Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Big Picture

In my photojournalism discussion last week I mentioned the Boston Globe's great Big Picture site. Thinking visually and noticing details can be a good way to create compelling narrative writing. Check out these photos of voting in Afghanistan for examples of pictures that suggest narrative details.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Toxic Waters Series

And as promised, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner for public service journalism. I don't have a lot to say about it except that it's great. Check it out ...

Capote vs. Brando

One of the classic match-ups — for any source — would be Truman Capote.

In this 1960s interview with Marlon Brandon in a hotel room and during dinner in Tokyo, the true-to-form Capote attempted to take his normally loquacious approach to his interviews. Brando fought back, though. If Capote tried to get a word in edgewise; he countered. On it went, interviewer and subject fighting for control; trying to outdo each other. For someone (Brando) who wanted to get HIS point across, Capote's technique worked. If Capote's mother was a drunk; Brando's was MORE of a drunk AND his father beat him. If Capote had a funny story; Brando's was funnier. For every intellectual statement Capote made, Brando was even more profound.

With a strong character like this, it might be good to provoke. While it's certainly not my style to match story for story, there's something to it. I find myself comparing my experiences with the subject I'm interviewing. When they tell me they acted in a certain way, I try to vocalize what I would have done. Sometimes this advances the question without ever putting it as such.

Just some food for thought. A great profile to read if anyone's interested ...

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Justin Heckert's response

This is Justin Heckert's response to my post, "Being bold," found below. ~AA

So, first, I went up to Washington with an assignment to write about Jason Campbell. My editor suggested to just write the story in reverse. That is, he had already thought about that as an interesting way to write about the QB before I got the assignment, and I think, actually, that he gave it to me because I like to "break the rules" or "stretch the boundaries", like you said. Which I honestly didn't end up doing very much in either of these stories.

My initial reaction was that this device had already been done a couple months before, in Chris Jones' National Magazine Award-winning story "The Things That Carried Him." But then I thought--okay, that was an uber-serious story, and this would probably be a light-hearted piece, completely different, not ripping him off--so I was cool with the idea. I think my editor had a very good explanation of why they wanted me to do it this way; he said that he could envision the story ending at the very moment Jason picked up a football, which was kind of an important moment to think about, even before I knew anything about him. In my mind, I was like: Yeah, turns out, that was probably a really important moment in his life. I wonder if anyone in his family (though however banal that moment might've been back then) remembers it.

Since it was backwards, I had to pick a point to start from and go in reverse. I had, like, no idea what that would be, even when I was up there for the first couple days. I just started talking to guys in the locker room, asking them about Jason. Couple of the Redskins players mentioned that touchdown pass in the Saints game, and so I went on YouTube and found there was a highlight video of just that moment--so I thought, well, that's a pretty great play, maybe his best in the NFL (according to some of his teammates) so I decided it was a good place to start. So then I asked everyone about that moment. Got it good and vivid in my mind, even if it was only going to be a paragraph. Then, I decided that the story was essentially going to be about a series of "moments" in his life; that it had to be, if I started with a moment, that I had to go back to another, then back to another, almost like hopping backwards across lily pads on the water.

So ... I set about trying to find a bunch of those "moments". Called coaches past, asked them for vivid memories, teammates, his family, friends, then asked him about all this stuff. So, in the end, I could write pretty thoroughly about not so much his actual life, but very specific moments in his life, which wasn't part of the original assignment but it's just how the assignment ("write this backwards") materialized on the page.

For the second story, the only assignment was to "follow coach Curry around all day" on the very first day he was the coach of the program, reporting to his temporary office. The only thing I did was simply try to write down as many details as possible, because I knew immediately that it would be a story about specific and minute detail. Everything he did that morning/afternoon was the first thing anyone ever did in regards to the football program. Like getting a parking space; getting a cup of coffee; using the bathroom (didn't make it into the story); getting a student card; tying his tie, the first one he ever wore as coach; his socks, the first desk he sat in; all the little stuff that I just wore my hand out by scribbling into a notebook. I always do that, never knowing if I'll need it, but always wanting to have it. Colors of the walls, cracks on the walls, is the table polished, is the air conditioning on, do his shoes squeak, the temperature, the little things. I wrote a boxing story once about Evander Holyfield in which I watched the ants crawl from the doorway onto one of the punching bags and wondered where they could possibly be going, and kind of wrote that into the story ... so, I guess, I took a billion little details of his first day, and when I got home I just went back and picked the most interesting ones ("Everything is a first" was the first sentence of one of the sections) and it was almost as simple as just delivering them from the notebook page to the computer page, and then the story was done. Actually, these two pieces--I probably stepped back and got out of the way of myself more than I ever have for two stories. For better or worse. But, I think, they still have a "voice"; like, you can kinda tell I wrote them.

