Mar 22, 2009

That's All, Folks? Not Quite!

The Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism is drawing to a close. But it's not over yet on the blog, as your faithful bloggers will continue to post our gleanings from the weekend. Ernie is currently doing a follow-up interview with Gambian journalist Modou Nyang, who may have had the longest journey to get here. And I will be posting Flip Cam interviews with some of your favorite speakers, including Jon Lee Anderson, Mara Schiavocampo, Andrew Meldrum, and Adam Hochschild. Check back tonight or Monday for those. The folks over at the Nieman Lab have also promised a bunch of interview videos, plus a Twitter summary of the entire weekend. (Ooh la la!)

If you have questions about a panel I covered, and wonder if I might have that quote you're looking for somewhere in my digital notes, just shoot me an e-mail:

It's been fun.

More from Ifill

Ifill on White journalists who cover blacks and black issues:
“I was always expected to write about white people, so I always expected white people to write about black people,” Ifill said.
She added that it should be expected that curious journalists should be expected to get to know and write and report about people from different backgrounds.

Ifill on the Debate: Ifill gave some remarkable insights to her feelings about the criticism she received before the Palin-Biden debate.

Republicans argued that her forthcoming book had prejudiced her against the GOP.

“It was an interesting experience,” said Ifill, adding that as she was preparing for the debate, she went into intense preparation and had also broken her leg. “So I was much more concerned about my orthopedic health that what was being said on Matt Drudge. And I was surrounded by people who kept me from the chatter.”

Ifill said despite the chatter, she remained true to herself. She said she had actually finished her questions for the debate on the same day she hurt her leg.

“One thing I knew is that I wasn’t changing a word,” Ifill said. “In my head, that was important.”
Ifill said that in the end, she realized that the criticism was about her. But more about a dysfunctional campaign. John McCain, the Republican candidate for president, initially supported Ifill’s pick as moderator, but changed his tune two days later.

“People were trying to get in my head hoping that I would over or under compensate,” Ifill said. “But I said, let them have their way. Watch what I say. Read the book that I write and see.”

“I was trying to have a debate, not an inquisition,” Ifill said. “My job was to make sure I had probing questions, and if I was satisfied, I didn’t care if people had other opinions.”


Ifill's All Over Twitter

The collected gems of Gwen Ifill's speech are on Twitter. Go to and type in #NNC to the search box. Voila! The high points at your fingertips. Proper grammar and spelling, maybe not so much.


Separated at Birth?

Ifill kicked off her speech by joking that she was going to let Queen Latifah come stand in for her. The audience got a big kick out of that. But some of our international friends might not have been familiar with the context. Let’s go back to the 2008 election. Ifill scored the coup of the election by getting chosen to moderate the Vice Presidential Debate between Joe Biden and the fascinating Sarah Palin.

Interestingly enough, Ifill caught some heat from conservatives who cried that her book, “The Breakthrough,” made her an Obama supporter. Therefore, she could not be objective. Ifill’s professionalism and even moderating quickly dispelled that notion.

Well, after the debate was over, you just knew that SNL was going to lampoon it. Especially with all of the attention that Palin was getting and the buzz that Tina Fey was getting for playing her weekly. Sure enough, that following Saturday, the show spoofed the debate. But, as you might also know, SNL doesn’t have any black female characters. (notice that when they spoof The View, Kenon Thompson always plays Whoopi, but since there is no other black woman or person for that matter, Sherri is always on vacation).

Anyway, to combat that – and to save us from seeing Kenon in a dress again – Queen Latifah made a surprise appearance playing Ifill. She was brilliant. Take a look at the photos of the two.

The great Gwen Ifill, the managing editor and moderator for Washington Week (PBS) and a senior correspondent for The NewsHour, is delivering the closing keynote address. Ifill is the author of the recent best-seller, “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.”
Aside from Obama, the book also deals with black rising politicians like Duval Patrick, Cory Booker and Artur Davis, who is running for the governor of Alabama.
“Talk about audacity of hope,” quipped Ifill,
This is her first book. She said that as she wrote, she talked to several authors, to get advice on how to write. Some told her to write early in the morning. Others told her to write at night. For everyone she interviewed, there was a different story.
“I finally decided that I was going to have to figure out how to do it myself,” Ifill said.
More to come.

Gwen Ifill's Closing Speech: Part 1

Gwen Ifill said she's been telling the story of the "breakthrough generation" of African-Americans in American politics throughout her whole career.

Finally, she's turned it into a book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.

In one of her first internships, where her coworkers had "never seen an educated black woman before," she once found a note that said, "Nigger go home."

Her boss was horrified and knew who had written the note--but didn't want to fire him. To smooth over the incident, she was promised a job working for The Boston Herald if she ever wanted one.

Her first reaction, she said, was that she would never work for those racists. Not much later, she realized, the offer of any job sounded pretty good.

Ifill went on to cover the crisis over school desegregation in Boston and the presidential candidacy of Rev. Jesse Jackson early in her career,

"The solution for all the breakthrough candidates I've covered over the years was finding that sameness," what connected them to voters, Ifill said.

But they also realized they didn't wait for someone to summon them--they had to go and grab what they wanted. Many of the breakthrough African-American politicians had their racial authenticity questioned, and most of them lost their first political race.

"Every single one of them was told, 'It's not your turn yet,'" Ifill said.

The reason people kept asking of Barack Obama, is he black enough? Is he too black? was really because they were asking

"What they were asking were, are you representing me? Are you on my side? ...Will you speak for me?" Ifill said.


Tips on Timing

Tips from the book publishing session:

Journalists often underestimate how long it takes to write a book, book agent Tina Bennett says, because they're used to producing on deadline and think they can just get it out. But writing a book is a different challenge, Bennett said.

Nobody--nobody--can write a book in a year, one of the panelists said.

