I read my first Narratively piece after reading about them in a publication called The Week. I was instantly hooked. I don’t know if it was because of my obsession with NYC or the unique writing style of each piece, but I couldn’t stop myself.
This team is changing the way news is delivered. They are slowing it all down – breaking down the untold stories of the people, places, and events in New York City. Each week represents a different theme and is conveyed through writing, audio and video. Narratively celebrated its first birthday this past September and has already been named one of the “Best 50 Websites of 2013″ by TIME Magazine.
Brendan Spiegel, Co-founder of Narratively, graciously took the time to speak with me about his story as a writer as well as the journey of Narratively.
Watch out world, Narratively is coming for ya.
So Brendan, where does your story begin as a writer?
Hmm…that’s a tough one – I’ve never been good at writing introductions! I’ve always loved telling stories; even as a little kid I remember making up tales to tell my younger brother on the bus home from school. I always figured I’d be some kind of writer, although actually I didn’t see journalism as my path, I think because when I was younger I was very shy about asking talking to people, so that seemed like torture, to have to ask people questions for a living. I thought I’d be a screenwriter or a playwright. Much easier to just make stories up than to find the truth! In college I developed an interest in politics, which I pursued for awhile after school, which in turn led to a gig reporting for a Congressional newspaper. Somewhere along the way I guess I started to enjoy asking people questions, and now that’s what I do for a living.
When constructing a piece from start to finish, are there specific elements or routines you follow?
God, I wish! I tend to take the long route — interviewing as many people as possible, writing down everything they say, then going through and bolding the things I think may make it into the piece. Then from there I try to hammer out an outline and put together a draft, filling in whatever holes I have with more reporting, and then doing a LOT of editing down. It’s probably not the most efficient way to report, but I’m a big believer in the idea that you can’t decide what a story is about until you have all the pieces of the story.
So you tend to be of the idea that you can’t have the beginning of the story until you have the end? Sort of similar to a puzzle?
Yes, definitely. Although it’s certainly possible to go too far in that direction. Sometimes when reporting a big piece you come across so many things that you want to include, but in the end the hard part is scaling back, so as you’re going forward you have to be careful not to let things get too sprawling. I find it helps to make outlines and revise them as you go along, so that you do always have an idea of where the piece is headed, rather than letting it go in every possible direction. If you don’t do that you can end up with just way too much that you want to use, and that, of course, makes if more difficult to “kill your babies” in the editing process.
On the other end of the writing process, what do you do to cure writers block? As writers we tend to get insecure when we encounter a bout of it, is there any advice you have that helps you push through?
Number one: turn off the Internet! I think this is the modern equivalent of shutting yourself in a room with just a typewriter, or as close as one might get these days. I can never really get into writing a piece unless it’s the only thing I’m focusing on, which is just impossible when you’re going back and forth to email and facebook and the million other supposedly productive distractions the Internet offers us. Sometimes I have to actually turn the wifi on my laptop off in order to get any writing done, and promise I won’t turn it back on until the piece is finished.
Now that we know a little more about your writing style and techniques let’s talk business. How did narratively come to be? What did it take to get it from an just an idea to an actual living, breathing publication?
Narratively founder Noah Rosenberg started talking to me about the idea a little over two years ago. The conversations quickly grew as we brought more people on board. Basically, we found that just about every reporter we talked to in New York was interested in working on these type of stories. We were all consistently frustrated that there was no home for in-depth human interest stories — profiles of colorful characters, neighborhoods, etc…Even though we were all working for some of the top outlets around (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York magazine…) we were frustrated that everyone seemed to be following the same things: politics, media, gossip, crime what have you. We all wanted a place to tell these human stories, with enough room to give them the in-depth treatment they deserve. After many, many discussions we settled on the one-story-a-day concept because we felt that was the best way to form a strong connection with our readers and spotlight these great human stories.
Narratively is more than just a group of writers – there are cartoonists and videographers and photographers, artists of all kinds. Where do you search out and find all of that talent?
We’ve been really lucky in that this thing had kind of exploded in that regard. Lots of new people find the site and contact us everyday. The original group was made up primarily of writers and photographers who freelanced for The Times and other papers in New York, and from there it has just mushroomed. Our editors have done an amazing job of reaching out to new contributors in all different mediums — Noah just got back from a conference in Sydney and returned with dozens of new potential contributors (not literally returned with them, he let them stay in Australia). Melissa Mendes, our illustrations editor, is a very well-connected cartoonist and has brought on comic book artists from around the country and world, which is huge because that’s a world I don’t know much about myself. So there’s a lot of networking and connecting that goes on, but in a way it’s kind of taken on a life of its own. We’re lucky to have great new people contacting us every day to say “I want to be a part of this.”
That is amazing. Contribution is key in this field, especially now that we can do almost everything online. Speaking of, what do you think that does for the future of journalism? Some say print newspapers and magazines are a dying breed because of the access we have via the internet. How do you feel that this helps narratively and other online publications?
Over the last decade people got very excited about online media and the low barriers to publication (justifiably – it’s been an exciting time!) But the problem is we’ve ended up with way too much media. Reporters are pressured to write, blog, tweet, do everything — basically put out as much content and generate as many page views as possible. So what we are left with is a much larger publishing universe than we had when everything was in print, but also with, frankly, a lot more crap out there. I think we are slowly seeing a return to quality, and the merging of the best of old-school journalism — original, well-reported stories — with the best traits of online journalism — brash, risk-taking new enterprises. That is essentially what Narratively aims to be and I think the media outlets that are able to bridge that gap will be the ones that survive.
Totally. Knowing that quantity will come with time but quality should always be there seems to be key. With that said, how can a writer finance and freelance, be innovative and entrepreneurial, and still put food on the table?
Definitely the question of the day! You have to find a mix of passion projects and “doin’ it for the dollars” projects. I’ve been a freelancer for seven years and I’ve been lucky enough to land some awesome gigs, but sometimes it seems like the more prestigious, more fun jobs are the ones that end up paying the worst, in terms of the amount of time put in. Every successful freelancer I know has found some kind of balance between working on the things they love to write about and working on things that pay the bills. So like everything, there’s a bit of that. Of course, it’s all working towards the dream: that the passion project will eventually pay off. (Shout if you know any billionaires who’d like to invest in Narratively.)
What are some key words of advice for writers who haven’t had their “big break” yet? For those of us still writing for free or next to nothing, what words of advice would you give to keep on keepin’ on?
Put your best work out there every single time. If you’re going to take an assignment for free or next-to-nothing there’s a temptation to not put your all into it, because you’re not getting paid enough. But if you’re not going to put your all into it, don’t do it. Your name is going on the story, so make sure that everything that has your name on it is your absolute best work. Keep doing that and I promise it will pay off. Also, tell your friends and family that content is worth paying for! Ha.
Check ‘em out here - You will not be disappointed.
Living in the NYC area and interested in submitting a piece? Contact the team.