Reflections on Literary Journalism and New Media
He’s an expert in literary journalism, but when asked to define the genre, Professor Norman Sims points to a problem of definition. “It’s easier to show than to tell,” he says.
“The first thing I do in my Literary Journalism class is to expose students to some strong examples. Usually we begin with ‘The Long Fall of One-Eleven Heavy’ by Michael Paterniti. It’s about the Swiss Air plane crash in Nova Scotia that claimed 229 lives, and is probably the best piece of journalism I’ve seen in 20 years. It’s very powerful—you’re on the plane when it is going down—and then it’s about the aftermath and the family members’ grief.
“As soon as students understand that it is all accurate—not tweaked at all, but written with voice, structure, symbolism, and characters—then we are off and running. They start to get it, that literary journalism has a factual foundation that comes from immersion reporting, from extended observation, often by living with people—or simply hanging around for a long time. To do so effectively, you become one of ‘them,’ but in reality you’re not, so you still have an outside perspective. The literary quality is not added at the end, but something conceived from the beginning.”
The past 20 years have seen a major revival of the literature of journalism. “When I was in grad school at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the 1970s,” Sims reminisces, “I was studying the history of two kinds of journalism from Chicago in the 1890s: a scientific and an artistic model. My dissertation advisor, Dr. James Carey, was one of the pioneers in a cultural approach to journalism. Later I made the connection to contemporary journalism, when I read an article by Jane Kramer in The New Yorker, an intimate profile of a cowboy in Texas, presented in the realm of artistic journalism. Suddenly, I connected her work with that of the Chicago writers of the 1890s and decided that, perhaps, this kind of journalism had a longer history and tradition than people assumed.”
In 1984 Sims published The Literary Journalists, an anthology that helped revive the study of literary journalism in American universities. Today hundreds of courses are offered and about a dozen graduate programs exist. And when Sims gave the keynote address this past spring at the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies conference in Paris, he found a vibrant international community of scholars who share this interest.
This fall Northwestern University Press is publishing Sims’ history of the form, True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism. “When we look back at American journalism of the past century—or more—we discover that the leading texts are literary journalism: Jack London writing about poverty, tramping and Alaska; John Reed writing about wars in Mexico and Eastern Europe, and revolution in Russia; Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos writing from Europe about World War I and its aftermath; James Agee, Edmund Wilson, Martha Gellhorn and George Orwell writing about the Great Depression and war in Europe; John Hersey on Hiroshima; Joseph Mitchell writing about New York City; Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Truman Capote, and Joan Didion writing experimental narratives during the turbulent sixties; Tracy Kidder, Susan Orlean, John McPhee, Ted Conover, and many others on recent portraits of everyday life and cultural communities. For me, each of these names carries a distinctive style and voice. It’s like reading the menu in a restaurant and then savoring the food.”
Sims came to UMass Amherst in 1979, hired by his former teacher Howard Ziff who started the journalism program. His areas of focus, besides literary journalism, include nonfiction writing, news writing, freedom of the press, and journalism history, but Sims’ activities extend beyond the classroom. He and Art Clifford conceived the Online Certificate of Journalism. “Our entrée into this area was fairly early, about six years ago,” Sims says. “We got professors to develop courses for online delivery—there are about 20 now and we’re still broadening the focus. About 700 students have enrolled since the summer of 2005 and the program has grossed about $600,000. The students are incredibly diverse. Many are older and live all over the world. And the discussions are excellent, perhaps because they have more time to mull over ideas.” The Online Certificate of Journalism won a national award in 2005 as a program of excellence.
Another area of interest for Sims is the Media Giraffe Project, a grant-funded collaborative project with independent scholar Bill Densmore, involving journalists, technologists, web-media practitioners, educators, producers and individuals concerned about the future of media and democracy. “It’s a crossover meeting place for leading thinkers who are sticking their necks out to improve participatory democracy,” says Sims.
He also is involved in the New England News Forum, supported by the Knight Foundation, that will create a conversation among news professionals, citizen journalists, educators and the public to promote vigorous, trusted, accountable journalism and accountable government. “That project is just getting started,” Sims says, “but essentially the idea is to develop case studies around specific news stories, incidents or policy issues involving New England media organizations or web-based news resources, including emerging ‘citizen journalism’ efforts.”
After 28 years on the job, Sims has learned that unlearning traditional approaches can be fun. “Now is probably the most exciting time to be in the media since about 1700 when the expiration of the Printing Act caused newspapers to pop up in London, and allowing debate to enter the public sphere. The aristocracy generally despised those newspapers. In today’s world of Internet journalism, the corporate media empire can be compared to that aristocracy. Internet news and blogs upset the traditional environment. ‘The people formerly known as the audience’ are now also news producers. Traditions are changing, and we’re training students for dramatically different careers.”
September 10, 2007