Jane Kamensky said that the right time to write a book proposal is not when you're still playing with the idea and unsure what you're going to do. Writing you book proposal should be a time when you can already write something substantive, when you know your material and can see the shape of your book. Kamensky said that writing her 45-page book proposal was incredibly rewarding: it's when the book really came together for her. But Kamensky also warned that it may be a bad idea to write too much of your book before writing a proposal. You'll lose your spark and excitement about the idea. You don't want to start pushing the book 5 years into the project, when the idea has already been in the oven at 400 degrees for hours, and "dinner" is getting dry and overbaked.

The moment for writing your book proposal, then: when you know enough to be convincing but are still excited about charging into the research territory ahead.

Tina Bennett had similar advice, "A project really benefits from a shaping editorial conversation," she said--how to structure it, how to pace it, how to tailor it to the market.

Wendy Wolf said that getting a full nonfiction manuscript makes her nervous. But when I get a full book, I wonder, who cut this book loose? Who did they write it for originally? she said.

But she qualified that some people just have a book in them and need to get it out immediately. If what you need to do is that, do it."

Oh Dear

Wendy Wolf, editorial director of nonfiction for Viking Penguin, once rejected a book proposal because when she met the author he wasn't wearing socks.


There are 70 people in this room. No surprise, as Rosita Boland just reminded me. Doesn't everyone think they have a book in them?

Book agent Tina Bennett, book editor Wendy Wolf and author and history prof Jane Kamensky are talking about their collaboration on publishing a single boook of Kamenksy's--the story of a large building that burned down in the early 1800s.

Kamensky just compared trade publishing, from an academic's point of view, to a man who is "in trade" in a Jane Austen novel.

When a colleague heard she was writing that kind of book, Kamensky said, she was told, "Oh, Jane, I don't envy you having to answer to The Market."

Jane Austen metaphors are proliferating here.

"This is like a marriage. The trust has to be tremendous. We're handling your money for you...we're handling your reputation," moderator Christine Larson just said, of the author/agent relationship.

Some tips from Tina Bennett:

-Don't use cute stationery with kittens on it. It goes in the trash.
-Respect people's time. Don't say, I'm going to New York, can we just have coffee and talk about some ideas? "I think it's incumbent on the writer to present some ideas in writing and not just toss ideas around."
-You have to be able to write a really good letter. One or two pages. Bennett doesn't believe in the two-line pitch.
-Be professional above all, You're a serious person, you know what you're doing, you have an idea that will be interesting beyond themselves and their family.
-Many people have bumped into stories that are deeply moving, that are authentically moving, but they won't make a good book proposal. That existential experience you had, that ain't a book. The person who had cancer and reorganized their life, that's really important for you.
-Don't use an e-mail spam services. They get instantly deleted.
-Don't use the sensational formulaic material, opening with a sentence "so and so was bleeding on the couch."
-Use the personal approach--"I admired so and so books and noticed you were in the acknowledgments section," or, "I am modeling my book on such and such book you edited."

Kamensky said she started the project of getting her book published by doing a lot of publishing research and meeting with three agents, the last of whom was Bennett.

Tina Bennett--one of the New York literary agents--praised Kamensky's professionalism and smarts, but emphasized that a lot of getting on an agent's list is about personal compatibility. She and Kamensky just clicked. Kamensky said that Bennett was the right agent because she wed intellectual street cred with market strategy.

Once she had found an agent, Kamensky said that Bennett advised her that she couldn't write a book proposal that was just, here's my name and here's my idea, like a former National Book Award winner she knew had done.

"It behooved me as a beginning trad writer to write a proposal that was long enough" that "you could see the voice of the author, the logic and momentum of the story, and the texture of evidence that the story was based upon," Kamensky said.

The book proposal "didn't need to be a 100 pages," but it ended up being 45.

The next step was to try to sell the book to editor Wendy Wolf, who praised Bennett's approach.

The three qualities any agent should have: "Intimdating, intelligent and understanding," Wolf said.

It's important to remember that a book must be sold multiple times: from the author to the agent, from the agent to the editor...from the editor to the editorial board, from the editorial board to the sales department, from the sales department to the bookseller, from the bookseller to the consumer.

Again, Wolf emphasized the personal relationship between author and editor. "I don't care where you live," she said, "get your butt on a plane to New York and meet your editor."

An editor will want to know a lot of things--not only about your book, but about you.

"I want to know everyone you've known in your own life...How are we going to get your book reviewed? How are we going to get you on the radio?" How, even, are we going to get your book picked up by your mother's book club? she said.

"I am the huckster in the marketplace," Wolf said. " You have to look at your book as a commodity as much as a bundle of ideas."

"Who is your audience? The answer is not: the readers of the New Yorker. It can't stop there."

A book editor needs to know all those things before signing on, Wolf said.


Wendy Wolf
-I EXPECT people to know something about me. DO YOUR HOMEWORK, it's not hard. Any first line to Tina or me, either "Jane Kamensky told me to write you," or "I admired X."
-She once turned a book down because the author who approached her was NOT WEARING SOCKS and she found that disrespectful.
-An author FORGOT to tell her new agent that she had had an agent before, and she asked Wolf: what do I do? Wolf responded; GROVEL. GROVEL and APOLOGIZE and maybe you can repair the damage.


Dennis Palumbo on Psychotherapy for Writers

Here, far too early in the morning, Dennis Palumbo is bringing a gentle sense of humor and a touch of Goethe to one big question hovering over the conference.

As a participant asked him, how do you go from being a newspaper reporter where you’re told what to do, to a freelance reporter where you have to manage yourself and basically be an entrepreneur?

“This is a huge change for people psychologically,” Palumbo said.

“When you’re an employee it’s almost like being a child in the family,” he said, adding, “Whether or not you do it well is kind of like what grade you will get.”

Having a boss is a psychological boost, Palumbo said. It means you have someone who believes that the work you do is good—and good enough to pay for. You also have someone backing up the need for your story.

“The thing that’s so scary about being an entrepreneur, being your own advocate in the career marketplace” is you have bring your own sense of entitlement to your work, Palumbo said.

The great German poet Goethe described writers as those who must believe that the world cannot survive without what they write, Palumbo said.

“Most of us don’t feel that way, but …you have to feel that way,” Palumbo said.

