Tag Archives: New York Times

Stomp out clichés and aim for ‘austerity of language’

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

If you feel under par, work your fingers to the bone, and know it’s time for a change, click on the Cliché Site to trade tired phrases for compelling images.

That was one of myriad tips from top nonfiction writers last weekend at Boston University’s annual narrative journalism conference.

Organized by BU journalism department writer-in-residence Mark Kramer, the conference drew some 400 writers and editors from around the world. They discussed everything from viral content to social justice reporting to humanizing even the worst criminals.

Kramer preached his well-known gospel of “austerity of language: elegant, taut” prose that convinces readers they’re in the hands of an engaging storyteller. “Go on a to be hunt,” he said. “Get rid of whens and as’s. Lose clichés and metaphors.”

Keynote speaker Jill Abramson, a former New York Times executive editor now teaching at Harvard, repeated the good writing mantra: “Show, don’t tell. Collect anecdotes and revealing detail.” She called Gay Talese’s 1966 classic “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” the epitome of the narrative genre.

Abramson had good news and bad news as journalism faces a “rapid riptide of change.” The good: long, ambitious reporting is in high demand. She singled out BuzzFeed’s “wonderful” criminal justice series and former Times colleague Jeff Gerth’s exposé of Hillary Clinton’s private emails as exemplars of excellent coverage delivered over new platforms. Gerth, a two-time Times Pulitzer winner now with ProPublica, co-wrote the March 27 article with Gawker reporter Sam Biddle.

The bad news, according to Abramson: worldwide legal threats to freedom of the press. She noted that a study of corruption in Russia under President Vladimir Putin hasn’t been published in Britain because of fears of legal action.

Abramson sees storytelling platforms consistently shifting, with platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram giving nonfiction writers new tools and outlets.

One of those is BuzzFeed, where Mark Schoofs, a Pulitzer winner at The Village Voice, now leads an investigative unit as the site augments viral content with some 130 domestic and foreign news staffers,

Schoofs said social justice reporting hasn’t changed much since Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell and others started muckraking powerful institutions more than 100 years ago. As ever, he said, it is based on “the desire to change, to expose a wrong, to have your journalism matter.”

He said these stories may start with “outrage,” but you have to skewer sacred cows if their assertions are incorrect. “You’re not in the tank for any one ideology or group. Test your assumptions versus whatever you see on the ground.”

He loves immersive participatory journalism and stories that have wrongdoing at their heart, calling David Barstow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Times series on Wal-Mart bribery one of the best in recent years.

Exposing wrongdoing? Fine. But why humanize evil-doers?

Beth Schwartzapfel examines the inner lives of rapists and murderers because “just calling someone a scumbag is lazy, way too easy. He’s a person” and understanding him can be a valuable way to examine what made him do it.

Schwartzapfel is a staff writer with the Marshall Project, a new nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers the criminal justice, system; she is also a frequent freelancer. She tries to get beyond obvious good guy/bad guy distinctions, asking what if Truman Capote’s groundbreaking “In Cold Blood” had ignored the killers and concentrated only on their victims.

Profiling a man who’s served more than three decades for a murder he committed as a teenager, she doesn’t gloss over what he did. She includes graphic descriptions of the crimes and always details the victim’s family’s grievous loss.

“Don’t give [inmates] a soapbox,” she said. “Being sympathetic is not being their advocate. Let readers come to their own conclusions” about whether they deserve parole. “Show how they’re human, not how they’ve been wronged. That’s up to the reader to decide. I tell them ‘I see it as my task to make you human.’”

As an example of a profile that goes far beyond the image of a stock villain, she praised Albert Samaha’s Village Voice profile of a New York City detective who framed innocent men to boost his conviction rate.

Some dismiss memoir as an unreliable narrator’s narcissistic ramble through the past. But in “Big Little Man,” Alex Tizon created a highly praised blend of history, memoir and social analysis.

“Many people dismiss memoir as easy, and a lot of the time memoir is just a cheaper form of storytelling — but it doesn’t have to be,” said Tizon, who won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting while at The Seattle Times. “Report the hell out of your own story,” he advised, having interviewed about 40 people for his book’s exploration of Asian-American masculinity.

To write a memoir, he said, “you have to risk being a fool unless you’re writing public relations. Include the painful parts. I put my siblings at a certain risk — what to leave out? I had to ask, ‘Could I live with this if a sister never spoke to me again?’ The truth is impossible, but my aim is to be as truthful as possible.”

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

Not so fast on the Globe and online corrections

What would a post about corrections be without more corrections? On Monday I wrote that The Boston Globe had finally started posting corrections on its website instead of simply appending them to the original articles (not that that’s not important too). By the end of the day, though, former Globe digital guy Joel Abrams had tweeted that, in fact, it was nothing new:

But wait! It turns out that though Monday wasn’t the first time the Globe had published a separate corrections item on its website, it still hasn’t managed to do so consistently. For instance, if you look at the print edition of March 12, you’ll find three corrections — but nothing if you go to the Today’s Paper section of BostonGlobe.com for the same date.

I can’t think of a newspaper that gets online corrections exactly right. For instance, The New York Times runs corrections on its website, but they don’t appear in its iOS apps. The print edition of The Washington Post today includes four corrections, but they don’t seem to be online.

It’s time for newspapers to start getting corrections correct.

The Globe corrects its online corrections practices

If I’m not mistaken, today marks the debut of a freestanding correction section on The Boston Globe’s website. The move is long overdue; nearly two years ago I wrote about the shortcomings of online corrections in both the Globe and The New York Times.

