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April 20 2012

14:44

Harding in the house: a Pulitzer-winning novelist on rhythm, revision, rejection and a hundred other things

We promote narrative nonfiction here at Storyboard but occasionally look outside the genre for storytelling inspiration. Paul Harding, who won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel “Tinkers,” visited our Nieman Foundation headquarters the other day in collaboration with the Harvard Writers at Work lecture series. He spent an hour and a half talking creativity with a standing-room-only audience of Nieman fellows and Harvard undergraduates, graduate students and faculty.

Nieman fellow Anna Griffin moderated the discussion. In keeping with this week’s Pulitzer theme, here’s the conversation, along with an excerpted transcript, edited for clarity and brevity, followed by an interactive index for the entire event. Enjoy! 

Griffin: It is a distinct pleasure to moderate this conversation with Paul Harding. Paul is an author, a teacher, a rock star. He grew up on the North Shore, graduated from U-Mass, has an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and, according to the Internet, which is never wrong, is a first cousin of figure skater Tonya Harding.

(laughter)

Griffin: Is that not – is that not –

(laughter)

Harding: No, that’s not true.

(laughter)

Griffin: He has redeemed the Harding name twice, first as a drummer with the 1990s (band) Cold Water Flat, which if you went to college in the ’90s, which a few of us in the room did, you probably heard play quite a bit on campus radio; and then as the author of a little Cinderella story of a book, “Tinkers,” which is kind of a tone poem, almost, about life in New England. It sat in a drawer for three years, was bought by a boutique publisher affiliated with NYU medical school, had a first run of 3,500 copies, and then won the Pulitzer Prize, which is the way it works for everybody.

(laughter)

Griffin: He is now finishing up on his second novel, (“Enon”), which, shockingly, did not spend time in a drawer for any length of time and will be published next spring by Random House. Paul’s gonna read a few things and then we’re gonna talk about writing, and then we’re gonna throw it open to the room for questions.

Harding: Thank you. It’s a great pleasure to be here. You know I’ve read from “Tinkers” about seven million thousand times by now, so I figured I’d read a little bit from “Tinkers” and then give you a little bit from the novel that’s gonna be coming out next spring, and then just a little two-page self-contained piece, so it’s gonna be a buffet today. And then I’ll be delighted to have a conversation.

So “Tinkers” is about a guy who was a sort of peddler; he’s the tinker of the title, and he abandons his family. “Tinkers” is set in northern Maine in the ’20s and the protagonist abandons his family when he finds out that his wife is gonna have him committed to an asylum because he has epilepsy. His epilepsy is so disruptive to the family that the best thing (his wife) can think of to do is to have him committed. So he leaves the family. So this is just a brief passage, a couple of days after he’s had a grand mal seizure.

(Harding reads.)

Harding's readings copy (see "marginalia," in index below). Photo courtesy Harding.

Griffin: “Tinkers” began as a family story and became a short story that was part of your grad school application –

Harding: Mm hmm, yeah.

Griffin: – and then was turned into the novel. Talk about the writing process, to take something that’s like family lore and turn it into a short story. What was the short story and how did you expand that into the novel?

Harding: First of all, the basic premises of “Tinkers” are all based on stories that my maternal grandfather told me and my cousins and my brother about his life growing up in northern Maine. But I wasn’t interested in family history. I wasn’t interested in autobiography. It would be difficult for me to be less interested in autobiography. I’m not interested in myself; I’m interested in the fact that I am a self. So I just started writing about these family legends. The original short story version of “Tinkers” was 15 or 16 pages long, and it had actually what, if you look at the novel, is the beginning, the middle and the end of the novel. The whole story was there. And if you’ve looked at “Tinkers” it’s pretty elliptical and nonlinear, so if you can imagine 15 pages – it was impossibly dense and impossibly elliptical and obscure.

So enough people gave me encouragement to expand it. After I left the Iowa Writers Workshop I was fortunate enough to get a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, which is a seven-month fellowship, to work on the book. So I spent seven months toiling and worrying that I was making a perfectly decent short story into a terrible novel. And so it was just a matter of expanding.

Griffin: So the original short story, it was George, Howard – it was both –

Harding: Yeah, yeah, the whole thing was there.

Griffin: Was it tiny font? How’d you get that into 16 pages?

Harding: I don’t know. I write in such a haphazard manner. It’s totally intuitive and fortuitous. It’s improvisational. It is sort of circumstantial, in a way, but in a way I write the way I used to drum. If I’m playing drums I just start to do whatever comes over the wire. Same with writing, you know? And I just kind of bop around the story. In some ways, I’m impatient – I wanted to know what the end of the story was and to move around the boundaries of it.

Griffin: You don’t outline.

Harding: No, no.

Griffin: On the Internet are scenes of you with index cards and napkins –

Harding: Catastrophe. Just absolute panic the whole time.

Griffin: You’re kind of a crazy man aren’t you?

(laughter)

Griffin: And then you tape them together, staple them together.

Harding: Yeah with “Tinkers” I literally did that. It’s funny, because I just finished the first draft of “Enon” and booked a couple of weeks at the Fine Arts Work Center, so I went back down to Provincetown and damned if I didn’t end up on the floor again with the whole novel, thinking, “How’s this gonna work? How’s this gonna come together?” And I think it did, but who knows. It’s such a strange thing. Being a fiction writer is not efficiency. I have to go through these incredible difficulties in order to fully realize the book, at least these first two. I hope that I’ll get better at it. Though it doesn’t seem to be a matter of getting better at it. It just seems to be this integral part of the process.

Griffin: How do you guard against getting so far into the story and looking up and going, “Oh, I’m trying so many different things I’m losing my reader?”

Harding: I never ever think about a reader. Ever.

Griffin: The readers love that.

(laughter)

Harding: No, no, no, no! Because on the deepest level it’s the deepest way to be solicitous of the reader. You just trust yourself that you’re writing something that you’d like to read. The problem with – this is not true for journalism or for genre-based fiction, but the worst thing you can do is try to write a novel in anticipation of people, first of all, who won’t like it. Don’t ever write your fiction for people who won’t like it. Just give yourself wholeheartedly to it and trust that the reader will like what you like. Because otherwise you don’t pay attention to the story; you pay attention to these voices behind your shoulder saying, “Oh well she didn’t have blue eyes in the first chapter.” And it’s like, a copyeditor will get that. That sort of thing. So it’s improvisational. So you just give yourself over wholeheartedly to the story. With “Tinkers” it’s 192 pages, it’s like 40,000 words. I cut 25,000 words, cut like a quarter of it.

Griffin: What did you cut?

Harding: The mother of the family, who’s gonna have her husband sent away, there’s a whole section of the book that was just all about her life before she was married, and I just couldn’t get it to work.

Griffin: How do you feel now about that?

Harding: Sad. I feel very loyal to her.

Griffin: Because one of the things that strikes me is that she’s not an overwhelmingly sympathetic character.

Harding: Yeah you know it’s funny. It’s one of these things – this is another reason why you don’t think about the reader, as it were, because the reader that you imagine – you don’t know who’s gonna look at your book. You have to trust your subject; you have to trust your characters and let them elaborate themselves, who they really are. A lot of the stuff that I wrote for this woman, Kathleen, that ended up on the cutting room floor, was trying to make her a sympathetic character, quote unquote, but for one thing if you ever met the woman on whom she’s based you’d think she’s an angel. The woman she’s based on is much worse than (Kathleen) is. You know, I had this strange experience – I was in Cape Town for a book festival and talking to a South African writer, and Kathleen was their favorite character in the book because she was like a strong African mother raising children in the township. They thought she was wonderful. So it was this sort of: Be loyal to your characters, be loyal to the story, be loyal to the subject – it possesses its own integrity.

Griffin: One of the things we talk about in journalism is that when you’re writing about something complicated you want to get simple – simple language, simple sentences. I’ve seen in interviews you talk about how because a lot of “Tinkers” is fairly abstract and it’s very sort of modernist – a lot of things happening in George and Howard’s heads – you talk about writing in concrete nouns and verbs.

Harding: When you’re writing fiction, one of the main virtues of fiction is that it be imminent. It’s about imminent things, it’s about action, it’s about things happening in this world. And one of the practical problems with “Tinkers” is that most of the book is about a guy who’s just lying on a bed like this. I realized I was going to have to find a way to embody a lot of things just to keep the book anchored in the real world, just so it wouldn’t lapse into rhetorical or theoretical language. But that specificity and precision and concrete writing is – that’s different than complexity. I do want to write with maximum complexity. I want to write books that accommodate the complexity of the human mind. I want to light up people’s brains.

Griffin: Talk about how you use language when you’re doing that, and ensure that you don’t lose your readers.

Harding: Again, I’m not thinking about the poor reader. To me, again, it’s all mutually reinforcing. To me the greatest style is precision. The way you don’t lose the reader is, you use language as precisely as possible. I taught writing a lot, and it was one of these counterintuitive things where writers would make things shorter and they would make them more simple because, “Oh, I don’t want to take up too much of the reader’s mind,” but that’s your job as a writer. You’re supposed to take up the reader’s time. So you presume somebody who wants complicated, beautiful, intricate, thoughtful, precise writing. You presume that readers are reading your book.

