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June 14 2013

14:40

Pinned: Dan Zak, 40 Towns, Chimamanda Adichie, TED Radio Hour, writing advice, Walter Lippmann

Pinned this week week for your storytelling pleasure:

Highly recommended: In schools, the complexity in assigned reading is dropping, NPR reports: “A century ago, students were being assigned books with the complexity of around the ninth- or 10th-grade level. But in 2012, the average was around the sixth-grade level.” Pair with yesterday’s engaging Dan Zak piece in the Washington Post, on the news illiteracy and apathy of prospective jurors in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case:

The efficiency of the American jury system, Mark Twain once wrote, “is only marred by the difficulty of finding 12 men every day who don’t know anything and can’t read.”

Yet it is the most democratic demonstration we have, says Randolph Jonakait, a professor at New York Law School and author of “The American Jury System.”

“That we take ordinary people off the street and ask them to decide the fate of other human beings — that’s truly remarkable,” Jonakait says. “And it says something about our belief or our faith or our willingness to use ordinary common sense in making the most important decisions people are ever going to make.”

R39, a landscaper, wrote this on his juror questionnaire: “I don’t really care about what happened.”

When pressed in court about this sentiment on Wednesday, R39 says: “I’m not a person who cares that much about other people.”

When court went into recess late Wednesday afternoon, 75 jurors had been dismissed and 20 remained in the potential pool. Once the pool reaches 40, these potential jurors will be subjected to a round of more detailed questioning that will drill down into personal matters and opinions unrelated to pretrial publicity. The judge announced Thursday that the jury would be sequestered for the duration of trial, which is expected to start next week, at the earliest, and last two to four weeks.

Through Thursday, 34 potential jurors had been questioned individually, sitting in the same cushioned chair, in front of the same congregation of media, answering the same convoluted questions from prosecutors and defense attorneys.

De la Rionda is asking B86 on Tuesday if she could disregard hearing that Trayvon had been suspended at school.

“I could try,” says B86, auburn hair tucked behind her ears.

Does “try” mean you can?

“Probably.”

“ ‘Probably’ means you’re not sure? Does it mean ‘maybe’?”

“I’m not sure. . . . I can’t guarantee anything.”

“We are inspired by the honesty of the potential jurors,” Trayvon’s family said in a statement Wednesday.

Screen Shot 2013-06-13 at 9.30.23 PMGear: “Keep Calm and Revise” — just put it on your wall already. You’ll feel better. Bonus: a “bloody-writer” crime scene notepad, for the days when that doesn’t work.

Inspired: “I learned how to read from comic books, but also how to see.” + 40 Towns, the literary journalism website and work of Jeff Sharlet’s students at Dartmouth + TED Radio Hour exploration of storytelling, with novelist Chimamanda Adichie, filmmaker Andrew Stanton + Creatavist, The Atavist’s new DIY multimedia storytelling tool, which WBUR is using to manage Whitey Bulger trial coverage.

Cartoontorials: on finding your own voice (but loving Michael Paterniti’s!); on the professionalism of sticking to your assigned word count; on the definition of narrative journalism (in case you forgot).

Tip sheets: Writing advice from famous authors (Orwell: “Never use a long word where a short one will do”) + Edmund Wilson’s checklist on how to say NO.

Walter Lippmann: a board devoted to the two-time-Pulitzer-winning columnist, author, founding editor of The New Republic, and namesake of our Nieman Foundation headquarters, Lippmann House. A deep thinker on the interplay between public opinion and the news, he argued that the masses make up their mind before studying facts, and that most people operate in willful ignorance, without bothering to think critically. He made those arguments in 1922. (Sound timely? See: Zak; Zimmerman; news, above.)

April 12 2012

14:43

The best magazine features of 2011: an ASME sampler

National Magazine Award judges have a tough job this year as they choose a winner in the features category. There’s the sobering story about a corporate attorney’s mysterious death in Guatemala; the bizarre tale of a pair of young international arms dealers; the moving account of two dozen strangers braving a massive tornado; a fable-like piece about a man who rode out the Japanese tsunami on the roof of his house; and a high-larious (pardon us) story about a darker side of Disney World.

