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January 12 2012


“Watching the detectives” at the New Yorker Festival

We were sad to miss the New Yorker Festival a ways back, but have finally had a chance to look at some videos from the event, and wanted to deliver a few highlights relevant to storytellers. There were a lot of tempting sessions – Atul Gawande! Janet Malcolm! David Remnick! – but given the number of people who highlighted David Grann’s work on their Longreads end-of-year lists, we took a cue from them and focused on his panel for this post.

Grann hosted a talk with a collection of investigative types – not investigative journalists but people whose careers require them to delve into other peoples’ business. (You can see a free preview of part of the session here). The panel included

Grann noted that he had assembled an unconventional combination of participants but swore some patterns would emerge. And sure enough, a lot of the things that were said about how to approach sleuthing in different fields are relevant to storytellers, even if those of us who aren’t calling out French SWAT teams to make high-security arrests or chasing down murderous mafiosi.

Schiff, when asked what drew her to the art of detection, quoted the adage that “all biography is high-class gossip.” She talked about sneaking from her desk at a publishing house to the New York Public Library on her lunch hour to look at material on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a project she orginally thought she would find someone else to write for the company. She had heard that one of the biographies, perhaps the best one, had been written by his mistress but published under a male pseudonym. Hoping to identify the mistress, she sat at a table with the various accounts piled around her. Eventually it dawned on her that the mystery biographer was the one who had avoided any discussion of his marriage. A lot of biography, concluded Schiff, “is reading the silences.”

Former detective Oldham addressed assessing information in a way that will surely seem familiar to many narrative journalists:

No matter what you’re presented with, half of it is unlikely to be germane to what you’re looking at or what you’re looking for. So you learn to dismiss what seem like perfectly good clues and concentrate on the clues that actually have some meaning.

Furthering the idea was art historian Kemp, who suggested that it’s easy to see what you want to see.

The key thing to me is not to believe your first idea too strongly. Always look for the thing which will erode it. Even if 10 things are good about it, at the 11th thing, you have to say, “If this doesn’t fit, then start again.”

That’s essential, just hard looking, just serious hard looking. That’s a very difficult thing. I was trained as a biologist. Once we were dissecting an animal, and the biology master said, “Let’s look for the gall bladder.” And he said, “How many people have found the gall bladder?” All the arms go up. “Funny thing: This animal doesn’t have one.” Looking is important.

Panelists mentioned peoples’ willingness to lie when questioned, but more than one member pointed out how sources typically viewed as more reliable have their own problems. Grann quoted Schiff as explaining how “documents can be as deceptive as people.” Former CIA agent Baer said that even using what seemed like crystal-clear phone intercepts had backfired, explaining how he once heard a target call for a delivery, giving his hotel room number and verifying that he would be there for a set period of time. After mobilizing the French police to do a midday hotel raid to capture the suspect, the agents crashed through the windows of the room number he had given, only to startle an innocent Spanish family eating lunch.

Kemp addressed sourcing by talking about the process for evaluating a work of art and its provenance:

The job I do is rather simple. We say, What is the source? What is the quality of the source? Is it trustworthy? … You cut back to the most reliable possible sources you can find. And then you assume that the most likely explanation is true. (If) that one breaks down, you go on to the next most likely one.

On whether misinformation is a more serious matter today, digital sources took some heat and then Schiff stepped up to defend the Internet, tracing the role of disinformation going back to Benjamin Franklin and the Revolutionary era (another subject she has treated).

Even with an established set of facts, Schiff noted, it’s not as if the truth comes with a bow. Another biographer had access to the very same material she did – personal letters – and drew very different conclusions from them. “I do believe that every biographer is like a child who impudently connects the dots a little bit differently,” she said, “and that your own personality will somewhat come into play.”

Even though journalists are rarely cast in the role of experts and are more likely to investigate CIA activities than to participate in them, there’s more than one profession from which we can cadge techniques, turning relentless sleuthing into great stories.

December 07 2011


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.


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.


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.

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