Griffin: As we heard in some of those excerpts you have a marvelous brain for detail and you write these lyrical paragraphs that are jam-packed with precise details. I have a friend who loves “Tinkers” who says, “This guy has more ways to describe how wind moves through the trees than a botanist.”

Harding: That’s a nice compliment.

Griffin: Are you out there writing down details as you see them? Are you walking through the woods taking notes? Or is that all just imagination at play?

Harding: I guess I kind of am. Like the landscape, the New England landscape particularly, I’ve spent tons of time up on the North Shore, just wandering around the Audubon sanctuary. I actually just bought a house that’s smack dab near the Ipswitch River Sanctuary so that I could be closer to the birch bark and the creek water with the sunlight in it. You know. Part of being a good writer, too, is just developing the muscles that have to do with being able to pay attention, and to sustain attention. The quality of attention – the closest possible attention for the longest amount of time so that when you climb down into your world you just sort of sit there very quietly and you watch and you listen and you smell and you just take down all the details. It’s imagining things as elaborately as you possibly can.

In my case, I’m interested in the people, the experience of being conscious. So I don’t write about far-flung places usually; I don’t write about remote times. I write about things that are right at my fingertips because I think of it as sort of the medium through which and into which I can precipitate the characters. So whenever I write about landscape, and if I can write about wind in 15 million different ways, it’s not because I’m writing about wind per se, it’s always because I’m writing about how a character experiences the wind. Character is always being refracted through description. What was the question?

(laughter)

Griffin: No, it’s very much like “Tinkers.” We went this way and we got there. A lot of beginning fiction instruction, like a lot of long-form narrative instruction that we talk about here, is all about scene – scenes upon scenes upon scenes.

Harding: Yeah.

Griffin: What would you say to a student who says, “So I want to write this novel, and it’s sort of this family story and I’m gonna change point of view most of the time, and I’m gonna change tense multiple times, and I’m gonna play with chronology, and I’m not gonna outline, and I’m gonna take all these pieces of paper and staple them together” – what would you –

Harding: God help you.

(laughter)

Harding: There’s all sorts of different very, very germane issues to writing, but one of them is that when you’re teaching writing, particularly fiction writing, one of the great temptations that as a teacher you have to resist, and that as a student you have to resist the influence of, is to present your process as normative. So much of grad school is: You just learn to be like your professor. You feel like there’s no independent thinking; you just inherit this datum. For example, one of my mentors was Marilyn Robinson. She has to write her books from the very first sentence of the very first chapter, and she has to write the book from start to finish, and if she screws up anywhere along the way she throws out the whole novel and starts again. And if I had taken that as the way that you have to write a novel, I’d be a plumber right now. The best writing comes from you consulting your own experience, not consulting an outside authority.

A lot of what I tried to do, as a teacher, was to get students to cultivate their own intellectual and aesthetic autonomy so that nobody could tell them what they were doing was right or wrong. I mean within reason – you have to edit, you have to have logic; you have to get them to be consistent with themselves. It also has to do with reading as widely and deeply as possible. Your writing can only be as good as the best stuff you’ve read. The other temptations with teaching writing – writing is tough and it’s wild and it’s feral and it’s dangerous, all these dramatic things, and the temptation is always to tame it and domesticate it so that it will be easy to teach. So you chop it all up and you’re like, “Today we’re gonna talk about character,” and “Today we’re gonna talk about point of view,” and “Here’s the third person.” And really those are just tools, you know?

Griffin: And some of (it) is knowing the rules so that you can break the rules.

Harding: Absolutely. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got, it was as I was leaving the last conference I had with Marilyn Robinson after my two years at Iowa. You know, I felt like I had the tiara, the roses – like, “Ah, now I’ve graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop.” I was leaving her office and she called out, she said, “Oh Paul, one more thing.” I said, “Yes, Marilyn.” She said, “You really should learn how to write grammatically correct English.”

(laughter)

Harding: I was like, “Grammar-schmammer.” But precisely. Because you need to know how to modulate and move around that way. Another reason that “Tinkers” does that is because it’s largely interior, you know. I’m not interested in plot. God bless plot, but I’m not interested in it. I’m interested in character, and plot emerges out of character. I’m just interested in consciousness. And so – I don’t know how far this metaphor works but you have these personal metaphors and analogies that you use to get you through your day – I think of plot as Newtonian physics. It’s mechanical. But I think of the mind, once you get into a character’s mind and it’s interior, I think of the mind as quantum. It’s supra-luminary. It just moves instantly. It’s instantaneous influence or whatever it’s called in quantum physics. Because that’s how consciousness works. So a book like “Tinkers” can be tougher to sort of catch the wave on, as it were, because it doesn’t work mechanically, it doesn’t work plot wise. But there’s a character-logical logic to it.

Griffin: I might argue – it’s your book so feel free to disagree – but the plot of “Tinkers” is pretty simple and straightforward. It’s everything else that informs the plot that’s important.

Harding: Yeah. Well, I just started with a very simple – what I find compelling are just those circumstances in which people find themselves that are actually impossible. Suddenly what you find is impossible is the case in your life. And so the very first thing I wrote in “Tinkers” – there’s a scene where Howard, the tinker, suddenly becomes conscious of the fact that instead of turning into his driveway or wherever his house is, he’s actually gone past his house. And he realizes that that means he is leaving his family. And I just remember the first day of writing it just thinking: “If he’d allowed himself to be conscious of it, (the act) would’ve been impossible, because it would just be too terrible to leave your family.” So I built that kind of double consciousness for him. And the reason I wrote about in the second book – it’s about a father losing his only child – is because that seems to me impossible. And I know people who have suffered losses like that, and I see them survive and stay beautiful, kind, generous, merciful, loving people, and I just do not know how they could do it. I don’t want to write about anything in which anything less than everything is at stake. Why bother making art?

Griffin: One more question and we’ll throw it to the crowd. Was the process on “Enon” any different from the process on “Tinkers?”

Harding: It was very fascinating because with all the stuff that happened with “Tinkers” – you know, I had this perfect record of non-publication and perfect obscurity with “Tinkers,” so I was able to work on it for 10 years. And so now I have written a novel that is a little bit more than twice as long as “Tinkers” in a little bit less than a third of the time it took to write “Tinkers.” So in that way it was interesting to see if I could compress all that work into three years. Turns out I can, but that’s why I’m ready to jump out of my socks right now, because it’s just been so intense.

And it’s been fascinating to see in retrospect what I did in “Tinkers” that was real process and what was sort of sheer ineptitude. One of the strangest things about writing the second (novel): Just because of the things that happened with “Tinkers,” the Pulitzer and stuff, I went from zero to 1,000 miles an hour in an instant, so I wrote most of “Enon” in hotel rooms and on airplanes. So that was really weird. I had to learn how to put the blinders on. Luckily, though, when “Tinkers” won the Pulitzer I had already sold “Enon” to Random House based on the first 50 pages of it. So I knew that Random House didn’t just love me for my Pulitzer. And it turns out the editor who bought “Enon” bought it without having read “Tinkers.” So that was just what I’d been holding onto: This book has its own integrity. Because “Tinkers,” first novel – everybody’s just like, “Oh, God, the second book by definition has to suck, right?” No pressure.

(laughter)

Griffin: But it doesn’t suck, right?

Harding: I hope not. Who knows. Fortunately what I’m learning, too, is that it’s not my job to like my own books. It’s my job to be like: You’ve gotta be better. But because of this worldly phenomenon that occurred with “Tinkers,” “Tinkers” exerts a huge gravitational pull, and so what I had to keep doing, whenever I was stuck with “Enon” I had to resist the temptation to drift over to “Tinkers” and use what worked and import it back into “Enon.” “Enon” had to have its own critical mass, its own center of gravity, its own integrity. Sometimes what came out on the page looked to me radically different than “Tinkers,” so I second-guessed myself. For example, people talk in “Enon.” There’s dialogue in “Enon.” And there’s quotation marks, you know? I thought, “I don’t have dialogue. I don’t use quotation marks.” But it was one of those things where you have to submit yourself to the work.

Griffin: Part of what’s unique about “Tinkers” is that so much of it feels experimental, almost like a jazz riff, and I can see that being a benefit of 10 years to work on something. Does the truncated time frame and the fact that you’re writing it for Random House change any of it? Does it put any additional pressure on you to not worry about readers?

Harding: No, the editor I’ve been working with at Random House has been absolutely wonderful. She bought the book two or three years ago – like I went and had lunch with her and we sort of convinced each other that we were right for each other, that sort of thing, sort of the editor coming a’ courtin’, and once we decided to do the book together I didn’t hear from her for three years. She just sort of left me alone. My agent would once in a while say, “How’s it going?” and I’d say, “Fine.” But she just laid off. And I presented her the book two or three weeks ago and she said, “Great. There’s maybe 10 or 15 pages of stuff I want to do.” “Enon” is written in first person, as opposed to “Tinkers,” which goes all over the place and there are just some inherent difficulties with first person, like the rest of the real world can go away when there’s just one character in mind, so it’s a little bit of – I just have to do some objective world stuff, 10 or 15 pages of that.

