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July 05 2011

20:58

Accountability - Jill Abramson: "In my house growing up, The Times substituted for religion"

Poynter :: The most recent game of deleting and changing online news was played last month, when The New York Times removed a quotation by incoming Executive Editor Jill Abramson that said, in part, “In my house growing up, The Times substituted for religion. In noting the deletion, some bloggers speculated whether the Times was trying to hide something, presumably Abramson’s worship of false idols. The Times said the line was dropped for a fresher quote.

[Steve Myers, Poynter:] A witness’ account in a developing news story disappears when it’s replaced by the version that appears in the next day’s paper. You remember a story saying one thing – and maybe you blogged about it – but now it says something else.

How news sites could improve accountability by tracking story changes, but probably won’t ...

Continue to read Steve Myers, www.poynter.org

May 25 2011

06:05

James Risen, New York Times, served with subpoena in C.I.A. leak case on Iran sabotage

New York Times :: With the approval of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., federal prosecutors are trying to force the author of a book on the C.I.A. to testify at a criminal trial about who leaked information to him about the agency’s effort to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program at the end of the Clinton administration. The writer, James Risen, a reporter at The New York Times, was served with a subpoena on Monday

Continue to read Charlie Savage, www.nytimes.com

May 24 2011

07:02

PBS plots a new promo strategy facing more stations to become unaffiliated

Mediabistro | TVNewser :: With the economy still hurting, and funding for public media constantly under threat, the potential of a shakeup at PBS looms. The New York Times reports that many local PBS stations–facing steep dues from the mothership–are considering following in the footsteps of KCET Los Angeles and WMFE Orlando and becoming unaffiliated public stations.

Continue to read Alex Weprin, www.mediabistro.com

May 18 2011

12:57

Dorothy Parvaz freed by Iran

We’re thrilled to hear this morning that Iran has freed detained journalist (and 2009 Nieman fellow) Dorothy Parvaz. Alan Cowell and J. David Goodman reported in The New York Times that, without advance notice, Dorothy called her fiancé, Todd Barker, from customs as she arrived back in Doha, Qatar. A wonderful surprise for him, no doubt, and we’re happy to read the good news again and again in accounts on Al Jazeera Englishthe Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times websites.

Thank you to those Storyboard readers who helped raise awareness of Dorothy’s detention worldwide.

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.

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.

March 11 2011

16:15

David Barstow on being fair, bearing witness and “doing something bigger with the story”

We spoke this week with The New York Times’ David Barstow, who wrote and helped report our latest Notable Narrative, “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours.” The project, a fine-grained look at the crew’s last moments aboard the doomed oil rig, ran at the end of December, and we learned through Barstow that Summit Entertainment has recently picked up film rights to the story. Barstow’s prior work has twice been awarded a Pulitzer Prize (one in partnership with Times reporter Lowell Bergman), and he has a long history with investigative reporting and narrative. In these excerpts from our conversation, he talks about applying narrative techniques in an investigative framework and the importance of bearing witness.

When did the Times commit to doing the Deepwater Horizon project?

I had written, with some other reporters, a very long piece that ran in June of last year that really zeroed in on the blowout preventer. After that piece, I think a number of us felt like there was still more to be done, but we weren’t really sure what that was.

So it wasn’t until probably August when the big conceptual breakthrough occurred, which was that we thought that there was a really great story if we focused very narrowly on the crew and the last hours of Deepwater Horizon. We wanted to focus not on what everyone else was focusing on, at least in those summer months, which was “What caused the blowout?” – which inevitably took you into a very dense thicket of questions about well design and about cementing and all the things that happened below the rig, all the way down to where they were tapping into the oil two miles beneath the surface of the ocean bead. Instead, we focused on the rig itself and understanding the crew that worked on this rig, and understanding the systems that were engineered and were incorporated into the rig to protect these people from the very thing that occurred: the blowout.

There were three bylines on the piece, and a note about contributing material from another reporter. What were the mechanics of the story? Who actually wrote it?

I wrote every word of it. I think the byline in the paper was clear on that point. It was written by me, with reporting by myself and David [Rohde] and Stephanie [Saul]. The reason I make that point is that this is a narrative, in a way. And I think that we all realized and could see the importance of having a coherent and single voice carrying this story. It’s been all of our experience that at the end of the day, you can’t write narrative by committee. So I took on that task of being the writer, and then of course, we all divvied up various aspects of the reporting.

I noticed that in the actual structure of it, loosely speaking, a third of it leads up to the blowout, and then a third is that nine minutes between the blowout and the explosions, and the last third is wrapping up. Did you divide it that cleanly on purpose? How did you decide on the structure?

I think the biggest thing that drove the framing of the story was actually that “nine minutes” idea. There was this period of time when a whole bunch of things could have occurred or maybe should have occurred that might have saved lives or prevented explosions or minimized explosions. That was the absolute crucial period of time: the time between when the crew had the absolute first obvious evidence that they were experiencing a blowout – which was actual mud and oil coming up on the rig itself – and when the big cataclysmic explosion occurred that basically eliminated any chance of the rig coming out of this OK.

