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June 18 2013

14:41

“Why’s this so good?” No. 79: Joan Didion, Hemingway, and mathematically musical writing

Joan Didion finds herself counting syllables.

If this is part of her brilliance, and it is, it’s largely because of who she is as an observer; meticulous but detached, intimate yet removed. These paradoxes are how she draws you in.

Adrienne LaFrance

Adrienne LaFrance

The penchant for counting reveals what may seem like another paradox, but is actually the lifting of a veil: Didion shows that her language is musical but also mathematical, that she engineers her writing to sing.

In her most recent book, Blue Nights, she describes the song of her prose as inextricable from its mechanics:

In fact, in any real sense, what I was doing then was never writing at all: I was doing no more than sketching in a rhythm and letting that rhythm tell me what it was I was saying. Many of the marks I set down on the page were no more than ‘xxx,’ or ‘xxxx,’ symbols that meant ‘copy tk,’ or ‘copy to come,’ but do notice: such symbols were arranged in specific groupings. A single ‘x’ differed from a double ‘xx,’ ‘xxx’ from ‘xxxx.’ The number of such symbols had a meaning. The arrangement was the meaning.

But long before Blue Nights, Didion was counting syllables in a New Yorker piece about how much control a writer has over his or her life’s work. The November 1998 essay, “Last Words: Those Hemingway wrote, and those he didn’t,” is vintage Didion; penetrating, deliberate down to the last comma, streaked with cynicism and flashes of earnestness — all qualities that echo Hemingway himself. The piece is so meta that it tugs the reader to the edge of the uncanny.

Didion writes about Hemingway but she is also writing about writing, and in turn writing about herself. In essence, this is three stories in one.

She sashays between the technical and lyrical. (The piece begins with her counting the syllables in Hemingway’s poetic first paragraph of A Farewell to Arms. This pragmatism gives way to her own fluid and descriptive style.) At first she appears to seesaw from writing to writing about writing. But by the end of the piece it’s clear that she’s been doing both, concurrently, throughout.

The structural latticework of the essay both lays out Hemingway’s style and adopts aspects of it to drive the piece forward. For example, she writes about Hemingway’s omissions as narrative choices, and then uses omissions just as he did.

First she’s examining “four deceptively simple sentences, one hundred and twenty-six words,” obsessing over Hemingway’s repetition of “the” and of “and” and about the rhythm he established by leaving out another “the” in his fourth sentence. (The power of such an absence, she says, is in the chill it casts. It’s a warning, a premonition, a “foreshadowing of the story to come, the awareness that the author has already shifted his attention from late summer to a darker season.”)

Then she’s describing the snapshots in our “national memory stream” of Hemingway’s life — “the celebrated author fencing with the bulls at Pamplona, fishing for Marlin off Havana, boxing at Bimini, crossing the Ebro with Spanish loyalists, kneeling beside ‘his’ lion or ‘his’ buffalo or ‘his’ oryx on the Serengeti Plain.”

Implicit in this string of collective memories is the question of omission — what have we left out?

The close reader will notice that this question is itself the device she’s described, a foreshadowing of the story to come. Didion next goes on to describe in arresting detail Hemingway’s 1961 suicide: the double-barreled Boss shotgun he emptied into the center of his forehead, how he became a “crumpled heap of bathrobe and blood, the shotgun lying in the disintegrated flesh.”

For the rest of the piece, Didion brings Hemingway back to life, lacing her descriptions of him with hints of who she is.

Consider how she casts his way of “moving through but not attaching, a kind of romantic individualism,” his writing as dictating “a certain way of looking at the world, a way of looking but not joining, a way of moving through but not attaching.”

Didion also writes of Hemingway as “a man to whom words mattered,” that “he got inside them.”

Hemingway, too, had a tendency to count. Didion presents this excerpt from a letter Hemingway wrote to his publisher in early 1961:

Have material arranged as chapters—they come to 18—and am working on the last one—No 19—also working on title. This is very difficult. (Have my usual long list—something wrong with all of them but am working toward it—Paris has been used so often it blights anything.) In pages typed they run 7, 14, 5, 6, 9 1/2, 6, 11, 9, 8, 9, 4 1/2, 3, 1/2, 8, 10 1/2, 14 1/2, 38 1/2, 10, 3, 3: 177 pages + 5 1/2 pages + 1 1/4 pages.”

Didion says she finds the excerpt alarming, though she never explicitly says why. Is she disquieted because his counting is impossible to understand? Or is it because Hemingway died before he finished the project he’s describing?

The project would be published posthumously as A Moveable Feast. But, as Didion points out, Hemingway never called it that. To him, it was just “the Paris stuff.” He never settled on a title. This paradox — what the writer called his work and what someone else called it for him — is ultimately an exploration of the writer’s solitude. The idea is that a writer’s intentions exist in one universe and everyone else’s expectations about the writer’s work exist in another. The only overlap is in the writing itself, an endeavor that Didion presents as potentially deadly in and of itself.

“The peculiarity of being a writer,” Didion says, “is that the entire enterprise involves the mortal humiliation of seeing one’s own words in print.” (Just by making this statement Didion clearly inserts herself, the writer, into the story.)

Yet even worse than publication, she says, is the risk that something unfinished will be published.

The manuscript that became True at First Light, was some 850 pages long when Hemingway died. That this sprawling “African novel,” as Hemingway called it, would be “reduced by half by someone other than their author” meant that the story “could go nowhere the author intended them to go,” Didion says.

She sees this publication as a fundamental “denial of the idea that the role of the writer in his or her work is to make it.” A writer’s notes, she declares, are “words set down but not yet written.” But by referencing a writer’s unfinished notes in her final published piece, Didion raises the question of her own process. This suggests yet another omission: The process behind her story that the reader will never see.

Didion, not surprisingly, comes across as empathetic to the writer’s need to have authority over his words, and his need to sort things out on his own. Hemingway once wrote to his attorney that he had “a diamond mine if people will let me alone and let me dig the stones out of the blue mud and then cut and polish them.” Hemingway’s mine was deep, heavy and full. Yet for all of that darkness and weight, his writing — and Didion’s, and Didion’s writing about Hemingway’s writing — rings with clarity. (Hemingway’s reference to his “diamond mine” calls to mind something Boris Kachka, the New York magazine writer, once wrote about Didion. Kachka said reading her work is “like tiptoeing across a just-frozen pond filled with beautiful sharks. You look down and pray the ice will hold.”)

At the crescendo of Didion’s piece, as she describes what we know as True at First Light, there are moments that read as though she is talking about Hemingway and herself at the same time, about her relationship with him as a writer from the time when she was a little girl clacking out his words on her typewriter just to see how it would feel to write like he did. She’s writing about Hemingway, writing about writing, writing about herself:

There are arresting glimpses here and there, fragments shored against what the writer must have seen as his ruin, and a sympathetic reader might well believe it possible that had the writer lived (which is to say had the writer found the will and energy and memory and concentration) he might have shaped the material, written it into being, made it work as the story the glimpses suggest, that a man returning to a place he loved and finding himself at three in the morning confronting the knowledge that he is no longer the person who loved it and will never now be the person he had meant to be.

And then, another layer emerges, as Didion acknowledges that Hemingway had written this very idea into being, through the writer character in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

Didion quotes Hemingway: ”Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well.” She goes on: “And then, this afterthought, the saddest story: ‘Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either.’” Such fear of failure must feel even more visceral for a writer like Didion, who has said that novels are “about things you’re afraid you can’t deal with.”

The afterthought from Hemingway’s “Snows” character becomes the bookend that mirrors the beginning of Didion’s piece, the counting of syllables in the first 126 words of A Farewell to Arms.

“Only one of the words has three syllables,” she had written. “Twenty-two have two. The other hundred and three have one.”

Though Didion leaves it to the reader to find that solitary three-syllable word or not, it’s no mistake she both singles it out and never identifies it at the same time. The omission is a clue, a chilling premonition:

Three syllables: Afterward.

Adrienne LaFrance (@AdrienneLaF) is a national reporter for Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome, where she specializes in investigative reporting and breaking news. She was previously a staff reporter at Nieman Journalism Lab. Before that she opened the Washington bureau of Honolulu Civil Beat, where she covered Congress, federal elections and the intersection of money and politics. She has also reported and written for the Washington Post, worked as a news producer at WBUR, Boston’s NPR affiliate, and as a local news anchor for Hawaii’s NPR affiliate.

May 30 2013

14:25

Professor Hersey: one student, the iconic author of ‘Hiroshima,’ and 6 timeless takeaways

I would never presume to define “presence,” but I knew it when I saw it: the handsome, tall, man who’d just walked into the seminar room had it in…well, tweeds. With leather elbow patches. The face was tanned, a full head of carefully combed white hair looking, somehow, regal. He looked like a 62-year-old man at peace, the lines on his face speaking of a life that had not fallen into any of the predictable old writers’ traps of mania, abuse, depression. It was a portrait of inner peace, framed in high-WASP.

John Hersey

John Hersey

He’d entered the room only after we, his new students, had all taken seats around a huge wooden table whose scale seemed to reduce us to shrunken, through-the-looking-glass-size kids. Everything about his aura spoke of Serious. He wore an unreadable, impassive expression. No one dared speak; one doesn’t casually ask the visiting bishop how his day has been when he’s climbing up into the pulpit to deliver his sermon.

To gain entrance into John Hersey’s 12-student senior-year writing seminar at Yale you had to submit writing samples and something about “Why I should be in John Hersey’s seminar,” which, for writers, was the crowning class in school. I thought I’d have no chance in hell. I was not an English major; I had no interest in Yeats, Keats or ’eats of any kind. Yes, after many terms of creative writing instruction (including one with David Milch, who taught wildly, extemporaneously, in the same blue T-shirt, like a character from his cable series Deadwood, if Deadwood had been about academia), I’d written tons of stories, but like me, they’d always tended to be painfully self-indulgent.

John Hersey’s work was anything but. But there, somehow, I sat and, like everyone else in the room, watched him take his spot at the head of the table, which now seemed like the size of the deck of an aircraft carrier. His body language vibed that he cared less whether we thought him iconic, average, or a hack. Oddly, I sensed no ego. It would soon become apparent that the seminar was to be didactic in the purest Greek sense: He would teach because he was highly capable of it and qualified to do so; and because he had to, for the sake of the endurance of the literately written word.