The American Society of Magazine Editors will announce the winner on May 3, but until then here’s a sampling from those five fine finalists, written by some of the top names in narrative:

Luke Dittrich* of Esquire. From “Heavenly Father!…”:

Tinkerbell is squirming and twisting in Michaela’s arms, trying to look up at the widening holes in the roof. The tornado, unlike the storm clouds that shrouded it and concealed its approach, is not entirely dense and black. Dim, green, aquatic light, like the light scuba divers see, brightens the cooler a bit even as the cooler is being torn apart.

The tornado stretches twenty thousand feet into the sky. It is three quarters of a mile wide. It is not empty.

It is carrying two-by-fours and drywall and automobiles.

It is carrying baseball cards, laptop computers, family photo albums.

It is carrying people, as naked as newborns, their clothes stripped away like tissue paper.

It is carrying fragments of the Walmart where Carl and Jennifer met, of the church where Donna worships, of three of the nursing homes where Lacey works.

It has traveled six miles through the city, and now it is carrying a great deal of the city within itself.

Michaela pushes Tinkerbell’s head down, but she can feel her squirrelly little neck straining against her hand, wanting to look up, wanting to see.

David Grann of The New Yorker. From “A Murder Foretold”:

Initially, Rosenberg spoke slowly and stiffly, but then his hands began to rise and fall, along with his eyebrows, the power of his voice growing—a voice from the grave. “I don’t have a hero complex,” he said. “I don’t have any desire to die. I have four divine children, the best brother life could have given me, marvellous friends.” He continued, “The last thing I wanted was to deliver this message…But I hope my death helps get the country started down a new path.” He urged Vice-President Espada whom he described as “not a thief or an assassin” − to assume the Presidency and insure that the guilty parties wound up in jail. “This is not about seeking revenge, which only makes us like them,” Rosenberg said. “It is about justice.” He predicted that the Guatemalan government would try to cover up the truth, by smearing the Musas and inventing plots. “But the only reality that counts is this: if you saw and heard this message, it is because I was killed by Álvaro Colom and Sandra de Colom, with the help of Gustavo Alejos.” He concluded, “Guatemalans, the time has come. Please it is time. Good afternoon.”

Guy Lawson of Rolling Stone. From “Arms and the Dudes”:

To get into the game, Diveroli knew he would have to deal with some of the world’s shadiest operators – the war criminals, soldiers of fortune, crooked diplomats and small-time thugs who keep militaries and mercenaries loaded with arms. The vast aftermarket in arms had grown exponentially after the end of the Cold War. For decades, weapons had been stockpiled in warehouses throughout the Balkans and Eastern Europe for the threat of war against the West, but now arms dealers were selling them off to the highest bidder. The Pentagon needed access to this new aftermarket to arm the militias it was creating in Iraq and Afghanistan. The trouble was, it couldn’t go into such a murky underworld on its own. It needed proxies to do its dirty work – companies like AEY. The result was a new era of lawlessness. According to a report by Amnesty International, “Tens of millions of rounds of ammunition from the Balkans were reportedly shipped – clandestinely and without public oversight – to Iraq by a chain of private brokers and transport contractors under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense.”

This was the “gray market” that Diveroli wanted to penetrate. Still a teenager, he rented a room in a house owned by a Hispanic family in Miami and went to work on his laptop.