Highlights from this Sunday's Times (9/20/09)

Carl Jung. (Henri Cartier-Bresson)

- Sara Corbett on the drama surrounding a wild book Carl Jung wrote a century ago but will only be published this year
- Lizette Alvarez on the fate of an envelope an American soldier found tucked in the shirt of a dead Japanese soldier on Iwo Jima
- Henry Alford on people obsessed with Wagner's "Ring" opera cycle

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Attribution: Reader's friend, writer's foe?

As journalists, we read critically. We want to know how a reporter got those minute details or that compelling quote. But are readers all that different? Do they just assume that whatever is written in an article is fact and never question where the reporter got it from? I doubt it.

The challenge for journalists is figuring out how we provide enough transparency to ensure that our audience trusts us without resulting to bulky, confusing attributions and explanations that take away from our narratives. Andrea Lorenz, a Mizzou grad, explored this issue in "When You Weren't There: How Reporters Recreate Scenes for Narrative," published in River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative. (You'll have to enter your Mizzou username and ID for free access to this journal and article. Thanks to Dr. Berkley Hudson for sharing this with his Literature of Journalism class.)

I was surprised to hear the lengths to which reporters went to confirm the details of the scenes they were recreating. Tom French had a bird specialist listen to a recording from a funeral service before he wrote that the people attending the service could "hear a sparrow chirping." Others used floor plans, medical records and doctors' notes, etc. Eric Adler of the Kansas City Star spoke with every girl who tried out for a cheerleading squad and the coach to confirm the details he included in a story about an overweight cheerleader.

Of course, readers were never told any of this, and including these reporting procedures in the narrative would have been distracting. So what can journalists do to build readers' trust in their narrative accounts? The Web has certainly provided an opportunity for reporters to include background on their reporting. Not only would this help readers, but it would also help young reporters.

Once, I editing a feature at Vox and couldn't find any notes from the reporter that supported her lead. I assumed she had just forgotten to include them. I called a family member of the person being described, and he confirmed the facts. However, he mentioned that they were a little exaggerated, but he didn't want to upset the writer by having her rewrite it. When I spoke to the reporter, I asked her if she had witnessed this opening scenes. She hadn't. I asked if someone had recounted this opening scene to her. No one had. She had "recreated" this scene based on scraps of information told to her by this person's family members and based on her experience observing her grandfather who was suffering from the same illness as the person she described. She called it recreating a scene, said reporters did it all the time and argued with me that it wasn't unethical, even though the scene, exactly how she had described it, had probably never happened. (Sorry for being so vague, but I don't want to out this reporter.)

As young reporters we want to use the fancy, attention-getting techniques of veterans but sometimes fall short of knowing how much legwork goes into it. Apparently, even this source didn't understand that just because a story sounds good or maybe even representative, the facts must be accurate. We can't describe something that never really happened.

Lorenz provides several helpful lists:
  • Common attributes that ensure accuracy: access, source cooperation, trust between reporter and source and a harmony of source accounts. "Any variation of the four attributes resulted in an interrupted narrative, unless the writers found tools to smooth the story."
  • Roy Peter Clarks' test that reporters should put stories through before publication: Have I checked it out enough to have confidence in the material?, Will the truth of this story stand up against the toughest prosecutorial editing?, What do we have to tell readers about what we know and how we know it to give the story credibility in their eyes?
  • Three reasons for shift to greater transparency: Scandal fatigue, technology (more space for reporting notes) and Pulitzer envy (Clark describes this as the "reluctance in recent years for juries to give awards to stories that they're not really sure about.")

Being bold

I offer two Justin Heckert pieces to talk about manipulation of time in structure. Heckert’s works, “Reversing Field” and “The Coach Will See You Now,” use timestamps in contrasting ways to showcase protagonist growth and to develop theme.