And yet, what made this particular narrative extremely challenging is No. 1, you’re dealing with an awful lot of technology, a very complex system. The fire and gas alarm system alone has a phone book-size instruction manual. That’s just one. There’s the ventilation system, and the systems that allowed the crew to communicate, and the warning system, and the gas sensor – all of that stuff was really important to the story.

Handling the complexity of the technology, along with the number of different characters on this rig that in and of itself is a foreign place for most readers, this was the narrative challenge. How do you structure the piece so that you create a sense of pace and narrative and keep people going through this experience and put them as much as possible in the shoes of some of the people on this rig during this couple-hour period of time?

The way I tried to deal with that was keeping the focus relentlessly on the one day and on this one 9-minute period of time. That was the frame that helped anchor the piece.

You have this chunk of technical material you’re trying to get across, and then you have all these narrative details. Inside that larger frame, how did you approach bringing the technical material and specifics available in hindsight into the story about the people?

It’s not like there was some master narrative out there somewhere that said when one event happened compared to some other event. So in fact, part of the challenge was constructing that narrative and knowing what went on in that nine-minute period of time with over 100 people on the rig reacting and doing different things. One of the most important challenges for us was, through the reporting and interviews we did with more than 20 of these crew members and a really careful sifting through of all the public testimony, putting together an incredibly extensive narrative that zeroed in on this very compressed period of time.

Once you have that, of course, it makes it a lot easier to zero in on the moments that seem most critical. The trickier part was how to hit the right tone, where you’re looking at the actions of members of this crew who in some cases froze in the moment or were overwhelmed with the complexity of the systems they were trying to operate.

You could make them look like idiots. There are a lot of ways you could slam people with 20/20 hindsight. For me, it felt more important to try as best I could to put myself in their shoes and take into consideration and into account the chaos and the horrific circumstances under which they were asked to make rapid decisions – sometimes with incomplete information. And all the while worried that everything around them was going to blow up. On the one hand, it was about being fair to them and trying to bear witness, but also doing something bigger with the story.

In terms of which narrative details you chose to use, did you have any concerns about what is sometimes called disaster porn?

I didn’t worry about that because I felt like there was an enormously consequential story at the heart of this. That story is one that I think ought to really inform our discussion and debate going forward about deepwater drilling.

In this particular case, if there was one overarching narrative that emerged in the first month, it was this idea that BP as a corporation was cutting corners and sacrificing safety, and that was the root cause of what happened there. To an extent, people would look at the Texas City explosion in Alaska and say, “Here’s this rogue corporation cutting costs, and then there’s this disaster.”

What was interesting in terms of what emerged from our reporting is that it’s a more difficult problem than that. If you have one rogue company, you can force change on the part of that corporation, but in this case the Deepwater Horizon rig was a Transocean workplace. Transocean owned the rig. There were only a couple of BP employees on the rig. It was a culture shaped by Transocean.

What was significant to us was that when it comes to deepwater drilling in the Gulf, this is the best of the best, the A team, in theory. It was a sophisticated rig with an experienced crew on board. Despite that and despite having a potent safety culture and having the best technology that exists to prevent a blowout and an explosion that could kill people, there were failures. And that raises questions about our ability to do deepwater drilling in a safe manner. That issue was at the heart of the story, because it raises an important question as we go forward with deepwater drilling.

You’ve done a lot of narratives, as well as large investigations, at the St. Petersburg Times and The New York Times. Did reporting or telling this story present any particular problems that you hadn’t faced before?

Coming out of the St. Pete Times, I sort of grew up journalistically around people like Tom French, Anne Hull and David Finkel. What I’ve spent the bulk of my career trying to do is to take as much narrative storytelling as I can into the traditional investigative reporting mindset. You’ll see a similar kind of thing in a lot of my stories.

This one actually felt like a really comfortable fit with that approach: going in a tough-minded and investigative way to understand what went wrong and hold accountable the various actors in this story and the forces that contributed to this disaster. And trying to do it through a narrative that can help people not just absorb the information at an intellectual level but feel it at a gut level, in a way that hopefully a reader comes away from the piece with a much clearer detailed, vivid sense not just of the kind of people who worked on this rig and the culture of this rig but the very complex sequence of events and technical failures that fed into the tragedy.

Do you have any suggestions for reporters tasked with telling a story that has already been covered by so many outlets?

Yes, a couple. There’s one easily overlooked point about this story: the point about space. This story really couldn’t be told if the newspaper weren’t willing to open up, in this case, four full pages. We had these amazing photographs, but the story needed space, too.

The thing I would tell younger reporters is that if this were a 2,000-word story as opposed to an 8,500-word story, you couldn’t even think about it. The most important point, the most obvious point, is that in this case, we were able to persuade our editors here to give us the space. We don’t run many double trucks, and this was actually a quadruple truck. You have to get that kind of space, and to understand how space does or doesn’t limit what you do as a storyteller.

The other thing I would say is that sometimes even when stories are covered quite intensively for a couple months or similar period of time, if you’re paying close attention and looking at the way the story is being covered, sometimes you’ll see things that weren’t doable in the first months become doable over time.

In this case, the flow of coverage organically shifted to things like the cleanup, the extent of the pollution, the effects of the pollution, and then to BP and BP’s safety record – and to what caused the blowout, the well design, and the cementing job. I remember thinking at one point, “It’s weird after all this that I don’t think I’ve read or seen something that put me on the rig in the lives of the people there on that last day.”