Griffin then opened the floor to questions. Discussed:

Associated Press, the, time stamp 01:23:29
Car chase, unlikelihood of, 00:50:29
Chamber music, pleasantness of, 01:01:15
Characters, whininess of, 00:53:51; writing from, 00:53:30
Colonial Mexico, 01:11:02
Coltrane, John, 01:01:23
Conroy, Frank, life-altering vision of, 01:09:10
Consciousness, fascination with, 00:58:05
Cutlass Ciera station wagon, 01:20:57
Delta Delta Delta sorority, 01:21:30
Drumming, as metaphor for controlling plot, 01:05:12
Duct tape, 01:20:57
Electron microscope, 1:00:10
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, influence of, 01:03:19
Flatness, handling of, 00:53:10;
Fuentes, Carlos, 01:07:25
Fundamental principle of composition, secret of, 00:54:24
Harvard Extension School, teaching background in, 00:55:53
History, grasp of, 00:58:05
Imagination, 1:00:10
Influences, 01:03:02
Iowa Writers Conference, 01:06:50
Irving, John, 01:02:52
James, Henry, influence of, 01:09:29
Jones, Elvin, sick drumming skills of, 01:05:10
Kant, 00:58:22
Kitteridge, Olive, 01:22:10
Language, blissful imperfection of, 01:20:06
Life, ideal description of, 00:57:00
Magical realism, influence of, 01:07:25
Mann, Thomas, influence of, 01:09:29
Marginalia, tendency to commit, 00:57:08
McCracken, Elizabeth, “mind-bogglingly wonderful” teaching skills of, 01:10:03
Mozart, 01:01:19
Muse, necessary rejection of, 00:56:10
Naps, dreams of, 00:57:19
Perception, writerly use of, 00:58:05
Philosophy, interest in, 00:58:17
Plot, disinterest in, 00:51:12
Potter, Harry, 01:18:32
Reading, importance of, 01:09:22
Regatta Bar, 01:05:17
Rejection, dealing with, 00:50:00; William Faulkner handling of, 00:51:27
Revision, dangers of, 01:19:18; endless application of, 01:15:20
Rituals, 00:55:31
Robinson, Marilyn, influence of, 01:07:48
“Sound and the Fury, The” stubborn creation of, 00:51:27
Stevens, Wallace, influence of, 01:03:24
Time, fluidity of, 00:58:29; obsession with, 01:04:43
Unemployment, pre-Pulitzer experience with, 01:20:48
Unsworth, Barry, influence of, 01:10:03
Wharton, Edith, influence of, 01:09:29
Woolf, Virginia, influence of, 01:09:29
Writing, difficulty of, 01:11:53; learnable nature of, 01:11:48

*The Nieman Foundation’s co-sponsor for this event, the Harvard Writers at Work lecture series, is supported by the Harvard College Writing Program, the Harvard Extension School’s master’s degree program in journalism, the Harvard Review and the Harvard College Program in General Education.

May 24 2011

17:00

Welcome to the new class of Nieman Fellows

It’s official: The 2011-12 class of Nieman Fellows has been announced. These 24 terrific journalists will come to Harvard a few months from now and spend the next academic year investigating subjects that will make them into even better journalists. Since I’ve talked about the fellowship many times before, I thought you might like a chance to see who this year’s winners are.

If you’d like to join their number next year, we’ll open up applications again in the fall. I don’t know for certain yet what the deadlines will be, but they’re traditionally December 15 for international applicants and January 31 for Americans.

U.S. Nieman Fellows in the class of 2012 and their areas of interest:

Jonathan Blakley, foreign desk producer, NPR, will study history, politics and social media in sub-Saharan Africa. He also will examine the domestic media environment in the United States on the cusp of the 2012 presidential election.

Tyler Bridges, an author and freelance journalist based in Lima, Peru, will study the changes, challenges and opportunities for delivering news in the digital era in both the United States and Latin America.

James Geary, editor of Ode magazine and a freelance journalist based in London, will undertake a multidisciplinary study of wit, exploring what wit is and how it enables us to understand and solve complicated social problems, identify and exploit political and business opportunities, achieve psychological and scientific insights and improvise in the arts and in daily life.

Anna Griffin, metro columnist, The Oregonian, will study the evolution and future of American cities, with an emphasis on the role government agencies play in combating poverty and controlling sprawl.

Maggie Jones, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine based inNewton, Massachusetts, will study immigration public policy, law and literature, particularly as they relate to families in the United States and abroad.

David Joyner, vice president for content, Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc. in Birmingham, Alabama, will study the availability of local news and information and its effect on civic engagement. He is the 2012 Donald W. Reynolds Nieman Fellow in Community Journalism.

Dina Kraft, a freelance journalist based in Tel Aviv, Israel, will study dueling national narratives in conflict zones, examining how they are born, evolve and impact their societies. She also will look at attempts to reconcile narratives in countries and regions emerging from decades of unrest.

Kristen Lombardi, staff writer at the Center for Public Integrity, will study the legal and social conditions that promote wrongful convictions, particularly the impact of institutional misconduct and the consequences of systemic resistance to reform.

Megan O’Grady, literary critic for Vogue, will examine the relationship between women novelists, literary criticism and the canon, focusing on postwar American literature and the persistence of gender myths in cultural discourse. O’Grady is the 2012 Arts and Culture Nieman Fellow.

Raquel Rutledge, investigative reporter, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, will examine federal regulation and oversight of the nation’s food supply as it relates to public health. She is the Louis Stark Nieman Fellow. The fellowship honors the memory of the New York Times reporter who was a pioneer in the field of labor reporting.

Adam Tanner, Balkans bureau chief for Thomson Reuters, will study the expanding computer universe of personal data, including how private firms and governments assemble massive databases on individuals and the implications for business, journalism, the law and privacy. He also will examine techniques of narrative journalism in the Internet era.

Jeff Young, senior correspondent with PRI’s “Living on Earth,” based in Arlington, Massachusetts, will study the full costs of energy sources and how new media might spark a more meaningful discussion of energy choices. Young is the 2012 Donald W. Reynolds Nieman Fellow in Business Journalism.

International Nieman Fellows in the class of 2012 and their areas of interest:

Claudia Méndez Arriaza (Guatemala), editor and staff writer for El Periódico and co-host of the television show “A las 8:45,” which airs on Canal Antigua, will study law and political science to understand the shape of the rule of law in emerging democracies. She also will explore American literature and its links to Latin American culture. She is a 2012 John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Latin American Nieman Fellow.

Carlotta Gall (United Kingdom), senior reporter for Afghanistan/Pakistan, The New York Times, will study history, with particular focus on American expansionism, the Middle East and American diplomacy in the region. Gall is the 2012 Ruth Cowan Nash Nieman Fellow. Nash was a trailblazer for women in journalism, best known for her work as an Associated Press war correspondent during World War II.

Carlos Eduardo Huertas (Colombia), investigations editor, Revista Semana, will study how to design a journalism center to produce transnational investigations about Latin America. He is a 2012 John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Latin American Nieman Fellow.

Fred Khumalo (South Africa), “Review” editor, Sunday Times, will study the future of publishing in the digital age and the impact, management and financial implications of social media in a changing global society and in the developing world. He also will take courses in creative writing and script writing. His fellowship is supported by the Nieman Society of Southern Africa.

Wu Nan (China), a Beijing-based reporter, will study how new media is empowering people and businesses, changing political dynamics and sparking social change. She is the first Nieman Fellow at Harvard to be supported through Sovereign Bank and the Marco Polo Program of Banco Santander. She also is the 2012 Atsuko Chiba Nieman Fellow. The Chiba fellowship honors the memory of Atsuko Chiba, a 1968 Nieman Fellow.

John Nery, (Philippines), senior editor and columnist, Philippine Daily Inquirer, will investigate journalistic assumptions about history and, in particular, explore ways in which Southeast Asian journalists can use greater awareness of historical context to inform their work. Nery is the first Sandra Burton Nieman Fellow. His fellowship is supported by the Benigno S. Aquino Jr. Foundation and honors the memory of journalist Sandra Burton, who reported from the Philippines for Time magazine.

Samiha Shafy (Switzerland), science reporter, Der Spiegel, will study how public policy and economic principles shape the way scientific evidence is translated into action to address global challenges, especially in the context of natural resources management, sustainable development, energy, water, climate change and public health. Shafy is the first Nieman Fellow from Switzerland. She also is the Robert Waldo Ruhl Nieman Fellow. Ruhl, a 1903 Harvard graduate, was editor and publisher of the Medford Mail-Tribune in Oregon from 1910-1967.

Pir Zubair Shah (Pakistan), reporter, The New York Times, will study the art of narrative journalism to develop his ability to present investigative work in a compelling format and make it accessible to a broad audience. Shah is the 2012 Carroll Binder Nieman Fellow. The Binder Fund honors 1916 Harvard graduate Carroll Binder, who expanded the Chicago Daily News Foreign Service, and his son, Carroll “Ted” Binder, a 1943 Harvard graduate. Shah also is the 2012 Barry Bingham Jr. Nieman Fellow. Bingham, a 1956 Harvard graduate, was the editor and publisher of the Courier-Journal and Louisville Times in Kentucky.

