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June 21 2013

14:27

Pinned: Story trailers, a notable narrative, writers on rejection, writers on Twitter, Michael Hastings’ tips for young journalists

Pinned this week, for your storytelling pleasure:

Inspired: Story trailers. Esquire made not one but two (a 46- and 20-second version) for Chris Jones’ “Animals,” a taut narrative about the Zanesville, Ohio, zoo massacre. And Georgia’s Macon Telegraph just launched one for “Searching for Shorty: The murder of an unknown man,” a narrative coming this Sunday by enterprise reporters Amy Leigh Womack and Joe Kovac Jr.:

Kovac makes these himself. We asked him how he does it, and why, and here’s what he told us yesterday:

This was actually the third “trailer” I’ve done for stories in the past year and a half. They’re all fairly pedestrian, done with half-a-decade-old iMovie software on the Mac in my kitchen. (Not low-budget, but rather no-budget.) “Killing in the Country: The Death of Trevorius Thomas,” for instance, incorporates audio I recorded on my iPhone at the funeral; I used a photo I snapped at the scene as the backdrop. I made “Phantom on Emery Highway“ on a Sunday night. I filmed it through an open sunroof with a point-and-shoot camera. The idea was to follow the same route that police thought the hit-and-run driver took. Which I did. The clip ends at the spot where the man was killed. I had hoped to film it at 3:30 a.m. to capture an accurate depiction of what the traffic might have been like when the man was run over. But I figured late on a Sunday was good enough. I’ve tried to be as careful as I can on these not to go over the top with the effects and bells and whistles that iMovie offers. As a novice on video, I think sometimes there’s an urge to “use all the toys.” I’ve tried to keep the trailers simple. As we might say in a print newsroom, Write it straight.

Joe Kovac Jr.

Joe Kovac Jr.

I’m pretty much a shade-tree mechanic when it comes to video. At best. I can write “grabber” copy well enough and I think that’s why I use it instead of voiceovers. I’ve made most of these in my spare time, off the clock. But I’ve found that distilling a 5,000-word story into a minute or so of video really makes you focus as a writer. On “Killing in the Country,” about a drug deal gone bad, I made the trailer the weekend before I started writing. It was agonizing, tedious, making the text match the sound, learning the iMovie ropes trial and error. So much of it is timing. But bottom line, it forces you to find the heart of the story. But again, low-budget as it may look, it was painstaking. The “Killing in the Country” clip took … well, let’s just say longer than I’d have liked. Hours.

I wouldn’t want to do trailers on everyday features, but on a piece I’ve spent a few weeks or months reporting it can be worth it. The hope, of course, is that the videos will drive readers to our site for the stories. Hard to gauge whether it works. It’s still kind of cool.

Notable narrativesThe Washington Post’s Stephanie McCrummen wrote a remarkable piece recently about a mother, a son and schizophrenia. A passage:

It has been 10 years since he began thinking his classmates were whispering about him, four years since he started feeling angry all the time, and two years since he first told a doctor he was hearing imaginary voices. It has been 20 months since he was told he had a form of schizophrenia, and 15 months since he swallowed three bottles of Benadryl and laid down to die, after which he had gotten better, and worse and, for a while, better again, or so Naomi had thought until an hour ago, when they were in the therapist’s office and Spencer said that his head was feeling “cloudy.” 

“Wait —” she said, interrupting. “You described it as a cloudy feeling?”

Cloudy was the big, flying red flag that she had learned to dread. It might simply be a side effect of one of his five medications. But it could also be the quiet beginning of her firstborn son falling apart again, of hallucinations, or a dive into depression, or some other dimension of his illness that Naomi has yet to fathom.

“Yeah,” Spencer said. “Cloudy. It feels like these winds are blowing inside my head.”

Inspired, Part 2: Twelve famous writers on rejection, which in this fractious writing universe appears applicable across disciplines (“To ward off a feeling of failure, she joked that she could wallpaper her bathroom with rejection slips, which she chose not to see as messages to stop, but rather as tickets to the game.”—Anita Shreve) and Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, a new book about the habits of 161 creative minds. From the website of the author, Mason Currey:

Here are: Anthony Trollope, who demanded of himself 3,000 words each morning (250 words every 15 minutes for three hours) before going off to his job at the postal service, which he kept for 33 years during the writing of more than two dozen books; George Balanchine, who liked to do his own laundry and who did most of his “work” while ironing; George Gershwin, who worked for 12 hours a day, from late morning to midnight, composing at the piano in pajamas, bathrobe, and slippers.

Recommended: At NewYorker.com, Thomas Beller wrote about writers and Twitter:

Writing on Twitter brings the energy of a début to every phrase. You could say it imbues writing with a sense of performance, though writing has always involved performance in the sense of performance anxiety. The question for the writer who is leaving multiple pages crumpled on the floor—literally or figuratively—is for whom is that line, or paragraph, unsatisfactory? Who is the appraiser of one’s own unpublished, or even unwritten, work?

The editor Ted Solotaroff wrote an essay called “A Few Good Voices In My Head,” in which he talked about managing this feeling of having an audience. His prescription is summed up in his title: a couple of trusted voices with whom a writer will engage in a dialogue—sometimes literally, more often not. Twitter is messing with this equation: I have many more voices in my head than I ever had before.

Cartoontorials: It’s not that big a deal but really, people, isn’t it time to stop double-spacing after a period in your first drafts? The typewriter imperative is over.

GearThese notebooks, spotted by former Arizona Republic reporter Jamiee Rose. Not so great for reporting, maybe (we prefer the long narrow classic ones: easily tuckable or back-pocketable), but just fine for sketching out story notes and structures.

In memorium: Let’s just agree that this was one crappy week. Rolling Stone and BuzzFeed reporter Michael Hastings died at 33 in a Los Angeles car crash; the actor James Gandolfini died suddenly at 51, while vacationing in Italy; the Oregonian announced a publishing scale-back plus layoffs and the publisher referred to the newsroom as a “content organization.” (“Kill me,” tweeted Gene Weingarten.) Worth remembering as we shake off a tough one: Hastings’ 10 tips for young journalists, which in the hours after his death circulated widely beyond his year-old reddit AMA. They included:

By the second sentence of a pitch, the entirety of the story should be explained. (In other words, if you can’t come up with a rough headline for your story idea, it’s going to be a challenge to get it published.)

And:

Mainly you really have to love writing and reporting. Like it’s more important to you than anything else in your life–family, friends, social life, whatever. 

Join us on Pinterest for more good stuff, and find the burgeoning “Pinned” archives here.

March 28 2013

14:26

Just one question … for Michael Graff, on the death of Earl Badu

Big buzz earlier this month when Michael Graff‘s story on the suicide of former University of Maryland basketball walk-on Earl Badu hit SB Nation‘s longform wing:

You know the wish can’t come true, but people say it all the time to hide their own fears, so you’ll open with it, too: You wish he could just be happy. It would be easier that way. You could just hang curtains around everything else — the past, the future, the end — and you could look down through a tunnel at him and say, Freeze. Stay right there. And he’d remain locked in this memory, the little guy with the big heart playing in the final minute of the final game of a storied arena.

