Northeastern’s communications folks interviewed me about Mitt Romney’s touchy relationship with the media, and what both his campaign and the traveling press corps should do to make it better.
There may be more to say later, but I want to offer a few quick thoughts on Mayor Tom Menino’s declaration that he intends to keep Chick-fil-A out of Boston because of the company president’s opposition to same-sex marriage, as reported by Greg Turner of the Boston Herald.
Chick-fil-A has long been at odds with the LGBT community. But things got a lot worse this week, when company president Dan Cathy said, according to the Washington Post, that “we’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.”
That brought this response from Menino: “Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston. You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population. We’re an open city, we’re a city that’s at the forefront of inclusion.”
My gut reaction is that Menino is wrong. It seems to me that there wouldn’t be any end to this if government officials decided to approve or reject business licenses on the basis of their executives’ religious or political beliefs. There are First Amendment issues at stake as well. Can’t the head of a company say what he thinks without risking the wrath of the government?
Starbucks, as you no doubt know, has earned a lot of praise for its support of gay civil rights. There are plenty of municipalities out there whose officials might be tempted to deny Starbucks the right to operate inside their borders. And they could point to Menino for support.
Earlier this year my employer, Northeastern University, disinvited Chick-fil-A from opening in the student center after a number of people protested. I was among those who signed an online petition asking to keep Chick-fil-A off campus. But I see a huge difference between voluntarily inviting a business to operate on your private property, as would have been the case at Northeastern, and acting to keep a business off someone else’s private property, as Menino proposes to do.
Chick-fil-A has a serious issue on its hands, and it may well have to do some damage control that goes beyond the cosmetic. The San Jose Mercury News reports that residents in Mountain View, Calif., want to keep the chain out of their community. And we can expect to see a lot more of that.
Menino actually missed his best argument for keeping Chick-fil-A out. Restaurant executives apparently want to open in a tourist-heavy area along the Freedom Trail. If I were doling out food licenses in Boston, I would be very reluctant to hand over such a prime location to a business that is closed on Sundays.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Please have a look at my students’ final projects in Reinventing the News. Students wrote about a digital-media project of his or her choosing, took photos, shot video and plotted the location of their story on a Google map. It’s always great to see what they’ll come up with for stories and what approach they’ll take.
Maneuvering around the embedded map is difficult, so click here for an easier-to-navigate version.
Wu Nan, a Chinese journalist who’s spending the academic year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, compares investigative reporting in China to “playing a video game” — negotiating the system is like finding your way through a maze, and it takes “wisdom and courage” to avoid the obstacles that keep popping up.
“On the other hand,” she told Northeastern students on Thursday, “it’s very addictive.”
Wu showed a video report she produced on black-lung disease suffered by Chinese coal miners, and discussed stories ranging from the outbreak of SARS to a train crash in Shanghai last summer in which a microblogger pushed government authorities to step up their lifesaving efforts.
“They had to admit they’d made a mistake,” she said.
Wu also said the sheer size of the Chinese Internet — 420 million Internet users, 270 million mobile phone users and 250 million users of Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter — gives her hope that the government will limit its efforts at censorship. The half-dozen or so largest Internet companies are one-fourth the market value of Apple, she said, and the government is dependent on the tax revenue they generate.
Those remarks were accompanied by a PowerPoint slide that was optimistically titled “Online Media: Too Large to Control.”
Wu earned a master’s degree in journalism at the University of California in Berkeley, and also spent three years as a news assistant in the Boston Globe’s Beijing bureau.
Asked about the difference between reporting for the Chinese media and for the Chinese edition of the Wall Street Journal, where she has also worked, she responded that in China, reporters always lead with policy, whereas at the Journal, the rule is to lead with an anecdote. But, she said, “the essence of journalism is the same.”
By Bill Kirtz
As media analysts dissect the latest example of fabrication presented as fact, top narrative writers agree that nothing — however creative the writing process — can be made up.
Their comments came at last weekend’s Narrative Arc conference hosted by Boston University’s School of Journalism and co-sponsored by the Poynter Institute.
Conference organizer and BU journalism professor Mark Kramer, author of several non-fiction books and editor of “Telling True Stories,” said that as narrative journalism has developed into a genre, standards have gotten tighter. His often-repeated rules: make nothing up, no “tweaking” time sequences and be straight with sources.