I enjoyed the way Heckert approached “Reversing Field.” Instead of writing a traditional linear structure, Heckert begins with present action and works backward. I would be interested to hear why Heckert chose the strategy. Was it a personal decision? An editor’s? Did the protagonist's development make it possible? If you are familiar with Heckert’s work at ESPN The Magazine, Atlanta Magazine or the Columbia Missourian, you know that he has been more than willing to stretch the craft’s boundaries either through a piece’s structure or his figurative language. In comparison, “The Coach Will See You Now,” is structured in a linear way, but Heckert has reported it so well that the protagonist’s world seemingly leaps to life.

I would be interested to hear Heckert’s immersion-reporting techniques. What details are important to him? What are “defining” scenes to him? Obviously, I am early in my development, but I hope a decade from now I can say I broke "rules" for experimentation’s sake because I was brave enough to do so. Don’t we all want to grow?

Such “bravery,” if we can even call it that, has a lot to do with voice development. For the longest time, I was fascinated with the subject. I considered the topic cosmic. I asked questions such as, What did a writer read to make him or her write the way they do now? I thought voice was the product of a person’s life experiences and that pool of trials, tribulations and joys revealed itself as a window into a writer’s past with each piece that tumbled from his or her fingertips.

Well, I can see that I was over-thinking the topic – as I tend to do – but there remains a glimmer of truth in my immaturity. As young writers, we need to familiarize ourselves with bold examples. We need to form a curiosity about what makes certain writers “different” and why they are effective. In the end, a work's quality is subjective because, after all, it is art. But there remains no substitute for sound reporting, imagination and a willingness to be bold.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Learning From Munadi

Sultan M. Munadi. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

On Saturday, Sept. 4, Sultan M. Munadi, an Afghan reporter and translator, and New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell were reporting from Afghanistan on a NATO bombing when the two were kidnapped by the Taliban.

Their captors took them here and there around the country for days. By Wednesday, Sept. 9, the plan was to move them into Pakistan.

But the plan was not executed. Before dawn Wednesday, British forces attempted to rescue Farrell and Munadi, who were at that time in a safe house. (Farrell has British and Irish citizenship.)

British aircraft appeared. The reporters and their captors ran out of the house and through surrounding fields. The captors ran elsewhere, and the reporters found themselves in "a long, narrrow room devoid of anything but walls and matting, which felt like a death trap," Farrell would say later, for a Sept. 10 New York Times article.

Times reporter Eric Schmitt carefully describes what happened next:
The two men waited a bit, then made their way out of the room into a courtyard. The [sic] lost eac other in the darkness for a moment, before linking back up. With Mr. Munadi leading, they scuttled along a narrow ledge along the outer wall of the compound. "We could see nothing more than a few feet in front of us," Mr. Farrell said. "We had no idea who was where, and there were bullets flying through the air."

After crouching and running for some 60 feet, the two men got to a corner. Mr. Munadi was about two feet ahead of Mr. Farrell, and walked out into the clearing saying in an accent, "Journaliste, journaliste." It was not clear whether he was assuring commandos that he was not a Talib, or assuring the Taliban that he was not with the commandos. There was a hail of bullets — unclear whether from friend or foe — and Mr. Munadi fell.

Mr. Farrell said he reared back from the gunfire and dived into a ditch. He waited a couple of minutes until he was clear which direction the British voices were coming from, then shouted, "British hostage! British hostage!" A few seconds later with hands raised high, he walked to the British troops and safety.
Later in the article, Schmitt writes that Farrell blamed himself for Munadi's death and quotes Farrell as saying, about Munadi, "He was trying to protect me up to the last minute. ... he moved out in front of me."

Farrell also said of Munadi, "He was three seconds away from safety. I thought we were safe. He just walked into a hail of bullets."

I read these words and cried. How dedicated to his work Munadi was! He sacrificed his life to save his fellow reporter.

In an article accompanying Schmitt's, David Rohde, a Times reporter who had been kidnapped by the Taliban but had managed to escape, writes that Munadi chose to leave the paper's Kabul bureau to establish a public service radio station. This, Rohde writes, was not "the easy path" — it was "a financially risky venture," and it was not "a stable, comparatively well-paid job for an Afghan," as the bureau gig was.

But Munadi did it anyway, because, Rohde writes, "he believed independent Afghan media were vital to stabilizing his country."

In other words, he was selfless. He thought little about his own personal well-being; he thought of others first. These characteristics, I believe, make him stand out as a reporter and, perhaps more importantly, as a person.