David Skok (Canada), managing editor, globalnews.ca, will study how to sustain Canadian journalism’s distinct presence in a world of stateless news organizations and explore the impact new tools of journalism have on the role of the free press. Skok is the Martin Wise Goodman Canadian Nieman Fellow. Goodman was a 1962 Nieman Fellow.

Akiko Sugaya (Japan), a freelance journalist based in Boston, will study how social media can promote citizen journalism and enhance the democratic process. She also will explore the new media literacy skills needed to empower the public to actively participate in society through the use of social media. Sugaya is the William Montalbano Nieman Fellow. Montalbanowas a 1970 Nieman Fellow and a prize-winning Los Angeles Times reporter who reported from 100 countries during his 38-year career.

Global Health Reporting Nieman Fellows in the class of 2012 and their areas of interest:

Samuel Loewenberg (United States), a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles, will study neglected factors in global health interventions, foreign aid reform and the role of journalism in increasing accountability.

Rema Nagarajan (India) assistant editor, The Times of India, will study patterns and trends in mortality, fertility and population growth and their relationship with population health, the impact of poverty, class, gender and geography on access to health care and medical ethics.

May 18 2011

12:50

Dorothy Parvaz, Al Jazeera journalist and Nieman Fellow, released from Iranian custody

Last night, I started writing a post about our friend Dorothy Parvaz, the Al Jazeera English journalist and former Nieman Fellow (class of ’09) who went to Syria to report on the uprising there, then was detained and sent to Iran. It was going to be another post calling for her release, as the Nieman Foundation already had.

I was very happy this morning to find out I can leave that post in draft form: she was released by Iranian authorities overnight and is back in her base in Doha. We’re extremely grateful to all who helped achieve her release, and that she reports she was treated well in Iranian custody. She’ll be heading back to Vancouver soon to visit her family.

Here’s more on her release from the NYT, Seattle Times, and Canadian Press.

April 04 2011

15:10

Isabel Wilkerson on the Great Migration, structuring an epic narrative and the challenges of writing nonfiction

Continuing the spring flurry of awards, Columbia University and the Nieman Foundation announced last week that the 2011 Mark Lynton History Prize will be awarded to Isabel Wilkerson for her book “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” Currently the director of narrative nonfiction at Boston University’s College of Communication, Wilkerson previously reported for The New York Times, where she won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1994. We had a chance to talk with her near the end of March, and in these excerpts from that conversation, she discusses the thousand-plus interviews she did to research her story, the process of structuring a multi-strand narrative, and what she always knew would be the heart of the book.

You follow three main characters throughout your book – all of whom migrated away from the South. How did you come to select those three?

Those three were chosen after I spent about a year and a half traveling the country – North, Midwest, and West – interviewing, and in some ways auditioning, the protagonists who would ultimately provide the major strands of the narrative. I went to senior centers and AARP meetings, to quilting clubs and to the various state and city and town clubs that represented the southern cities and towns that the people had originally come from. There are Mississippi clubs in Chicago; there are Louisiana and Texas clubs in California; and there are Baptist churches in New York where everyone is from South Carolina.

So I went to all those different places and interviewed over 1,200 people in order to narrow it down to the three protagonists through whom I would tell the three main threads of the narrative. In the process of interviewing all these people, I heard many other stories that helped to clarify my understanding of the phenomenon I was writing about, expose me to a lot of different ways of looking at it, and gave me a general experience of the people who had gone through this.

There were people that had amazing singular experiences that caught my attention. There were people who had incredible stories of hardships during childhood or the journey itself – there was a woman who was actually born on the train to California. But I needed to have people whose stories would be strong, beginning, middle and end.

And of course, for narrative journalists, one of the major things that we’re looking for is someone who is open and candid, willing to cooperate with some level of almost investment in being able to share and take the time to tell the story – in other words, access.

Based on the structure of the narrative itself and the overarching story I was trying to tell, I needed to have three people, each of whom would represent one of the three major streams of this great migration – the one up the East Coast, the one to the Midwest and the one out to the West. I needed to have people who had left in different decades to show the breadth and scope of this migration. I needed people who had different reasons for leaving, different motivations and circumstances for going, and three different outcomes in the places they went.

Also from a narrative perspective, I needed people whose voices would be distinct enough so that as a person was reading the book, they would be able to discern from hearing or seeing a single comment from them, “Oh, yes this is Ida Mae,” or “This has got to be George,” or “I recognize Robert.” Each of them had to be distinguishable from the other, because theirs were going to be interlocking stories, stories where you follow them from the beginning of their journey in life and also in the migration until their arrival elsewhere and then their old age.

You wrote in your book that you set out in the mid-1990s to search for people, but it sounded like you had already read about and researched the migration by then.

That’s interesting, because it appears that way, but I had only had a general knowledge of the migration when I began. I could not have known all I would know at the end of the process. When you’re starting a story, you do some initial research, but I had not done a tremendous amount of research into all aspects of the migration when I began.

In fact, the kind of narrative writer I am moves from the ground up. I get the stories from the people I meet; I get my energy from the people that I’m interviewing. I don’t like to have any preconceived notions when I’m going in. I like to hear the story as it unfolds in front of me. Particularly with narrative, it’s got to be about the story that’s being told, it’s got to be about the character, the protagonist whose story you’re hearing. If you go in with a preconceived idea or too much information, you might miss something, because it doesn’t sound as fresh or as new to you, because you kind of know it already. I wanted to be able to have the discovery of learning about it ultimately in the same way the reader would. As I’m hearing it from their mouths in front of me, right there, in the middle of the discussion, I wanted to be able to respond to it with freshness in the same way I hoped a reader would.

When you do this kind of work, you have to make a choice. Are you going to spend the many, many, many months that it would take to do the archival research for something this big? I mean are we’re talking 6 million people over the course of a 55- or 60-year period of time, one that encompasses much of the 20th century.

There were many references to the migration among economists who were looking at it, sociologists who were looking at it, anthropologists who were looking at it while it was unfolding. You could look at census records and census analysis. Editorialists were among the main sources when it came to journalism. A lot of time could be spent doing that, but I chose to focus on the people first, because the people were getting up in years, and it was kind of this race against time to get to them before it was too late.

I had to make the logistical, methodological decision to go for the people first without truly having done all the research that I might have preferred to have done starting out. The people came first, and then the archives, because the people would not always be there, but the archives would. So for this particular narrative, it was the wiser choice, really in some ways, the only choice, to make.

You have a lot of demographics and legal battles and Jim Crow information and riot history folded into the narratives. Did you have a strategic way you approached bringing those things together – the story with the facts and data?

It became clear to me fairly early on that in some ways the book is multiple books in one – each one of the characters could have been a book unto him- or herself. Then there’s all the archival, historical, demographic data that also had to be folded in – that’s almost a book unto itself. Then there’s the weaving in of the other stories, the secondary people who would have been the runner-up candidates for the protagonists’ slots. They’re all folded into the book, too. It’s multiple narratives, multiple books, in one.

It’s so close in and intimate when you’re in the moment with these people, as they’re preparing to leave or learning the rules of the caste system as children or growing up in the South during that era. You needed to stay with those individuals in that moment, because it’s a rare thing to be able to get that close in on someone’s life, particularly of an era that is hard for us to imagine today. To bring in some demographic data at an intimate moment seemed out of key, you might say, with where you happened to be with that individual.

I was writing it separately anyway, because I wanted to stay with each individual story as I was telling it. I was really inspired by the structure of “The Grapes of Wrath,” which also was an inspiration on multiple levels. It’s about a migration; it’s about getting inside the hopes and fears of people who were leaving the Dust Bowl region of the United States at the exact same time that Ida Mae was leaving Mississippi. It struck me how those parallel migrations were going on, but they were recorded differently at the time.

The idea of how to fold in the intimate stories of individuals going through this journey while also reminding the reader of the larger canvas on which this was occurring – “The Grapes of Wrath” was an inspiration for doing that. Now, obviously that’s fiction, though he had been a journalist, which I think all of us should be inspired by. But that book has inter-chapters, and the inter-chapters are absolutely magnificent.

Did you start out with “The Grapes of Wrath” as a model, or did you light on it at some point?

I paid closer attention once I was in it. A lot of the research that I did was on works of the era. I spent time in the world of that moment. I read books that came out in the 1930s, John Dollard and Hortense Powdermaker. I read work from economists in the 1910s and up, looking at the language that was used by writers and by scholars of the day. I wanted to know how they looked at things. How was it perceived at the time that it was unfolding? What do you even call some of the things that we don’t have names for today? I spent a lot of time, and clearly Steinbeck was going to be crucial, because “The Grapes of Wrath” is one of the best-known narratives about a journey ever written in the United States.

There is so much hope in the drive toward a different world, or a broader world, but there’s a lot of sorrow in the three lives you focus on, even after they make it out. Was that part of the reason that you picked the people you did, or did it just come out that for the people that you wanted, that’s where their lives went?