Graff

Graff

The piece, edited by Best American Sports Writing boss Glenn Stout, managed to resonate in spite of—because of?—almost no access to, or cooperation from, Badu’s family and friends. So from Graff, who lives in Greensboro, N.C., and also writes for Our State magazine, I wanted to know: How’d he do that?

Here’s what he said:

I was in my office in September writing about the symphony, of all things, when I read a brief on the Washington Post’s website that said Earl Badu committed suicide. The report showed that he jumped off an overpass and “onto Interstate 695.” I couldn’t believe it. Anybody who knew about Maryland’s 2002 national championship team remembered Earl. He was the Terps’ all-time Rudy. I remembered the basket he scored late in the last game at Cole, and I remembered just how loved he was by the fans. And now all I could picture was this scene with cars swerving around his body.

I waited. In mid-November I sent a half-hearted pitch to my editor, Glenn Stout, and said, basically, “Here’s an idea. I don’t know if I can get it. But if you think you’d want it, I’ll try.” Glenn said go.

I knew I had these two moments in time, moments that most humans never experience—a big shot, and a suicide. All I had to do, I figured, was fill up the 10 years in between.

Throughout December, I struggled with access. I live in North Carolina. And coaches and athletes from big places like Maryland have a lot going on. So it’s easier for them to work with writers they know, especially on hard stories like this. I was way behind. But I figured I had one thing going for me: I cared about it.

I started in the athletic department. I was honest in my requests. I told everybody up front that I was going to write about the suicide. Then I let them decide whether they wanted to participate. I didn’t want to mislead anyone.

I requested public records. The incident report showed that the suicide took place in two locations—the house and the top of the bridge. His parents were involved; other people were involved. Also, he didn’t jump onto the road. He jumped into a ditch.

The biggest blows came when Badu’s parents and Juan Dixon, his best friend on the team, decided not to participate. I contacted an old friend of mine who knows Juan and his brother Phil personally. That friend called the Dixons, and they said they wanted to be respectful of Earl’s family. I had Earl’s parents’ address from the police report. I called them twice. I left two messages. Then I mailed them a letter. When their attorney called me on Jan. 7, I was actually in my truck and on my way to their house. I decided to leave them alone, at his request.

I talked to Glenn throughout the process. I told him I was having a hard time filling up the middle. He said, “The unknown is part of the story.” That stuck. (Ed. note: The unknown, in fact, can serve as the theme of a story, as Alan Huffman showed in his recent “Why’s this so good?” breakdown of a Carol Smith piece in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.) The lack of access forced the story to become deeper than the space between two moments in time; it became a story about the space between life and death.

In a way, the main character became suicide, not Earl.

I put myself in every place I could see him. I drove to the courthouse. Basic Internet court-record searches showed his legal trouble, $300,000 in debt to Alan Cornfield. Those troubles came to life in scenes in court documents. One of them was the scene of Earl on a cell phone in court, telling the judge to let him finish the call.

I drove to the house. I wrote what I saw and felt, turned around, and got the heck out of there. At the edge of the neighborhood, I started recording more notes. I recorded them all the way to the top of the bridge, where I stopped. I got out, walked around, put my hands on the wall and looked down. I hurried back to my truck. I put a notebook on the armrest and, with my hand shaking, I wrote this: “Jumping takes courage.”

I kept calling people. I found some of his old high school coaches and teammates. The farther out I got, the more people talked. They told me about the Earl they knew. They loved him.

I spent three months with this story, off and on and between other things. I went to bed with it and woke up with it. After a while, the question changed from “How do I get the story?” to “Why am I doing it? What’s the greater good?”

I guess in a small way, I wanted to change the way readers saw the next person they passed. Obviously, we enter every situation carrying our own life experiences. It’s easy to look at every end-of-the-bench player and think of him in a Rudy type of way. If he’s not great at basketball or football, we think, he must be a “good student,” or a “hard worker.” I’ve seen sportswriters lead players into those answers for years, and I’ve watched how they’ve shaped those humans. It’s not fair; we’re more complicated than that.

Suicide as a character, then, is a tornado that spins all over the place. It isn’t a solitary act. It spins onto a basketball floor. Into the eyes of fans. Into the words of sportscasters and writers. Into the pressure to make money. Into a courtroom. Onto a bridge. It makes teachers and friends and family and bosses and everybody who’s ever been in contact with the victim feel connected in a really bad way.

That’s why I waited until the end to introduce the other people in the story. Not many people cared that Andre Collins hit that last shot. But he did. It wasn’t Earl.

Nobody even knew about Rodney Welsh and Janet Stout, two people whose names were sort of hidden in the police report. But Earl changed their lives that day. Rodney, especially, still can’t sleep at night because of it. I thought that made it important to write about them, and to do it at the bottom—as real endings to those two stories that I introduced at the top.

One night in February, about a week before the deadline, I dreamed about Earl. I dreamed he was in a room, something like a dressing room inside an arena. He was leaning against a pillar, talking to his mom. And out of nowhere, Earl turned to me and he said, “This is all about a girl.”

I woke up stunned. Had I gone wrong? I was one week away from turning in the story, and I didn’t have a girl anywhere. All I had was money. That actually helped me let go of some blocks and turn this in.

Reporters believe we need to know everything about a story before writing it. We hold stories or never publish them because a source won’t call back. But sometimes not knowing is just part of it. Especially with suicide. And I know this from personal experience: It didn’t matter if I talked to every person who came into contact with Earl in his life, I’d still have one source missing—the main one, the only one who knew what it was like to live with that despair.

I wrote the first draft in first person. A friend who’s an editor read it and had hesitations with my character that way. That’s when I decided to try the whole thing in second person. I think I was able to be more honest that way. The global “you” made it easier to talk about, which I guess is sort of telling. I turned it in at 2 a.m. the day of the deadline. Glenn wrote me three emails before 9 a.m., and we were on the phone working through revision notes by 10. The first version ended with Janet Stout. Glenn liked that, but he said he wanted me to try a few others. If they didn’t work, we’d stay with Janet.

A few days later, I sat down in my chair in a corner of the living room with a cup of coffee. My neighbor is a single mother. Her two boys were in their driveway playing basketball. They’re about 10 and 12. They call me “Mr. Mike.” They don’t have a goal. They make hoops with their arms. The one making the hoop counted down the seconds: “5-4-3-2-1.” The other one shoots. Then they switch. I got my laptop, sat in the chair, turned around, closed my eyes, listened to their shoes and voices, and wrote the ending.

kruse-m1Michael Kruse is an award-winning staff writer on the enterprise team at the Tampa Bay Times. He recently gave a TEDx talk and had a story make the anthology Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists. His “Just One Question” column has covered stories by Lane DeGregory, Gene Weingarten, and others.  

April 19 2012

14:26

Narrative gold: Eli Sanders and his Pulitzer-winning crime saga

“The prosecutor wanted to know about window coverings. He asked: Which windows in the house on South Rose Street, the house where you woke up to him standing over you with a knife that night – which windows had curtains that blocked out the rest of the world and which did not?”

So begins Eli Sanders’ story “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” which this week won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. The category usually offers up an unforgettable narrative and this year gave us a story – and an exciting writer – that we otherwise might have missed.