I won’t presume to be exact in recalling the first thing he said to us (this was 37 years ago), but I remember it being very close to this: “If anyone in the room thinks of himself or herself as an artist, this is not a course for you. I teach a craft.” I remember his opening manifesto not only because its message shocked me — the artiste! — but also because of the measured intonation with which he’d presented it. Over the course of the next 12 weeks or so, I came to see how seriously Hersey took his spoken words — print was a medium in which he felt far more comfortable. Many of his words felt carefully considered: minimum verbiage for maximum effect, delivered in an even cadence, never rising high or dipping low; free of mellifluence or emotional emphasis.

Glancing around the room, I sensed that on a scale of Most Legitimate Yalie to Least, I was likely at the bottom of that scale, No. 12. At No. 11, I recall a spacey, cute girl across the table with unwashed hair (whom I immediately vowed to myself to seduce) and 10 other people, from our class of 1,500, none of whom I knew, and none of whom seemed like people I would know, and never did thereafter: probably a few Secret Society members; no doubt an editor of the Yale Daily News. Serious Yalies, some who probably subscribed to Granta, none who subscribed to boxing’s monthly bible, Ring Magazine, or kept an ounce of weed in his dorm drawer.

We were there because Hersey was iconic, of course, and had been so for 30 years because of Hiroshima, a feat of journalism so profound that it remains the only story to which The New Yorker ever committed an entire issue. The piece remains iconic simply because no one, in the ensuing seven decades, has threatened its perch as the finest piece of reportage ever. Once someone nails something, it stays nailed. It will endure as long as the written word (and the threat of nuclear annihilation).

Hiroshima’s subject matter was topical to my peers. We’d all been duck-and-cover grade-schoolers, obsessed with The Bomb. When I’d read, in 11th grade, his account of the effects of the first nuclear bomb used in warfare, as told through the accounts of six survivors, I’d been riveted on more levels than I could account for: The literary one. The reporting one. The human one. The horror one. The history one. To me, this was art, just as I’d thought Hersey’s novel A Bell for Adano, which I’d read in ninth grade, had been art.

That one had been fiction and one nonfiction mattered little; to Hersey they were both examples of a craft. He was going to teach us how to write. Period. And if that’s where we were starting, without art, then, what the hell, I might as well go all-in. I knew I’d never be a good novelist; even then I knew I would always be too egocentric ever to tell a universal tale. But I also thought that, at the very least, with my one tool (despite being the son of two people with the cultural curiosity of Pop Tarts, I’d been genetically endowed, somehow, to put together evocative sentences) maybe I could make a living as a journalist, and a living would be a very good thing to make.

Peter Richmond

Peter Richmond

I immediately felt, on that first day, as if I knew the man. We’d both been veterans of prepIvyworld. And even if my hair rested on my shoulders and I dressed like my hero Kerouac when he was taking his first hit of cheap tokay in the Tenderloin on a Saturday morning, I was a rebel with a cause: I was going to be a Writer. My Tom Wolfe wasn’t the Kandy-Colored “New Journalist.” It was Thomas Wolfe, looking homeward. I drank Dreiser’s prose; Melville is still my god. Whatever was going to happen to me in life, it was going to have to involve laying my words somewhere, for bucks, like a bricklayer laying his bricks.

And the man standing before me was the epitome of Writer, in his prime. He was not here for himself; this was man so private he had literally never given an interview. I was now granted a private audience. For three months. In a sanctum sanctorum. To this day, memory suggests that I seldom — if ever? — saw him smile. If I did, it was a very subtle slight upturning of the corners of his lips, not really enlisting the rest of his face. Eventually, I came to think that he figured if we didn’t perceive him as serious, we wouldn’t take the business of writing seriously enough to be writers.

What else did he say that first day? One thing stuck with me, and has never unstuck: “It’s not about what you choose to put in, it’s about what you choose to keep out.”

The textbooks? As I remember, one: The Writer’s Craft, edited by John Hersey. A lot of essays about writing by writers who’d likely been more than happy to earn a few bucks by laying down some truisms. I’m sure that many of them were instructive; I remember none. I do remember that some of them preached things that we 12 already knew instinctively, like using active verbs, and asking yourself, after writing a word, whether, with more thought, a better word might offer itself.

The first assignment? Write a story; same as every week. I spent the next few days writing the best short story of my life (not that I’ve written many, or published any) on a legal pad, in pencil, with lots of cross-outs and erasures, taking out a whole lot of stuff, before typing it. It was about a kid who was fascinated by the Chrysler Building’s Deco majesty before a distant aunt took him inside the place, to a board meeting in the Cloud Club on the 66th floor, where he spent two hours listening to masters of industry bore themselves to death. The yawning aunt begged an early exit, for she knew the lesson had been implanted in the kid as they rode down in the ebony-and-rosewood-inlaid elevator: Majestic monuments to power are simply temples to cruel illusion. It’s character that counts in the end.

It was just minor-league-Dos Passos-y stuff, but it was okay, probably because, as someone with barely an ounce of the stuff — character — I’d nailed the theme. Then the worst thing that could have ever happened happened, although in the end, it proved to be a blessing. The next week, Hersey came in and said he was going to read aloud the best story that had been submitted, and it was mine. And in the space of 39 seconds of hearing John Hersey read my story, I went from being stunned to fatally cocky.

***

Having been certified by an iconic writer, I wrote the next few stories in about an hour each. The fourth was about a kid who skipped his classes for a day, dropped LSD, drove to Aqueduct racetrack, lost a lot of his parents’ money, but had a conversation with Cab Calloway, who was handicapping from the Racing Form in a corner, and so the kid’s day was a success. This was based on an actual day, although a) it was only weed, and b) I broke even. But Calloway had been there, which was cool.

Hersey called me into his book-laden office for a private conference. Now, I knew the story sucked, and I was ready hear so. I sat down, across from his desk. He was no less imposing for being seated; he sat straight. His desk’s contents had ordered themselves. As usual, he wore coat and tie. Memory suggests a lit pipe, but maybe I’m just making that up. My story was in front of him, with the typical finely penciled notes in the margin. I expected him to say, in his own language, “What happened to the guy who wrote that great story last month?”

Instead, looking me in the eye — and again, in my language, not his — he said, “Are you okay? Are things okay? I hope you’re not getting yourself in any sort of trouble.” I’d like to say now that this time the face was a tad less impassive, but perhaps I’d be transferring false affect onto distant memories. If it were fatherly in any way, in no way did it express overt concern. Put it this way: He didn’t faux-earnestly look me in the eye, with fingers entwined, and lean across the desk or anything. The words, his precious words, had said it all.

I said something like, “Oh, that’s not me, that character,” although, of course, it was, and, obviously, he knew it. Then I stammered something like, “I’m fine, sir, thanks, I really enjoy the course, and I will try and do better,” and tried to leave his office with a shred of dignity intact.

I was devastated. I had desperately wanted his approval from the day I’d learned I’d made his cut, but I hadn’t been willing to do the work to earn it. Given a chance to study at the feet of a man who’d won a Pulitzer, had written for a TIME  magazine staff that included the likes of James Agee, I’d taken him no more seriously than my freshman fall-term teacher, a guy whose claim to fame had been organizing a retro do-wop band called Sha Na Na.

Or David Milch. Who now writes killer, like, fuckin’ dialogue … for series that get cancelled after three weeks.

***

That was the bottoming out. I had let The Master down, and, very subtly, he’d let me know it, without having to say so. He was now finally teaching me. And, thankfully, would continue to.

Less than two months remained. I had started at the highest high, plummeted to the lowest low. Now the only sane option left, since I’d decided not to squander my limited time on a hallowed campus, would be to osmose the man’s wisdom by listening and watching and taking accurate notes. The classes were instructive enough, since by now, most of my colleagues had gained enough confidence to add their own insights (and these were pretty damned astute kids).

The conversation became more free-flowing each week, as Hersey said less and less. He knew how to prime our pumps. The student stories got better, too. More and more, I looked forward to the class for all the right reasons; ego, indeed, gradually sapped itself out of the way. Hersey was no longer The Voice; he was now the editor of an oral, ongoing, 12-voice story.

I’d stopped reading the essays entirely because I had come to understand, and have understood ever since, that the only things worth reading if you want to learn how to write are well-written stories — like “Into the Valley,” Hersey’s account of being on patrol with a company of First Division marines on Guadalcanal.

My father had been a company commander in the same division, on the same island. He’d died when I was 7, so I had no idea what had happened over there. And so I read Hersey’s account halfway through the seminar. It was so vivid that I could smell the jungle undergrowth, and hear the whistle of the sniper’s bullet from the top of the banyan tree.

Of course, I lost the notes from those last half-dozen classes, as (thankfully) I have lost all of my stories. But here’s a handful of thoughts that are directly traceable to what I learned from John Hersey the rest of the way (during which time none of my stories, rightfully, were ever again read aloud):

1) In good fiction, the reader absorbing a compelling narrative never notices the writer as intermediary. In nonfiction, that translator’s presence is inevitable. Since the former is the ideal relationship with the reader, the more you can bring that non-point of view to nonfiction narrative, the better. In other words, as a writer, no matter what the hell you’re writing, do your best to kill your ego, even if those are mutually exclusive ideals. (i.e.: He could have told the story of the effect of that atomic bomb on an innocent city by telling us what he found when he went over there, and it would have been a good piece. Instead he gave the story over to the six survivors, and it earned a place in immortality.)

2) Let the story, invented fictitiously or real-world, speak for itself. Do it honor and justice by re-presenting it. If you have to writerly-ly enhance it, hammer its meaning home, it is not worth telling.

3) Editors are there for a reason: not because they aren’t good writers, but because they are very good at what they do. It is their craft. Get to know them, and always respect them. (In one of the countless drafts of Hiroshima, Hersey described an atom-bombed bicycle as “lopsided.” One day Wallace Shawn questioned whether the word “lopsided” was the best possible word. Hersey lay awake that night, and then scrolled the word “crumpled” on a piece of paper. The next day, arriving at the magazine’s offices to resume editing, he found the pages from the day before, and found the page in question. The night before, in the margin, Shawn had written, in the margin, “crumpled?”)