I think that they are reflective of the experiences that the majority of these people had. The experiences of people in these cities would have been very similar.

I don’t know how to answer the question on some level, because I think their lives began with heartbreak and sorrow. I also think that on leaving, their goals were quite modest. They had a lot of hope, but they knew that they were not going to become CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies or build skyscrapers. They’re representative of the reality that they all faced on arrival.

Putting myself back in the moment of making a decision about which three people would be the protagonists, at that time, I didn’t know what the end result would be in their lives. So I had to look at the limited information based on the interviews that I had done with them. Then the work began to truly know fully what happened in their lives. You might look at it and think, “She knew this, this, and this, and that’s why she chose them.” But there’s a lot that I didn’t know. It took years in order to hear all the things that had happened to them. They didn’t just tell me everything in one sitting, nor did they tell me everything the first time something came up, or after the first question. It took many, many months and ultimately years with some of them for all these things you see in the book now, for these things to reveal themselves.

One thing that surprised me, though I’m not sure why, was how many pages you spent on the actual migration. Now that you’re talking about “The Grapes of Wrath,” I see the parallels. There’s so much attention to the departure and even the planning to get away, which illuminates a lot about their lives. When did it strike you that the actual travel narratives of their leaving would be so important?

Thank you for so much for saying that. You spend so much time on the work itself in a cave, and how people will perceive it upon completion, you just can’t know. But that was probably the driving question – no pun intended – for the narrative. I was absolutely drawn to the act of leaving. If there was any one thing that was motivating me, that I wanted to bring to life, it was what it took for them to leave. That decision and their departure had such an impact on the country as a whole; that becomes in some ways the central moment that was going to change the northern and western cities as we know them. That’s what I wanted to understand.

Getting to the central core of the story was the decision itself and how they carried out the decision. For that reason, I interviewed a lot of people who were the children of the migration. These people were retirees already. I enjoyed hearing their stories, and it was all part of the reporting process and part of my own education. It was a living archive, interviewing real people over the span of the time that I did was like combing a living archive.

But the children, of which there were many, from a narrative perspective were going to be disqualified from being protagonists in the book, because I was looking for the people who were driving the car, not the lap children or the children in the back seat. I interviewed a lot of the lap children and the children in the back seat, and that gave me a fuller understanding of the larger story, but that was not who I thought should be the protagonists for this story, because I wanted to understand the decisions that went behind the change that would ultimately occur in all these cities. It ended up being, in my view, the heart of the book. It was always my intention that it would be the heart of the book.

The conditions under which they make those trips – there’s a real feeling of going into the unknown with them: the way that Robert Foster is driving and driving and desperately trying to find a place to sleep. The larger context is something that we’ve heard and read about before, but the idea of him at this moment in his life, leaving the South to go West is very compelling.

It shows you the power of narrative [laughs] – and I’m not saying that because of our conference! I’m saying it because the goal of all that we do is to pull readers in so that they can picture themselves in the role of that person, to picture themselves as that person. Many people have told me that they’ve experienced a range of emotions, particularly during that central section of the book, where they felt worried for him, fearful for him – for all of them.

That was the goal. The goal of all that we do is to bring the reader in so that they can imagine themselves in that situation, so they can wonder “What would I have done if I had been this situation?” That’s the power of building a narrative that so draws readers or viewers in, so that they feel they are these people.

Of course with narrative nonfiction, it takes so much effort and time to draw close enough to individuals and have them trust you enough to share what you need to make it come alive for a distant reader who will be absorbing this from far away or totally different circumstances. It is really a magical thing when you think about it.

I once heard an editor explain that when he was working with a first-time book author who was an experienced journalist, he had to tell him to write with “the voice of God.” That comment came to mind, because there’s almost a Biblical tone to the stories as you tell them. Was that you reflecting their voices, or were you thinking in an epic fashion as you were trying to give a tone or voice to the book?

Hearing all those stories, I in some ways absorbed them into my very being. It just became a part of the way I thought about this entire experience. I think that all of those voices, absolutely all of those voices – the children in the backseat, the voices of the anthropologists who had been traveling in the same parts of Mississippi where Ida Mae grew up, the economists who were looking at it from Chicago – all of those voices get inside you, those perspectives and the language of all those writers, speakers, scholars and editorialists, of all those multiple eras. It all gets inside you, and you distill it, and out comes your own voice almost in a new language.

It takes the infusion of all those different voices to help you come up with your own. They all counterbalance each other, and once you have been exposed to all that, then and only then, can you write with the authority that you need to, because you have read enough to speak as an author. It’s interesting that the word author can be found within the word authority. You only have that authority when you’ve done the research.

What else should we know about the book now that it’s in the world?

From a narrative perspective, I am really happy that the structure seems to have worked. I spent a lot of time on the structure. It was a challenge to take three different people in three different decades from three different states who take three different routes to three other states and weave in the contextual archival detail and give it all meaning.

There was the tremendous challenge of trying to harness literally file cabinets full of material. I have railroad timetables from the Illinois Central Railroad that I got off eBay. I have photographs of actual advertisements and specs for the car Doctor Foster drove, his Buick Roadmaster, so that I would know exactly what it looked like inside and out. I didn’t even make that much use of everything I had, but I wanted to have it. I bought a green book, one of the books that African Americans who were driving would have used in that era, because they couldn’t be assured of being able to stop when they were making these long drives. They had these little guidebooks, like an AAA guidebook, with the names, addresses and telephone numbers of places that had agreed to permit them to stay. And they would use that on their journeys. I wanted a copy of that.

There was so much work to gather the material that would become the basis of the narrative, but I think the greatest challenge from a writing perspective was how to bring it all together in a way that the reader could follow it. The fact that I don’t get asked about it a lot may be the best commentary of all, because that was a lot of work.

I’ve been asked if I had an outline or a master pattern to spread out the story, but it ended up being an organic process, because I found that an outline seemed like an artificial imposition onto the narrative. I found that it was not working if I tried to superimpose some order onto the experiences of the people as they were unfolding. So I made a decision not to use an outline. Does that surprise you?

I felt a pattern in the narrative, but I didn’t know if it was one that was planned, or one that emerged. It seemed like a fairly simple structure – my sense was that you were taking us through a scene from each of the characters’ stories with inter-chapters. Very occasionally you would return to somebody’s story without rotating through all the protagonists first. It did read seamlessly, though, so I know our audience would like to hear any other thoughts you want to share on structure.

As nonfiction writers, we have to adhere to the facts that we have obtained. If you were writing fiction, you could decide “I want to do this or that.” But you’re dealing with actual facts and real people and whatever it is you have from them and from the archives, and you have to think about how to structure that and how to organize that, where to stop and where to begin. You may not have enough from this person in this particular year, but you have a lot from this other person. That’s just the reality when you’re dealing with nonfiction.

Sometimes you hear fiction writers say, “I was in a zone, and the character told me what to do.” As journalists, we don’t have the luxury of experiencing that, but having this volume of material may be the closest we can come to it. You do have a wealth of things to choose from, and you can learn how to make the best use of what you have. You may not have everything you want, and you may not have everything you need to make your initial idea work, but somehow you have to make it work.

If it seemed like it was natural, I can say, on some level, it was organic – but it was not natural. This is really hard work. It is really, really hard work.

Anything else you want to say about how to manage that work?

I’m still absorbing that I got through it, so there’s no one bit of advice that I could give. Unfortunately, each project is different, so maybe there are things that would be applicable to this one that wouldn’t work for another one.

This is one thing I would say: something this big can seem so daunting when you’re about to begin it that the only way to do it is to do it in small steps. Otherwise you would never do it – it would be too overwhelming. In some ways, it’s like preparing a meal: it all starts with the flour, the baking powder, the spices and the garlic. You start small. You don’t think about the big thing you’re undertaking. Thinking about the big thing can stop you in your tracks. That’s how I got through it, by looking at just what is in front of me to do today: “I will be writing about Ida Mae and her arrival in Chicago.”

It’s nonfiction, and we have to go with what we’ve got. So, first over-reporting is what I do, and it’s what a lot of people do. There’s a lot on the cutting room floor when you do this kind of work – as well it should be. Not everything you get needs to go in, and not everything you get is the reader going to be interested in. There’s way, way, way more things that didn’t get in than got in. That’s a good thing; that’s how it should be.

Have as much as you can, so that you have choices once you begin cooking. And then you start small. You start by chopping the onions, or you peel the garlic. Or you measure the corn meal. That’s how you begin it. I think focusing on the task in front of you is what gets you through it. It seems so big at the end, but it’s all one piece coming together with the next, with the next, with the next. And you have a narrative.

January 11 2011

19:30

Two journalism awards to know: Worth Bingham for investigations and Taylor Family for fairness

January is awards entry season in newsrooms across the country — the time when copy machines burn through countless toner cartridges, churning out copies of that great story you wrote back in April, the one that got the mayor thrown in jail.