“As a writer, you are taking focus, and for a lot of people, that’s very difficult,” he said. “That’s why a lot of writers are comfortable when they’re working in a staff position. They have roles, they have positions, and they’re clearly defined.”


Mar 21, 2009

One Liners

"Treat your editor, if nothing else, as a canary in a coal mine."

-New Yorker Editor Amy Davidson

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Jennifer Crandall's onBeing: the next Talk Stories?

For a while now, I've been wondering: why isn't there a video equivalent of the New Yorker's legendary Talk Stories? Short. Witty. Sharp. An original voice coyly avoiding the first person. You can buy whole volumes of them by Lillian Ross or Jamaica Kincaid.

Talk Stories are a distinctive brand. I thought shortform narrative video should have an equivalent: three minutes, top quality, and smart.

Enter WaPo's Jennifer Crandall.

It took her a while to find her journalistic place, she told a session audience today. Crandall likes to meet people. She'll chat up seven-year-olds at parties. She visits a bike shop and runs into a refugee from Hurricane Katrina. "Week by week," she says, she wants to "chart the human landscape."

What Crandall started to do was invite some of the people she meets to an all-white studio. She turns on a camera and has a two-hour conversation with them. Then she distills that two hours into a three-minute video clip. One ordinary person, in crystal-clear video, talking against a white background. The seven-year-old kid. A guy who admits he's trying not to be a racist even though he was raised that way. A cute former sorority girl who loves her job harvesting tissue from dead bodies. (I won't give away her many punch lines: look in the archive for Jacquelyn Einsel.)

Crandall's editing is crisp and punchy. She edits out all of the questions she asks: what was a conversation becomes a monologue, but one that's clearly been shaped by Crandall's point of view. That raised some journalistic hackles at an earlier session: was it fair, another reporter asked Crandall, to present her subjects with all of the back-and--forth context removed? Wasn't that misleading? Crandall replied that it was clear to the viewer that the clips had been heavily edited and mixed around, so the viewers wouldn't be misled.

Crandall's project, onBeing, is obviously very different from the New Yorker's Talk Stories. It may be more closely akin to another narrative all-star, Ira Glass' This American Life. But Crandall's onBeing pieces are short and smart and they have that distinctive feeling of something that's already a classic. They're charming and funny, and people at the sessions today seemed to respond to them very intuitively.

I'm surprised I didn't hear about onBeing before this weekend's conference. It seems like something that should be spread around.

Yeah, I'll link to onBeing a fourth time. Just try one.


Audio Tip: Get Your Readers Lost

You know that TV show Lost? It has a crazy plot. The narrative is all over the place. Nobody knows what's going on. And that's exactly why people love it.

Amy O'Leary's big point for writing audio: forget the nut graf.

Our brains are primed to decode complicated narrative, she says. People like having that kind of work to do. Just look at Lost.

You can backfill later. Throw out your best quote, O'Leary says, and win your listeners in the first 15 seconds.

The point of an audio piece is to convey character and emotion, O'Leary says. Those are its strengths. Text is better for conveying the nitty-gritty of the issue: the facts, the analysis, the fine points. Audio's not so hot in this area. You want the full story, you need print. But audio can get people to care about the story--it provides the atmospherics.

Q&A with Melissa Tavaras

Callie Crossley and I sat down with conference attendee Melissa Tavaras. Melissa works in Miami at NBC Telemundo as an assignment desk editor and field producer. She is also a writer for the South Florida New Service and a student at Florida International University.

Working in both print and television, she is becoming adept at multi-platforming

“Unfortunately, since people are downsizing there is room for people like me,” said Melissa, who focuses on international affairs and politics. “I am building work that I want to do. I consider the work that I do now, as really my work.”

Ernie: How are you enjoying the conference?
Melissa: It is fantastic. I have met so many people. I’ve learned things about honing my skills. Not only writing, but visual as well.

Ernie: Why did you come?
Melissa: I am a young journalist and I want to meet as many people as possible. It is a networking tool.

Ernie: What have you enjoyed the most?
Melissa: The one on documentaries was good, because I am a producer. Visually, I relate to it.

Ernie: Do you want to do documentaries?
Melissa: I would like to, I have an idea.

Ernie: What is it about?
Melissa: I am not telling you!

Ernie: What are you going to implement immediately when you get back to work?
Melissa: When I speak to people I tend to focus so much on them that I leave out details, like background and smells. So I am going to start implementing all of my senses. I am going to start doing that immediately.

Amy O'Leary: Writing for Audio

Over here in the Back Bay, Amy O'Leary has been doing a for-real, nuts-and-bolts session on writing for audio. Structure is a beautiful thing. She has printed-out packets and listening exercises. I love it.

Perhaps the best part of this session was when she played a clip of NYT ethicist Randy Cohen being interviewed on NPR, versus reading one of his columns as a NYT podcast. The contrast was fascinating--on NPR he sounds great. On his podcast he sounds pretty much like a robot.

A fascinating glimpse into why the NYT needed to hire O'Leary in the first place.

One of O'Leary's big tips is that radio scripts should
not be written in the inverted pyramid style, giving away the point of the story in the first graf. Instead, you may want to take what's good at the end and put it at the beginning. You want to woo the listeners in, make them intrigued, and keep them listening until the very end. Save the main point for the middle of the story--start with hook and color and build to the "point" that you would put in a news story lede.

A magazine writer asked O'Leary, essentially, "Hey! But where's my nut graf? Won't the readers feel disoriented?"

Nope, O'Leary said. In testing audio slideshows at the Times, she said, people will listen to an audio piece for 15 to 20 seconds to test it. Once you get them past that point, they'll pretty much listen until the end. You've got to get them immediately. Put your best quote up front--don't even explain it, she said. You can backfill later.

O'Leary draws a comparison to Lost. TV is doing radical things with story structure, and she says right now our brains are primed to decode complicated narrative--people like having that kind of work to do. Don't spoon feed them.

More nitty-gritty after the jump.

Tips for Radio Scripts:
-Use a big font
-Double space text
-Indent quotes
-Write out tricky words--including numbers-phonetically

Exercise 1: we listened to JJ Sutherland's "The Battle of Shok Valley" from NPR and are now doing a "close reading" of what Sutherland did to make the piece so effective.

