Reporters should be narrative storytellers, Simpson advises

Photo by Allyce Andrew, University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Photo by Allyce Andrew, University of Louisiana at Lafayette

David Simpson urged college students from around the South to incorporate narrative storytelling into their reporting.

“I became a manager at The AP 11 years after I graduated from college and at that time I would have told you I was a lousy feature writer,” said Simpson.  “I really didn’t have a voice as a storyteller. I had that anonymous journalism voice. You know, that old stereotype of an AP story or just your bland daily news story. That was the only voice I really felt comfortable writing in. Now don’t get me wrong, I thought I was pretty good at it and that I could really go deep into a subject and explain it clearly, but I didn’t really feel like a storyteller.”

Simpson has 31 years of journalism experience.  He began his career reporting for The Crimson White newspaper at the University of Alabama.  He later spent 17 years as a reporter and editor for The Associated Press, followed by 10 years as a reporter and editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  Most recently, Simpson served as the coordinator of student publications at Georgia Perimeter College, where he helped revive its student run newspaper, The Collegian.

Simpson said his experience editing for The Associated Press gave him the opportunity to study different styles of writing.  He said when he returned to reporting in 2003 for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he found it fulfilling and fascinating to tell in-depth stories and started to develop his narrative voice.

Simpson then described the various elements that typically go into a narrative story, but explained that not every story has to have those elements in order to be effective.

“You can actually do some pretty brave narrative-style writing even if you don’t have all of the elements to write the classic, Pulitzer-winning, Rick Bragg narrative,” said Simpson.  “It’s doable, but there is one element that you cannot do without. That is, you’ve got to make the leap that you are the narrator. I think that’s the biggest hurdle that’s stopping students and professionals from really telling their story. What I mean is, you have to make the courageous decision to take responsibility for telling the story. It’s your job.”

Simpson then turned to the audience for an interactive exercise.  Each table of students had a piece of paper with a number and letter written on it.  Depending on what the paper said, each group had to think of campus-related suggestions of either: different kinds of people, time frames, challenges that arise or typical events that are always covered.

After several minutes, groups converged to combine their ideas into various theoretical stories that could be covered on campus and pitched them to Simpson, who provided feedback.

Caitlin Lafarlette, a 20-year-old junior from Arkansas State University, praised Simpson’s message.

“It was really informative,” said Lafarlette.  “I’m the photo editor, so I lean more toward photography, but this is the kind of news writing I want to do. And, now that I know how to do narrative writing, I think it will be a lot easier for me to incorporate that into our newspaper. So, it really helped.”