Michael Paterniti of GQ. From “The Man Who Sailed His House”:

This force is greater than the force of memory, or regret, or fear. It’s the force of an impersonal death, delivered by thousands of pounds of freezing water that slam you into a dark underworld, the one in which you now find yourself hooded, beaten, pinned deeper. The sensation is one of having been lowered into a spinning, womblike grave. If you could see anything in the grip of this monster, fifteen feet down, you’d see your neighbors tumbling by, as if part of the same circus. You’d see huge pieces of house – chimneys and doors, stairs and walls – crashing into each other, fusing, becoming part of one solid, deadly wave. You’d see shards of glass and splintered swords of wood. Or a car moving like a submarine. You’d see your thirty pigeons revolving in their cage. Or your wife within an arm’s reach, then vacuumed away like a small fish. You frantically flail. Is this up or down? Something is burning inside now, not desperation but blood depleted of oxygen. What you illogically desire more than anything is to open your mouth wide and gulp. You scissor your legs. In some eternity, the water turns from black to gray, and gray to dirty green, as you reach up over your head one last time and whip your arms down, shooting for the light.

John Jeremiah Sullivan of the New York Times magazine. From “You Blow My Mind. Hey, Mickey!”:

“I always figured you were doing brownies,” I said.

“I do do brownies,” he said. “I have brownies. But, you know. . . .”

I did. Edibles are good, and wise heads move toward them over time, to save their lungs, but there’s something about the combination of oxygen-deprivation and intense THC-flush that comes with smoking and in particular from smoking joints. There’s no real substitute, for the abuser. A brownie can alter your mood over hours, but a joint swings a psychic broom around you – it clears an instant space.

“I actually saw this thing on the Internet,” Trevor said, “where people were talking about getting high in the park.”

“At Disney World!” I said, as if I hadn’t been listening.

He led me back inside and quietly cracked open his laptop on the kitchen counter. “Check this out,” he whispered. Only the two of us were awake.

I dropped into one of the swivel stools in front of the bright screen. I was reading before I knew what I was reading, but it was like a chat room. Or a forum. “Forum” is the better term. A motif of cannabis leaves and naked women holding glittery buds ran down the left margin: a pothead forum. Trevor scrolled it down to a posting, the subject of which read, “Re: Hello from Disney World.”

An anonymous person, evidently the veteran of a staggering number of weed-smoking experiences in the park, had done a solid for the community and laid out his or her knowledge in a systematic way. It was nothing less than a fiend’s guide to Disney World. It pinpointed the safest places for burning the proverbial rope, telling what in particular to watch for at each spot. Isolated footpaths that didn’t see much traffic, conventional smoking areas with good hedge cover, places where you could hide under a bridge by a little artificial river – those were its points of interest. The number of views suggested that the list had helped a lot of desperate people.

In other finalist categories you’ll find equally terrific pieces, including Mark Bowden’s “Echoes from a Distant Battlefield” (Vanity Fair), Natasha Gardner’s “Direct Fail” (5280) and Mike Kessler’s “What Happened to Mitrice Richardson?” (Los Angeles).

Enjoy!


*Coming Friday: Dittrich recently visited the Nieman Narrative Writing class, where he took us behind the scenes of reporting and writing the Joplin, Mo.,
tornado story. Check back tomorrow for that conversation.

May 12 2011

15:15

What we’re reading: Hitchens speechless, marathon lunacy and a problematic police sting

From Leslie Jamison’s account of the extreme, bizarre Barkley Marathon to Christopher Hitchens’ meditation on what it means to lose the thing that has helped define him as a writer, here are some of the most interesting things that have been sent to us or that we’ve stumbled across so far this month.

The Immortal Horizon,” by Leslie Jamison in The Believier (via @longreads/@gangrey). The craziest race you’ve never heard of and don’t want to run.

The first race was a prison break. On June 10, 1977, James Earl Ray, the man who shot Martin Luther King Jr., escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and fled across the briar-bearded hills of northern Tennessee. Fifty-four hours later he was found. He’d gone about eight miles. Some might hear this and wonder how he managed to squander his escape. One man heard this and thought: I need to see that terrain!