Some points from the audience about Sutherland's piece:
-Seamless narrative
-Uses spatial directions to orient the reader
-Also reminds the reader repeatedly how much time has passed.
-Sutherland's smooth radio voice gets more excited at exciting points--subtly.
-The soldiers he talks to aren't that effusive--they're strangely detached--but
-O'Leary: Sutherland points out that Rhymer is not a great talker and that the tape isn't great.
-O'Leary: Sutherland also repeats part of the soldiers' quotes for emphasis.
-O'Leary: All the things that propel the story forward are narrative. "Then things went wrong." "Their mission had changed." There are litte moments of suspense that push the narrative forward.
-Few adjectives. A lot of short description. The whole thing is a story.

Exercise 2: Re-writing a print script "A Model Middle School" for audio. This is based on a story that ran in the NYT.

The original lede:

"At a time when middle schools across the country are struggling with performance slumps and overhauling their progams, Briarcliff middle school in northern Westchester County is one of the rare good news stories."

As revised by audience members, this prose became more conversational--sentences broken up, contractions added, cute anecdotes brought to the beginning.

Exercise 3: We listened to an NPR interview of NYT's Randy Cohen, "The Ethicist," and then read a print article he wrote on the same subject: stealing other people's wireless internet.

Exercise 4: We watched a NYT audio slideshow, "An Unwelcome Neighbor," that was photographs and audio clips of farmers struggling with a proposed coal-burning power plant next to their farms. The exercise was to take the quotes and write a script around them to transform the farmers' quotes into a true narrative.

-Photo is from one of O'Leary's official web profiles.-



I am dipping in and out of a few sessions today to get as many snapshots as possible.

Here are a few:

Audio: Adam Davidson, an international business and economics reporter for NPR’s National Desk, had a conversation with his NPR colleague and Nieman Fellow Guy Raz about telling compelling stories on the radio. In one example, Davidson talked about the difficulty of delivering compelling stories when the topic is not that interesting. In essence, he said that it is important that even as you talk about one subject, it is important to try different avenues to get the results. In one particularly boring financial story, Davidson quotes Shakespeare and even teased his subject by telling him that he was going to “translate,” his heavy financial jargon into English. The story was a hit.

Documentary: Heidi Ewing, co-owner of Loki Films and co-director of The Boys of Baraka, and the Academy Award nominated documentary Jesus Camp, spoke with producer, director and author June Cross about documentary storytelling.
How did she sell Jesus Camp?
Ewing said most networks love development takes, because it is a small investment. So she put together a clip based on the camp’s own DVDs. She cut together a 2-minute clip and showed it to A&E. The network liked it and gave her $35,000 to develop it. She made a fresh 15 minutes clip. A&E loved it and signed her to a deal. It took about a month. So if you have an idea, get to work.

But Heidi cautioned that not every good story is a good story – at least visually. Here is what I mean. Several years ago, Heidi read a story about a group of Canadian scientists who were doing incredible research on the brain. Fascinating, groundbreaking research. The scientists were actually making people forget past bad experiences. When the article ran, the scientists got hundreds of voice mails from people wishing to erase the past. Heidi even envisioned the opening of her film. Then, she started talking to the scientists. And the more she talked to them, the less convinced she was that she could make this story compelling visually. So, instead of forcing the film, she cancelled the project. She said that she was just not able to make it happen visually.
“Maybe someone else can do it,” Heidi said. “Some stories are just better off as a New Yorker article.”

Musical Chairs: MAGAZINES

The New Yorker's Amy Davidson is talking about magazines to a packed audience--lots of people on the floor. She's been doing a close reading of William Finnegan's Reporter at Large piece about a man with P.T.S.D. who killed his brother.

You can read the story, "The Last Tour," here.

What was the emotional challenge in editing this piece, an audience member asked?

"I was really relieved when Kellee [wife of one of the brothers] called Bill after the piece. I did want to make sure that we told this story in a way that was respectful, and that was tricky because this guy did shoot his brother. It's an awful, painful situation and you do want to make sure you are treating people who are already in a lot of pain--serving your country--you know, you want to be respectful while being brutally honest about what happened. But this is a war story, a story about people who were going somewhere and putting their lives at risk, to get at that larger meaning, to not treat this" as if they were some alien other.

Audience question: what are some things that you look for in a first draft?

"That the structure works--structure is very important, that I'm not confused, that there's not something missing in some way, that we've talked about sides of the story. Sometimes you read something and you think, I would have liked to hear from that it possible that there's another explanation for this. When you raise these questions the answers are often in the reporter's notebook. A good reporter has so much more information about a story than what appears in print."

Another audience member: more tips for writers? Questions I should ask myself?

"Is it fair," Davidson said." "....have you been fair to the narrative as well." It's also important to look at the chronology, she added.

On Finnegan's mastery of how to establish intimacy with sources fast:

"It's that ability to become part of the environment. He was able to sit down with Kellee, with their father and stepmother, and just have his presence there seem very natural. I think in some parts you get the feeling in his conversation with his father and stepmother almost as if they're talking to each other, that they're thinking out loud. It doesn't feel like an interrogation. It's as if he sat down in their living room and let them talk..."

Responding to another audience question, Davidson said:

"I chose this story because I think it's a wonderful story," Davidson said. "It's not that this piece is free entirely of what you're talking about, symbolism...[but] you can let people imagine it for themselves a little bit."

An audience member asked about the love-hate relationship of writers with their editors. If a writer is writing for the New Yorker, they must have a sense that they're pretty good. But for other writers--whose writing is getting ripped apart by editors often--it's tougher. How, as an editor, do you keep writers from getting demoralized? she asked.

"First of all, every single one of my writers are wonderful and a pleasure to work with in every single way," Davidson said. "...I don't know if I always understand the psychological impact of ..."this is a great piece, we're just going to have to cut a couple thousand words."

"Treat your editor if nothing else as a canary in a coal mine," Davidson said. If they're stumbling over a sentence, maybe their solution isn't right, but someone stopped there, "their fingers stopped there on the keyboard...they're not wrapped up in it, it's stopping them." They may have had the wrong solution "but would love to see a better solution."