You set out, and maybe the people who didn’t want to talk in the first week – maybe they were traumatized, hunkering down or finding lawyers – some of those people with time, you can get them to open up. It’s good to look and be thinking about any new layers that can be peeled back once you’re past the immediate aftermath.

February 23 2011

16:42

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

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

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

Feature Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 17 2011

15:36

Death, truth and memoir: the debate over Joyce Carol Oates’ “A Widow’s Story”

What is it that we really want from memoir? The kerfuffle this week over “A Widow’s Story,” a narrative from Joyce Carol Oates about the loss of her husband and their many years together brings this question front and center again.

Oates was married to Raymond J. Smith for nearly five decades; in addition to their separate careers, they worked together on the Ontario Review literary journal. Smith was sick for one week in the hospital before dying in the middle of the night while Oates tried in vain to get to him in time to say goodbye. (Those with a subscription can see an excerpt of her account in The New Yorker.)

Oates is known for her speed and productivity – she has a staggering 50 novels to her name, not to mention many other kinds of writing and more than 30 years of teaching at Princeton. Yet Oates’ speed in producing this memoir and her exclusion of material about getting engaged 11 months after her husband died did not play well with The New York Times’ Janet Maslin, who wrote in her review of the book that it “willfully taps into the increasingly lucrative loss-of-spouse market” and shows “worrisome signs of haste.” A Salon.com piece written in response by Nikki Stern addressed both Maslin’s review and comments made in another Times op-ed.

Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” comes up frequently in these discussions, although there is a wide range of accounts of such loss. John Bayley wrote multiple works about his marriage with writer Iris Murdoch during her struggle with Alzheimer’s and after her death. And the New Yorker ran a short narrative about love and death just last month, in which novelist Francisco Goldman wrote about the loss of his young wife, the writer Aura Estrada, after a mishap at the beach.

Setting aside “A Widow’s Story” and any particular tale, what makes these stories compelling or forgettable? And why does memoir provoke such strong reactions?

The first hurdle for a memoirist is knowing which story to tell. We all feel compelled to share our stories, but what makes a story worth sharing beyond the circle of people who are already connected to it? And what parts of a life are relevant?

In an essay on this site, Adam Hochschild describes memoir as both more and less than the summing up of real life: “Many memoirs don’t work because the things that most of us tend to celebrate about ourselves are less interesting than those things that hold readers’ attention.” Of course, as soon as the writer begins shaping the story by walling off certain experiences, those decisions affect the narrative: Did the author leave something out that should have stayed in? This is in part Maslin’s critique of Oates’ account.

Memoir relies on more than one kind of truth, but memoir is nonfiction, so facts come first. (For more on this topic, see the Roy Peter Clark essay “The Line Between Fact and Fiction.”) While a certain anxiety about correctness and what can be proven has flattened the language of more than one autobiography, how much worse it is to give up on facts altogether.

James Frey has earned his spot as the perennial whipping boy on matters of accuracy, but it could just as easily be Misha Defonseca, with her story of surviving the Holocaust living among wolves. Or Margaret Seltzer’s invented account of a gangland coming of age.

A predictable fury arises over the clear-cut con, but there is more than one kind of honesty. People telling ostensibly true stories have long defended the idea of a deeper truth – one that somehow permits making stuff up. The CBS show “The Good Wife” mocked this notion of truth this week in a parody of Aaron Sorkin and “The Social Network,” suggesting that sometimes lip service is paid to truth by those who really want latitude with their story.

Still, as “Liar’s Club” and “Lit” author Mary Karr said last year, “the least of my problems as a memoirist, as a writer, is getting my facts right.” Even if the standard of factual accuracy is met – and no one seems to be suggesting that Joyce Carol Oates, for example, is making things up – what additional accountability to truth does the memoirist have?

Writing about atrocities, Vanderbilt University professor Kelly Oliver describes the value of testimony. She argues that bearing witness is not just the presentation of a series of facts, or even the revelation of true but unknown information. If accuracy were all that stories relied on, then it would be enough for anyone to present those facts, and we would not value testimony the way we do. In spite of the tendency for factual errors to be part of eyewitness accounts, such stories have a complex cultural value.

Extending Oliver’s ideas, I would say that powerful nonfiction writing comes from a kind of truth-in-story that maintains accuracy while simultaneously accomplishing even more. Oliver argues that bearing witness speaks to the very events that facts alone can’t illustrate, a kind of path into another’s experiences accompanied by the realization that those experiences cannot be fully comprehended.

While Oliver writes about epic horrors of history, her ideas also apply to the domestic tragedies of parental cruelty, the loss of a child or the death of a spouse. The best memoirs recount loss and change in a way that offers more than thrills based on peeking into someone else’s suffering. Instead, the most powerful stories say something unknown about the person’s life, touching on universal experiences while giving us a glimpse of the ultimately unknowable aspects of another’s existence.

Beyond not making stuff up, we want to know that a deeper honesty is in play – that despite the impossibility of complete understanding, the author is permitting us to be present for the serious examination of a life.