4) If what you leave out is essential, then the details you choose to leave in must be essential. (i.e.: The dank, decaying, ominous scent of a jungle is relevant if the man smelling it might be about to die from an unseen bullet, but maybe not if your story is of the prison road gang laying a highway through it).

5) Storytelling is so universal that, for the several centuries when writing disappeared in the Aegean, The Odyssey survived orally until it could be written down. Never veer far from the story.

6) As the possessor of a craft, having now served something of an apprenticeship, we owed it to the world to practice that craft.

The coda to this tale is very weird, and Hersey would appreciate it. In 1988, he was accused of plagiarism. In the 76th time of the 63-year history of the magazine, The New Yorker ran a “Department of Amplification” — a fancy name for a correction. He’d written a piece about Agee, and an Agee biographer claimed very publicly in various interviews, and through his lawyer, that Hersey had ripped off several sections of his book — if not word for word, then certainly beyond accepted decorum, since Hersey had not credited the biographer for many anecdotes. I was hugely disappointed.

Three years later, I was hired on staff by GQ and, as had been the case in Hersey’s seminar, my first major piece was good enough to eventually be included in Best American Sportswriting of the Twentieth Century, edited by David Halberstam. Part of me wanted to send that story to Hersey, on the Vineyard, to prove that he’d made me a writer. But I didn’t, because the “Amplification” had colored my lens. A year later, he died.

In the ensuing years, very good writers I knew and very good writers I didn’t know were also accused of plagiarism. A fellow staffer at GQ even wrote a book on the matter, wherein I came to be something of a student of what a strange swamp we were mucking about in. The likes of H.G. Wells, Alex Haley and Doris Kearns Goodwin had been wading in it. In the Agee piece, Hersey had not lifted more than a few words; he had certainly not lifted the other writer’s ideas. He simply had not said, in his magazine piece, where he’d gotten some of the information. In his piece, it’s clear that he hadn’t pretended to have gotten much of the stuff firsthand; he just didn’t give attribution, when he should have.

Now: As I write this, what I’m supposed to be writing are the final chapters of the biography of a man who has written several autobiographies and has already been the subject of a biography. He is not talking to me. I have used several anecdotes from those several books. And I am going to give everyone I drew from all the credit they deserve. Which means that Hersey is still teaching me. And more importantly, I can finally see him as what he was: not just a scarily imposing teacher and frighteningly talented and ambitious writer, but a human being possessed of frailties, flaws — and incredible, estimable, enviable talent at a craft. Pressured by a Hotchkiss-Yale-Luce pedigree to excel at the highest.

Craftsmen — writers, bricklayers — make mistakes. “Artists” need not worry about such scrutiny, such vigilance, such oversight. They can indulge their whims. And I think Hersey would agree when I say: More’s the pity for them.

Peter Richmond holds a B.A. in philosophy from Yale and has been awarded Moravian College’s first annual fellowship to pursue a Masters of Arts in Teaching, beginning this fall. His work has appeared in periodicals including The New Yorker, the New York Times magazine, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Parade, GQ, Details, Architecture, Parade, ESPN the Magazine, TV Guide and Grantland. His journalism has been included in more than a dozen anthologies, including Best American Sportswriting of the Twentieth Century. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Class of ’89. He has published five books and is working on two others, each for an imprint of Penguin. He lives in Dutchess County, N.Y., with his wife, wine purveyor Melissa Davis, three chickens and a cat.

 

 

 

April 04 2013

14:20

April 02 2013

14:28

Dan Gillmor says journalists are uninformed about who controls the platforms they publish on

Dan Gillmor is writing a book (maybe), and he has a lot of questions. The project, which will probably be self published, will probably be called Permission Taken. Gillmor already owns that domain, so why not, he said in a talk at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society last week. (Also, his agent likes the title.)

Gillmor says he’s been thinking about the project for about a year, and he’s come up with a list of questions that he wants academics and practitioners around the country to help him answer. When Gillmor looks at the technologies, services, and platforms most of us use everyday and take for granted, he asks, in slide lingo,

KVESTIONS

The answers are not always clear.

Gillmor’s goal with the new book is a pedagogical one — he said he considers his students (at Arizona State University) to be his primary audience. He intends for the first few chapters to be a primer for the digitally barely literate on how to protect privacy and shore up digital security in day-to-day life. Some of the later chapters, however, will delve deeper into the nitty gritty.

Some of the ideas that will become a part of the new book Gillmor shared back in October at a symposium on digital ethics hosted by Poynter. Gillmor and other presenters also contributed essays to a book, The New Ethics of Journalism: A Guide for the 21st Century, to be published in July.

Generally, Gillmor doesn’t think anyone is fully aware of how vulnerable they are, technologically speaking. Build a back door into every new technology so the FBI can keep an eye on things, he says, “and I promise you it’s going to be used by criminals. The more you unharden the fences, the more room there is for really bad actors.”

Gillmor is especially concerned about how little he says journalists know about security and the extent to which they retain control over their content once it’s published online. “I ask, why are you pouring your journalism into Facebook where you don’t control it anymore? Why are you putting it on other people’s platforms?” In his slide deck, Gillmor gives the example of a New Yorker cartoon that caused Facebook to temporarily ban the magazine from their site — thereby claiming an unprecedented level of control over what is and isn’t acceptable in publishing.

Facebook is a particular concern of Gillmor’s, and he points to a tweet in his slideshow in which Loic le Meur quotes a friend employed by Facebook as saying “we’re like electricity.” “Is Facebook a utility?” asks Gillmor. “What do we do with utilities? We regulate them. Monopolies need regulation. I’m not a fan of regulation, but we have to think about that.”

Gillmor expressed similar concerns in his October talk about the level of control held by payment processors. Whether because of pressure from the government or an internal decision, Gillmor says, if the processor deems your content unacceptable, “then you won’t get paid.” But what journalists really don’t like, Gillmor told me, is when he asks them why they insist on building iOS apps that cede control of what is and isn’t journalism to Apple. In terms of distribution, they say they have no other option — and even journalists who have considered other options say the risk is worth it.

But some risks are never worth it. “Journalists need to learn more about security right away,” says Gillmor. “They are threatening the lives of their sources if they don’t.” In a recent column about the Harvard cheating scandal, in which the university admitted to scanning portions of employee emails, Gillmor showed exactly what can happen when a news outlet doesn’t know enough about how to protect their sources.

It’s not just employees and others who want to blow whistles who need to be more careful — such as using external accounts, encryption and a lot of other tools to be safer. (Note: I didn’t say “safe”, because absolute safety is exceedingly hard to achieve, if it’s even possible.)

Journalists, too, need better tradecraft when it comes to their dealings with sources. My impression of the typical newsroom’s precautions is that there aren’t many.

For six years as a columnist, Gillmor used a PGP at the bottom of each page — a safe, encrypted method by which sources could contact him. He said in six years, it was used twice — once by someone just checking to see if it worked.

For journalists, Gillmor recommends Tor, “a network of virtual tunnels that allows people and groups to improve their privacy and security on the Internet.” (Committee to Protect Journalists when it comes to educating journalists about the dangers of using certain technologies.

But ultimately, Gillmor says, “It’s a crucial issue — and one that has not gotten enough attention inside the craft.” These issues fall very low on the priority list for an industry that Gillmor described as being in a constant state of desperation. But the dangers are real, Gillmor says, and with his new project, he hopes to find ways of bringing the convenience of private platforms to services that are both free and secure.

For now, though, “increasingly, journalists who really are appropriately paranoid in the right situations are learning not to use technology,” says Gillmor.

If you have a better idea, Gillmor is taking questions — and hopefully, answers.

Photo by f1uffster (Jeanie) used under a Creative Commons license.

August 23 2012

14:17

May 03 2012

13:35

April 19 2012

14:26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

“Maybe he could use that love against them.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow it survived an explosion the soldier may not.

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

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

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

It says the soldier’s name is Eddie Ward.

It says he is 19 years old.

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

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

And, suddenly, Boogaard started to win fights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 12 2012

14:43

The best magazine features of 2011: an ASME sampler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy!


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

January 20 2012

16:22

Pamela Colloff on storytelling, justice and letting readers think for themselves

Our latest Notable Narrative, the story of a mother convicted of killing her adopted son with salt, comes from Pamela Colloff of Texas Monthly. A two-time National Magazine Award finalist, Colloff has been at Texas Monthly since 1997, and her work has also appeared in The New Yorker and three editions of “Best American Crime Reporting.” In recent years, she has developed a reputation for drawing national attention to problematic convictions. She talked by phone with us this week about how she picks cases, writing about guilt and innocence, and the Skip Hollandsworth method of drafting stories. The following are excerpts from our conversation.

How did you find the story of Hannah and Andrew?

This has never happened to me before, but a reporter with the San Antonio Express-News called me out of the blue one day and told me about Hannah’s case. I’ll back up for a second to say that I wrote an article in 2010 about a former death row inmate named Anthony Graves, and that story was partly credited with helping eventually win his freedom, with the help of his attorneys and a special prosecutor.

Because of that, after that story came out — and this continues to this day — I get letters and calls literally on a daily basis, usually from inmates but sometimes from attorneys. This is the first time it came from another reporter. People will come to me and say, “There’s this innocence case, and I really wish that you would look into it.” It has gotten somewhat overwhelming, with letters piling up.

But in this case, this reporter from the San Antonio Express-News, John MacCormack, who is one of the best newspaper reporters in Texas, called me. John and I didn’t know each other, but I’ve been following his work for a long time. He said, “I’ve been writing about this case out of Corpus Christi, and I’ve done as much as I can do with it on a newspaper level. It’s a really important case, and I wish you would look into it.”

John ended up driving to Austin and giving me notes and documents. Again, I’ve never had anything like this happen before. And four days after John called me, a TV cameraman who I was talking to for other reasons said, “There’s this case in Corpus you should look into. It’s the case of Hannah Overton. To have two different media people tell me this was an important case, obviously, I was going to look into it.