Sanders’ elegantly tense portrayal of a home invasion, double rape and murder appeared last June in The Stranger, a Seattle weekly, but Sanders’ coverage of suspect Isaiah Kalebu started long before that. In “The Mind of Kalebu,” which ran in the fall of 2009, Sanders examined loopholes in the criminal justice system’s treatment of mentally unstable suspects. His reporting ultimately led us into the courtroom, as murder victim Teresa Butz’s partner testified:

The attacks became more sadistic. Things began to happen that were beyond the worst imagining of Butz’s partner. She felt like she was going to be ripped in half. She thought: “He’s not going to kill me with a knife, but he’s going to kill me this way.”

Then she heard Butz say: “Why are you cutting me? Why are you cutting me?”

The man said to Butz: “Shut up, or I’m going to kill your girlfriend.”

He took the women into another room in the house, where he pulled another knife out of a pair of jeans he’d left on a guest bed.

The story he had been telling them, the story Butz’s partner had been telling her- self, the story that he just wanted sex and was not going to hurt them, now completely shattered. “In that moment I just knew he was going to kill us,” Butz’s partner told the court. “I just knew. There was something different in his gaze. There was this kind of looking. I didn’t feel fear from him, I didn’t feel anger from him, I just felt this nothing.”

We asked four Pulitzer winners, a Pulitzer judge and a legendary contributor to the craft of narrative journalism what they thought made the story special. Here’s what they said:

I’ve never read a court story like “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” – never in 28 years of journalism. I don’t know that anyone has read a trial story containing such painstaking detail and emotion; containing so many elements of the human instinct to survive in the face of the near inevitability of death.

“The Bravest Woman in Seattle” has all the elements of a work of fiction until the reader quickly reaches the chilling realization that this case was real. This was not some made-up crime novel. The people who were the subjects of this story, the heroes of it, too, were human beings, though savagely treated.

The power of this story is in the incredible writing, which made me care deeply for two women who were strangers to me, who were living normal lives before a knife-wielding man sexually assaulted and tormented them. “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” leaves readers clinging to hope that all ends well. The readers pray for the victims’ survival and that the bad guy gets caught. It is a challenge of human will to stay with this story. There is the temptation to leave for fear it will rip at your own emotions. Once the mind wraps itself around the facts in the case (although it is impossible to comprehend how one human could be so cruel to another), the reader is left to draw her own conclusions about whether the convicted man got what he deserved.

Ronnie Agnew is a four-time Pulitzer Prize judge and sat on this year’s feature writing jury. He is the executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting and the former executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger, in Jackson, Miss. He has worked as a reporter and editor in Ohio, Alabama and Mississippi.

***

As the Pulitzer board noted this week, Eli Sanders’ “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” is “a haunting story of a woman who survived a brutal attack that took the life of her partner.” It is also the story of the woman telling that story: The citation commends Sanders’ use of her courtroom testimony to “construct a moving narrative.”

But it is also the story of Sanders, a reporter, responding to the woman’s telling of that haunting story. And that extra level of narrative, I think, is the source of the story’s riveting power.

Sanders calls the survivor “the bravest woman in Seattle.’’ Maybe that is true. But what matters is that we feel the rawness of his admiration for her courage, and of his rage on her behalf. It takes journalistic bravery to expose yourself, as well as your subject, to the reader. And it takes a rare skill to do it, as Sanders does, almost entirely with telling details, structure and intensity of tone. Seeking to transport us into the head of the woman whose story he is telling, Sanders places us at the same time into his own. He quotes her as well as her thoughts, channeling her with an authority born of his observation, of his participation as a reporter covering the emotionally charged event: “I am not scared,’’ he imagines her thinking. “I have nothing to hide here. Not anymore. Not for something as important as this, the opportunity to put him away.’’

You risk credibility when you do this, even in a story where no one can fault you for sympathizing with the woman on the stand. Maybe especially in a story like this, reporters bend over backward to be fair, to maintain a safe distance. But Sanders’ understated honesty makes us trust him. The reporter next to him cried, he says. “I cried.’’

How much of the graphic information about the rapes and murder, we hear Sanders wondering, about his role in this drama, is right to include? “Some of her testimony from this day is not going to be recounted in this story,’’ he decides.

One of my favorite passages comes when Sanders observes the mother of Teresa Butz, the partner who was murdered:

She is a small woman, just like her daughter. If this woman can absorb, at the level of detail required for proof before a jury, the particulars of what happened to her daughter – can view the bloody crime scene photographs, can listen to the 911 call from a neighbor leaning over her blood-soaked daughter and screaming, “Ma’am, please wake up! Please wake up!” (while, to the 911 operator pleading, “Please hurry, please hurry”), can hear the testimony about DNA evidence and what orifices it was recovered from – then no one else in this courtroom can dare turn away.

Here, Sanders transports us to all three levels of the story at once. We are in the moment of the attack, we are listening to the horrifying details unfold in the courtroom, and we are in Sanders’ own head, flinching from those details yet increasingly convinced that there is a moral imperative in relaying them.

Amy Harmon is a two-time Pulitzer winner and a New York Times national correspondent who covers the impact of science and technology on American life. Her series “The DNA Age” won the 2008 Pulitzer for explanatory reporting, and in 2001 she shared the prize for national reporting, for the series “How Race Is Lived in America.”

***

“Maybe he could use that love against them.”

In Eli Sanders’ searing narrative about the rapes of two women and the murder of one of them, that single sentence reveals the writer’s mastery of his subject. In the midst of all the horror, we are reminded of the victims’ love for one another and experience an excruciating clash of emotions.

With his command of pace, rhythm, vivid description and multiple perspectives, Sanders switches between courtroom and crime, and from the victims’ point of view to the narrator’s, always taking care to be honest without being sensational.

The tension in the story comes as much from what is not said as what is. Instead of detailing every grim act, we get the reactions to the survivor’s descriptions of those acts – from the bailiff, the court reporter, the prosecutor, even another reporter. By the end, we are reminded that violence is not ordinary, nor are the victims of violence.

If ever a story was three-dimensional, “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” is it. The story lives not only in time and space, but in consciousness. A testament to its power and truthfulness is that the survivor, who asked not to be named by Sanders, was moved to identify herself after the story’s publication.

Amy Ellis Nutt won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2011 for “The Wreck of the Lady Mary,” and was a finalist in 2008 for “The Accidental Artist.” A reporter at the Newark Star-Ledger, she’s also an adjunct professor in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

***

The writing is rhythmic, concise. Every sentence does what it should in narrative: reveals more about character or moves the action forward. And while the details are beyond grisly, Sanders frames them in a way that forces – obligates – readers to withstand them.

Raquel Rutledge won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in 2010 for her Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series “Cashing in on Kids.” An investigative reporter on the Watchdog Team, she is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

***

Sometimes details are nitroglycerin. As a kid, I knew about nitroglycerin only from Road Runner cartoons – this stuff is incredibly explosive yet there was always plenty of it, and the characters always seemed destined to drop it. Back then, I didn’t know that in tiny doses, in heart medication, it can save a life. As reporters entrusted with powerful details, we sometimes wind up like the coyote trying desperately to cradle them before the ground falls away.