Musical Chairs: BOOKS

The hard part about trying to write a history of the powerless is that they leave so few records.

This has been the challenge of Adam Hochschild's career, from trying to get a sense of the suffering of the African people of the Congo in his chronicle of a forgotten episode of European imperialism, King Leopold's Ghost, or in writing a history of the abolition of slavery in the British empire, Bury the Chains, or in his current project, in which he is writing about British conscientious objectors in WWI. It's much easier to find records for upper-class opponents of the war than the working-class ones, Hochschild said.

In the end, he said, this means that the African perspective is lacking in two books he wrote about the sufferings of African people from both imperialism and slavery.

NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan asked how Hoschschild always manages to open his books with moments or revelation or understanding or transformation.

"Sometimes the truth is messy complicated and morally ambiguous and ends badly. But I do believe that one can pick out moments that have this quality," he said.

Corrigan asked: do you ever have to stop yourself as a writer and say, I'm shaping the scene too much?

Hochschild: The danger as an author is falling in love with the hero of your story, as Hochschild admits he does, because then you ignore that character's flaws. In King Leopold's Ghost, Hochschild said, he probably did not make enough of Edmund Dean Morrell's racism or the fact that he was likely manic-depressive.

Hochschild said he wrestles with the demands of storytelling, in which the tendency is to make the heroes heroes and the villains villains.

Corrigan: How do you envision your readership? Are you ever hampered by the fact that you're going to have academics writing to you and talking about how you didn't include the necessary charts?

Hochschild: I have a surprisingly good relationship with academics. I can talk their language. I know how to do footnotes. There were no American historians who specialized in King Leopold's Congo, so it wasn't like I was treading on their territory. Historians have often read his book and made helpful literary as well as factual corrections.

We need to give a lot of academics credit for being less academic than they appear.

Corrigan: Has the digitalization of records made your research easier?

Hochschild: Not yet. Library catalogs are online, but the old documents--hundreds of pages, parchment with sealing wax, bound together with string--haven't made it yet.

Corrigan: What do you think about the future or reading and books.

Hochschild: "I worry about it some...I'm not at all sanguine that these new technologies, Kindle and Sony Reader, are going to be good for books....It feels like there's something so much less permanent about it, less heft." He's also worried about attention spans. "I do think there is a deep hunger for stories that's going to be there for a long time to come. But in some ways the easier technological availability of these things makes them less valued. Maybe there's an analogy...I spent a lot of time in Russia when it was the Soviet Union. [In those years] Russia was a country of fanatical readiers." Poets would give readings to stadiums of listeners. "People on the subway, look at the books, they're reading Camus and Dostoevsky." Once books were no longer "forbidden fruit," the amount of serious stuff that Russians read dropped dramatically. Instead they were reading, "Fluff" imported detective novels, romances. Is this the way books are in our culture now?

Audience member: What's your technique?

Hochschild: 1) An idea. 2) A year of just reading, and taking notes that would be incomprehensible to anyone else.A "significant proportion" of UCBerkeley's 10-million volume library are usually in his house. "I'll do nothing but read and take months from 6 months to a year." Then he forces himself to stop and do a rough draft. "Making the first draft is the hardest of all." He tries not to "fall off the wagon" and do more research after that, but often he does.

The remaining time is rewriting and going back to archives for more source material.

Bury the Chains: Phase 1: reading: 1 year
Phase 2: First draft: 1 year
Phase 3: Re-writing and more archive work: 2 years
Total: 4 years


Conversation on Craft Musical Chairs: AUDIO

Planet Money's Adam Davidson has made the financial crisis "fun."

Here's the gist of what he and former NPR defense correspondent Guy Raz are saying.

Guy Raz: What makes a radio story compelling and worth a listener's time?

Davidson: I used to think: well-recorded audio, rich characters, scenes with interesting sound and action going on in front of you. "Then I started covering economics." Economics has none of the building blocks of good radio.

Ira Glass has good characters but not necessarily fancy sound...Someone on a lousy phone line telling a decent story is far better than a flat story well-recorded.

Every story needs a take. Not just he said/she said. In a six minute story, you get one point.

Make sure your sound isn't random or predictable. There's an artificiality in NPR sound that Davidson thinks should be avoided...what NPR insiders call the "cue the chicken" moment.

At Lunch


Please: No More 'Bowling with the Stars'

Here at the seminar on "Voice," pop critic and entertainment reporter Ann Powers is urging writers to resist the editors' demands for random color: playing putt-putt golf with a band, say, or "bowling with the stars."

What makes musicians and actors interesting is not their love lives or where they live or what they eat, Powers said. It's what they make.

Focus on their work, Powers urged.

"If you editor asks you for color for a piece, try to find something that is relevant to the work."

Put a musician in front of a mixing board. Take an actor to a set. This kind of color will be truly revealing, Powers said, because it will help a famous person open up about what makes them truly extraordinary--the art that they create.

Keynote: Jon Lee Anderson

Working for Time magazine decades ago in Latin America, New Yorker correspondent Jon Lee Anderson felt as if he was trapped in a "life of outtakes...where everything that seemed valuable or important to me was still in me and never saw the light of day."

He didn't want to be a "purveyor of information."

Anderson now reports for the New Yorker from some of the most dangerous parts of the world, including Iraq and Afgahnistan. His stories are long and literary, full of the kind of detail that he prizes.

Read Anderson's account of the bombing of Baghdad here.

Photo from Anderson's Little, Brown author profile.

Some Themes from Friday

On adapting your reporting skills to 'New Media'

1. Succeeding on the web means building a community.
The internet allows journalists to build active, involved communities of readers. But it's not an automatic process. The web is a little bit like the Wild West. Comments sections can seem like skeezy saloons full of company you'd never want to keep. But as columnist Connie Schultz noted in her keynote speech, it's possible to clean them up. Give encouragement to the thoughtful comments, correct factual inaccuracies in negative ones, and make sure the people commenting on your articles know that you read their comments. Some of the best old-school journalism thrived because of an active and engaged readership. Reporters can build this kind of readership on the web, but it may not come easily.