About these calls and letters you get: Do you weigh stories now in a different way than you did before the Graves story?

I think one of the things that’s hard is that part of my job is to be a storyteller. There are many innocence cases or potential innocence cases that I see which are very interesting from a legal perspective but aren’t interesting from a narrative perspective. I can’t write a story about every one of these cases, and so I have to find the ones that are compelling from both a legal standpoint and a narrative standpoint.

One thing that I’ve done in the past month is that I’m partnering, if that’s the right word, with Anthony Graves’ attorney, Nicole Cásarez, who’s an attorney and also a journalism professor at the University of Saint Thomas in Houston. All letters that I get from inmates I forward to her. And she and her students — she runs an innocence clinic — look into the ones that they feel have the most merit, or the ones they can do something with. Our hope is to look at these things together and try to pick out the ones that are the best for us to write about, for her students to investigate, and try to make more of a difference that way.

I write three to four big stories a year, and there are so many of these cases.

It’s interesting that you note the line between what’s an engaging case and one you can tell narratively.

Part of being a long-form journalist is that you are sometimes an investigative reporter, but you are also a storyteller. Is this a narrative, if you’re going to write it at 10, 12, 14,000 words, that is interesting enough to keep the reader going through it? That’s something I have to consider, which is sometimes hard.

I noticed that each section very clearly captures one thing. You introduce Andrew, you introduce Hannah, you bring them together, you take them apart. She’s charged with his death, she’s convicted of his death, and then family tries to cope. This is just the spine of events, of course.

I have actually never (outlined) it like that.

That’s what I wanted to know. Do you lay things out ahead of time before you write, or do you impose structure on something messier as it evolves?

I picked this up from Skip Hollandsworth, my mentor here at the magazine, who is a wonderful writer. He’s done a lot of crime stories. I have one Word document that I dump everything into — all my notes, interesting quotes, references to documents, everything. It’s a master document that I can do a word search on and hopefully everything’s at my fingertips. As I start to input information into the document, it starts to take its own organic shape. Information is grouped together spontaneously, and at some point it starts to take a shape. Now, admittedly, that’s not always the right shape to write the story in.

But with Hannah and Andrew, I really struggled with whether to begin with him or her. And I just kept returning to that case file of his, which was really all that I had. I had a couple pictures and maybe 30 pages, most of which didn’t mean much to me. But I just kept leafing through that, trying to understand him, and I thought, “Well, readers are going to be in the same position. He’s our main character, but I’ve never met him.” And our readers will never meet him. So how do we handle that? My idea was to put him front and center, and go from there.

As far as mapping it out that way, I actually didn’t. So it’s really interesting to hear what you just said. That helps me – I need to diagram my own stories! The main goal I have in the thick of writing is simply – I have such a short attention span, I have two kids and almost no reading time – so I try to put myself in the reader’s shoes. I try to end each section with something that is going to keep you going, if possible.

But you don’t outline ahead of time? You just use the Skip Hollandsworth Document Evolution Method?

I would call it a loose outline. When I’m writing the beginning of the second section, I don’t yet know what the beginning of the sixth section is. But I do have a general sense of where I’m headed. I always know what my last scene is. For some reason that’s the easiest thing. I always know what my last few paragraphs are, and I’m trying to get there as efficiently as possible.

You have all this information, particularly with something that’s a legal case: the trial, the child protective material. There’s a lot of stuff you’re not going to tell the reader. One section opens with you explaining “the most unsettling aspect” of the case against Hannah. When you write that, are you thinking of helping readers know where to focus?

That’s so funny that you focused on that. That was the section I had the most difficulty with. Her trial was a three-week-long trial. So just reading the transcripts of the three-week trial took me so long. There was so much information in that trial, a lot of it was extremely technical medical testimony. I struggled in how to present that to the reader – to do a blow-by-blow account with the trial with its dramatic moments wasn’t going to work in this case.

I probably spent more time on that paragraph that you just mentioned than anything else. Okay, we can’t go through every hour of the three-week-long trial, but what’s the most important thing for readers to take away from what happened at the trial? What lens should they view the trial through?

What really jumped out at me – and there were many lines from the trial I didn’t even get to use – but to say that Hannah was vilified at trial would be an understatement. It was every mother’s nightmare, I guess, to have every aspect of every decision she had made as a mother held up to scrutiny and made to look sinister. That’s what I hoped readers took away from the trial without getting too lost in the details.

I think a lot of people might think of the trial as the real potential for drama. Why not use the trial for drama and fold everything into that? Can you talk about when you would or wouldn’t do that?

This has been true with the Overton case, with the Graves case, and it’s about to be true with another piece I’m working on, in which another person was exonerated with DNA evidence. There is so much you can’t tell in a courtroom. There’s so much context you can provide in a magazine narrative, that for good reason you can’t present in a courtroom, but that still matters. Someone’s character, someone’s history over time, in this case with children, someone’s capacity for dealing with stress and difficult things, like Hannah did with Andrew – there’s so much you can present in a magazine story that you can’t at trial.

To me, when I go back now, having written the story, and read the trial transcript, it’s sort of like reading one fragment of the story. There’s so much that’s left out, there’s so much the jury doesn’t know. It would be too limiting to just tell a story through a trial. To me what’s most interesting is what gets left out of the trial.

Outside of the debates over her contact with Andrew, Hannah is so overwhelmingly a force for good in your story. Everybody who actually knew her said such positive things. Did you worry that would seem unrealistic?

What was challenging – and it’s rare that I’ve run into this to this extent – no one from the DA’s office would talk to me. No one at the police department would talk to me. So I knew heading into this story that whether I wanted it to be or not, that it ran the risk of being one-sided. I would have loved to have had quotes in there from the cop, from the prosecutor. I tried to quote them as much as I could from the record.

To me, what was so fascinating about this case was that people either viewed her as almost saintly or almost demonic. There was no gray with her. People either felt that she was the most wonderful mother ever, or that she was a child abuser and the worst of the worst, that she had murdered a child. That you could look at the same person and sometimes the same set of facts and come to two such different conclusions was so interesting to me.

One of the things I tried to do in the story was to show how all the little disparate details taken together, if you didn’t know the Overtons, looked bad: the bed sheets and the fire pit. There were a couple different things that all put together seemed very strange and seemed like this was a place where abuse could be happening. That duality, that perfect mother vs. evil mother – I’ve never really run into something like that before, and hopefully I presented each side as fully as possible.

You mentioned the people who wouldn’t talk to you, people who normally would. You had some people who backed off their involvement with the case or changed their mind about their role in it. Did this case have an unusual degree of that kind of reversal?

It was a very unusual degree of that. There were people who talked to me off the record who I obviously couldn’t quote in the story. But there were people who had been involved in this case who had made dramatic changes of opinion about this case.

You’re an investigative journalist, and you’re a storyteller. Whatever your intent, with these kind of stories, there’s almost an activist or advocacy effect that trails in their wake. How do you think about your role as a journalist in relation to activism or advocacy?

I think in both the story about Hannah and the story about Anthony Graves, the stories were better the more I pulled back. There was an early version of the Graves story that was an advocate’s draft, and it didn’t work. It was too obvious from the beginning what my thoughts about the case were. I tried, and I think I succeeded, with the Overton case to not make that mistake again, and to lay out the facts so that a reader could come to his or her own conclusion.

I think with the Overton case there are ways in which we can see that there were mistakes made. It’s clear the Overtons waited too long to take Andrew to the hospital, things along those lines. I don’t think they did so maliciously, but I thought it was important to explain to readers that his health had been deteriorating for a while before they took him to the hospital, that it was important not to smooth over the difficult facts of the case. I knew that some people would read this and think that an injustice had happened, and that other people would read this and think, “I wouldn’t have made those same decisions, and of all the cases out there, this isn’t one I’m going to feel sorry about.” So hopefully, it lays things out in a way that people can come to their own conclusions.

When you start to veer into advocacy, you can do your subject a disservice. If you show the warts, if you show the problems, I think that makes the strengths of the story better anyway. The reader knows, hopefully, that you’re being candid and telling them all the facts that you know.

One more thing – with the Graves story and the Overton story, with both of those stories, I had extensive letters, interviews, many, many hours from Anthony’s perspective in the Graves story and from Hannah’s perspective in the Overton story. In both those stories I waited until the last section for the reader to hear from them, and that was very intentional. The reason for that is, of course, if you go through those cases, they see themselves as innocent, and they narrate as such: “I had no idea why the police were there.” That’s not the way to take the reader through the case. You have to present things in a more clinical way before getting to what the subject of the story thinks.

You’re sort of resisting the scenic narrative, the most intimate version, which would have been through their eyes.

Which I could have done in both stories, which I could have done in great detail, but which I resisted because I thought that would be too much and that doesn’t give the reader all the information.

I suspect that a lot of editors giving general advice would say to find the most intimate perch you can, because that’s where you’ll have the most power.

The other things I’ve been spending a lot of time on the last couple of years have been oral histories of important moments in Texas history, like the Whitman shootings in 1966. I did an oral history from the perspective of the victims and people who were on campus that day. That is the exact opposite of what you and I are talking about; it’s nothing but what someone saw from their perspective, and the emotion of that moment, and that’s very gripping, too.

I’ve never really thought this out before, but in a story where someone’s guilt or innocence is in the balance, to me if you told the story from the perspective of the defendant the whole way through, it would be as misleading as telling it from the perspective of the prosecutor the whole way through. You have to somehow have a perfect medium, if you can, though I doubt you can. You have to present things to the reader almost as if they are the jurors, in a sense, but with more information, often, than the jurors received in the actual case.

December 07 2011

19:20

Your 2011 holiday gift guide, brought to you by the news

Santa running down the street in Algers, France

If you want to save journalism, you might turn to journalism this year for all your Christmas shopping.

This weekend at NewsFoo, an O’Reilly “un-conference” for about 170 journalists and tech disrupters, the tech writer Mónica Guzmán posed a question: “Can’t we [news organizations] sell anything besides articles?” Yes, it turns out, and there are numerous examples of them trying it.