Not here. I was continually impressed with the way Sanders blended the horrific details with a strong instinct for story and, most importantly, care. It’s a crucial combination, as I think he sets this up as more of a campfire story than a courtroom story. He starts off with a scene, then tells us that he’s going to tell us a story. He actually allows us a chance to smile. He lets Teresa Butz’s partner lay the foundation for how honest this story is going to be. He foreshadows some of it, knowing that won’t make it easier when we get there, but at least we know to prepare. Then he tells us we’ve seen enough. Then he immerses us again.

The scenes in this story will join so many others in the feature writing category that haunt and teach through searing detail and restraint, among them one particular child in a car in Gene Weingarten’s “Fatal Distraction,” a little girl’s room/closet in Lane DeGregory’s “The Girl in the Window,” and the description of the dead boy in the snow in Barry Siegel’s “A Father’s Pain….”

In “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” Sanders also finds that balance between the explicit and delicate, guaranteeing that though readers may pause, brace themselves or close their eyes they’ll keep going. We have to continue, because Sanders has allowed Butz’s partner to take us by the hand and show us why we must. By building elements of the story’s framework on the details that make us cringe, Sanders demands that we read until the last word – actually the last nine words – so that by the time we reach that scream, it has been transformed into pure strength.

Jim Sheeler won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2006, for a Rocky Mountain News story that chronicled nearly a year in the life of a U.S. Marine casualty notification officer and the families he touched. His subsequent book, “Final Salute,” was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award.  He holds the Shirley Wormser Professorship in Journalism and Media Writing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

***

The story is admirable in a similar (though of course less profound and courageous) way as its subject is admirable. Throughout, Sanders stresses the survivor’s reasons for going through the ordeal of testifying, writing early on:

This happened to me. You must listen. This happened to us. You must hear who was lost. You must hear what he did. You must hear how Teresa fought him. You must hear what I loved about her. You must know what he took from us. This happened.

Later, he says that the mother of the murder victim, Teresa Butz, was in court and observes: “If a woman can absorb, at the level of detail required for proof before jury, the particulars of what happened to her daughter…. then no one else in this courtroom can dare turn away.”

The accumulation of such comments begins to suggest, in a subtle way, that Sanders and we (the readers) are also participating in the very painful but also brave and important act of taking in this testimony. Later in the story he writes that in the aftermath of the crime, “civilization, which did not stop this from happening, which did not even know this was happening, slowly returned.” The persuasive suggestion is that this article is a part of that slow return: listening to the woman bear witness, without turning away, is the least we can do.

I’ll add, in passing, something I might have asked Sanders if I had been his editor. It strikes me that the bravest woman in Seattle, maybe the bravest woman in the history of Seattle, may have been Teresa Butz, whose actions, as described in the story, ultimately saved her partner’s life even as she was losing her own. Do you think it might make sense to put a little more emphasis on Butz? Just asking.

Ben Yagoda has written about language, writing and other topics for Slate, the New York Times Book Review, the New York Times magazine, The American Scholar, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and many others. He’s a professor of English at the University of Delaware and the author of, among other books, “About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made” and “The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing.” His “The Art of Fact,” coauthored with Kevin Kerrane, is a staple of narrative journalism classrooms. His forthcoming book is “How to Not Write Bad.”

 ***

This year’s two features finalists were also rivetingly memorable, and each ran with compelling multimedia components. In “A Chance in Hell,” Corinne Reilly of the Virginian-Pilot told the story of two weeks in a NATO hospital in Afghanistan. A glimpse:

A few minutes later the soldier is in the operating room. He’s writhing now more than shaking. Through the moans, he’s mumbling three words over and over.

“This is bad. This is bad. This is bad.”

He keeps lifting his head, trying to get a look.

On the end of the bed, the last right boot he ever put on is lying at an angle that’s all wrong, a sweaty foot still inside. The calf above it is a shredded mess of uniform, flesh, dirt and grass. Nothing about it looks real.

Above that there is no discernible knee, just a thin stretch of filthy skin barely hanging onto what’s left of a thigh, which looks a lot like the mangled calf, except for one thing: Among the blood and mud, there is a little white inchworm, scrunching and straightening, slowly making its way across a bit of dying muscle.

Somehow it survived an explosion the soldier may not.

Around him, a dozen people are preparing for surgery. The room smells like damp earth, rubbing alcohol and blood.

“Hang in there one more minute, bud,” the anesthesiologist says, trying uselessly to soothe his patient. “Everything’s gonna be OK in just a minute.”

A nurse walks in. Next to the boot, she sets down a medical form.

It says the soldier’s name is Eddie Ward.

It says he is 19 years old.

And in “Punched Out,” John Branch of The New York Times told the story of the life and death of hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard:

Boogaard, with a backlog of frustrations, wanted to quit during training camp in 2000. He was 18. He called his father to tell him. He told his teammates he had a plane ticket home. Tobin ultimately persuaded him to stay.

And, suddenly, Boogaard started to win fights.

“His first year in the W.H.L., I think, it was mostly adjusting to his frame, not knowing how to use his reach,” Ryan Boogaard said. “I think he felt more comfortable with that frame in his second year in the W.H.L., and he did a lot better.”

He quickly  avenged his broken-jaw loss to Mike Lee.  He beat Mat Sommerfeld, a rival who had torn Boogaard’s name from the back of his uniform and  held it over his head after an earlier conquest. One Web site put Boogaard’s record at 18-4-4 in fights that season. One poll named him the toughest player in the W.H.L.’s Western Conference.

When Boogaard took the ice, a buzz rippled through Prince George’s arena, which routinely had capacity crowds of 5,995. One side of the arena would shout “Boo!” and the other would shout “Gaard!”

He scored only once in 61 games for Prince George in 2000-1. He recorded 245 penalty minutes, ranking eighth in the W.H.L. He was, finally, an enforcer, appreciated by one team, feared by all others.

This continues Pulitzer Week on Storyboard. On Tuesday, Anna Griffin looked at Walt Harrington’s story about Pulitzer-winning poet Rita Dove’s writing process in our “Why’s this so good?” series. On Friday, we’ll post a video, transcript and interactive index of Pulitzer-winning novelist Paul Harding’s recent standing-room-only appearance at the Nieman Foundation.

In the meantime, you’ll find the citations, works and biographies for all of this year’s Pulitzer winners here.

December 30 2011

16:11

Nieman Storyboard’s top 10 posts for 2011

During the last days of December, we’ve been tweeting down Storyboard’s top 10 posts for the year. In case you haven’t been following along, here they are, all in one place (in reverse order):

10. Internet phenom Maud Newton’s “Why’s this so good?”:

Raymond Chandler sticks it to Hollywood.”

9. Chris Jones, Esquire writer at large, talks with Nieman narrative instructor Paige Williams:

On reporting for detail, the case against outlining and the power of donuts.”

8. Storyboard editor Andrea Pitzer’s “Why’s this so good?”:

Gene Weingarten peels the Great Zucchini.”

7. Peter Ginna, publisher and editorial director of Bloomsbury Press, with

When journalists become authors: a few cautionary tips.”

6. Science and culture writer David Dobbs’ “Why’s this so good?”:

Michael Lewis’ Greek odyssey.”