January 21 2011

05:54

“There’s a lot of pressure to play for the short term”: The Bay Citizen’s editor on its $15 million future


Seven months into its bid to reinvent the metro newspaper, The Bay Citizen has hired a staff of 26, rolled out daily online news and culture coverage, and, during November, attracted a monthly audience of approximately 200,000 unique visitors. Yesterday, the San Francisco-based nonprofit announced that it’s so far raised a total of $15 million in philanthropic gifts.

I interviewed editor-in-chief Jonathan Weber in The Bay Citizen’s downtown San Francisco office, and later by e-mail and over the phone, to find out what he’s learned from the site’s first half-year of operation — editorially and financially. This is the second post in a two-part series.

The double-edged sword of a New York Times partnership

One question I brought to the interview was why, given a blank slate, generous funding, and the resources of a tech capital, The Bay Citizen had created a largely conventional news website. The Bay Citizen produces two pages of content twice a week for the local edition of The New York Times — and it turns out that partnering with a leading print paper can be a double-edged sword for an online news startup.

“The partnership, I think, has tended to push us in a little bit more traditional direction than we might have gone otherwise,” Weber told me. “There’s definitely an issue of orientation. If you’re thinking about something as a New York Times story, you think about it differently than if it’s just going to run on baycitizen.org. I think it’s made the coverage feel a little bit more traditional in its approach.” Were it not for the partnership, quite possibly, “we would be further along in developing the kind of voice and style of our own kind of journalism.”

The pull of producing New York Times journalism has also meant, to an extent, less focus on innovation. While the site has a great tech team, Weber noted, they have yet to take advantage of potential tech and design collaborations in the Bay Area — including nearby companies like Twitter, Fwix, and Stamen Design, which won a Knight News Challenge grant to create an open-source data visualization tool.

Not that Weber’s complaining. “The flip side of it: The Times relationship has given us tremendous credibility and clout out of the gate, which we never would have had otherwise, and it also gives us a lot of distribution: 65,000 papers twice as week, plus the traffic from www.nytimes.com. That’s a non-trivial thing, and it’s very clearly a worthwhile trade-off for us, even though it does make life more complicated.”

That NYT credibility was also, Weber noted, a factor in The Bay Citizen’s ability to raise money — again, that extra $10 million — in philanthropic gifts. (The business experience of CEO Lisa Frazier, a former management consultant at McKinsey, clearly didn’t hurt, either.)

Doubling down on data journalism

The Bay Citizen has a 26-person-staff, 18 of them (including Weber) editorial employees. It also has a four-person tech team, including CTO Brian Kelly. One of his major areas of focus moving forward, Weber said, is data journalism, with data apps both large and small — including those that build off San Francisco’s DataSF.org. The Bay Citizen currently has two job postings related to data journalism: Software Engineer for News Applications and Data Researcher for Interactive News. The outlet has an iPhone app in the works and an iPad app on the way later this year.

Another big push will be to build community on multiple fronts, Weber noted. Right now, when readers send a tip/suggest a story, they get a generic message notifying them that their tip has been passed on. Ideally, he said, these tips will be the start of a back-and-forth conversation.

Weber also wants to follow the lead of TBD in building a strong dialogue with readers over Twitter and crowdsourcing breaking news. The Bay Citizen’s community efforts will, true to its name, include recruiting more citizen bloggers — and providing better prompts to help them frame their contributions. The outlet also has plans for a dozen events in which community editor Queena Kim will bring volunteers together to do multimedia explorations of particular topics. (One of the first experiments in this collaborative citizen journalism was A Night at the Opera, in which Kim convened a group of volunteer reporters and a photographer to do minute-by-minute backstage coverage of a performance of Aida.)

What not to do: “engage” before you have a community

When I asked Weber to look back over the first months of The Bay Citizen’s operation and say what he would do differently, he had an immediate answer: It had been a waste, he said, to put too much initial energy into community engagement. “You have to build audience first before you can really understand how to engage that community,” he noted. The Bay Citizen’s staff, right out of the gate, offered a discussion forum — but “it wasn’t very robust.”

And that was largely because the site hadn’t yet convened a community of people to do the discussing. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking about comments, and how to manage comments and encourage comments and whether to feed Facebook comments into the site,” he said. But “those are things that are really related to the scale and reach of the product, and you can’t really do much until you’ve really got that community.”

A new rhythm for news

Unlike most large online news sites, The Bay Citizen is only partially tethered to a print publication, which gives it more potential flexibility in how it approaches public-interest reporting. Had Weber considered ditching the daily news cycle and charting a different kind of journalistic course?

In a word: no. “You basically have to be daily,” he said. “Other rhythms just don’t really work very well online,” largely because “people are looking for news from a news site.” In terms of using The Bay Citizen’s site to provide backgrounders on certain topics — an idea that comes from the discussion about future-of-context journalism — Weber was skeptical about how much context users would want on a news site.

“We do have topic pages,” he said. “We haven’t done a very good job of highlighting and calling out those pages, and depending on the circumstances, we can put more or less effort into customizing those pages.”

Then again: “We’re not Wikipedia. You don’t really go [to a topic page] for a backgrounder, you go there for a story.”