And since more journalists are facing financial difficulties these days, it’s worth appreciating the journalism awards that attach a goodly-sized chunk of money to the prestige that comes with winning. I want to let you know about two such prizes we administer here at the Nieman Foundation that have deadlines looming: The Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism and the Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Newspapers.

Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism

First up: the Bingham Prize, named for the late reporter and member of the storied Bingham journalism family. You can read all about the prize here, but here’s the description:

The Worth Bingham Prize honors investigative reporting of stories of national significance where the public interest is being ill-served. These stories may involve state, local or national government, lobbyists or the press itself wherever there exists an “atmosphere of easy tolerance” that Worth Bingham himself once described in his reporting on the nation’s capital. The investigative reporting may cover actual violations of the law, rule or code; lax or ineffective administration or enforcement; or activities which create conflicts of interest, entail excessive secrecy or otherwise raise questions of propriety.

In other words, good old fashioned watchdog reporting. The winner of the Worth Bingham Prize will receive $20,000; past winners include Seymour Hersh, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Dana Priest, Anne Hull, Diana Henriques, Bill Dedman, and other great journalists. We accept entries from newspapers, magazines, and online-only outlets (sorry, broadcasters).

The deadline is coming up quick, though: Entries must be postmarked by this Friday, January 14. So get cracking! Entry details here.

Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Newspapers

The second prize is the Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Newspapers. The prize was established by the family that published The Boston Globe for more than a century, in particular Globe chairman emeritus William O. Taylor. The purpose of the award is “to encourage fairness in news coverage by America’s daily newspapers”:

The guidelines for the Taylor Fairness Award do not offer a definition of fairness. This is deliberate, recognizing that elements of fairness in journalism are diverse and do not easily lend themselves to a precise definition for a journalism competition.

Past winners include the Chicago Tribune, The Hartford Courant, The Charlotte Observer, The Sacramento Bee, and the Globe itself. First prize is $10,000. The contest is only open to newspapers and their websites. You’ve got a little more time to apply for this one: Friday, January 21 is the deadline. Details here.

Good luck!

December 21 2010

19:00

#NiemanLeaks big takeaway? Even post-WikiLeaks, context still key

The Nieman Foundation’s Secrecy and Journalism conference last week set out to tackle a lot of questions, but perhaps none were as big as the central one posed to attendees: What should journalism’s role be in this new environment of distributed leakers, massive databases, and citizen reporters.

The answer most of the panels seemed to reach, however, might be a comforting one: Provide the context and texture behind the data, while vetting sources for accuracy and agenda. Not too different from what journalist have always been supposed to do — but now the tools, sources, and audience have come together to allow for a much richer, deeper form of reporting than has ever been possible.

We’ve summed up and posted video and liveblogs from each of the conference sessions. But after sifting through it all, here are my five key takeaways from the discussion.

Data needs context

While Julian Assange initially relied on radical transparency as a tool to spur change, he quickly learned that crafting a narrative around the raw documents produced a much more dramatic result. Even The New York Times’ Bill Keller acknowledged WikiLeaks has “evolved.” The new leak revolution begins looking more and more like the old guard, even as it collaborates with them.

Beware secrecy’s hard liners

The U.S.’s classification system may or may not be broken, as CJR’s Clint Hendler suggested in one panel — but it definitely has quirks, shortcomings, and fallibilities. As Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, put it: “It’s important not to take too seriously what the government says is and isn’t classified. It’s a game.”

Vet, vet, vet

Whether dealing with Deep Throat, a whistleblower, or a shadowy international band of hackers, journalists need to look at their sources critically, questioning the source’s agenda as well as ensuring the material is authentic. As Keller noted, The New York Times has treated WikiLeaks as a source, not a partner. Just because the form of the source has changed doesn’t change the fundamental relationship. And as an added warning, note Walter Pincus’ admonition that almost all of the “new” sources that approach him are simply wrong.

WikiLeaks hasn’t (yet) established a new order

With technology — particularly technology under siege — distributed tends to win over centralized, and there are already new organizations popping up all over hoping to take WikiLeaks’ mantle. The more fundamental point, however, is that similar leaks have been driving much of journalism in the United States and around the world for decades — meaning there may be less new and different about WikiLeaks than there is familiar to any good investigative journalist.

The hard work is just beginning

Despite all the opportunities and changes occurring, the basic grunt work of investigative journalism is still boring, tedious, and, particularly at the local level, critical to serving as an effective watchdog for democracy.

December 20 2010

15:00

The changing of the gatekeeper: Adapting to the new roles for journalists, sources and information

We’re continuing our recaps of the Secrecy and Journalism in the New Media Age conference that took place at the Nieman Foundation on Thursday with the second panel discussion — entitled “Whither the Gatekeeper? Navigating New Rules and Roles in the Age of Radical Transparency.”

The discussion centered on the issue of how has journalism responded to WikiLeaks and others doing some of the work traditionally done by journalists — namely ferreting out documents and information — and how reporters and editors remain important as the interpreters and analysts of news.

The panel includes Walter Pincus, intelligence and national security reporter for The Washington Post, Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, Clint Hendler, staff writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, and Maggie Mulvihill, senior investigative producer for the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. Below you’ll also find the archived liveblog and online discussion from the session.

December 17 2010

19:00

Bill Keller on how WikiLeaks has evolved, the NYT reporting process, and threats to national security

Bill Keller’s keynote speech at the Secrecy and Journalism in the New Media Age conference garnered a lot of attention Thursday after the New York Times executive editor made a notable distinction between himself and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange: I don’t regard Julian Assange as a kindred spirit. If he’s a journalist, he’s not the kind of journalist that I am.

Keller’s talk was a broad discussion of the Times’ handling of WikiLeaks documents, from parsing files in the computer-assisted reporting unit to conversations with lawyers and officials in the U.S. government. But Keller also took time to address some of the criticisms of the Times’ working with WikiLeaks. On Thursday, our Michael Morisy summarized Keller’s speech for the Lab, and here is the full video which includes the Q&A. We’ve also included the archived liveblog of the talk with commentary from Twitter.

18:30

Accountability journalism and the law: An international perspective on prosecuting the whistleblowers

If you weren’t able to attend the secrecy and journalism conference here at the Nieman Foundation on Thursday we’ve got good news: You can see it all in video recaps of the day. We’ve already posted the morning keynote from the AP’s Kathleen Carroll, and here’s the first panel discussion: “Prosecuted, Banned, Blamed: Reporters Push Boundaries as a Voice of Public Accountability.”

In light of the news that U.S. authorities are contemplating whether criminal charges can be brought against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the assembled panel of current and former Nieman Fellows talk about the real threat of prosecution that journalists often face abroad. The panel features Stefan Candea, Rob Rose, Alejandra Matus, and Kevin Doyle offering perspectives on the situation for journalists in Romania, South Africa, Chile and Cambodia. We’ve also included the archived liveblog of the discussion from inside the room and online.

December 16 2010

21:00

Bill Keller: WikiLeaks isn’t my kind of news org, but they have evolved

During a wide-ranging conversation on government secrecy and the relationship between The New York Times and WikiLeaks, Times executive editor Bill Keller was asked whether he’d be bothered if WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange were charged under the Espionage Act, as Senator Joe Lieberman recently suggested.

“Let me back into that question,” he said. “I don’t regard Julian Assange as a kindred spirit. If he’s a journalist, he’s not the kind of journalist that I am.

He said, though, that in some ways WikiLeaks has shifted in the direction of traditional journalism and away from the style of its earlier publications, which were largely just data, unredacted and without comment.

“They have moved to becoming an organization that is leaking out the documents in a more journalistic fashion,” he said. “I don’t think they’ve become my kind of news organization, but they have evolved.”

Keller spoke at the Nieman Foundation’s one-day conference on secrecy and journalism Thursday, where WikiLeaks was a common topic of discussion.

Strange bedfellows in a “new era”

Whatever reservations Keller has about Assange-as-journalist, The New York Times has been at the forefront of getting the organization’s materials to the public — as well as helping shape, at times indirectly, WikiLeaks’ own editorial policies even as the Times worked to decide which materials it would publish of the hundreds of thousands of available documents.

Keller took on critics of the Times’ publication of WikiLeaks’ documents, saying their critiques generally fell into three broad categories:

  • The leaks don’t contain any new information. “Ninety-nine percent of news doesn’t greatly impact our understanding of the world,” Keller said. “News generally works by advancing our knowledge by inches. For those that follow foreign policy, these documents provide nuance, texture, and drama. For these that don’t follow these stories closely, it allows them to learn more and learn in a more lively way.”
  • The leaks disclosed confidential informats or endanger international relationships. “In the end, I can only answer for what my paper has done, and I believe we have behaved responsibly” in editing the material, he said. And to the latter point: “Foreign leaders will continue to talk to us. It’s the way of power to brag.”
  • The collaboration compromised the Times’ impartiality and independence. “Wikileaks does not take guidance from The New York Times,” Keller said, while noting that the Times was actually cut out from direct access to the leaked State Department cables, partially as a result of articles the Times had published.