5. Atlantic senior editor Alexis Madrigal’s “Why’s this so good?”:

Truman Capote keeps time with Marlon Brando.”

4. Science writer Carl Zimmer’s “Why’s this so good?”:

McPhee takes on the Mississippi.”

3. Two celebrated Esquire writers visit Harvard:

Gay Talese has a Coke: reflections of a narrative legend in conversation with Chris Jones.”

2. Nieman Lab assistant editor Megan Garber’s “Why’s this so good?”:

David Foster Wallace on the vagaries of cruising.”

1. Pedro Monteiro’s look at storytelling in the tablet and app future:

Story, interrupted: why we need new approaches to digital narrative.”

Thanks for your support in 2011. We’ve had a banner year here, with a lot of new contributors and record numbers of visitors. We look forward to bringing you even better coverage of new narrative projects and ideas in 2012. Happy New Year!

December 21 2011

18:00

Steve Buttry: From a dropped paywall to a social media Pulitzer, expect a year of transformation

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Next up is longtime digital journalist Steve Buttry, the director of community engagement and social media at the Journal Register Co. & Digital First Media.

We will see more newspaper-company transactions in 2012. After a few years where no one wanted to sell at the price the market had dropped to, we’ve had Journal Register Co., the Oklahoman, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and the Omaha World-Herald (am I forgetting one?) sell in the second half of 2011. I believe those sales have helped set the market value, and some people who were refusing to sell will swallow their losses and get out of the newspaper business.

In the transactions mentioned above, people with sufficient wealth appear to have bought the companies outright, taking on little or no debt. (Take the World-Herald, which was bought by the ultimate rich person, Warren Buffett, at the helm of the ultimate public company, Berkshire Hathaway.) I believe we’ll see more transactions involving publicly held companies in 2012. We may also see more creative transactions that fall short of a sale, such as the Journal Register Co./Digital First Media deal to manage MediaNews Group.

I think Google+ will add a new feature (probably more than one, but one will get all the attention) that will make more of a splash than the initial launch of G+ did.

At least one Pulitzer Prize winner (most likely Breaking News Reporting) will have used Twitter and/or Facebook significantly in its coverage and its entry, and the social media use will be cited by the judges (or their refusal to cite it will be glaring).

The winner of the 2012 presidential election will work harder on reaching voters through social media than through the professional media.

Gene Weingarten will write a disapproving column about the changing news business that is funny but dead wrong. (After last year, I had to throw in one sure thing.)

Those are third-person predictions about what other people/companies will do. This last new prediction should carry the disclaimer of obvious self-interest, since I am leading community engagement and social media efforts for the company — but I am confident that Digital First Media will continue to lead the way in transforming the digital news business.

Beyond that, I will re-offer last year’s predictions, since they largely didn’t happen in 2011 (I suppose I can claim #newnewtwitter as being partial fulfillment, though it doesn’t include the features I mentioned):

  • Twitter will make some notable upgrades, including targeting and editing of tweets, historical searching, and some innovative commercial uses.
  • A leader will emerge in location-based news, social media, and commerce.
  • We will see some major realignment of journalism and news-industry organizations. Most likely: the merger of ASNE and APME, mergers of some state press associations, mergers of at least two national press organizations, and mergers of some reporter-beat associations. One or more journalism organizations will close.
  • At least one high-profile news organization will drop its paywall.

December 20 2011

16:00

Robert Hernandez: For journalism’s future, the killer app is credibility

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Next up is multimedia journalist Robert Hernandez, aka WebJournalist, currently an assistant professor at USC Annenberg.

Granted, this will make for a weak lede, but allow me to start this piece with a disclosure: I, like many of you, am not a fan of prediction posts.

Typically, they aren’t based on anything real and are often used to make grand statements we all roll our eyes at… and don’t get me started on how often they’re wrong.

That aside, here’s another piece to roll your eyes at.

But here’s a tweak, this is not really a prediction… this is, to be honest, more of a hopeful wish.

Okay, ready? Here goes.

We know that Content is King. There is no doubting this concept. If you don’t have ‘it,’ no one is going to engage with you.

We know that Distribution is Queen. In this modern age, what’s the point of having ‘it’ if no one will find it?

My prediction is that this ruling monarchy will be augmented by… a prince. Perhaps a duke? Whatever. And it’s called Credibility.

In the age that we live in, content is relatively cheap. Anyone can create it. If not through their computer, everyone’s phone can basically do live shots, record newsworthy sound clips and file stories. Some can do interactive 360 videos or augmented reality presentations. Really cool stuff.

And everyone can distribute their content in 140 characters, their own livestream network or their blog (how traditional).

With technology empowering everyone with the ability to create and to distribute, I predict — and wish — that in 2012 the new dominating factor will be Credibility. Actually, earned Credibility.

What will stand out from the sea of content will be the voices we turn to time and time again. Trusted sources of news and information will transcend their mastheads and company brands…and become their own brand. Brands that are solely based on being known for the quality and reliability of their work.

Just to make Gene Weingarten angry, brands brands brands brands brands. Look, that’s all marketing speak for the most important quality journalists have to offer: Credibility.

And, sure, some of us get a head start by being associated with the Washington Post, NPR, CNN, etc. But I predict — hope — that in the coming year, individual journalists will be valued more than their distribution companies. More than the media format of their story.

Judged by the content of their character. (Wait, that’s a different dream.)

Many news consumers are tired of the political left and the political right fighting, and making journalism — or I should actually say “journalism” — the fight’s platform. Hell, I’m tired of it, too.

We want people who will cut through the spin and tell us what’s going on, how it will affect us and what can we do about it. We want transparent news. We want news that, while it may not always achieve that goal, honestly strives to be objective.

We want to trust journalism. And to do so, we need to trust journalists.

And bypassing the blogger-vs-tweeter-vs-media company-vs-journalist debate, it is going to come down to one thing: Credibility.

Can I reliably trust you to tell me what is going on? If the answer is yes, then I don’t care if you work out of a newsroom or out of your garage.

Let’s see what the new year brings, but that is my predication…that is my wish.

Okay, roll your eyes. Or post a comment. Share your thoughts.

Correction: We initially listed Richard, rather than Robert, Hernandez as the author of this post. We deeply regret the error, and want to stress that it’s the R. Hernandez of USC, rather than the R. Hernandez of Berkeley, who wrote this prediction. Apologies to both.

Image by vagawi used under a Creative Commons license.

July 25 2011

15:02

Tidbits from this year’s Mayborn Conference: how deep is too deep?

Hanging out at orgies with people who smuggle lizards in their pants. Befriending a convict with an Anne Frank tattoo. Doing drugs with a source. You never know what you’ll hear about – or which writers will surprise you – when you go to Texas for the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.

Immersion journalism was the theme of this year’s Mayborn. Attendees heard accounts of journalists being pushed, falling or jumping into stories, courting the unexpected consequences that make immersion narratives riveting – and sometimes problematic. We’ll be writing up several of the sessions in the coming days and weeks, but here are a few highlights:

Gene Weingarten presented the audience with real-world ethical case studies, using moments from two stories in his own career. In one he said he was offered (and took, and smoked) a source’s hash pipe, which he knew constituted a firing offense. In the other, he extracted evidence of corruption and bribery from a delusional patient in the hospital, a man who believed Weingarten was a doctor even after he had explained that he was a reporter.