Wide-angle thinking

“Our goal is not to replace the Chronicle,” Weber noted. “I think it’s healthy for communities of all sizes to have multiple, large-scale journalistic enterprises (which actually was the norm until fairly recently).” The CEO of REI once told him that their biggest competitor wasn’t another sporting goods company, but the video game companies, and Weber thinks about local journalism the same way. “The question is not whether we’re going to compete well or not well with the Chronicle, the challenge is: are we going to be able to engage people in news as opposed to all the other things — playing FarmVille or reading TMZ or making stupid videos for YouTube.”

“Despite what people might assume, a lot of people do not have an intrinsic interest in local news,” he said. “It takes time. Media is a very habit-driven thing. People do today what they did yesterday. People have been predicting the death of newspapers for 20 years — and while, certainly, newspapers have a lot of problems, they’re not dead yet, and they’re not going to be dead in the near future. And the reason for that is people have been reading newspapers every day for 20 years — and they like that, and they don’t want to read the news on the Internet just because it’s more efficient.”

As far as news outlets go, “there’s a lot of pressure to play for the short term,” Weber noted. Just as there’s a lot of pressure to experiment — which can be hugely beneficial, but detrimental if it’s done chaotically. “‘Let’s try it and see if it works’ — anything you try on the first day is not really going to work,” he said. You have to get to know your community just as they have to get to know you. And, most importantly, “you need to have a long-term view.”

January 17 2011

15:27

January 10 2011

16:11

Narrative on deadline: stories on the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords

Doing narrative stories on the heels of breaking news generally precludes the kind of lyricism often associated with the best examples of the form. Yet it can be a good way to get a framework established on a confusing story – such as the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords over the weekend.

Building a story from social media, NPR senior strategist Andy Carvin started a Storify timeline just two hours after the shooting began. Early on, NPR and several other outlets mistakenly posted that Giffords had been killed, which is reflected and then corrected in Carvin’s Storify account. (There has been a lot of discussion of the error since, including criticism of NPR and the station’s apology.)

The next day, The New York Times and The Washington Post sites posted text narratives of that deceptively sunny morning outside a Safeway in Tucson. In “Tucson shootings: How Gabrielle Giffords’s event for constituents turned to tragedy,” the Post’s Philip Rucker and Marc Fisher give readers some background on Giffords and her normal schedule, recapturing the feel of what started as a mundane event. When the shooting begins, readers feel the shock and horror of the moment. “A Single, Terrifying Moment: Shots Fired, a Scuffle and Some Luck,” Adam Nagourney’s piece in The New York Times, focuses more tightly on the chaos and violence, opening with a dramatic struggle between bystanders and the gunman as he attempted to reload.

And hours before the Post and the Times had posted their narratives, The Arizona Republic’s Jaimee Rose and Mary Jo Pitzl had turned on a dime to get their own angle by following Daniel Hernandez, Giffords’ brand-new intern, who may have saved her life. “Daniel Hernandez, intern, stays by Gabrielle Giffords’ side,” the brief story of events from Hernandez’s view, added a new perspective on not only the shooting but our understanding of Giffords’ condition in the moments just afterward.

We’ll continue to compile storytelling approaches to the tragic events of this weekend. Please send us links to any related narratives you see.

January 09 2011

17:09

THE NEW NO-NAME STARBUCKS LOGO

The founder of Starbucks (7500 self-operated and 5500 licensed stores in 39 countries) explains the change of the logo, quite better than The New York Time’s laid back design critic Steven Heller.

Designed first by Terry Heckler, the iconic mermaid that beckons coffee drinkers was based of a classic 15th century Norse woodcut

By removing the words “Starbucks” and “coffee” from its green logo, Starbucks joints Apple or Nike with a no-name logo.

As The Guardian says: “this could help as the chain expands into countries that not only have a different language but a different alphabet.”

Only brands with such a great personality can do it.

Well done and really well explained.

January 03 2011

17:41

Nonny de la Peña on “Gone Gitmo,” Stroome and the future of interactive storytelling

I recently talked about journalism and storytelling with Nonny de la Peña, who is a senior research fellow in immersive journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, where she explores 3-D environments for news, nonfiction and documentary. She is also co-founder of Stroome.com, a community that allows online collaborative remixing of visual journalism. A graduate of Harvard University with 20 years of news experience, de la Peña is a former correspondent for Newsweek Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times Magazine and many other publications. Her award-winning documentary films have screened on national television and at theaters in more than 50 cities around the world.

I met de la Peña in London last summer and was particularly curious to hear her thoughts on “Gone Gitmo,” an immersive storytelling installation built as a virtual Guantanamo Bay prison. Funded by the MacArthur Foundation, “Gone Gitmo” was constructed inside Second Life and appeared in prototype at the Bay Area Video Coalition. Users who enter the project experience a virtual detention inside the prison camp, with documentary footage embedded to create spatial narrative. De la Peña and I connected again last month via Skype to discuss her work. The following are excerpts from our conversation.

You have explained that the main idea of immersive journalism “is to allow the participant, typically represented as a digital avatar, to actually enter a virtually recreated scenario representing the news story.” Immersive systems give the participant “access to the sights and sounds, and possibly feelings and emotions, that accompany the news.” How would you explain your main motivation to explore immersive journalism?