But despite differences between the newspaper and the organization, Keller said that the paper still provided leadership for the international press on how to handle the material and the organization providing it. He said that “in most cases” the international papers, such as Der Spiegel and the Guardian, followed The New York Times’ guidance and what materials to release or not to release, occasionally differing on materials of particular interest to a certain country (such as the Merkel cables with the Germany’s Der Spiegel). WikiLeaks itself has also followed many of the Times’ suggested redactions.

“Wikileaks, having been castigated for the first two rounds of document dumps, basically said that this time around they would take the redactions we gave them,” Keller said.

The vetting process

Keller also detailed the process by which The New York Times vetted and processed the vast amounts of information, saying that the Times and other news organizations had now finished publishing all the major stories based on the documents they expected to write.

  • “The first thing we would do is talk with the lawyers about if there’s a legal problem with using this material and, if so, is there a way around it.”
  • The Times then vetted the cables with reporters familiar with similar secret documents and quickly decided the trove was genuine.
  • The Times’ computer-assisted reporting team dumped the database into a searchable format, bringing in reporters and professionals to search for interesting keywords to begin reporting. “No news organization claims to have read all of those documents,” he said.
  • Reporters then dove into and developed deeper stories based on the cables, occasionally sharing interesting segments with their colleagues overseas.
  • The New York Times performed “common sense” redactions on the material, removing names of low-level informants and other sensitive material
  • The New York Times took its redactions to the U.S. government, occasionally taking feedback and redacting information it felt would needlessly endanger lives.

“We then basically agreed on a schedule where day one would be Pakistan day and day two would be Russia day, something like that,” Keller said. “We rolled out on that schedule, and we agreed to give WikiLeaks the documents we intended to publish on each day’s stories, with our redactions.”

Throughout it all, however, Keller said the Times kept a very clear view of what WikiLeaks was and was not in its reporting. “What I have said from the very beginning of this is WikiLeaks is a source, not a partner. The Guardian was kind of a partner in this, because we swapped data and thoughts back and forth saying, ‘Hey, look at this table.’ There was none of that back and forth with WikiLeaks.”

19:00

Technology makes secrets easier to hide, easier to find: AP’s Kathleen Carroll on secrecy in journalism

We’re in the middle of our day-long conference on the role of secrecy in journalism (and of journalism in secrecy, to think of it). Bill Keller’s currently at the podium; check the livestream and liveblogs for more.

But if you can’t make the livestream (or be here in Cambridge), we’ll be posting full video of each session. Here’s the first one: Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the Associated Press, who gave the opening keynote address. Below the jump, I’m including the archived liveblog from the session. Watch this space over the next day or so for videos of the four additional sessions.

13:30

Live today: A Nieman conference on the role of secrecy in journalism; follow along through video and blogs

Today, the Nieman Foundation is hosting a one-day conference entitled From Watergate to WikiLeaks: Journalism and Secrecy in the New Media Age. If you’re here in Cambridge for the event, come say hello! (We’re in the basement, by the washing machine.) But if you’re watching from afar, you can watch a video livestream and follow along with our liveblogs below, throughout the day. (You can also watch #niemanleaks on Twitter.)

The schedule in brief is below (all times Eastern); in full, it’s here:

9:00 a.m.: Introduction by Bob Giles and Barry Sussman

9:10 a.m.: Opening keynote by Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the Associated Press

10:00 a.m.: Panel I on the international perspective, featuring journalists from Romania, Chile, South Africa, and Cambodia (Stefan Candea, Alejandra Matus, Rob Rose, and Kevin Doyle, respectively)

11:30 a.m.: Panel II on the U.S. perspective, featuring Walter Pincus (Washington Post), Danielle Brian (Project on Government Oversight), Clint Hendler (CJR), and Maggie Mulvihill (New England Center for Investigative Reporting)

1:15 p.m.: Keynote by Bill Keller, executive editor, The New York Times

2:30 p.m.: Panel III on the future of transparency, featuring Teru Kuwayama (Basetrack), Bill Allison (Sunlight Foundation), Aron Pilhofer (New York Times, DocumentCloud), David Kaplan (Int’l Consortium of Investigative Journalists), and John Bohannon (Science magazine), all moderated by the Lab’s own Megan Garber

4:00 p.m.: Wrapup

Immediately below is the live video, which should work from 9 a.m. to a little after 4 p.m. Underneath that are liveblogs for each of the panels and keynotes. Note that they’re separate from one another, so when one session is over, all the action will move to the next liveblog. (That’s a little awkward, but it should make things easier for looking back at each session after the fact.)








9:10 a.m.: Opening keynote by Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of the Associated Press

10:00 a.m.: Panel I on the international perspective, featuring journalists from Romania, Chile, South Africa, and Cambodia (Stefan Candea, Alejandra Matus, Rob Rose, and Kevin Doyle, respectively)

11:30 a.m.: Panel II on the U.S. perspective, featuring Walter Pincus (Washington Post), Danielle Brian (Project on Government Oversight), Clint Hendler (CJR), and Maggie Mulvihill (New England Center for Investigative Reporting)

1:15 p.m.: Keynote by Bill Keller, executive editor, The New York Times

2:30 p.m.: Panel III on the future of transparency, featuring Teru Kuwayama (Basetrack), Bill Allison (Sunlight Foundation), Aron Pilhofer (New York Times, DocumentCloud), David Kaplan (Int’l Consortium of Investigative Journalists), and John Bohannon (Science magazine), all moderated by the Lab’s own Megan Garber

December 15 2010

15:00

#Niemanleaks on Thursday: After WikiLeaks, a flood of new questions

While WikiLeaks’ recent document dumps have answered questions large and small (How many civilians have been killed in Iraq? Does Muammar al-Gaddafi prefer blondes or brunettes?), the organization’s controversial brand of journalism has raised a lot more questions that scholars, working journalists and legal systems around the world are just now beginning to tackle. The Nieman Foundation is hosting “From Watergate to WikiLeaks: Secrecy and Journalism in the New Media Age,” at which speakers ranging from The New York Times’ executive editor Bill Keller to The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus will offer their insight into how the rules are changing.

Here are a few of the questions we’ve seen raised, and where you might begin to figure out some answers tomorrow. If you won’t be in attendance, check back here Thursday morning for the live video stream, or watch #niemanleaks on Twitter.

Is WikiLeaks journalism? What does that mean when everyone can blog, Tweet and share instantly with an audience around the world?

Check out the 2:30 p.m. (EST) panel, “Secrets 2.0: Exploring Entrepreneurial Answers to Journalistic Obligations,” which will feature the Sunlight Foundation’s Bill Allison, Basetrack’s Teru Kuwayama, the New York Times’ Aron Pilhofer and others who are helping answer that question through innovative approaches to what journalism is, while pushing back on the notion of what it isn’t. For example, Knight News Challenge winner Basetrack pairs professional war correspondence with the thoughts and reactions of U.S. Marines and their families, who are also blogging their experiences. The Sunlight Foundation, on the other hand, takes massive data sets and made them more accessible and useful, often leaving it up to the reader to connect the dots in creative new ways.

What should we make on all the legal and political pressure being put on WikiLeaks and other news organizations? Should the law dictate how and what is reported, and where do you draw the line on either side?

The “Prosecuted, Banned, Blamed: Reporters Push Boundaries as a Voice of Public Accountability” panel at 10:00 a.m. features a global perspective from current and past Nieman Fellows, including Stefan Candea, who helped map out Romania’s complex web of political and media ownership, as well as fellows from Chile, Cambodia, and South Africa. It will be moderated by the Nieman Foundation’s Stefanie Friedhoff.

For a more local perspective, head to “Whither the Gatekeeper? Navigating New Rules and Roles in the Age of Radical Transparency.” It’ll feature The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus, Clint Hendler from Columbia Journalism Review, Maggie Mulvihill from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and Danielle Brian from the Project on Government Oversight. It’ll be moderated by Nieman Reports‘ Melissa Ludtke.

So in the end, what’s changed post-WikiLeaks?

The conference’s keynotes will tackle the big question of what changes between media and their sources as those sources can increasingly go direct to the audience with their message. Kathleen Carroll executive editor of the Associated Press, will discuss freedom of information in the digital age at 9:10 a.m., while the Times’ Bill Keller will address secrecy, national security, and the press at 1:15 p.m.

December 07 2010

16:00

Shhhhh! A Nieman conference on secrecy in journalism

You could argue that journalism is defined by its relationship with secrets. Not just Deep Throat meet-me-in-the-parking-garage secrets: the everyday secrets, the leaker whose identity gets protected, the “you didn’t hear this from me” tip after the meeting, the nugget of information someone wants protected and a reporter wants splashed above the fold. At its best, journalism takes facts known only to a few and shares them with the world; along the path to exposing those secrets, though, there are lots of other collateral secrets created, the sawdust of reporting.

But secrets don’t get kept in quite the same way in an Internet age. If that wasn’t clear before WikiLeaks told us all about Qadhafi’s buxom Ukrainian nurse, it’s clear now; Julian Assange has brought a Bond-like immediacy to the questions.

So I’m very happy to say that the Nieman Foundation is, next week, holding a special one-day conference on the subject of secrecy in journalism. It’ll be next Thursday, Dec. 16, here at Lippmann House in Cambridge. And there’s still room if you’d like to attend — RSVPs required.