Joshua Foer entered a memory competition for a story he was working on – and unexpectedly won the contest. “I had been approaching it thinking I was writing about this bizarre subculture of weirdos,” he said. “And now I was their king.”

Mandalit del Barco played an NPR piece that rose out of her carrying letters and gifts between Haitian and Los Angeles County schoolchildren after the 2010 earthquake. Using storytelling soundscapes, she showed how audio paired with a story script can carry listeners into another world. “If you close your eyes now, what can you hear?”

Ted Conover talked about traveling an unpredictable path from observer to participant: riding the rails with hobos, crossing the border with coyotes, and getting slugged by an inmate during an undercover stint as a prison guard. “This doesn’t require an advanced degree,” he said, “just the willingness to do something crazy.”

We think the subtitle for this year’s conference should have been “When Things Get Messy.” Stay tuned for in-depth posts on these presentations and more.

May 05 2011

15:17

Ben Montgomery explores a mystery: “This is a story about grief”

Yesterday our Editors’ Roundtable looked at “When a diver goes missing, a deep cave is scene of a deeper mystery,” by Ben Montgomery. An enterprise reporter at the St. Petersburg Times, Montgomery was a 2010 Pulitzer finalist with the Times’ project “For Their Own Good,” which we featured on this site. He talked with me by phone about his latest story while the editors were in the midst of making their comments on it. As a new part of the Roundtable process, we’ve also invited him to respond to the editors’ comments at a later date.

How did you first hear about Ben McDaniel, and at what point did his disappearance become a story?

In late February. I’m trying to read the papers out of the Panhandle, large and small, because of my work on Dozier [School for Boys] and also because there are places along Florida’s hidden coast that are untapped. There’s very little news coverage, and what’s there often gets overlooked. It’s golden for someone like me who has the freedom to go up there and do work. I caught a small story in, I think, the Jackson County paper.

McDaniel’s family, Patty and Shelby, had announced a $10,000 reward, and the story was about Edd Sorensen, who in fact is in my story. He’s a pretty fantastic recovery diver and cave diver. Sorensen had told the local paper that this was dangerous – basically, “I can understand them wanting to find their son, but they’re going to get someone else killed by putting up this money.”

I immediately recognized that this was a pretty fantastic story, and that if the material held up, it could be really great. You have a mystery, first of all; the guy went in and hasn’t been seen since. Hanging onto that mystery, you have some really interesting human conundrums: the grief of the parents and friends, and the risk for the cave divers.

Pride was involved as well, for the divers who’ve gone in and come out empty-handed. They’re saying, “Look, take our word for it. Trust us. We’re the best of the best, and Ben’s not in there.” They felt like the McDaniels’ insistence that Ben was in there was sort of an insult to them: “They don’t believe us. We’ve told them, and now they’re putting up this reward.” There were strong feelings of hurt and embarrassment as well on the part of the divers.

So it seemed like this whole mess of emotion swirling around this great mystery. I kind of held onto it for a little bit. I think I brought it up at one of our weekly meetings, just to see how people would react to it and whether they would have the same reaction that I did, which was “Wow, this has real potential.” I heard that out of the people in the room, so I took the opportunity to go out and do some real reporting.

How long did you take to report and write the story?

I was working on some other things at the time. I’d say probably I took a trip up there for three days. And then maybe another four or five days on the phone back home, reporting. And maybe four or five days writing. So two weeks, 2 1/2 weeks in all.

When you sat down to write, you had this material – I don’t want to ruin it for any readers – but when you sit down to write, you have a mystery without a simple solution. How did you approach structuring the story?

That was cause for great anxiety in the beginning, because I had the ambition to find Ben McDaniel myself. That was a real desire. I was thinking, “Maybe if I talk to enough people, I can find this guy.” Or at least find some evidence that he met his demise or that he still exists. That was the mindset that I went in with.

Three-quarters of the way through the reporting I was like, “I still don’t have an ending. I don’t know where he is, and people are still going to be disappointed if they read this story and then get to the end and there’s nothing to tie it up. It’s still as much of a mystery as it was in the first section.”

So driving back from the Panhandle, I called a friend, Michael Brick, who is down in Austin. We talk about stories a lot. I kind of called to hear myself tell him the story, to see where it went. We had really bad reception. Because of the spotty reception, I had to be brief. We kept getting disconnected. And so each time I would be like, “Forget all that. Dude’s missing. I don’t have an ending.”

And at some point I started to think of this story in a different way: This is a story about grief and how the dominoes fall when a man goes missing. And that helped, because then it became not a story about Ben specifically, but a story about all the people left behind to try to solve the mystery. Then it was just thinking about the story through that prism. Because there’s no ending with Ben, it gave the rest of us the ending.

You focus on Emily. Did she give you that ending herself?

Gene Weingarten sent me an email yesterday, and I think [Tom] Shroder may have put him up to it. Weingarten loved the ending, and he was wondering if that was mine, or if I just went there.

It came from her, but I felt like quoting her there would have screwed it all up. She is thinking very seriously about diving into that hole to see for herself if Ben is in there. She’s an open-water diver, and it takes a long while to get cave-certified. She’s thinking seriously about saving up the money to get cave certified and to go down in search of him. That came at the end of our talk.

We were supposed to talk at 7 on a Wednesday night. We had a hard time getting in touch. Our conversation wrapped up about 11:30. So 4, 4 1/2 hours on the phone. She and Captain Hamilton and Ben’s parents, they all entertain these theories. They’ve entertained some really wild theories: “Could he be in witness protection?” “Could his ex-business partner have followed him to Florida and killed him?” But after they run through the theories, it all circulates, and one theory leads to the next.

Near the end of our conversation, she was going back and forth about whether Ben had the capacity to commit suicide through going through the hole, or whether he had the capacity to leave and put everybody through this incredible grief. She was saying, “If only we could see down in that hole, then we could rule that out as a possibility.” It struck me to ask, because she had mentioned that she was a diver, “Have you ever thought of going down there?”

She said, “Yeah, I sure have. I know it would take a lot of money, and I know it would take some time, but that’s a serious part of my thinking right now.”

When I heard that, it gave me that – I don’t know how to articulate this, but there’s a spot that I hit sometimes in reporting… It’s like I have to stand up. It’s almost a mix of anxiety and happiness and sadness, these things that typically exist on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. But I felt that, and the light came down on me, and I thought “That’s perfect.” If the possibility exists that Ben went through the hole because of his brother, then the possibility exists that she’s going to go through the hole and pursue Ben. It just felt like the right way to end the thing.

So you realized that was an important moment right then?

When she said it, when that came out of her mouth, I thought, “That’s the end of the story.”

I noticed that midway through the story, you start throwing out questions. There are no questions asked in the first half, but the second half has 13. It’s an unusual approach to writing a mystery narrative.