Immersive journalism really comes from understanding that there is a growing use of virtual and gaming platforms in which individuals are extremely comfortable with a virtual body. Using that as a starting point, I began to consider what that might mean for nonfiction. In the same way documentary grew in parallel with fiction film, I believe immersive journalism (which can also be considered as immersive documentary or immersive nonfiction) has an appropriate potential using new technologies. My journalistic work has often considered human rights issues, which makes it more likely such issues will be reflected in my immersive journalism work.

However, there are some very interesting questions that arise. For example, does the fact that the stories are accessed through a virtual body mean that they are necessarily subjective experiences? How do we ensure “objectivity?”

Our director of the journalism school at Annenberg, Geneva Overholser, really feels that transparency is the key here. If we can point to our sources, provide excellent research and be open to comment and criticism, immersive journalism can live up to its potential. In a sense, it’s simply about applying traditional journalistic principles to the new technologies.

Your work, as you say, is interrogating the phenomenology of narrative journalism. It seems to me that 3-D animation still presents a barrier to verisimilar storytelling in a way that “live action” or photographic realism does not…

I am not sure that is true. I think that “experience” can have value, especially given stories that are inaccessible. For example, Gitmo is off limits to most citizens and press, so we’ve made it accessible. You can read all you want to about the carbon markets, but when you literally follow the money, does that make the story better understood? And yet, the video released in the Baha Mousa case is extraordinarily disturbing, but when we built our piece in Mel Slater’s lab, that video had not yet been released. I would suggest we did a pretty good job considering that the information came from International Red Cross data and interrogation logs.

Now, what is the role of realism?  If the graphics get better, will the experiences become more comparable to the realism of video now? Mel’s work has shown that the video graphics don’t have to be great to work. Still, the last piece I saw in his lab on understanding violence used extremely good audio and dialogue (as well as very good voice actors). In terms of current technology, one thing I can say: If the audio is bad, forget it.

Yet that exact same premise holds true in documentary filmmaking. If you have bad lighting but good audio, the drama can still be pronounced. Without good audio, even the best sequences can fail.

So orality and sound still play a major role in storytelling…

Yes.

Are you concerned by the possible ethical implications? The proximity with video games, even serious games, the connotations of 3-D animation…

I am always concerned about ethical implications. I think the history of the use of propaganda makes it clear that we have to be ever vigilant.

I’m thinking of the widespread discourse of the first-person shooter for instance, in video games. Will people want to be in the place of the perpetrators? How would a journalist go about that, how to control the script?

I have gotten a lot of pushback on the Gitmo piece that we did not tell the story of the soldiers there. But as studies like the Stanford Prison Experiment make clear, giving people the role of the soldier can create some pretty intense scenarios. We decided it wasn’t appropriate for this project although we would be absolutely happy to have their experiences recounted in some way on the site. I would agree that the first-person shooter has to be considered carefully and ethically, but it would be a knee-jerk reaction to just shut down this avenue of storytelling based on that issue. For example, check out what happened with the Columbine game at Slamdance.

Would you say that in these exercises of immersive journalism or storytelling, the user, though he or she experiences situations physically, retains a level of passivity?

Very good question. The fact the user can move through the story raises a lot of issues. I have an earlier paper, when I was just starting to sort out the ideas about immersive journalism, which discusses such passive moments as the “embodied edit.” In “Gitmo,” that would be when we move the user along the “story” by teleporting them from place to place within the build. However, there are many moments when the user makes the decision where to go; still, they are within the context of the “news report” that is clearly consistent with reading about a story or watching it on TV.

A key aspect of your immersive journalism project is the blurring of boundaries between different fields, and one of the main elements in immersive experiences may be what you called the embodied edit. And Stroome allows users to remix, which is a form of editing…

Yes, considering how stories can be told differently in this new wave of technology. I consider immersive journalism still under development, but Stroome is about trying to give users a way to start telling stories today, collaboratively, journalistically and from different perspectives. For example, rather than write a letter to an editor or call up a TV station to dispute veracity, the audience member could just remix the story, telling it the way they see it.

Do you think that’s where journalism is headed, to giving users/readers the tools to re-tell the stories?

Once again, I quote Geneva (although I understand she borrowed it as well): The group formerly known as the audience, they are participants. Whether as sophisticated producers of content, or if they commit an “act of journalism” by capturing key footage on cell phones, Stroome supports both approaches.

How receptive do you think the major players in journalism are to this new form of storytelling, one open to empowering “the group formerly known as the audience”?

I think they are finding it very difficult. Even J-schools. I heard one major dean complain: “We are training professional journalists, not citizen journalists!” So they still aren’t recognizing how much this has all blurred. However, as Julian Assange explains in the “Wiki Rebels” documentary, at first he turned all of the data loose hoping that it would get vetted by the public, but ended up having to turn to journalists to analyze and distill and present to the public. However, what we are offering at Stroome offers really nice pillars of ways to collaborate and support. It is designed to consider how content is discoverable and not overwhelming.

And it is curated by a community and enabled by a specific platform…

Yes.

So, what you are suggesting is an important redefinition of the role of the nonfiction storyteller and therefore of the press…

Yes. In some ways both ends of the spectrum achieving the same goal. In one, similar editorial control present with news orgs now comes with having to design and build a 3-D immersive space. In the other, Stroome opens the landscape to all. Yet both focus on user participation with journalism that is unique to our technological present.