A couple of months ago Guzmán was talking to an entrepreneur in Seattle who had just sold his latest startup to Google. “We got to talking about journalism, and I’m always fascinated to listen to people who come from an innovative mindset, but not a news mindset, look at news. What he said, basically, is I don’t see how news is really going to innovate and move forward unless they can get past this idea that what they sell is just content.”

News organizations have one big advantage in business: They know their audience.

“We have a huge leg up when it comes to organizing information communities,” she said. “[News outlets] build those communities that can be really specific and really well defined.” (NewsFoo is generally off the record, but Guzmán talked with me after her session.)

Here are a few examples of all the ways news companies are selling non-news products to consumers. Some might look better wrapped up under the tree than others, but if you feel like supporting the news, maybe there’s room on your credit card for one or two of them.

Merchandise!

For the oenophile in your life, buy a gift subscription to the New York Times Wine Club. Six rare wines (four red, two white) for $90 per shipment, or $180 for the most exquisite Reserve Club varietals. Each bottle is paired with tasting notes and an NYT recipe. Europeans can sample Telegraph Wines, “one of the UK’s most respected wine merchants.” A case of six bottles of Prosecco goes for £54 and includes two complimentary Champagne flutes.

Spaceballs: The Flamethrower

The Telegraph doesn’t stop at wine. There’s a Telegraph Garden Shop, Motoring Shop, a travel shop for holiday cottages. You can buy earrings, duvet covers, snow boots, and clothes hangers. “They are the leading retailer of clothes hangers in the U.K.,” said Jeff Jarvis in an April 2010 Editor & Publisher story. The newspaper raked in a quarter of its profit in 2009 from selling things, he said.

The Onion cheaply repurposes tons of its own content into coffee-table books and framed prints. NPR, almost true to stereotype, sells “green gifts,” “gifts for gardeners,” and “gift for tea lovers.” None of those items have NPR branding, just the kind of things a typical NPR listener might like to buy. (And shoppers know their purchase helps support the news.)

The überaggregator Boing Boing sells stuff as weird as that which it aggregates, e.g., rubber finger tentacles, a remote-controlled flying shark, a bacon-scented air freshener. That site outsources the e-commerce software and payment processing.

Specialty iPhone apps

Santa's Hideout screen shot

There are plenty of smartphone and iPad apps that try to generate revenue for news organizations, but it’s less common for there to be an app that doesn’t have anything to do with the outlet’s journalism. Just today we wrote about Condé Nast’s new Santa app, which helps parents assemble and share lists of what their kids want for Christmas.

This summer Hearst Corp. launched its App Lab, a sort of digital R&D unit for the ad agencies who work with Hearst. It was Hearst that developed Manilla, a financial management product for consumers, earlier this year.

Events

In September, the web-only Texas Tribune launched the Texas Tribune Festival, a first annual symposium that brought together politicians, wonks, lobbyists, and others from the universe of Texas politics. (I interviewed editor Evan Smith about it this summer.) Tickets cost $125, but the real money comes from corporate sponsorships. In 2010, before the festival existed, the Tribune raised about $600,000 in event sponsorship, Smith told me. The Tribune festival was modeled on the New Yorker Festival, which also sells tickets and big-name sponsorships. Forbes follows a similar model for its CEO conferences around the world, but those tickets are a lot pricier.

Digital marketing services

Rubber finger tentacles

435 Digital is a Chicago consulting firm that does web design, SEO, and social media — actually, it’s a division of Tribune Co., but you would never know that from looking at its home page. The group is made up of the people who gave us Colonel Tribune and the ChicagoNow blog network.

GannettLocal, too, offers marketing services for local businesses that advertise in Gannett-owned papers. Condé Nast sells its in-house creative talent to advertisers, competing with the very agencies whose work fills the pages of its magazines.

Using reporters’ smarts

The Chronicle of Philanthropy, as I wrote this summer, packages its reporters’ in-house expertise about particular topics as paid webinars that cost as much as $96 apiece.

The premium content, the merch, the events, the consulting, the apps — they are all specialty products for niche audiences. Whether all of the offerings are making money is for another story.

“Last-minute shopping?” by Louise LeGresley used under a Creative Commons license.

August 03 2011

15:58

“Why’s this so good?” No. 6: Alma Guillermoprieto’s view on Bogota

I first read “Letter from Bogota” in a Latin American History class in college. About 50 kids were crammed into an old, long lecture hall, the kind you see in movies about blue bloods and their schools: the dark wood floors, the lead-paned windows and the reading nook tucked into the back wall – the one that’s always a bit too small for any modern human.

It was a strange place to be reading about cocaine, bombs and Pablo Escobar, but in some ways, it was oddly appropriate to be sitting in such a relic. Readers – especially writers who are first and foremost readers – are the most shameless about nostalgia and its curios. (Why else would a first edition be worth anything to anyone?)

And although my toes curl with embarrassment to admit it, a weird alchemy surrounds that moment when you read something for the first time and realize that you will never think about writing, or reading, in the same way again. I am sure there are poets who can recall with startling detail the first time they laid eyes on a Robert Lowell poem. Or novelists who can tell you exactly which class they were skipping when they read the opening line of “On the Road.”

Our professor was a Mets fan who doubled as a sentimental lefty. If memory serves (mine, not his), he had spent a good portion of his 20s in a van, driving around Mexico and Central America, eventually landing in the academy. He remains the most enthusiastic academic I have ever met. He was enthusiastic about the Cuban Revolution, he was enthusiastic about the Porfiriato, but more than anything, he was enthusiastic about Alma Guillermoprieto.

When he asked us to read the first essay in “The Heart That Bleeds,” his face lit up, and before any of us had the time to get through the first paragraph, he burst out with, “Good lord! Look at how she starts this piece! Window fitters in Bogota! She was asked to write about one of the most violent scenes in modern history, much of which she witnessed firsthand, and she is talking about window fitters!”

Since then, I have read the opening paragraphs to “A Letter from Bogota” maybe a hundred times, marveling at the clarity of the choices made, the muscularity of the sentences and the intelligent detachment with which Guillermoprieto describes the routines of the glaziers of a place where extreme violence has become routine. Her opening sentence:

Among the few people to have benefitted from the current faceoff between the government and the cocaine traffickers are Bogota’s windowpane fitters.

There it is! If there’s a better, “Wait, what the fuck is she talking about?” hook, please let me know.

The man said his name was Carlos Lopez, and added, as he and his partner eased another pane of glass out of their truck, that he expected to be extremely busy that day. Eleven bombs had gone off the previous night, most of them in this neighborhood, which is called Teusaquillo and is one of the pleasantest in Bogota. It dates from the nineteen-thirties, and if the orderly rows of red brick houses with tile roofs don’t quite achieve the English look that was so clearly intended, it is partly the fault of the vegetation – splendid purple-flowered sietecueros trees along the curved streets, and blood-red begonias and blue agapanthus crowded into the narrow front yards.

I’ve never been to Bogota, but if I go, the first place I’ll ask to see is the Teusaquillo. It’s a sign of great writing when you read about a place, and the picture in your head is so clear that your inner cynic wants to see what’s being described, just to double-check.

Because the streets here are not very wide, the detonations shattered an inordinate amount of glass, some of it as much as two blocks away from the target sites. Thus Carlos Lopez’s euphoria as he saw himself surrounded by buildings full of business potential.

A less gifted writer, even if she had chanced upon the genius of starting this piece with glaziers, would have taken a more somber tone. The question “How are these people living like this?” would have resonated throughout the piece. In Guillermoprieto’s hands, the glaziers retain their humanity, their humor and their ambition. They are not sacrificed to clumsy invective about foreign countries and George H.W. Bush and Pablo Escobar and who is at fault.

It takes a hell of a reporter to write about violence with confidence and an appropriate level of humor. If nothing else, Guillermoprieto’s reports from Latin America in The New Yorker are a primer on how to shrug off the early, easy angles (those dripping with significance) and find the guts of a story.

I doubt I’ll ever make a choice as stunning as starting an essay about Pablo Escobar and narco-violence with a window-fitting. The standard is too high. But thievery is part of every writer’s job and the passages you love, especially the openers, have a way of embedding themselves in your head. Whenever I sit down to start writing anything, the question “Where are the glaziers?” is never far from my mind.

Jay Caspian Kang is a columnist at Grantland. His first novel, “The Dead Do Not Improve,” will be released in 2012.

July 14 2011

18:40

George Packer sketches a narrative argument

In our latest Notable Narrative, “Iraqis Pass the Safety Test,” The New Yorker’s George Packer draws an arc through three apparently unrelated points by doing little more than setting up and repeating quotes from as many stories: The first centers on the father who recently fell to his death over the rail of a ballpark in Texas. The second addresses the 128 people who died when a cruise boat went down on the Volga River this week. And the third relates to visas for Iraqis who have assisted the U.S. military in the war effort.

Using narrative shorthand, Packer jumps from Texas to Russia in the first two sentences of his post. What is going on? Even the quotes he later offers about these two tragedies are off-kilter or unexpected: Nolan Ryan, owner of the Texas Rangers, seems to reject the idea of doing anything in response to the death of a fan at the ballpark. In contrast, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev delivers a surprisingly direct admission that the Volga accident might have been preventable, saying that something needs to be done about Russia’s aging ships.

But Packer has tucked the heart of his post into the third story – that of the Iraqis who have helped the U.S. yet remain behind as its soldiers leave their country. Linking to a New York Times story on foot-dragging by officials in charge of getting these Iraqis into the U.S., Packer makes clear that people seen as collaborators will be targeted as soon as the soldiers leave.

He gives the problem a face by quoting a man who has gone into hiding after two years of waiting in vain for a visa, noting that before long, America will face the same issue in Afghanistan. Then, in two short sentences, he binds his narrative together:

So here is another preventable tragedy for which culpability is diffuse. But unlike the ones in Texas and Russia, the one in Iraq is ongoing.

The question at hand: What would you do if you knew that someone would die, and you could stop it? And perhaps even a little appeal to patriotism: Could America really be so heartless?

Narrative devices most often compel readers to wonder what happens next. Packer can’t deliver an answer in this story, because it isn’t over yet. But he makes clear that if we continue to do nothing, we have a pretty good idea how it will end.