2. Don't be redundant. Different medium=different story. A few of the conference's new media specialists chastised news organizations for "adapting" to new media by adding multimedia components without enough thought about what makes a good article versus a good video versus a good slide show. It's important to adapt the story to the medium. Think about whether you want viewers to choose between reading the article or watching the video, or whether you expect one component to lead to the other.

3. Be authentic. Any story needs to be authentic in order to succeed. Don't create new media projects you don't believe in. Use new media in ways that you think fit the story you want to tell. And try to keep a sense of your own authenticity and personal moral compass. As Connie Schultz said, "Don't ignore the interior life you're going to need to be a good journalist."

4. Master the gadgets. In order to be able to know which medium is the best fit for your story, you need to understand your different options. That means becoming fluent in different forms--video, audio, slideshow, Twitter, blog. Once you really know your tools--once your camera feels like an extension of your hand, as new media whiz Richard Koci Hernandez said--you'll know intuitively whether a story should be told using video, photo, text, sound, or some combination of the above.

5. Do more things. But don't think you have to do everything. If you try to master everything at once, you'll be overwhelmed. Take baby steps, digital correspondent Mara Schiavocampo recommended. Film an interview, load it onto your computer, and select a single clip of a quote you don't use in your story. Then load this along with your text. Build confidence by integrating new media into your work one step at a time. And don't assume that all the journalists of the future will be self-sufficient writer-blogger-videographers. Schiavocampo takes this omnicompetent approach in her work as a correspondent for NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, but she said she believes that there will always be plenty of room for specialists.


Mar 20, 2009

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
By Gordon Lightfoot
Staff Writer
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down; of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee.

 The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
 when the skies of November turn gloomy.

With a load of iron ore - 26,000 tons more
 than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
, that good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
 when the gales of November came early.

 The ship was the pride of the American side
 coming back from some mill in Wisconsin. 
As the big freighters go it was bigger than most
 with a crew and the captain well seasoned, concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
 when they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ships bell rang
 could it be the North Wind they'd been feeling?
The wind in the wires made a tattletale sound
 and a wave broke over the railing
. And every man knew, as the Captain did, too, 
 T'was the witch of November come stealing.

The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
 when the gales of November came slashing. 
When afternoon came it was freezing rain
 in the face of a hurricane West Wind

When suppertime came the old cook came on deck saying fellows it's too rough to feed ya
. At 7 p.m. a main hatchway caved in
. He said fellas it's been good to know ya.

The Captain wired in he had water coming in
 and the good ship and crew was in peril
. And later that night when his lights went out of sight
 came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. 

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
 when the words turn the minutes to hours? 
The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
 if they'd fifteen more miles behind her. 

 They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water and all that remains is the faces and the names
 of the wives and the sons and the daughters. 

Lake Huron rolls, superior sings in
 the ruins of her ice water mansion
. Old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams; 
The islands and bays are for sportsmen.

And farther below, Lake Ontario
 takes in what Lake Erie can send her
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
 with the gales of November remembered.

 In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed in the Maritime Sailors' Cathedral
. The church bell chimed, 'til it rang 29 times
 for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
, of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
Superior, they say, never gives up her dead
 when the gales of November come early.

The above piece is a true story written by Gordon Lightfoot, about the sinking of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior. Lightfoot, as you perhaps know, is not a journalist, but a songwriter. Nieman Fellow and Charlotte Observer columnist Tommy Tomlinson and songwriter Mark Simos (of the Berklee College of Music), lead a session called: The Music of What Happens: A songwriter and a journalist apply music to reporting.”
Journalists like to talk about prose that sings. What better way to make that happen than to think like a songwriter? Tommy and Mark talked about what they can learn from each other—and how to make our stories more musical.
As far as Tommy knows, the only fictional account in the story was the cook’s quote about, “fellows it's too rough to feed ya
Otherwise, the story is a great piece of narrative journalism. He offered 4 tips.

1. Rhythm. Read all your stories out loud. If the stories are hard to read out loud, it is probably hard to read on page. One of the best tricks to pull readers. Even if it is subtle, the reader can feel the beat and can anticipate it coming. Listen to the rhythm, of the Edmund Fitzgerald song, “The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
 when the skies of November turn gloomy.”

2. Rhyme – can be overdone, but it can have a great effect to pull readers in. Tommy likes indirect rhyme (not moon and June for example). Again, from the song: that good ship and TRUE was a bone to be CHEWED
 when the gales of November came early.” The might not catch this, but subconsciously, the reader might be interested in keeping reading.

3. Timbre: the unique sound of a given object or instrument. Says Mark Simos: Think about what you saw and experienced and think about what words best match what you saw.

4. Tone: The overall effect of the piece.

They also gave us, along with “The Wreck of Edmund Fitzgerald,” a list of a dozen other great narrative songs
a. “Metal Drums,” by Patty Larkin. About the Holbrook Disaster.
b. “Two Soldiers,” traditional Civil War ballad.
c. “The Two Sisters,” of “The Wind and Rain.”
d. “The Last Time I saw Richard,” by Joni Mitchell.
e. “Waist Deep In the Big Muddy,” Pete Seeger.
f. “Poncho and Lefty,” by Townes van Zandt.
g. “El Paso,” by Marty Robbins.
h. “Polaroids,” by Shawn Colvin.
i. “The Boxer,” by Paul Simon.
j. “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down,” Robbie Robertson.
k. “The Long Black Veil,” Danny Dill.
l. “Me and Bobby McGee,” Kris Kristofferson.
m. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” Charlie Daniels.

Mark was careful to mention that his list didn’t include any Beatles, Springsteen or Dylan.
But, if I had to add a few, by them, I would include, “Eleanor Rigby,” “Atlantic City, (which was kind of dramatized in the show, Cold Case), and Dylan’s aching, “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” which he has said is “about a true story.”

Here are the lyrics. (I composed it like a story):
Ballad Of Hollis Brown
Hollis Brown, he lived on the outside of town.

