I spent Saturday at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism for a conference called Reconstructing the Past: When History and Journalism Meet. Narrative non-fiction is one of the most popular genres today, but many historians look down upon the notion that great events must be crafted into a compelling narrative and many journalists are disdainful that too many history books are dull and dry.
The conference was an attempt to meld the two worlds by talking about how to craft a story in an accurate, yet exciting way. The Israeli journalist Tom Segev observed that journalists usually write about the exceptional, the event out of the ordinary, while historians write about the every day, or what is common to a time or place. Regardless of the approach, both fields share the assumption that by going back to the past, we will understand something about the present.
The keynote speaker was David Halberstam, who at 73 is about to come out with his 21st book, The Longest Winter, about the Korean War. He started his journalistic training as a young reporter in Tennessee, where he covered the Civil Rights movement, eventually moving to The New York Times. After two tours covering the war in Vietnam, Halberstam said he realized that while he had won prizes for his reporting, he had never revealed the causes of the war. He quit the Times and spent three years writing The Best and The Brightest, about the men who led the U.S. into war with Vietnam. He regards the journalist/historian as one of the best jobs in the world.
“This is the great gift you get from this life,” Halberstam told at crowd at the Haas School of Business. “You get a chance to be paid and be literate.You get a chance to go out every day and ask questions and come back with a little more knowledge.”
While Halberstam is a master of this craft, most of the conference participants, while accomplished journalists, are still learning how to transform themselves from reporters to historians. There were a number of how-to workshops, including one I taught with the Mark Andre Singer, a librarian from the Mechanics Institute, on using the “deep web” to get information. It was essentially a lesson on how to access databases and historical archives from your computer.
Sandy Tolan, author of The Lemon Tree, and Mirja Orito, author of Finding Manana, talked about the rewards and perils of interviewing witnesses to events long past. Jason Roberts, author of A Sense of the World, Millicent Dillon, who has published 10 books, and Spencer Ante, the editor of Business Week, talked about how to bring historical characters to life. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Seth Rosenfeld and Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive talked about using government documents. Rebecca Solnit and Adam Hochschild talked about their numerous books as well. You can see details of the conference here.
What made this workshop remarkable was that it was geared toward mid-career journalists. While a number of reporters go to journalism school, the vast majority learn on the job and never receive any formal training. Learning as you go has its benefits, but it is wonderful to get a little training, too.
You could feel the buzz in the room as people spoke. I spotted Julia Flynn Siler, author of the forthcoming House of Mondavi, Ilana DeBare, author of Where Girls Come First, KateBraverman, author of the acclaimed memoir, Lithium for Medea, Scott Martelle, a Los Angeles Times reporter whose book Blood Passion, about the Ludlow massacre, will be out in August, and many others.