July 07 2011

18:11

“Why’s this so good?” No. 2: McPhee takes on the Mississippi

When the Mississippi River recently surged down through the middle of the country, a lot of people I follow on Twitter took the opportunity to point to John McPhee’s marvelous 1987 article “Atchafalaya.”I took their advice and revisited the piece.

After 24 years, the story is still valuable simply as a guide to the risks faced by people who live along the Mississippi. But it would be ridiculous to think of McPhee’s articles as nothing more than service journalism. Over the past four decades, McPhee has plunged into a series of obsessions – with plate tectonics, athletes, shad fishing, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, the entire state of Alaska. At its best, McPhee’s work feels like a journalistic version of an Iron Man competition. He pushes long-form journalism to the extremes, to encompass the world in staggering detail. And “Atchafalaya” is particularly staggering, because its subject is nothing less than the endless, spectacular, and sometimes absurd struggle of modern civilization to control the natural world.

As I reread “Atchafalaya,” I tried to reverse engineer it to figure out why it’s so good. At its core is a journey McPhee took down the Mississippi in a towboat, accompanying some of the members of the Army Corps of Engineers. For most journalists, that would be more than enough material enough for an excellent article. For McPhee, it is only the start. The river, after all, was not just what he could see in 1987. It was also the product of history – the geological history of the region, and then the human history overlaid on it – history that includes politics, warfare and centuries of engineering. McPhee mastered this vast backstory, but he was not yet done. He also became intimately acquainted with the colossal system of levees and weirs that line the Mississippi: a grand construction that is both longer and wider than the Great Wall of China.

I get the sense that McPhee spends every waking hour gathering observations, stories and plain facts that he stores away for articles he may not write for decades to come. In “Atchafalaya” he smoothly slips away from his journey down the Mississippi to recall earlier experiences – flying over the river, running lines with a Cajun crawfisherman.

Once McPhee assembled this mountain range of raw material, he mined it to build a 28,000-word article. McPhee builds articles like few other journalists can. He scrupulously avoids all stock tricks. His paragraphs encompass worlds. He writes from a dictionary full of strange words: revetments, whaleback, distributaries. They’re not obscure words McPhee chose to make the reader feel undereducated, but the precise language required to describe something most people know little about. It takes time to submerge into this language – this is not a story to shave away one iPhone screen at a time.

If there’s any weakness in “Atchafalaya,” it’s McPhee’s portraits of people. We meet engineers and pilots along the river. McPhee records plenty of exquisite details about their backgrounds. And yet I couldn’t recall any of them as individuals later on. They all talked about the great river, but interchangeably. McPhee knows how to write a great profile (I’m thinking of “Levels of the Game,” a book-length account of a U.S. Open tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner). So I can only assume that he has made a strategic choice in “Atchafalaya” to let the people in the story blur into a wall of humanity massed against the river.

Still, this remains a great piece of writing. By that I don’t mean that it’s an exemplar of what all journalism should be. It is McPhee excelling at being McPhee. It’s impossible to steal tricks from a piece like “Atchafalaya,” because you just end up sounding like a bad imitation of someone else. Instead, it sends me flying back to my own work, re-energized to dig as deeply as I can into the subject at hand, and to craft out of it something distinctively my own.

Carl Zimmer’s science writing has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic, Time and Scientific American, among other publications. He lectures at Yale University and has 10 books to his name, the latest of which is “A Planet of Viruses.” He is on Twitter at @carlzimmer.

[For more from this new collaboration with Longreads, check out the first post in the series, written by Alexis Madrigal. And stay tuned for more inspiration and insight from fabulous writers in the coming weeks.]

July 05 2011

16:00

Condé Nast’s Scott Dadich on reinventing mags for the iPad and why partnering with Apple matters

As the man tasked with giving new life to magazines on new platforms for Condé Nast, Scott Dadich says there are some things, old-school things, that don’t change whether you’re dealing with print or tablets.

“The cover. As magazine makers, we see the cover as the one and only ad we have for your purchase and your time,” said Dadich, Condé’s vice president of digital magazine development. “It’s an inducement to pick it up and give us your time.”

The magazine cover may be ascendant once again thanks in part to the debut of Apple’s Newsstand for iPad and iPhone. Combined with Apple’s subscription policy, the Newsstand could potentially be the bridge to the wider adoption of magazines on the iPad that publishers have been hoping for.

“To have a dedicated container on a tablet device, the iPad, where covers are the primary means of purchase and browsing is something we’ve been looking for for a long time,” Dadich told me.

But the future still remains imperfect for publishers, some reluctant to give Apple its 30-percent cut, others wanting to get their hands on precious customer data without interference from Apple. Condé Nast is already onboard with Apple, though, with more than 30 apps and almost 10 magazine editions on the iPad and digital subscriptions available for the big titles. Dadich is a true believer in tablets: He lead the team responsible for Wired’s first iPad app. Still, he hedges that idealism with heavy doses of pragmatism. In an interview that covered everything from publishers’ relationship with Apple to developing a new design guide for the tablet, Dadich outlined a future that will find magazines thriving again.

“It’s not that far-fetched to imagine 20 to 25 percent of magazines’ readership existing in a digital platform three to four years from now,” he said.

Apple: “They have the marketplace, they built the store”

Partnering with Apple is a necessary element of experimentation right now, Dadich said. Instead of getting hung up on debates over divvying up revenue and ownership of data, companies could be spending that time trying to reinvent themselves. Besides, as Dadich sees it, media companies have always had to make friends in order to deliver their products on time. Apple’s just the next step in that.

“Look, they have the marketplace, they built the store, they have the credit cards and the eyeballs,” Dadich said. “We definitely want to be in front of those folks.”

Apple, he said, offers a new kind of delivery and distribution chain, one that could eventually cost publishers less than the analog model of printing press/delivery truck/mail box/newsstand. And the benefits extend to consumers, he pointed out: With Newsstand, in the same way you can be confident that your copy of GQ will arrive in the mail the second Monday of the month, iPad editions deliver content on time, every time. Instead of having to rush to download the latest New Yorker before a flight, it’ll just be there.

The “Design Fidelity Spectrum” for news apps

The idea of a world where everyone’s favorite magazines are delivered seamlessly is great, but not a reality yet. Tablet adoption remains far from universal, and converting readers, even the faithful ones, can be a complicated dance. Or, maybe, a game of whack-a-mole. Even with lower pricing on digital editions, a better subscription system in place, and improvements to file size and downloading (Dadich told me Condé’s digital editions now have a progressive download, which allows subscribers to read part of an issue as the rest downloads), there’s still a raft of readers not using the iPad. “One hundred and ninety million people read magazines in this country,” while “there’s 25 to 30 million iPads out there,” Dadich said. The goal is convincing people “that these magazines they love are just as good or better under a piece of glass.”

Which is where the design element comes in. As we already know, taking one form of media (newspapers and magazines) and trying to graft it wholesale onto another (the Internet, mobile devices, tablets) doesn’t generally work. But even within magazines, there’s no one right answer. While Dadich and the team at Wired were lauded for their success with launching Wired’s app, the same principles wouldn’t apply to, let’s say, The New Yorker. Different publications, different design needs.

For a company like Condé Nast, differentiating its titles on tablets is as much about the brand as it is about the reader — which is why Dadich relies on something he calls the “design fidelity spectrum,” a concept that slides from rigid faithfulness to the original product on one end to a completely new and unique look on the other. Most newspaper and magazine websites, and to an extent mobile apps, have little in common with their print counterparts. Conversely, The New Yorker and GQ, even with the addition of audio, video, and animation, still track fairly closely to their origins. Finding the right spot for your title, and determining how it meets up with your readers’ needs, is the big question, Dadich said.

“To say we have the answers would be lying. We don’t,” he said. “Apps like Flipboard and Zite, the feed-based apps, allow users to shape the news and reading they do. But I feel like, and numbers confirm, there is a place for editors still.”

Attacking on multiple fronts

Because media apps now compete not only with each other, but also with aggregation, reading, or social news apps, Dadich said it’s become more important to experiment with the way you package your content. While the iPad offers the opportunity for magazines to recreate an immersive, intimate reading experience, the iPhone can offer a different scale of opportunities, he said. “The completeness of an entire issue isn’t the attraction on the phone, but the service-oriented content is,” he said.


Gourmet Live, the departed magazine reinvented in app form, is one example, placing an emphasis on recipes and curated meal ideas. Dadich said he could easily see similar spinoff apps, things like a branded New Yorker listings app, which would take all the front-of-the-book material on goings-on around town and repackage it. Dadich’s strategy is one that calls for an attack on multiple fronts, a reinvention (and reclamation) of what it means to read a magazine. “Ultimately, a subscription to a magazine is about the relationship you have with it,” Dadich said. “If we can transform that into something that lives with you in your pocket all the time, we’re going to try that.”

Image by John Federico used under a Creative Commons license.

July 01 2011

18:26

Smartphone Sensors Could Revolutionize Digital Magazines

We've all done those personality and health quizzes in magazines. You know, the ones where you suspect that answer A will categorize you as the personality type you're trying to avoid, so you choose B instead.

Everyone does that, right?

These evasive strategies for magazine quizzes, though, could be a thing of the past as smartphones and tablet devices evolve to incorporate a variety of new sensors that will keep us honest. While they might not be able to assess your personality yet, sensors are rapidly becoming capable of detecting all kinds of information about you and your surroundings. These sensors will not only change digital magazines' editorial content and advertising, but also lead to entirely new ways of authoring content and serving readers.

Location Services Have Room to Grow

Many consumers already use location-sensing tools, such as GPS features on smartphones, to find nearby businesses. Some magazine and media applications have also integrated location-based features that display relevant content for a user's local area. But there's a lot more that can be done with location information as sensors improve, and as media companies take fuller advantage of what they will offer.

iphone-location.jpg

Location-based services still have space to evolve, said Wayne Chavez, an operations manager for the sensor division of Freescale, a semiconductor company that is developing a variety of sensors for mobile devices, among other products. Chavez said improved location sensors and related applications will combine both GPS data and magnetometer readings to determine the device's orientation and know which way the user is facing. That detail allows greater customization of information.