Hollis Brown, he lived on the outside of town with his wife and five children and his cabin fallin' down.

You looked for work and money and you walked a rugged mile. You looked for work and money and you walked a rugged mile. Your children are so hungry that they don't know how to smile.

Your baby's eyes look crazy they’re a-tuggin' at your sleeve. 
Your baby's eyes look crazy
they're a-tuggin' at your sleeve. 
You walk the floor and wonder why
with every breath you breathe.

The rats have got your flour, 
bad blood it got your mare. The rats have got your flour, bad blood it got your mare. 
Is there's anyone that knows? Is there anyone that cares?

You prayed to the Lord above, “Oh please send you a friend.” You prayed to the Lord above, 
”Oh please send you a friend.” Your empty pockets tell yuh
that you ain't a-got no friend.

Your babies are crying louder, it's pounding on your brain.
Your babies are crying louder,
it's pounding on your brain.
Your wife's screams are stabbin' you
like the dirty drivin' rain.

Your grass it is turning black,
 there's no water in your well. Your grass is turning black 
there's no water in your well.
You spent your last lone dollar
on seven shotgun shells

Way out in the wilderness 
a cold coyote calls.
Way out in the wilderness
 a cold coyote calls.
Your eyes fix on the shotgun
 that's hangin' on the wall.

Your brain is a-bleedin'
and your legs can't seem to stand.
Your brain is a-bleedin'
and your legs can't seem to stand.
Your eyes fix on the shotgun
that you're holdin' in your hand.

There's seven breezes a-blowin'
all around the cabin door. There's seven breezes a-blowin'
all around the cabin door.
Seven shots ring out
like the ocean's pounding roar.

There's seven people dead
on a South Dakota farm. There's seven people dead
on a South Dakota farm.

Somewhere in the distance
there's seven new people born.

Tweet Tweet

There's a glorious Twitterfest going on at the Not-for-Print-Narratives session.

This is how reactions to one question/response unfolded in real time:

liesellSewall Chan #NNC - who do you (O'Leary, Hernandez) think of as your competition for audience? O'Leary - everything on the web

liesellHernandez #NNC - our biggest competition is LOLCATS

Rueby#NNC @amyoleary says that the NYT competition is everything out there on the web, including porn.

NiemanLab Multimedia journalists should consider their competition to be LOLcats and Cake Wrecks, says @koci #NNC

It's just a small sample. But neat, huh?

Panel discussions are funny things--unwieldy to describe even in blog posts--and Twitter's just much more limber.



What is that smell?

The first major breakout sessions have started. I am sitting in Tom French's session on "Narrative Archeology: Digging up the dialogue, textural details, and action to create compelling true stories."

Very good session and people are really paying close attention. How do I know? Because I am sitting in the back, in the corner of a room and a mouse just ran under my leg. Seriously. No one noticed but me. But I swear it happened.

Tom talked about smell. And it had nothing to do with the mouse. (I could say, "I smell a rat," but I am better than that).

Tom pointed out how in writing narratives, it is important to convey a sense of what your senses are picking up. Think about fresh cut grass. The smell of Johnson's Baby Oil. The smell of a pie. The thought of those smells, says Tom, can mean a great deal to the reader. This can also go for colors. What are you seeing? Describe it.

Little details like this can make for a great story.

Here are a few highlights
•He says we write too much about two percent of our population. The politicians, public officials, rich people, jocks, etc. But if we took the time with the other 98 percent - the ordinary people - our odds of getting access to good and stories increases.
•On taking environmental notes - He said he is straightforward about the approach. He asks to look on a subjects desk. Or to look in the locker of a student he is writing about. Again, this helps the texture of the story and provides new avenues to ask questions. He has even asked 13-year-olds who he is interviewing to look at their cell phones. Talk about the stories you can get out of that session. One example of the cell phone thing is that he met one girl who had a good number of texts to and from a boy she liked. But most of her text messages were to her elderly grandmother, whom she was very close to. She taught her grandmother how to text and even use texting shorthand. What a beautiful detail to a story. What a detail that he could have missed, had he not simple asked to see her phone.

One more thing. Tom said that the best tutorial about writing about and recreating real life events that might have happened before you were born is found at the end of Laura Hillenbrand's book, "Seasbiscuit: An American Legend." 
Check it out


Ethical Dilemmas

Make of this fact what you will: there are only 14 participants--all of them women--at the conference's one session on ethical dilemmas in narrative journalism.

Louise Kiernan of the Chicago Tribune opened the panel by discussing a multimedia series, The Beekeepers. In the middle of her reporting process, she found out that one of the sources in her story about rehabilitated prisoners producing "urban honey" at an inner-city aviary was still using heroin.

None of his coworkers at the aviary knew--even though he had once gotten re-arrested for trying to buy heroin. But Kiernan found out about the arrest during a periodic check of the source's criminal record. As it came to the end of her time reporting, she knew she was going to have to talk to the source's colleagues and supervisors about what she had found out and ask for their reaction.

Kiernan told the source what she knew--and that she was going to have to reveal his secret.

He asked her to be allowed to tell his co-workers first. Kiernan agreed.

In working with former prisoners, Kiernan said it was important to make sure they understood exactly what she was doing--and the differences between narrative journalism and daily reporting.

"These guys had been in newspaper stories and been on TV...but I was doing a radicaly different story from what they were used to," Kiernan said.

Talking to a journalist for an hour or two was one thing. These guys had learned how to give the "right" answers. But they weren't used to a reporter digging into their criminal record and talking to their family members.

Before the series ran, Kiernan brought each of her sources out to lunch and went through point by point, this is what the story is going to say...and when I talked to your mother, she said this."

But journalist may not realize that what they write in the story could be less important to sources than what runs alongside the text.

"We underestimate the power of photographs. When sources get upset after a story, it's often that they're getting upset about the photographs. I found that to be a very sensitive issue in all sorts of stories," Kiernan said.

More soon.


One Liners

Connie Schultz on blogging:

"It’s like coffee with friends…except friends that you never want to actually let sit at your table.”


