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Unveiling a city, one story at a time

Tufts grad’s Narratively embraces ‘slow journalism’

Published: Thursday, February 7, 2013

Updated: Thursday, February 7, 2013 14:02


More than three months after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Eastern coastline, causing billions of dollars of damage and displacing thousands from their homes, the storm is decidedly not the top story in today’s 24-hour mainstream media news cycle.

But for Narratively, a new digital platform devoted to producing one in-depth story a day about New York City, assessing the storms over the successive three months aligns with the publication’s editorial mission: find the untold story and illuminate the unique characters of a city when no one else is watching.

Narratively, the journalistic brainchild of Noah Rosenberg (LA ‘05) that launched in September 2012, did not cover the storm at all when it wreaked havoc back in October and was the top story in newspapers and magazines around the globe (including the one you’re holding). But Rosenberg’s site is devoting each of its five pieces this week to taking a 360-degree look at how individual New Yorkers are coping with the storm’s aftermath.

On a recent Monday, for example, a reporter rode along with a group of unsung heroes in the Rockaways that spent the weeks after the hurricane pumping water out of their neighbors’ basements at no cost. 

“We could have had a field day covering Hurricane Sandy [in October], but everyone and their cousin was covering Hurricane Sandy,” Rosenberg said last month over coffee in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, near the apartment where the 30-year-old lives with his girlfriend.

“Even outlets like The New Yorker magazine, which made their reputations doing epic 12,000-word-long pieces, were blogging and doing short little dispatches,” he said. “Our mission is to let the big guys do what they do, and then to fill that void of stuff that’s not being told.”


Slowing down the news cycle

Narratively’s editorial concept is simple and bold: produce one story Monday through Friday that ties into some sort of theme. Each story is produced in whatever manner the reporter and the site’s editors deem most appropriate. Most of the platform’s stories have included writing so far, but Narratively — the internet URL for the site is, to be precise — also publishes photo slideshows and short documentaries from an army of nearly 150 New York-based storytellers.

Narratively’s pieces are assigned or pitched months in advance,  and sometimes they are even products of years of reporting that never found a place in a more conventional media outlet, said Rosenberg. Themes usually leave some room for interpretation. For example, the site has so far spent a week profiling New York “hustlers.” Subjects included a man who makes a living assembling Ikea items and another who roams the streets selling tickets to his own stand-up comedy show. Another week that revolved around the theme “Skin Deep” included both a story about a doctor doing pro-bono tattoo removal for ex-cons and a profile of an old-school furrier.

The unifying themes are that no piece is time-sensitive and that the content exists firmly outside of the 24-hour news cycle, which Rosenberg considers repetitive.

“It’s all the same content, told in a different voice, different platform, different word count,” he said. “We wanted to do something different. We wanted to uncover these hidden truths, unknown characters in a city.”

The site’s contributors comprise full-time journalists and storytellers who work or freelance elsewhere, but also people who have jobs outside of journalism and who contribute to work for Narratively because they believe in its editorial mission.

“I’ll pitch an idea, and if they like it, then I can just go on and do the story the way it should be told, writing or video or audio slideshow with a lot of creative freedom,” Emon Hassan, who has done freelance photography for The New York Times and The Atlantic magazine, and who produced a video for Narratively recently about a man who creates instruments of street objects, as part of the theme “Trash to Treasure.”

Rosenberg is not the only Tufts grad involved in the project. Jessica Bal (LA ‘10), a former Arts editor for the Daily, has contributed photography to the site, including the photos that accompany the furrier piece. Bal contributes to Narratively part-time in addition to her day job working at The Metropolitan Opera Guild.

“They do a really good job of creating, even with so many people that they have contributing, a sense of community, a cool sharing of ideas,” she said. “With something like a small start-up, where you’re paying what you can or relying on volunteer work, making people really feel like what they are doing for you is appreciated.”

Last fall, Bal worked on a story for Narratively in which she tracked down and photographed New Yorkers who live in homes where a murder or suicide took place, part of a weeklong series about death.

“One of the most exciting ones was when I went not too far from Lincoln Center, and the only thing I knew was that a teacher was murdered in the apartment,” she said. “We were pretty sure that it took place on the third floor

and so I walked up and just pushed the doorbell, and said ‘I’m researching someone who used to live here, do you know of him?’ And he was yeah ‘Yeah actually I helped find his body.’ And then he let me in.”

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