Please note that I am not trying to suggest that my fellow reporters and I should always be willing to give up our lives for the sake of journalism. Rather, I am trying to encourage avoidance of the opposite extreme: constant selfishness.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pearls Before Breakfast

Here's one I distributed last spring, but I'm not sure if we ever got to it. It's called "Pearls Before Breakfast" by Gene Weingarten ... 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner for feature writing.

Would you stop during your morning commute to witness musical greatness? I'd like to think I would, but I'm not so sure ... especially with this busy semester.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Highlights from this Sunday's Times (9/13/09)

Mohammad Boota. (Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times)

- Kirk Semple on Mohammad Boota, whose early-morning street-side drumming in Brooklyn prods Muslims to get up on time to eat before sunrise, when they begin fasting until sunset for Ramadan
- Louise Story and Landon Thomas Jr. on where people who were once at the top of Lehman are now

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Horizon

A series from The Washington Post gives me hope that well-financed, ambitious journalism still has a place today. The Post’s series, “Half a Tank: Along Recession Road,” is a fascinating quilt of vignettes and photography that helps to humanize the nation’s worst recession since World War II.

Some say this caliber of journalism is not possible anymore. Critics say newsrooms’ tempered vision prevents such projects from becoming reality; in this uncertain age, newsrooms would rather “do more with less." Sadly, I venture to guess the pessimists – sometimes, I admit, I am one – are occasionally right. Media companies, instead of taking a collective first step into the New Era, act as lemmings. As a result, they are sometimes plagued with group-think, hesitation and inaction. Meantime, the industry continues to decay. When will it be too late? Is it already? (I sure hope not.)

Kudos to editors at The Post for finding some light in the fog. No doubt this was an expensive undertaking. And, to be fair, perhaps only a national publication such as The Post would be able to finance it. But I present this piece not as an isolated incident but as a representation of what journalism could be.

We are entering a journalistic golden age. For those who are brave enough to innovate, the next decade will offer unprecedented opportunity. I picture a day when video, photography, text, social networking and Web presentation will complement one another to tell compelling narratives. Newspapers will die, but what follows will offer more freedom. Who would not want to be part of the renaissance?

It will take time. There will be a difficult learning curve. But for those who dare to dream, the horizon offers limitless potential.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Highlights from this Sunday's Times (9/6/09)

David and Harry Zinstein take the B train to work. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

- Alexis Mainland on the things people read in New York City subway trains
- Rob Kenner, a longtime editor and reggae columnist at Vibe magazine, on the Jamaican reggae producer Wycliffe Johnson
- John Branch on the process of making logistical arrangements for matches at the U.S. Open

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Place as power

On the college football season’s opening morning, I thought I would introduce a poignant piece that uses the sport as a lens through which to investigate place and its ability to forge lives. Brady McCollough’s “Ohio steel town molded three Big 12 coaches” is a wonderful example of how setting can be used to develop character and impact readers.

This is more than a sports story. It includes themes of human growth, community decay and the possibility of resurrection. Whenever I think back to some of my favorite narrative pieces, I realize that they stride beyond the nut graf, forcing readers to consider societal struggles. Authors accomplish this by including action, introducing conflict, suggesting resolution (if applicable) and investigating larger human themes.

Place can serve as character. This is what makes narrative journalism so fascinating to me. It is a difficult -- but much more rewarding -- style. Through immersion reporting, an author makes an environment breathe. The writer can and must include the sounds, smells and scenes that touch his or her conscience during the reporting process.

Consider McCollough’s final scene:

As the team gets ready for a scrimmage last week, pounding around their new domain, Ron brings a poster into the locker room. It’s a rendering of a $1 million wellness center for Mooney, a vision that hasn’t even been announced.

“What’s that?” one of the players asks.

Ron looks beat up. There’s a fresh red scar under his right eye from a painting mishap — he cut his cheek on a piece of wood — and blotches of paint on the back of his calves. What’s that? It better be a future.

I love the “fresh red scar under his right eye.” I love the “blotches of paint on the back of his calves.” I love how McCollough uses seemingly frivolous detail to the untrained eye to convey hope amid struggle. His piece packs a closing punch.

Too often, we as writers and readers become distracted and settle for surface-level analysis. We live in a society that rewards our DSL lives. Take a moment. Slow down. Immerse yourself in place's power within narrative.