For example, imagine a tourist taking a picture of a notable building. The picture can easily be geo-tagged already with today's GPS sensors, but new sensors and related applications could gather more information, including "what direction you took the picture from. It can tell you based on your previous interests and queries what's around you near that building. You might be around the block from another historic building," Chavez said.

Software on the device -- such as, perhaps, a local magazine's app -- could then use the sensor's data to push to the user details of how to navigate to that next location of potential interest, as well as ways "to read more about a historical marker, at any length, with instant access to that media," Chavez said.

Magazines' editorial content could even dynamically change to reflect more detailed location information. Joseph J. Esposito, an independent media consultant, offered an example of how it might work.

"If you're reading a future edition of The New Yorker, maybe a story about a young couple that falls in love in New York, and you're walking along, then the story changes because you just walked in front of a Mexican restaurant," Esposito said. The story could update its content to harmonize with the reader's location and activity.

While some digital magazines have already experimented with contextual advertising based on location data, Esposito said the use of this sensor information eventually "will start to have an editorial direction as well."

google-earth-dot.jpg

There's room to improve contextual advertising based on location, too, for digital magazines and other media applications. Chavez suggests that location data could eventually be combined with information from "the cloud" -- online compilations of user information -- for more precise targeting.

"I see many providers saying, based on the location of your handset and your history, I can pre-filter and stream to you information that might be relevant to you," he said.

Sensor Publishing

Esposito's example of the dynamically updated New Yorker story, mentioned above, is just one way that sensor data might alter magazine content. As Esposito puts it, our phones are, in reality, sensors that we carry everywhere we go. Users of sensor-equipped mobile devices could serve as passive authors of projects that gather, analyze and present data from these sensors. Esposito calls this "sensor publishing" to distinguish it from crowdsourcing because it doesn't require participants' active involvement.

Digital magazines and other media applications could collect sensor data -- such as location, temperature, ambient light or other readings -- and find ways to incorporate the data into stories, or to make them stories in themselves.

"We become carriers or hosts, collecting data passively all the time," Esposito said. "It's different from how we like to think about our phones, but there's also passive use of the phone, when it picks up temperature or humidity. When you're collecting information from 350 million phones, now it's starting to get meaningful. Those little data aggregation points start to mean something."

Esposito noted that all types of sensors -- anything scientists use in laboratories, including spectroscopes or Geiger counters -- could eventually be incorporated into mobile devices, making all kinds of data-gathering opportunities possible for the creation or enhancement of digital magazine content and other media.

Sensing Health Information

Sensors might also mean the end of cheating on magazines' health quizzes, along with new ways of experiencing health-related content. A range of health sensors are already available and, as their cost falls, media companies could distribute them so that the data users gather about themselves as part of daily life could be integrated into various types of content.

Carré Technologies is a Montreal-based company developing health sensors that can be integrated into clothing. The sensors will interact with mobile devices to collect and analyze health information, and could have intriguing media-related uses.

"People in general are taking more responsibility for managing their own health," said Pierre-Alexandre Fournier, president of Carré Technologies. "It's going to help preventive health [care] ... A lot of this monitoring can be done remotely now because of the Internet."

Fournier said health sensors like his company's are useful for a variety of fitness and health applications, such as games, biofeedback, and health observation.

"The sensors we make are meant to be worn 24/7, so there's a huge amount of data created by just one person," he said. "There are a lot of creative ways to show that data, to make it useful for the users."

One way to experience that data might be to have it integrated with media content. For example, a digital magazine application that collected health data from a reader using these sensors could then offer customized diet or exercise recommendations within the context of the magazine, as well as pool data from users anonymously to produce sensor publishing projects. Articles could describe the activity patterns of the publication's audience, contextualizing the individual reader's activity level within that broader picture, and then offering suggestions for improvement.

iphone-health-folder.jpg

This approach to providing personally relevant health information might be an opportunity for health-related magazines and other media seeking to capitalize on demographic trends in their mobile applications.

"One of the megatrends here is our aging population," Chavez said. "As our baby boomers reach their mid-60s now, many of them are very tech aware, and looking for telehealth solutions, whether that's out of personal interest or clinically driven."

Naturally, there are privacy concerns related to the collection of health and other personal data. "I'm not sure how much people want the media company to have access to their physical data," Fournier said. "Media companies already collect a lot of data on people. I'm not sure how far people will be able to go before they start to react."

It seems inevitable, though, that we'll see more integration of varied sensors into our mobile devices, and more creative applications for them in magazine and media applications, for both editorial content and advertising. What we've seen so far are just the earliest stages of sensors' uses in the media world.

"We [just passed] the fourth anniversary of the iPhone, and it's been transformative. The first app for reading books on a phone came in July 2008," Esposito said, offering a reminder of how recently these digital possibilities have evolved. "All this world we're talking about here is so preciously new. But it's difficult to imagine turning back the clock."


Maps and graphs image by Courtney Bolton on Flickr

Smartphone photo by Gesa Henselmans on Flickr.

Google Earth image by Miki Yoshihito on Flickr.

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Linfield College. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.

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June 27 2011

14:11

“Why’s this so good?” No. 1: Truman Capote keeps time with Marlon Brando

Truman Capote’s profile of the depressive, incoherent, brilliant Marlon Brando is one of the greatest of all time. Published in 1957 in The New Yorker, it nominally takes place one evening in the Miyako Hotel in Kyoto.

One could point out many things about craft in the piece. The descriptions of characters are finely observed and sticky. A director “is a man balanced on enthusiasm, as a bird is balanced on air.” Or check out his description of how Brando transforms into Kowalski: “with what chameleon ease Brando acquired the character’s cruel and gaudy colors, how superbly, like a guileful salamander, he slithered into the part, how his own persona evaporated – just as, in this Kyoto hotel room 10 years afterward, my 1947 memory of Brando receded, disappeared into his 1957 self.”

But all that verbiage needed some infrastructure on which to run. Rhythm, narrative or otherwise, is a pleasing regularity in time, and Capote bangs away like a drum major to keep it.

There are two Russian critical terms that are helpful here: fabula and syuzhet. The fabula is the real chronology of a narrative: Brando was born at such and such a time, grew up, and meets up with Capote in 1957. The syuzhet is how the story is told, its internal narrative time. How you convert fabula into syuzhet is storytelling, and Capote is dazzling. He weaves big time (a life) into little time (the hours), always working at two scales. For all its descriptive frippery and meandering actor monologues, the profile is set in reassuring 4/4 time. We never really leave that room in Kyoto even though Capote sweeps across Brando’s entire life.

The first layer of structure is simple, and it’s the one most of us take when we approach long form. Capote starts and ends in the same place. The first graf is knocking on Brando’s door; the last graf is leaving the hotel and walking home. OK, 101. Much of the rest of the work, particularly in the latter half of the story, is done through a remarkably clever rhetorical gadget. Here’s how it works.

About 1,000 words into the 14,000-word profile, Brando’s nominal screenplay co-writer, the pseudonymous Murray, leaves to go to dinner with a promise to call three hours later to do some work.

Murray shook his head; he was intent on obtaining Brando’s promise to meet with him again at ten-thirty. “Give me a ring around then,” Brando said, finally. “We’ll see what’s happening.”

By Chekhovian logic, we know the phone will ring before the story is over; such a call might even end the story, so we’re watching for it. The telephone actually rings four times in the course of the rest of the piece, and each time, we zoom back from wherever we were to the room where Brando is sitting with Capote. The first ring whips us back from the strange James Dean-Marlon Brando relationship. The second ring interrupts Brando’s detailed, inarticulate descriptions of his acting. The third ends an inquisition into whether Brando makes real connections with anyone. And the fourth stops Capote’s masterful description of the actor’s family.

If you plotted the movements with time on the x-axis and distance from Brando on the y-axis, Capote’s perambulations would resemble the elliptical orbit of comets, reaching away from the dinner to various distances, but always returning to late 1957.

That’s how Capote handles big time, always grounding us back into his narrative present and giving his piece the reassuring rhythm that he’s got all Brando’s history firmly under control.

But there’s another aspect to his ploy. Each time the phone rings, some nearly arbitrary amount of time has passed. The first time Murray calls, we know it’s been three hours, though clearly three hours haven’t been described or felt by the reader. In another instance, “an hour seemed to have passed,” in the course of a thousand words. The passage of time roughly tracks with the word length, but not precisely so. And that’s the real trick. By forcing us to pay attention to the real time (the fabula) every so often, Capote is free to play with narrative time (syuzhet) at will, tunneling back to childhood, zooming in on Brando on the stage or on film, stopping, starting, reversing, slow-mo-ing. He’s like a magician distracting us with unnecessary information so that we don’t notice the mechanics of how he pulls the trick off.

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic and author of “Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology.”

May 10 2011

16:50

Life in the cave: highlights from Boston University’s “The Rebirth of Storytelling” conference

What does it take to make a great story? Boston University’s “The Power of Narrative” conference, held on campus April 29-30, aimed to offer some insights. The event included the kind of writing techniques and “show don’t tell” advice you’d expect (and hope for) at such a gathering. But beyond hearing about the mechanics of narrative nonfiction, the 200-plus attendees also got ideas and advice on other parts of living the storytelling life. How do you sift through topics and dig into a massive undertaking? How do you carve out time to see a project through? What does it take to get published?

The weekend intensive offered thoughts from an array of magazine and book veterans, from Susan Orlean to Gay Talese, with a side of Hampton Sides and Ken Auletta. Dayton Duncan, who worked on Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” and “Baseball,” spoke for visual storytelling, while New York Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson represented daily news. Harvard’s own John Stauffer, who has written several narrative histories, bridged the worlds of academia and popular nonfiction. Isabel Wilkerson spearheaded the event in her role as director of BU’s narrative nonfiction program.

Gay Talese discussed his December New Yorker piece, in which the (then) 78-year-old reported on opera singer Marina Poplavskaya from three continents – a 21st-century global recasting of his legendary feature on Frank Sinatra.