This place is packed

Man, I had no idea how big this conference was. Yes, I understood the importance. Anytime you can get people like Connie Schultz, Gwen Ifill, Mara Schiavocampo and Jon Lee Anderson in the same room to talk about narrative writing, you have something special.  Especially in a day and age when journalists and writers are looking for different ways to do their jobs. But this place is packed. Schultz is speaking now in front of a full ballroom and people are still filing in, looking for seats. Schultz noted that many of the journalists attending had to pay their own way to the conference, demonstrating a commitment to their craft and careers. "You have nothing to apologize for. We have more readers than we have ever had in this business. The business model is broken. You are not broken."
Ain't that the truth


Connie Schultz: 'The business model is broken. You are not broken.'

Connie Schultz is sick of reading the bad news on Romenesko, which she called "Reverend James' House of Perpetual Pain..."

"How many of you are tired of hearing about your own demise?" The Plain Dealer Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist
asked the audience, and then videotaped the meek cheering and applause to "post on Romenesko."

The death of journalism: " isn't it fun, isn't it hilarious?" Not so much, according to Schultz.

"The young ones in this room, you're going to be fine," she said. Try to be excited about the possibilities, she advised. "We don't know what's up ahead. That means anything is possible."

But Schultz's emphasis was on providing salve to the mid-career journalists who filled the audience, about a dozen of whom raised their hands when she asked if anyone had lost their job in the past few months.

"You have nothing to apologize for," she said. "I am so tired of hearing journalists with all this handwringing try to figure out what they did wrong. We have more readers than we've ever had in this industry. The business model is broken. You are not broken."

[Corrections appended]

Schultz presented her audience with a litany of affirmations: "Y ou have never been wiser, you have never been kinder, you have never been more patient, you have never been more curious about the wonders and tragedies of this world...You have never asked better questions in your career than you're asking now."

Narrative journalism will always be necessary, Schultz said, because it reminds readers "that they're not alone in their experiences."

Journalists ask the questions that other people are afraid to ask each other--but that they desperately want to know, Schultz said.

"People are always going to want to feel less lonely, they're always going to want to feel more connected, and that's why we do what we do."

Note: Embarrassing that Connie Schultz expressed so much doubt about bloggers yesterday, because I didn't do her justice in this post. In my haste, I misspelled her name--leaving out the 'c' twice--and garbled the words of one of her main quotes. Ms. Schultz also noted that she thought it was inaccurate to say that she was "sick of" reading Romenesko, rather than "sick of reading all the bad news on his site." Fair enough. She also said she thought the cheering and applause following her question,
"How many of you are tired of hearing about your own demise?"was "spirited" rather than "meek." I'm going to stand by this one, although it's probably more a question of context. My cutoff for 'spirited' involves whooping and jumping up and down, which is probably not a response one can expect from a ballroom full of journalists at the Sheraton Hotel.



Connie Hale is opening the conference with a story about her Hawaiian upbringing and her storytelling traditions--especially her "bitter loss" in her elementary school storytelling competition. (I've heard it--it's a good story.)

I was just talking to GlobalPost's Charlie Sennott yesterday about the importance of family storytelling in shaping your craft as a writer or storyteller.

Sennott said he can tell 12 great stories that his grandfather told him. How many young reporters can tell the great stories that their grandparents told them? he asked.

It's a good question. Something to add to J-School curricula?


Something About Robert Frost, Fences, Neighbors...

Welcome to the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism. We'll be sharing the Sheraton today with the National Pest Management Association, which is, yes, raising the bar for the pest management industry.

Engaging NPMA spokeswoman Meg Kane told me that the conference is designed to help pest management firms go green.

Eco-conscious insect extermination! I have renewed faith in America.

...back to that journalism thing.

Mar 17, 2009

Katherine Boo: Reporting Across the Income Gap

Much as I love narrative journalism, it sometimes makes me uncomfortable. This happens when journalists spend days collecting picturesque details, yet never seem to wrestle with the fact that the people who they’re talking to are suffering.

Take one of last month’s New Yorkers, with a pitch you could have seen coming a mile away: Slumdog Millionaire is about to win a bunch of Oscars, so the New Yorker gets one of its reporters to go interview a real live Mumbai slum kid. (Abstract here.)

Just more poverty tourism, right—except the reporter was Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer-prize winner who has written about welfare moms, survivors of Hurricane Katrina, and Texas factory workers who lost their jobs to outsourcing.

One of the things I admire about Boo—a former speaker at this conference—is that she acknowledges that “Journalism about poverty can be a morally dodgy business.”

A woman in a post-Katrina evacuation shelter once told her, “Wait, so you take our stories and put them in a magazine that rich people read, and you get paid and we don’t?”

“That’s some backward-ass bluffiness, if you ask me.”

Boo doesn’t dispute this—she once
told a group of Northwestern students that writing about poverty for the New Yorker was “bizarre”—but her pieces are deeply grounded in respect for her sources. She never parachutes in, collects a few heart-wrenching anecdotes, and leaves: she hangs around, building up a fuller picture of the lives she’s trying to depict.

So while Boo’s slum kid piece opens with the predictable contrast between the Gautam Nagar slum and the $1,000 a night rooms at the airport Hyatt right next door, she doesn’t keep banging the wealth disparity drum.

Nor does she jump right into talking about how her subject, 13-year-old Sunil, struggles to earn a few rupees a day by picking up garbage or stealing pieces of metal from airport construction sites.

Instead she opens with a scene that’s almost familiar: Sunil playing a videogame and losing, just like any 13-year-old American kid.

"There is a tendency in journalism to -- is this a word? -- exotify. To stick to the anomalous,” Boo said in a 2002
interview with Michael Miner. “We have an eye for the anomalous that causes us to miss what's the same... So you re-create sort of a lopsided cosmos. You create all these anomalies, when, in fact, you walk into a low-income person's house and you might notice that 90 percent of it is like your house."

“I guess I think that in writing about the poor, so often there's an idea that it's a completely alien, anonymous culture, and it's not really part of, quote, our culture. That makes for better stories, but it distorts the connective culture that there is in this country."