismiss it. The campus alerts section reports, "Campus police responsible for issuing alerts admit that they intentionally increased the number last year to heighten awareness of crime. Since then, they appear to have switched to a more limited definition of crimes meriting an alert. An incident in March, for example, in which a dorm resident returning late at night was stabbed less than four blocks from his destination, was not reported as an alert because it occurred a block outside the university reporting district even though at least one somewhat similar crime outside the district generated an alert last year."
Readers can make of this what they want. No one's being herded into the corral.
It was Meyer who told me about the Poynter study. Later, I told him what Ken Auletta had to say about Jill Abramson. "Enjoyable as it may be," Meyer wrote in an e-mail, "linear narrative is nowhere near as predictably efficient as is deconstruction of a story into its faculty components. . . . There's still 'story' in non-narrative journalism. It's just that the reader creates the narrative rather than having the writer impose it on him or her. It's rather like the Aristotelian vision of art, which regards the novel as the lowest art form because, relative to other forms, so little of its emotive appeal is derived from the consumer and so much is preordained by the artist."
Toward the end of his e-mail, Meyer said this: "The Information Age is marked by a serious decoupling of information from the artistry with which it is presented." Yet inartistic is a terrible description of campuscrime.net. Its artistry is obvious; it's simply not that of the traditional narrative writer, who could lead a more docile reader by the nose only because that reader was willing to accept reality as whatever the writer said it was.
E-mail Michael Miner at email@example.com.