That’s news to me, that there’s such an extreme change. I do know that up to a point, we know exactly where Ben was leading up to his disappearance. We have an unlimited amount of facts about the days and hours leading up to that dive. And after that it’s eight months of questions. So it’s not surprising to me that the story changed in that regard, because the rest of the story can be one giant question mark. It’s just a matter of handing it over to the readers to entertain the same questions that I had and the same questions that Ben’s family and the people trying to find him had.

Did the story change drastically in the process of writing or editing it?

The one big change was really just a matter of adding a line of the section about three-quarters of the way through the story that solidified the idea that if Ben was grieving his brother’s death so much that he abandoned this life, whether purposefully or with disregard for his own safety, if he went through the hole to deal with that grief, then it’s the same kind of grief that might bring Emily into that hole.

I wanted to make that as clear as possible without being ham-fisted. And so I added a line about something his parents had entertained and said, maybe not directly but close: maybe Ben wasn’t running from something; he was running to something. I wanted to put that thought in the readers’ minds before I hit that beautiful monologue that Chuck Cronin delivered about why people go into these crazy caves, and then sort of bring it down with the powerful ending that belongs to Emily. So it was just a matter of adding that line.

I overwrote the thing, which I always do, I think the first draft might have been 6,000 words, and it ran at 3,400. It wasn’t Bill [Duryea, my editor,] who cut a lot out of it. It was just me trimming a lot of stuff and removing the scaffolding – a lot of self-editing. And I had turned it over to some people, which is not uncommon, for general thoughts.

I got some good advice from Jon Jefferson, who’s half of the writing team of Jefferson Bass. He regularly makes appearances on the New York Times bestseller list for a series of books called “The Body Farm.” He writes with the guy who started that body farm at the University of Tennessee, Bill Bass. Jon just has a way of applying fiction techniques to nonfiction that I’ve come to appreciate. He offered some feedback and some good advice.

You mentioned overwriting. There are so many approaches writers take to organizing their stories, from meticulous six-level outlines to just sitting down and starting. How does overwriting fit in with your approach?

I outline, so I had an outline. I knew where I wanted to go. It’s weird, because the overwriting is not the excessive use of adverbs for me. It’s including too much information, stuff that might be unnecessary distraction. For instance, the first draft included the theory that Ben could have gone into witness protection, which is something his parents were leaning toward for a while. I reported that out, and figured out they don’t do that. The federal government doesn’t fake death to protect people. And beyond that, there’s nothing in Ben’s history to suggest that he may have needed to go into witness protection.

That theory was pooh-poohed, but I included it in there, because I thought readers might have the same question themselves. It was just four or five paragraphs going down that rabbit hole, and then shutting that idea down. So going back to trim, it seemed unnecessary. I thought, “I’m not sure people will make that jump, and if they do, that’s OK, I’ll just disregard it in its entirety, not even bring it up. It’s not going to hurt the story.”

There were a couple paragraphs in the first draft about why north Florida has so many underwater caverns. I talked to a geologist at Florida State University to set the scene a little more, including this chunky bit about how these caverns are formed over the years. I was trying to teach people about geology that I was curious about. And then I thought, “There’s not a place for it. I want it to be really tight.” Even if it’s 3,400 words, I want it to read like it’s 20 inches. It’s a lot of cutting and stripping away everything that is unnecessary.

Anything else you’d like to say about the piece or about narrative journalism more generally?

I find it so incredibly useful, beyond the editors who work at the St. Pete Times, to have a team of people who aren’t going to bullshit you, who don’t mind taking a look at what you’ve written and giving you feedback. I think I sent this [Michael] Kruse, Konrad Marshall, who is in Australia now but is a great feature writer. Wright Thompson read it. Jon Jefferson read it. And each of them had a different thing to say about it, like “in this part, I think you should go here.” “I need you to establish better the dimensions of the cave at the restriction.”

This is before I even turn it over to Bill. At the point that I feel like I have a solid draft, I want feedback from people who aren’t reading it for grammar mistakes or for style and spelling. I just generally want to know “How did this story make you feel? How could it be better?”

Some of it you use, and some of it you disregard. I don’t know if I’ll ever turn in a story that I feel might be important without having distributed it to a few trustworthy friends to offer feedback early. I want to make that a regular part of this process, because I found it to be really useful.

That’s a new part of your process then?

It’s not totally new, but I think I probably sent this to more people than I have before. Normally, it’s one or two. Kruse is my regular go-to guy for feedback; we talk stories all the time. But sending it to five people? At first I thought that everybody would say something different, and it would confuse me. That’s not the way it went at all. Everybody did have some different thing to say, but I found it all useful.

March 14 2011

17:53

What we’re watching: a town washed away, satellite images and covering conflict

With Muammar Qaddafi’s efforts to suppress armed rebellion in Libya and the events unleashed by the massive earthquake in Japan on Friday, it’s a wonder that those of us not involved in the immediate coverage or relief can do anything but sit and watch these images in horror, hoping for the best possible outcomes in the face of tragedy.

Japan Earthquake Aftermath” and “Libya’s Escalating Conflict” from Alan Taylor of the Atlantic’s “In Focus.” Ongoing curation of unforgettable single photos – a moving combination of human and epic images.

Satellite Photos of Japan, Before and After the Quake and Tsunami,” by Alan McLean, Matthew Ericson and Archie Tse of the New York Times. Dramatic interactive sliders use GeoEye imagery to show before-and-after damage done to six Japanese cities as a result of last week’s earthquake and tsunami.

Street-Level Footage of a Town Washing Away,” from Japanese television (via @geneweingarten). Gene Weingarten writes, “The anonymous videographer here is going to be remembered as a modern Zapruder.”

12 Must-See Stories about Covering Conflict,” from MultimediaShooter.com. A roundup of links to Magnum, VII, and other photojournalists and organizations reflecting combat in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Coming Home a Different Person,” from The Washington Post, winner of the Documentary Project of the Year Award from Pictures Of the Year International (POYi). Dramatic visuals, personal stories, and a lot of context fill out our developing understanding of traumatic brain injury and its effects on those fighting in battle or caught in the crossfire. (Those credited for the project include Whitney Shefte, Marvin Joseph, Alberto Cuadra, Christian Davenport, Kat Downs and Marc Fisher.)

And in a quick switch from suggested viewing to suggested reading, those reporting on Mideast unrest or the aftermath of the earthquake might want to return to Nieman Reports’ Winter 2009 issue “Trauma in the Aftermath,”a thought-provoking take on covering conflict and tragedy.

January 20 2011

16:53

Robert Caro, Stacy Schiff, Diane Ackerman and more: narrative conferences and workshops in 2011

Was one of your resolutions in 2011 to become a better storyteller? If so, here are a few conferences and workshops slated for the coming months that can probably teach you a thing or two. These sessions range from one-day conferences to week-long writing intensives, and none of them are free (they range from less than $100 to $1,100). But if you can pony up the pennies (or the big bills), you can hone your mad scribbling skillz with some of the best nonfiction writers working today.

Boston University Narrative Conference – April 29-30 at the Photonics Center in Boston. Speakers TBA. Last year’s group included New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, Gay Talese and Adam Hochschild, among other notables.

The Muse and the Marketplace – April 30-May 1 at the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston. Grub Street, Inc., offers up New York Times contributor Pauline Chen, nonfiction writer Alexandra Johnson and “Hiroshima in the Morning” author Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, among many others. (Actor and short story writer James Franco will be there, too, so we’re half expecting him to announce the start of his new career as a narrative journalist.)