Where do you see written journalism going in this landscape?

We will always need good analysis.

Perhaps as ancillary material for the immersive or audiovisual experiences?

Yes, I agree. And sometimes the immersive component will be ancillary to the text.

—–

[Ernesto Priego is researching comics and narrative as a Ph.D. candidate in information studies in the U.K. at University College London. He has written previously for Nieman Storyboard on the death of Harvey Pekar, manga memoir and on comics as narrative journalism.]

September 22 2010

20:21

THE FRONT PAGE OF THE NEW WALL STREERT JOURNAL WEEKEND EDITION

WSJA1weekendfrontpage

Why two logos?

I am sure that the designers suggested the bold WSJ… and the old guard wanted the full name.

And what about the online URL.

Well just in the right corner very small.

A new re-re-re-redesign or how change to don’t change anything.

They want tobe like The New York Times.

So they follow, don’t lead.

September 13 2010

21:53

NYU and New York Times pair up to cover East Village

The New York Times has paired up with New York University's journalism school to create The Local East Village, a new hyperlocal daily news blog focusing on the East Village.According to the "Hello Neighbors" message posted on the new website, "The Local is a journalistic collaboration designed to reflect the richness of the East Village, report on its issues and concerns, give voice to its

September 01 2010

20:00

SULBERGER VERSUS MURDOCH: IT’S THE (DIRTY) WAR!

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First, The Wall Street Journal confronted The New York Times.

So today Sulzberger launched his first main assault to Murdoch in his own British market.

With Tabloid Hack Attack on Royals, and Beyond, a 6,00- word story written by Don Van Natta Jr., Jo Becker and Graham Bowley, three big guns of The New York Times, Sulzberger tries to destroy the reputation (?) not of the News of the World, the Sunday gossip tabloid of News Corporation, but the reputation of Rupert Murdoch as owner of this popular paper.

The war is here.

My only question is this:

Why British newspapers, magazines, radio, television, blogs… didn’t cover the story in such a powerful way?

The New York Times is again the “solo” paper producing first class real investigative reporting.

A lesson hard to learn by other more complacent rivals.

(Picture by Lewis Whyld/Getty Images)

July 30 2010

17:03

Wikileaks: The media industry’s response

Whistle-blowing website Wikileaks has been online and publishing leaked documents and data since July 2007. Prior to this week, I wouldn’t have hesitated in initially referring to it as “whistle-blowing website Wikileaks” and getting in a definition of what the site does and how it works.

Writing this afternoon though, that bit of exposition feels a lot less necessary. Last Sunday’s coordinated publication of the Afghanistan war logs by Wikileaks, the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel has catapulted the small, independent organisation – and it’s director Julian Assange – into an entirely new realm of public notoriety.

This post is a round-up of some of the media industry’s responses to the biggest leak in US military history.

On Monday the story took up the first 14 pages of the Guardian, 17 pages of Der Spiegel, and numerous lead stories in the New York Times.

Too much, too soon, writes Slate’s media commentator Jack Shafer.

By inundating readers with Assange’s trove, the three news organization broke one of the sacred rules of journalism: If you have a big story—especially one based on a leak like this one—drip, drip, drip it out to your audience rather than showering them with it. The reader can absorb drips better than torrents.

Ultimately, more time, and care, was needed, says Shafer: “There was too much material for the newspapers and magazines to swallow on such a short deadline.”

His assessment echoes that of BBC College of Journalism director Kevin Marsh, who reports on Assange’s press conference at the Frontline Club on Monday.

[W]hat was danced around (…) was how much the three news organisations were able to verify and test the documents – and, crucially, their exact provenance – to which Wikileaks gave them access. In the way they would if they were dealing direct with their own assessable sources.

How much did they know about the source or sources of the document pile? His/her/their motivation? Track record? What was not there and why not? What was incomplete about what was there?

This matters. A lot. Especially if Wikileaks is to become – or has already become – a kind of stateless brokerage for whistleblowing.

NYU’s Jay Rosen also picks up on the ‘no-fixed abode’ quality of Wikileaks, calling it the “world’s first stateless news organisation”:

If you go to the Wikileaks Twitter profile, next to “location” it says: Everywhere. Which is one of the most striking things about it: the world’s first stateless news organization. I can’t think of any prior examples of that (…) Wikileaks is organized so that if the crackdown comes in one country, the servers can be switched on in another. This is meant to put it beyond the reach of any government or legal system.

According to Assange, Wikileaks, which is sort-of based in Sweden due to the country’s extremely progressive freedom of information laws, does “not have national security concerns” and is “not a national organisation.” He frequently claims the site’s loyalty is to truth and transparency. Writing for the Telegraph, Will Heaven (whose piece may smack ever so slightly of sour grapes), questions the idea that the organisation has no political agenda.

Wikileaks is a website with no political agenda, its founder Julian Assange would have you believe. So I’m puzzled by today’s “Afghanistan war log” story. It doesn’t strike me – or many of my colleagues – as politically neutral to feed such sensitive information to three Left-leaning newspapers: namely the Guardian, the New York Times, and Der Spiegel. Even more puzzling that Wikileaks would choose, very deliberately, to contravene its own mission statement – that crowdsourcing and open data are paramount.