Over twenty years later, that man, the man in the trench coat—Gary Cantrell by birth, self-dubbed Lazarus Lake—has turned this terrain into the stage for a legendary ritual: the Barkley Marathons, held yearly (traditionally on Lazarus Friday or April Fool’s Day) outside Wartburg, Tennessee. Lake (known as Laz) calls it “The Race That Eats Its Young.” The runners’ bibs say something different each year: SUFFERING WITHOUT A POINT; NOT ALL PAIN IS GAIN. Only eight men have ever finished. The event is considered extreme even by those who specialize in extremity.

The Long Con,” by Brendan Kiley in the Stranger (via @somethingtoread). Underground culture, conspiracy, and a sting operation that stretched on for years.

Because this story has to start somewhere, let’s begin on any given night in early 2009. It’s probably drizzling, and a cluster of people is standing outside the wooden apartment building on the corner of 11th Avenue and Pike Street, the one with motel-style exterior hallways and severely chipped paint. A lightbulb above one door is glowing green, a signal that visitors are welcome. When the lightbulb glows yellow, visitors are supposed to come back later. When the lightbulb glows red, they are supposed to keep away.

Sometimes when visitors enter the apartment, they’re asked to hand over any weapons they might be carrying—hardly anybody ever is—and sometimes there’s a cursory pat-down. Inside the apartment are a lot of artists, plus a military guy or two on a night away from the base. Some are sitting around a card table playing poker. Others are sitting on couches and chairs, smoking and drinking.

They’re all being watched, but only one of them knows it.

Unspoken Truths,” by Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair. Hitchens, still not going gentle into that good night, talks about what it means for a writer to lose his voice.

To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.

Rewrite,” by Robert Sanchez from 5280. The bitterness and hope of life after death.

Todd woke up three weeks after the accident in the intensive care unit at Littleton Adventist. He regained a bit of weight and was transferred to Craig Hospital in Englewood, a world-renowned center for spinal cord injuries. Six weeks after the crash, he was relearning how to walk and could speak well enough to carry on a conversation. His parents thought he was finally ready to know.

One morning at Craig, Todd Sr. led his son, still in a wheelchair, into a conference room and closed the door behind them. Maryanne was already there. A social worker and a psychiatrist, both from Craig, were also there.

Todd’s father spoke. Three friends were with you: Tony. Michael. Sean. You hit another man in a car. They’re all dead. Todd, they said you were going 93 miles per hour.

Church Burners,” by Pamela Colloff in Texas Monthly. Ten churches burned down in six weeks. Who would do that?

The catastrophic damage caused by fire typically leaves little forensic evidence behind, making arson cases notoriously difficult to solve. (Almost three years after the Governor’s Mansion was nearly destroyed with a Molotov cocktail, no arrests have been made.) ATF agents working on the church fires case had only one advantage: There were ten different crime scenes to be plumbed for clues. By meticulously sifting through the remains of each conflagration, they hit upon a few critical pieces of physical evidence. Culled from the ruins were two distinct sets of shoe prints, a lone fingerprint on a piece of glass, and two microscopic samples of genetic material: skin cells that had been left on both a brick and a rock, each of which had been used to smash in a church window. But who, exactly, this evidence pointed to remained a mystery.

February 23 2011

16:42

Awards season begins: narrative highlights from ASNE and Polk awards; announcement of CRMA finalists

Looking for some quality narrative journalism you might not have noticed before? As awards season for newspapers and magazines gets underway, we wanted to share links to stories recognized for their writing and storytelling. Here are some of the more narrative categories and entries from the 2010 Polk Awards in Journalism, the list of finalists for the 2011 City and Regional Magazine Awards, and the winners of the American Society of News Editors awards for the best journalism of 2010.

Earlier this month, the City and Regional Magazine Association and the Missouri School of Journalism announced the 2011 National City and Regional Magazine Awards Finalists. There are a lot of narrative contenders in many of the categories, but here are the candidates for feature story and for writer of the year. Winners will be announced at the CRMA 35th Annual Conference to be held April 30-May 2 at The Drake Hotel in Chicago. (Click on the article titles to read the stories.)