Biographers International Organization Conference – May 21 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. For writers limning the lives of the famous and infamous, Robert Caro (“The Power Broker”) and Stacy Schiff  (“Cleopatra”) headline the speakers at BIO’s one-day affair.

Great Storytelling Every Day – July 17-22 in St. Petersburg, Fla. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tom French leads this Poynter Institute week-long workshop on conceiving and framing deadline narratives for print and online. Some scholarships available.

Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference – July 22-24 in Grapevine, Texas (outside Dallas). The Mayborn 2011 roster includes poet and essayist Diane Ackerman, two-time Pulitzer winner Gene Weingarten, “The Good Soldiers” author David Finkel, and NPR commentator Frank Deford, among many others.

We’ll post information on other upcoming conferences and workshops as we get details on them. If there’s an event you think Storyboard readers should know about, please don’t hesitate to e-mail us at contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org.

September 14 2010

17:30

Why SEO and audience tracking won’t kill journalism as we know it

[I'm happy to introduce Nikki Usher, a new contributor here at the Lab. Nikki is a Ph.D. candidate at USC Annenberg and, before academia, was a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and elsewhere. Here she tackles the question of using metrics in journalism; later today, we'll have a different take on the same topic from C.W. Anderson. —Josh]

Last week, The New York Times featured the scary tale of how some newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, are (shockingly!) changing their coverage after using online metrics to figure out what their audience wants to read. And Gene Weingarten, in an amusing takedown of search engine optimization, insinuated earlier in the summer that just by putting Lady Gaga in his column, he’d get more hits.

Jeremy W. Peters had another Times piece about much the same concern: young journalists doing “anything that will impress Google algorithms and draw readers their way” and the scary “big board” that Gawker keeps in its newsroom tracking the 10 most popular blog posts, along with pageviews per hour.

This concern that audience tracking, writing for Google, and SEO will somehow destroy the ability of news organizations to keep news judgment apart from audience demands is misplaced. Instead, being more attentive to audience demands may actually be the best thing that news organizations can do to remain relevant and vital sources of news.

With monetization tied to clicks, and real-time Omniture data a feature of more and more newsrooms, it’s easy to worry that audiences will dictate news coverage. But how about the opposite argument: that journalists, for too long, have been writing about what they think their readers ought to know, and not enough about what their audiences want to know.

Journalism has always depended on having an audience to consume its work and has spent much of the past century trying to figure out exactly what that audience wants to know. Now, journalists have better tools than ever to figure out who their audiences are, learn what they want, and in real time, track their behaviors in order to be more responsive to their needs. This isn’t a bad thing — it turns journalism away from the elitism of writing for itself and back to writing what people are actually looking for.

But what about the concerns that journalists are going to spend all their time writing about pets, or Lady Gaga? The truth is that many of the newsrooms I’ve spoken with are smarter than that. They aren’t abandoning journalism principles; they see metrics as a way to ensure their journalism will be read.

SEO at the Christian Science Monitor

In my academic work, I’ve been following the evolution of The Christian Science Monitor as it has moved from a print daily to a website with a print weekly. Over the course of this evolution, I’ve watched the newsroom grow increasingly sophisticated about audience tracking. When I asked John Yemma about his views on SEO, he had this to say in an email about its impact on the newsroom:

Search engines remain a powerful and preferred tool for online readers. We have no choice but to become adept at SEO if it helps us reach readers where they are. This is nothing new in the news business. In the pre-Web days, newspapers periodically redesigned and reformatted. Editors frequently admonished reporters to write shorter, to use simple and direct language, to “think art” when they were on an assignment — all in the interest of reaching readers.

SEO, at its essence, is about editors thinking the way readers think when they are searching for news. At the Monitor, as at almost every other publication, we work diligently to emphasize key words. But that is only one tool in the toolkit. We try to respond quickly when a subject we know well (international news, for instance) is trending. This gives us an opportunity to offer related links that invite readers to dive deeper into our content. If SEO is about acquisition, related links are about retention. In the past year, we have tripled our online traffic with this strategy.

Does that mean we just write plain-vanilla headlines or merely follow Google/Trends? No. A clever headline can still be a powerful draw, especially on our home-page or in social media. And we still report stories that we know are important even if readers don’t agree. But we are much more attuned these days to what readers will respond to. If our journalism is not read, our work is not effective.

Trend tracking at TheStreet.com

At TheStreet.com, the organization has hired a full-time “SEO guy,” John DeFeo, to monitor trends on Omniture, watch search terms, and optimize TheStreet’s content after it is written so it can be found via search.

The result: Traffic has improved. When I was in TheStreet’s newsroom conducting field research, I did see DeFeo make a suggestion that someone bang out a quick story on a children’s Tylenol recall after seeing it trend on Yahoo. But should we see that as being overly responsive to audience demands? Or should we see it instead as a chance for TheStreet to provide its unique comment on what such a recall might mean for Johnson & Johnson stockholders — and at the same time know that the story will have a chance at reaching an audience because it is trending?

Glenn Hall, Editor at TheStreet, defends SEO journalism as being the core of the basic principles of journalism itself. In an interview, Hall said:

Good journalism is not mutually exclusive with SEO. We have proven over and over again that our best journalism tends to get the best page views. SEO is a tool to make sure the best stories get noticed…SEO increases visibility where users are looking. People consume content differently than they used to through a newspaper.

Hall explains to his staff that SEO is in line with the best practices of journalism. He believes that simple declarative sentences, clear and to the point, makes good sense for both journalism and SEO. And, as he notes, SEO doesn’t have the final say on a story’s success or failure: “It doesn’t matter how good the SEO is if the content isn’t good.”

The new news is social

Nick Bilton, the Times tech blogger, writes in his new book, I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works about the “consumnivore” — an information-hungry consumer who wants the latest news now. But for this new information consumer, information isn’t just a quest for information. It’s also a social experience, shared with people from Twitter, Facebook, email, or other social media. In other words, if you aren’t looking for news, the news will find you. Good journalism will still be found, even without the high-energy SEO pumping of a daily newsroom — largely, I think, because of the new power of news as a social experience.

This isn’t a myth. At the Pulitzer celebration at The New York Times on April 12, 2010, New York Times Magazine editor Gerald Marzorati noted the following in his celebratory speech for sharing the Pulitzer with Propublica for Investigative Reporting for a story about a New Orleans hospital during Katrina: “[Long form journalism is] our most viewed and most emailed…It does matter to readers. It stops the reader. It slows the reader down.”

Was Memorial Medical Center, the hospital in the story, a hot search term? Probably not. Were 13,000 words likely to produce the quick hits of information that the consumnivore hungers for? No. But the story still reached a substantial audience, person to person. And as it was read by more and more people, it likely climbed up Google’s rankings for those people who were searching for articles about Katrina.

So, if used properly, SEO and audience tracking make newsrooms more accountable to their readers without dictating bad content decisions — and it can help newsrooms focus on reader needs. What is a story if it is never read? SEO won’t kill journalism; it will only enhance how we find and use news.

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