He also shared his reservations about a particular kind of narrative reporting. As an example, he brought up the work of Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone contributing editor whose narrative on Gen. Stanley McChrystal contributed to McChrystal resigning his leadership position in Afghanistan. While accepting the piece as accurate, Talese differentiated Hastings’ style from his own. Suggesting that Hastings may have caught McChrystal’s team off-guard, Talese described how, in a similar situation, he would return to his subjects before filing a story and ask exactly what they meant. “I want to reflect what people mean, not what they say,” he explained. “That kind of journalism isn’t worth it.”

For those hoping to follow in these veterans’ footsteps or to blaze new trails, here are some tips culled from the weekend’s presenters:

Date before you marry. Talking about the importance of finding a project that both moves you and offers enough material, Susan Orlean described committing to stories that she later regretted choosing, and admitted to switching book topics mid-stream more than once. (She advised that taking this tack with publishers might not be conducive to a writing career.)

Isabel Wilkerson, discussing her book “The Warmth of Other Suns,” described interviewing more than 1,200 people before choosing the three central characters for her narrative. (For more on Wilkerson’s book, read our March interview with her.)

Give voice to the invisible and the dead. Dayton Duncan, who has written nine books in addition to his work with Ken Burns, addressed the creation of suspense and forward motion in “Out West: A Journey Through Lewis & Clark’s America.” Describing Lewis and Clark’s first loss and burial of an expedition member, Duncan noted that the first man they lost would also be the last. But to recreate how the trip felt to those on it, he let his readers agonize along with the characters in the book over whether and when the explorers might meet up with death again.

While Duncan focused on bringing the dead to life, Talese described the idea he had early in his career of reporting on the private lives of ordinary people. Aiming to treat these invisible characters with the complexity and significance that fiction accords everyday people, he became a self-described “master of the minor character.”

Rock the intro and the finale. When it comes to a book manuscript, Kate Medina, executive editorial director at Random House, described what she wants to see: “Go for something big, and write it the best you can. Write it in your natural voice.” Writers should strive for clear writing, clear thinking and a big, bold statement that’s backed up – a story that makes readers think or feel something they haven’t thought or felt before. Start with something riveting to draw readers in, she suggested, and pay attention to the very end. When readers finish the last page and put the book down, Medina wants them to think, “That’s the best book I’ve ever read.”

Live dangerously. Wilkerson talked about re-enacting the long drive one of her characters made from the deep South to California. Her subject’s trip had taken place during an era when finding a motel or hotel willing to let African-Americans stay was difficult. Wilkerson’s parents rode with her in the car. As the trip dragged on, Wilkerson became exhausted, and her parents grew more and more fearful. At one point, her parents said they would be more than happy to tell her what those years were like, but as far as re-enacting the trip with her, they wanted her to let them drive or let them out: “You must stop the car.”

Get a cave of some kind. Wilkerson talked about how she “went into the cave” on starting her book, entering the world of people who had lived the migration. Hampton Sides, author of “Hellhound on His Trail,” invoked the “pain cave” that he descends into when he begins writing. (This cave is apparently metaphorical, as he does his work at a local eatery that lets him run a tab.)

Talese, it turns out, had a real-world cave dug underneath his Manhattan brownstone to create a place to write where he would not be disturbed. This hideout has apparently been finished and polished in the years since it was first excavated (he recently wrote a tale for New York magazine on how he came by the rest of his digs), but having a bunker mentality about creating the space and time to work seems to be a requirement.

April 21 2011

15:28

March 09 2011

20:36

THE NEW YORKER GADDAFI COVER

A great illustration.

With a strong graphic message.

Brilliant!

February 18 2011

20:37

Lawrence Wright on Scientology, legal pads and creating a “universe of possible sources”

The New Yorker put the “long” in long-form this week with “The Apostate: Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology,” a piece by Lawrence Wright that weighs in at around 25,000 words. The article has generated a lot of buzz for its compelling storytelling as well as its subject matter: a week later the story still sits atop the magazine’s most popular and most emailed lists. In addition to his magazine work, Wright has a half-dozen books to his name. He won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2007 for “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” which was also awarded the Nieman Foundation’s J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize. In what passes for spare time, Wright plays (and blogs on) boogie woogie piano. We spoke by phone with him this week about his story. Here are excerpts from our discussion, in which he describes an eight-hour meeting with Scientology officials, his fondness for index cards and legal pads, and the benefits of getting paid by the word.

You wrote in your piece that you first sat down with Paul Haggis last March. How did you get to the point of sitting down with him? Where did the story come from?

I’ve been interested in writing about Scientology for quite a while. I’m always intrigued by various religious beliefs and what draws people to them. I had noticed that Haggis had dropped out of the church, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to write about the experience of being in Scientology through the eyes of a believer.

People have been doing great reporting on Scientology for a long time. What did you think or hope this piece would do that hadn’t been done already?

Most of the pieces that have been written in the past were really exposés. I didn’t see the need to expose Scientology so much as to understand it. Obviously it has an appeal, and it offers people something. That was what was missing and mysterious to me in all the previous reporting.

When you first started, did you have any idea that the piece would approach 25,000 words?

Well, I get paid by the word [laughs].

So it was on your mind at some point.

The New Yorker is one of the few places where you’re allowed to range, and that’s why it’s such a good venue for doing an article of this nature. It gives you enough room – although this was an extraordinary amount of room.

Have you written a piece this long for them before?

I think so. I had a two-part series for them in 1992 called “Remembering Satan” that became a book. I tend to specialize in longer pieces. I did a long piece on Jonestown and a long piece on teaching journalism in Saudi Arabia. I don’t actually know how many words each of those was, but they were long. Maybe this was the longest.

You’ve written shorter magazine pieces, long magazine pieces and several books as well. Do you take a different approach depending on what you’re writing? How do you think about putting a story together?

I don’t really have a different approach. When I get into it I already know, generally speaking, how much I want to write about it. I knew that Scientology had a lot of lore. I love to write about the lore and the culture of different belief systems, so I was prepared to take a deep breath and really dive into this.

The way I go about it is I assemble a list of names – usually the most obvious people at the beginning. I write their names on a legal pad, and when I get their telephone numbers or their email addresses, I just fill the little left-hand column on a legal pad. I write their telephone number in that margin, then when I interview them, I take a highlighter and mark them off.

And whenever I interview somebody, I always ask at the end of the interview “Who else should I talk to?” so I develop more contacts that I haven’t heard of. That way the roots go deeper into the soil, and I begin to populate the universe of possible sources.

So you’re sort of creating from this list. But when you start to write, how do you normally begin? Do you use outlines, index cards, or are you one of those people who just sit down and start writing?

I am an index card person. I never found a better way of organizing the material. I know it’s retro. Of course the cards are all on my computer as well, but I physically print them out and file them, because I find that first of all, the classification of the cards is a way of outlining the piece that I’m working on. In other words, I divide it up into areas of interest for me.

It’s a very intuitive process. I just find that out of all the interviews and all the reading that I do, I have to have some way of retrieving the information, and note cards have been, for me, the best way of doing that. If you were in my office, you would see many, many, many boxes of note cards.

Do you just keep your current project on hand?

I’m dying to get rid of the note cards from al-Qaida. They’re occupying way too much space. They’re still there, so I need to make room for my Scientology note cards.

So you see yourself doing more with this? Will this be a book?

I am going to write a book about it. It’s a very rich subject, and there’s a lot more to be said about what draws people into Scientology and also about the nature of religious belief.

You’ve been reporting and writing for 40 years now. Obviously, you always have the standard of truth to bear as a nonfiction writer, but can you recall another piece that you knew in advance would be as dissected and subject to potential legal action as this one?

No, this is unique in terms of the care we had to take in order to walk this very thorny legal path. You can see that the piece is beset with legal disclaimers, and we have innumerable legal letters from the Scientology lawyers and other people that figure into the story. All of those things had to be very carefully taken into account and gauged in terms of the liability that each word in the article might incur.

Did knowing in advance that there’s this extensive history of lawsuits make it any harder to write a good story?

It’s always hard to say things exactly. And this was a particular exercise, because it had this additional legal component. Fortunately, The New Yorker had a tremendous commitment to this story. We had a fact-checker on the story – I started the story in March, and in August, I turned in the first draft. The New Yorker had two checkers on it then, and then one of those checkers stayed on it full-time from August until we published it in February.

At the end, we had five checkers. Even the head of the fact-checking department pitched in a little bit. It was an extraordinary effort on the part of the magazine. Of course our lawyer read innumerable drafts of it. It was extremely carefully vetted. It was quite impressive to see the resources deployed in that way.

After 40 years, maybe you just don’t get intimidated, but did all that not in any way stymie or hamper your attempt to make a good story out of it? Did it make any difference at all before the fact checkers came in, when you were just starting to think about how to tell the story?

I feel like as long as you can write the truth, then having lawyers carefully reading the piece for any vulnerability is not really – let’s just say that I would want whatever I write to be accurate. Certainly, it’s challenging to be writing a piece that is going to be so carefully scrutinized, but I would like to think that was possible for all of my work to stand up to that kind of scrutiny. In that sense, I don’t think it was different.

The disputed war records make a wonderful ending to the piece. Without you having to say so directly, the evidence suggests that the mythology of the church has corrupted the facts reaching all the way back to before Hubbard even founded Scientology. When did you know you would close with that?

When they came to The New Yorker. It was an amazing scene. It was one of the most amazing scenes I’ve ever experienced as a writer. The chief spokesperson of Scientology, Tommy Davis, and his wife and four Scientology lawyers appeared with 47 volumes of supporting material to respond to our 971 fact-checking queries. I had been trying to interview Tommy Davis since I began the story, and he wouldn’t talk to me. Finally, I had my opportunity to talk to him.

But of course it’s in this audience of their delegation, plus me, our two checkers on the story at the time, the head of the checking department, my editor [Daniel Zalewski], our lawyer and David Remnick, who appeared in the room to welcome everyone then sat down and did not get up until eight hours later because it was such a riveting day.

I was wrung out at the end of it, but it was my one chance to have the opportunity to really talk to Tommy Davis and church officials and try to get as much information as I could. I wanted to make the most out of it. But the scene itself was quite striking, and I had the sense immediately that it would figure into the story.

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