Feature Story

  • 5280 Magazine – Lindsey Koehler “Gone
  • Atlanta Magazine – Thomas Lake “The Golden Boy
  • Chicago Magazine – Bryan Smith “The Long Fall
  • Philadelphia Magazine – Ralph Cipriano “The Hitman
  • Texas Monthly – Michael Hall “The Soul of a Man” (link is to excerpt only)

Writer of the Year (specific stories were not mentioned, but we have included a link to a story from each writer)

The American Society of News Editors last week announced the winners of its annual awards for outstanding writing and photography for 2010. Some of the stories are projects that we’ve covered before, but here are a few with a strong element of storytelling that you might not have seen yet.

The staff of The New York Times won the Online Storytelling award, for “A Year at War,” which recounts the life of a battalion with “intimacy and deep understanding.” Michael Kruse won the Distinguished Writing Award for Nondeadline Writing for a collection of stories, including his celebrated monkey piece. Barbara Davidson of the Los Angeles Times won the Community Service Photojournalism award for her exploration of the effects of gang violence on the innocent: “those wounded or killed because of a quarrel in which they had no part, victims lying in hospital beds or relatives and friends standing by their loved ones’ coffins or sitting all alone asking, ‘Why?’ ”

William Wan of The Washington Post won the Freedom Forum/ASNE Award for Distinguished Writing on Diversity for “his stories that provide insights that add to readers’ understanding and awareness of diverse issues shaping society and culture. Wan writes about a proud U.S. Army soldier whose Islamic faith is the target of ongoing hostility within his own ranks. Another piece details unusual Saturday afternoon church services at a Giant supermarket, where worshipping occurs in the community room and sometimes in the aisles. He also reports on Major League Baseball’s quixotic training program in China.”

And just this week, Long Island University announced the 2010 George Polk Awards in Journalism. Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone won the award for Magazine Reporting for “The Runaway General,” the story of U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal and America’s conflicted mission in Afghanistan. The Washington Post’s “Top Secret America” project, spearheaded by Dana Priest and William Arkin, took the prize for National Reporting. The “Law and Disorder” collaboration between PBS’ “Frontline,” ProPublica and The Times-Picayune covered suspicious shootings by police in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and won the award for Television Reporting.

For more, see the complete list of ASNE winners, the Polk Awards press release, and all the 2011 CRMA finalists.

February 11 2011

04:20

Political footnote or comeback kid? Robert Sanchez goes for a ride with Tom Tancredo

In “Down But Not Out,” our latest Notable Narrative, writer Robert Sanchez checks in with Tom Tancredo, who was a candidate for governor of Colorado just a few short months ago. Made famous by his statements about bombing Muslim holy sites and references to Miami as a Third World country, Tancredo had an outsize presence in pre-election coverage nationwide.

Appearing in the February 2011 issue of 5280 magazine, the story opens with a sentence that pulls readers in so close they nestle in Tancredo’s pocket:

Tom Tancredo is blazing east across a cold, empty stretch of blacktop near the Colorado-Nebraska border with two shotguns in the back of his wife’s Toyota minivan, a handful of cigars hidden in a coat pocket, and the radio tuned to a conservative talk show.

Sanchez delivers his tale in the style of Gay Talese, who excels at focusing on competitors in defeat. Yet even the first scene, in which Tancredo is stopped by a sheriff’s deputy for speeding, sends an early signal to readers that we should not count Tancredo out too soon.

Mental illness, issues about military service, Tancredo’s involvement in addressing the Sudanese crisis, and unlikely reflections on his life from those who know him pop like firecrackers across the narrative landscape. Yet what makes Sanchez’s story is the hunting trip ride-along that bookends the piece. At one point, Sanchez rifles through the detritus of Tancredo’s glove compartment in search of car registration and insurance documents to give to police. And after the former Congressman has successfully bagged a handful of pheasants, Sanchez rides home in the back seat with his subject – the better to watch him close up – and realizes that Tancredo still has his sights set on bigger things.

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