Though the Globe appends online corrections to the original articles, it had not up until now run them separately, as it does in the print edition. That was fine for archival purposes. But if you simply read the paper online every day, you had no way of knowing whether something had later been corrected.

In any event — kudos.

Correction: This is a whole lot more complicated than I had first thought. See my follow-up.

The Times goes easy on Bush’s support for the death penalty

Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush

Michael Paulson underplays Jeb Bush’s enthusiasm for the death penalty in a front-page New York Times story on Bush’s Catholicism. Paulson dwells on Bush’s opposition to abortion rights and to the comfort his adopted faith has brought him. For instance:

“It gives me a serenity, and allows me to think clearer,” Mr. Bush said as he exited the tile-roof church here on a recent Sunday, exchanging greetings and, with the ease of a longtime politician, acquiescing to the occasional photo. “It’s made me a better person.”

Paulson’s sole excursion into capital punishment comes in the sixth paragraph, and it is hedged with a “but”:

He differed from his church, significantly and openly, over capital punishment; the state executed 21 prisoners on his watch, the most under any Florida governor since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. But he has won praise from Catholic officials for his welcoming tone toward immigrants and his relatively centrist positions on education — two issues in which he is at odds with the right wing of his party.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out as the presidential campaign gears up. For years, leaders of the Catholic Church have excoriated pro-choice politicians while going easy on those who are pro-life but who also favor the death penalty. (Yes, I realize how strange that sounds.) Pope Francis is surely as pro-life as his predecessors. But he may also prove to be more expansive in his definition of what it means to be pro-life, which could create problems for Bush. For instance, last fall Francis called for the abolition of capital punishment and of life imprisonment as well, according to the Catholic News Service.

As for Paulson, an excellent religion reporter who is also a Boston Globe alumnus, I wish he had found space for more than 33 words in a 2,200-word article to explain exactly how far from the Catholic Church’s teachings Bush has deviated.

Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved. Some rights reserved.

Remembering David Carr

David Carr. Photo via Wikipedia.

David Carr. Photo via Wikipedia.

This morning I woke up to the awful news that New York Times media columnist David Carr has died at the age of 58.

Carr’s Monday column, “The Media Equation,” was a ritual — all of us who watch the media for a living would check out what Carr had to say, often on Sunday evenings, when his weekly missive would be posted ahead of the next day’s print edition. His fierce intelligence and passion for what’s good in journalism made him the leading media commentator of our time. He was also a master of Twitter, and his quirky feed will be missed nearly as much as his more substantial work.

I knew Carr slightly. I vaguely recall talking with him a few times back when he was at the Washington City Paper and I was writing for the Boston Phoenix. In 2010, I had the honor of sharing a stage with him at MIT. His magnum opus on the Chicago Tribune under Sam Zell (one of the finest pieces of media reporting I’ve seen) had just been published, and Carr was at his profane, funny best.

In December 2013, Boston University announced that Carr would be taking a high-profile role in its journalism department. I remember talking with the director of our journalism school at Northeastern, Steve Burgard, about what it meant for the perpetual rivalry between the two programs.

Now Steve and David are both gone, well before their time.

Reporting on national security in the age of Edward Snowden

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

WASHINGTON — As governments throughout the world try invasive methods to penetrate newsroom secrets, top journalists use no-tech methods: meeting sources outside microphone range, avoiding phone and email messages and keeping pencil — not electronic — notes.

“We’re going back to old-time shoe leather reporting,” said New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger. “We try not to leave a trace — with no electronic footprint.”

But he told a “Journalism After Snowden” conference at the Newseum last Thursday that while journalists can protect their own data and sources, they can’t control what hackers can do to intercept their electronic communications.

The conference was the last in a series exploring issues raised by Edward Snowden’s massive leaking of National Security Agency documents.

Sanger said the Times’ greatest concern is not the NSA but with protecting communications with staffers around the world, where surveillance can potentially obtain drafts of stories.

He and other speakers noted that the U.S. government has obtained employees’ records and that that the recent Jeffrey Sterling espionage conviction shows that prosecutions could succeed without forcing a reporter to testify.

In that case Times reporter James Risen fought a seven-year battle to protect confidential sources, but the government helped make its case by producing phone calls and email contacts between Risen and Sterling.

Times executive editor Dean Baquet and his Washington Post counterpart, Marty Baron, said they decide officials’ requests to withhold national security information on a case-by-case basis.

They said they won’t surprise officials by publishing potentially dangerous information but will give them a chance to make their case against publishing.

Baquet will hear them out and push them hard for specifics about how publication can harm national security. He said they have to prove that printing risks “life and limb.”

Baron said, “We don’t publish sources and methods. We try to balance national security concerns with the public interest. It comes down to our judgment.”

Both editors said the press should do more, not less, probing of national security issues.

Baquet sees more secrecy in national security than ever, saying for example that it’s “stunning” how little we know about drone warfare. “It’s an undeclared, undiscussed and uncovered issue around the world.”

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

Patricia Smith’s tale of poetic redemption

Patricia Smith reading at the Library of Congress. Photo by Slowking4. Click here for licensing information.

Patricia Smith reading at the Library of Congress. Photo by Slowking4. Click here for licensing information.

The New York Times today has a fascinating story about how former Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith has reinvented herself as an acclaimed poet. The end of Smith’s newspaper career was ugly, and reporter Rachel Swarns spares no details. But Smith was always a talented writer, and her tale of redemption is inspiring.