It was Nick Davies of the Guardian with whom the possibility of this kind of publication was first discussed by Assange. The Guardian team threw everything but the kitchen sink at their run on the material, with all the interactive and data know-how we have come to expect of them. Editorially, they focused on bringing to light the abhorrent disregard for the lives of civilians detailed in parts of the logs but largely covered up by the military.

The logs detail, in sometimes harrowing vignettes, the toll on civilians exacted by coalition forces: events termed “blue on white” in military jargon. The logs reveal 144 such incidents (…)

Accountability is not just something you do when you are caught. It should be part of the way the US and Nato do business in Afghanistan every time they kill or harm civilians. The reports, many of which the Guardian is publishing in full online, present an unvarnished and often compelling account of the reality of modern war.

Media commentator Jeff Jarvis asked Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger if he thought the newspaper should have started Wikileaks itself, to which Rusbridger responded that he felt it worked better separately. Jarvis claims that the joint publication effort showed that the future of journalism lay in “adding value”:

If you don’t add value, then you’re not needed. And that’s not necessarily bad. When you don’t add value and someone else can perform the task as stenographer or leaker or reporter — and you can link to it — then that means you save resources and money. This means journalists need to look at where they add maximum value.

There were plenty of journalists in attendance when Assange appeared at the Frontline Club again on Tuesday night, this time for an extended discussion with both press and just the plain curious.

“We are not an organisation for protecting troops,” he told the audience. “We are an organisation for protecting human beings.”

To that end, Wikileaks held back 15,000 of the 92,000 documents contained in the archive because, the organisation claimed, they had the potential to put the lives of civilians and military informers in Afghanistan at risk.

But on Wednesday morning the Times alleged that:

In just two hours of searching the WikiLeaks archive, the Times found the names of dozens of Afghans credited with providing detailed intelligence to US forces. Their villages are given for identification and also, in many cases, their fathers’ names. US officers recorded detailed logs of the information fed to them by named local informants, particularly tribal elders.

The backlash against Wikileaks and its director gathered steam on Thursday when New York Times editor Bill Keller strongly criticised the organisation in an email to the Daily Beast for making so much of the material available without properly vetting it.

In our own publication, in print and on our website, we were careful to remove anything that could put lives at risk. We could not be sure that the trove posted on WikiLeaks, even with some 15,000 documents held back, would not endanger lives. And, in fact, as we will be reporting in tomorrow’s paper, our subsequent search of the material posted on WikiLeaks found many names of Afghan informants who could now be targets of reprisals by the insurgents (…)

Assange released the information to three mainstream news organizations because we had the wherewithal to mine the data for news and analysis, and because we have a large audience that would take this seriously. I think the public interest was served by that. His decision to release the data to everyone, however, had potential consequences that I think anyone, regardless of how he views the war, would find regrettable.

Wikileaks has acted grossly irresponsibly in the eyes of some press organisations, but it has been lauded by others as a pioneer for both its commitment to increasing transparency – and in doing so encouraging reform – and for its approach to publicising the logs and trying to achieve the maximum amount of impact for material that people have risked a great deal to expose. From the Editorsweblog:

Getting media outlets involved early was a way to make sure that there was comprehensive coverage of the information. Wikileaks is not trying to be a news outlet, it wants to get the information out there, but does not intend to provide the kind of analysis that a newspaper might. As Nick Davies told CJR, agreeing to release the information simultaneously let each of the three newspapers know that they had an almost exclusive story in which it was worth investing time and effort. And as Poynter noted, its exclusivity caused competitors to scramble and try to bring something new out of the story.

Whichever side of the fence you fall on, it is difficult to deny that the method of the leak marks a significant change in the organisation’s relationship with the news media and in the role the industry has to play in events of this kind.Similar Posts:



July 26 2010

10:58

White House seeks to advise reporters over Wikileaks Afghanistan release

Last night Wikileaks, the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel simultaneously published more than 90,000 classified military documents relating to the war in Afghanistan. Read our report on the publication at this link.

The New York Times has published a statement sent to reporters by the White House entitled “Thoughts on Wikileaks”. The statement advises journalists of some things to bare in mind when reporting on the leak, and offers help “to put these documents in context”.

4) As you report on this issue, it’s worth noting that wikileaks is not an objective news outlet but rather an organization that opposes US policy in Afghanistan.

The email quotes from the Guardian’s report, looking to stress the unreliability of the Wikileaks and the information they have released.

From the Guardian:

But for all their eye-popping details, the intelligence files, which are mostly collated by junior officers relying on informants and Afghan officials, fail to provide a convincing smoking gun for ISI complicity. Most of the reports are vague, filled with incongruent detail, or crudely fabricated.

(…)

If anything, the jumble of allegations highlights the perils of collecting accurate intelligence in a complex arena where all sides have an interest in distorting the truth.

The Times has explained its reasons for publishing the classified files in “a note to readers” entitled “Piecing together the reports and deciding what to publish“.

Full story at this link… (see entry at 6:46pm)Similar Posts:



July 23 2010

20:59
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