There’s lots of good stuff on the schedule, but among the highlights I’ll be most looking forward to are:

— New York Times editor Bill Keller talking about his paper’s experience with WikiLeaks and policies on secrecy and national security

— Washington Post veteran reporter Walter Pincus on a panel on the new role of gatekeepers in an age of Internet-enabled transparency

— The Times’ Aron Pilhofer, Sunlight’s Ellen Miller, and others discussing the new possibilities of data to make transparency more accessible

You can see the full list of speakers — which also includes AP’s Kathleen Carroll, Knight News Challenge winner Teru Kuwayama, and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting’s Maggie Mulvihillhere.

If you can’t make it to Cambridge, we’ll have a full report on the conference here at the Lab shortly afterward, including summaries of the speakers and video. On the day of, watch the hashtag #niemanleaks for the ongoing conversation.

Photo by Monika Bargmann used under a Creative Commons license.

December 06 2010

17:00

Come spend a year at Harvard! Deadline for int’l applications for Nieman Fellowships approaching

While you may know the Nieman name through this website, our primary project for over 70 years has been the Nieman Fellowships, the oldest journalism fellowship in the world. Every fall, around two dozen talented journalists from around the world come to Harvard for a year of study in the field of their choice — anything that will make them better journalists upon their return to their career.

Some study classic journalism-influencing subjects like economics, history, or government; some dive deep into a particular topic area they’ve worked in before. Others want to study the kinds of Lab-like subjects that will influence journalism’s future: revenue models at Harvard Business School, digital media at the Berkman Center, nonprofit structures at the Hauser Center, online media law at Harvard Law School. (And if Harvard isn’t enough, Nieman Fellows can also attend classes down Mass Ave at MIT.)

We’re starting the process of picking the 74th class of Nieman Fellows, who will come to Harvard next fall, in August 2011. So if you’re a talented journalist, it might be time for you to think about applying.

Each Nieman class is roughly half American, half from the rest of the world. And the matter is most pressing for prospective international fellows, since the deadline for your application is December 15. (American applicants have until January 31.)

You can read the eligibility requirements and the details of how to apply. But the key elements include two short essays (one a personal statement, the other an outline of what you plan to study), some samples of your work, and four letters of recommendation. If you get started now, internationals, you’ve still got time! (South African, Canadian, and South Korean journalists have their own special application processes; follow the links here.)

I’m happy to answer any questions from applicants, particularly any Lab readers from digital background who’d like to come to Harvard. (I was a Nieman Fellow, Class of ‘08.) There’s no age requirement, and the experience requirement is minimal (five years as a working journalist). The goal of the Nieman Fellowships is to improve journalism by unleashing journalists on a great university; if you think you could be one of those journalists, I encourage you to apply.

November 10 2010

17:00

Be our boss! A big opening at the Nieman Foundation

The Nieman Journalism Lab is a part of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. (The basement part, to be specific.) Harvard doesn’t have a traditional journalism school, so the Nieman Foundation has for 72 years been the primary home for those of us at the university who work with and care about the news.

When the original gift for the foundation was given in 1937, one of the ideas tossed around was that the foundation might be a repository for a microfiche archive of great journalism. With that library science idea in mind, it was decided that the head of the foundation would be called its curator. The idea didn’t stick, but the title did.

Our curator since 2000, Bob Giles, announced his retirement last month, and the search is on for his replacement. So unlike my previous job postings — all of which involved working for me — this one’s a chance to be my boss.

Below is the job posting Harvard’s put together. I’m happy to chat with any potential applicants who have questions about the foundation, but actual inquiries should go to the email address in the posting.

Harvard University invites applications and nominations for the position of Curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. The University seeks a visionary leader with significant journalistic accomplishment and a demonstrated passion for the field.

The next Nieman curator will begin his or her tenure at a time when the field of journalism is facing multiple challenges. This presents a unique opportunity for the next curator to shape an innovative future for a strong and respected institution whose mission is “to promote and elevate the standards of journalism and educate individuals deemed specially qualified for journalism.”

The curator should be capable of marshaling the resources and exercising the convening authority of the Nieman Foundation and Harvard to bring together representatives from all areas of journalism to maintain a national and global discourse on mutual concerns and opportunities. Applicants should be knowledgeable of the emerging media landscape and its effect on journalistic models and practices.

Applicants must possess a deep understanding of the principles of journalism and be able to articulate their views to a worldwide audience. The curator will serve as mentor to the Nieman Fellows while actively shaping the Foundation’s programs. He or she should lead engagement with faculty, students, and staff at Harvard, integrating the Foundation and its Fellows fully into the intellectual life of the University. The curator must possess proven administrative and management capabilities. Experience with or knowledge of academic institutions is not required but would be helpful.

Applications as well as nominations may be directed to the search committee at Nieman_Search@harvard.edu.

Harvard University is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer.

September 02 2010

12:36

HARVARD TABLET SUMMIT (6): A MASS MEDIA GADGET

2010-09-02_1320

You know…

It will not fly.

It’s a flop.

It’s just crap!

I am returning my iPad.

Well, the last handbook from the Magazine Publishers Association (MPA) has good news for us the tablet fans.

We are not a minority.

We are not crazy.

We are not alone.

We are not the exception.

We were right!

Almost 60% of the US consumers plan to buy a tablet within the next 3 years.

Not only iPads but just tablets.

The mobile media revolution is over us.

Another reason not to miss the INMA/NIEMAN/INNOVATION Harvard Tablet Summit.

Cambridge, December 2-3, 2010.

A Worldwide Summit to learn, master and share new ideas.

Be there!

September 01 2010

15:08

HARVARD TABLET SUMMIT (5): IPAD COMPETITORS

Viewsonic-Tablet-Hand

Yesterday ViewSonic unveiled the ViewPad 7, not a very good one.

And tomorrow SAMSUNG will present its first Android 7-inch Galaxy Tablet (the iPad is 9.7 inches)

So iPad competitors are here and the winners will be… you and me, the consumers.

Expect immediate reaction from Apple.

And a new, better and cheaper iPad model very soon.

More competition is always good.

Another reason not to miss the INMA/NIEMAN/INNOVATION Harvard Tablet Summit.

Cambridge, December 2-3, 2010.

A Worldwide Summit to learn, master and share new ideas.

Be there!

August 24 2010

14:30

Download the new Nieman Journalism Lab iPhone app

Every day, there are 16 gazillion news articles about the future of journalism, 27.5 flabillion blog posts, and 294 quinzillion tweets. (These are all estimates.) There’s a lot of great stuff in there, but just keeping up to date — tracking it all — takes up way too much time for most people. Man can not live in TweetDeck alone! Tools for sifting through those mounds of information get better every day, but it’s easier than ever to fall behind.

In response, we’ve built the Nieman Journalism Lab iPhone app. We think it’s pretty great. It’s free, and it’s available now in the App Store, for iPhones and iPod touches. (It’ll also work on the iPad, although it’s not yet a native iPad app.)

You can use it as you like, of course, but the use case I’m imagining for it is when you’re standing in line at the grocery store, sitting on a train, or otherwise in a situation where you could squeeze in two minutes to catch up on what’s going on. There’s much more about the app here, but fundamentally, it offers a few different snapshots onto the future-of-news world:

— It features all our own stories, in full text and with videos that play on the Flash-less iPhone.

— It pulls in our very popular Twitter feed, where our staff hand-curates the best links about the future of journalism, every weekday.

— It uses the web app Hourly Press to analyze the most influential corners of the future-of-news Twitterverse to see what they’re talking about; once an hour, you get an updated list of the most buzzed-about links from some of Twitter’s most interesting people.

— It gives you searchable access to our entire archive of stories.

— It pulls in the most recent work from some of the best sources of journalism news on the web — from Romenesko to CJR to Mashable to paidContent to The New York Times. Not to mention our sister publications, Nieman Storyboard, Nieman Watchdog, and Nieman Reports.

All of that in a few taps. Let us know if you have any thoughts on how to make it better; we hope you download it, give it a try, and find it useful.

August 18 2010

13:28

THE NEW WORLD TABLET SUMMIT

10NewsSummitHead

INNOVATION will be again partner with the International Newsmedia Marketing Association (INMA) organizing the second World Tablet Summit.

The first was in Oxford (UK) with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and the next will be in Cambridge (USA) under the auspices of the Nieman Foundation.

Oxford was sold out, so plan early (December 2-3, 2010) and register now (before October 22 you will have lower fees).

The Charles hotel in Cambridge is just across the Harvard University main gate.

The opening reception will beat the Harvard University Faculty Club.

What to expect:

• An international audience with media executives from more countries than ever.

• Best practices and succesful cases.

• From iPad to iPay

• What works, what not.

• The leading industry providers.

• No lectures.

• No bullshit.

And remember that an “Extracting New Value from Content” seminar, on December 2, opens the INMA Transformation of News Summit by identifying and benchmarking new content models that generate new revenue from consumers.

The seminar will look at the latest developments in content, paid models, and extracting more consumer revenue.

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