When memoirists and others violate these standards, he added, they hurt the credibility of all non-fiction practitioners.
“An accumulation of bad examples has moved me from skepticism to cynicism about memoirs,” said Roy Peter Clark, a Poynter senior scholar and prominent writing coach and author. He and other speakers said non-fiction writers should spell out their techniques at the outset.
“Creative non-fiction is not a license to steal,” said Mitchell Zukoff, a BU journalism professor whose most recent book is “Lost in Shangri-La.” “Anything between quotes has to be what someone actually said.”
Zukoff acknowledges that in probing into long-past events, there are things you simply can’t know for certain. But you can describe a centuries-old figure by writing something like “paintings of the time show him with thick, wavy hair.”
Adam Hochschild, whose most book of historical non-fiction is “To End All Wars,” will reconstruct events but insists that everything “has to be true.” To bring the past to life, he focuses on scenes. “I try to think like a filmmaker. Where do I put my camera?”
Instead of interviewing someone, Hochschild advises reporters to follow them around and see how they interact with others.
Tom French, a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer and Poynter writing fellow, made a similar point. Before you start — and even on deadline — think about whose experience is most important. Figure out which character in your story has the most at stake. In a story about a proposed ban on lap-dancing, for example, a St. Petersburg Times reporter accompanied the dancers to the hearing. Rather than simply quoting politicians, they got such detail as body glitter and the dancers on city council chairs.
“Open strong and build to better,” French urged. Contrary to standard beliefs, he said the lede is the second most important part of a story. The ending is the most important. So he said a reporter should ask herself: what do you want the reader to remember most?
French said stories can come alive when they shift between opposites: in an Occupy story, alternating a protester and a shop owner’s points of view; long and short sentences, external and internal action.
How to spark such vivid writing? Jan Winburn, a well-known newspaper editor and writing coach now senior editor for enterprise at CNN.com, said reporters need editors with “infectious enthusiasm” who will encourage them with “tell me more” comments. She said editors should be good listeners, letting writers test ideas by saying them out loud.
“Stay surprisable,” she said. “You want the writer to find out what the story is, not what you think the story is.”
As Winburn helps bring long-form storytelling to a website known for breaking news, two multimedia editors detailed their experience blending narrative and visual elements.
Christian Science Monitor senior editor Clara Germani supervised an award-winning project that followed a Congolese third-grader and his family for a school year in Atlanta.
The series, which has 33 multi-media elements, won acclaim. But Germani said, “Multi-media on the Web doesn’t pay.” Reporter Mary Wiltenburg got a small monthly stipend and received two Pulitzer Center grants to go to Tanzania, while Germani had to handle the project besides her regular job supervising in-depth stories.
Amy O’Leary, a reporter in the “How We Live” group at the New York Times, has found that throwing too many elements into a series can produce confusion. She said “The Debt Trap” lost the audience because the story was too complex for the format, she said.
The Times had better results with “Flipped.” Showing how private equity dealmakers win while their companies lose, The Times implanted a narrative question early in the piece to make viewers and readers curious. “We kept it simple, limited choices and gave people the incentive to keep on,” O’Leary said.
Surveying the multi-media universe, Dean Starkman wrote a much-discussed Columbia Journalism Review article urging publishers to give staffers the time and space to do what he considers journalism’s core duty, public interest reporting.
In a keynote talk at the BU conference, Starkman, part of a Pulitzer-winning investigative reporting team and managing editor of CJR’s business press section, described “a hole in the peer-produced [amateurs doing professional work] model for news: there’s no way to produce great stories.”
To Starkman, authorship is needed: In his book “Here Comes Everybody,” New York University professor and prominent new media commentator Clay Shirky sees great promise in crowdsourcing and collaborative media efforts. But Starkman notes that “Here Comes Everybody” wasn’t written by everybody but by one person.
Saying the muckrakers of a century ago should still challenge us, Starkman believes their “towering ambition is missing today. We have to hang on to [their] values: going after huge targets without fear.”
Starkman doesn’t see the need for the journalism industry to make a stark choice between professional reporting for many and netcitizens providing information for each other.
“The two cultures have to come together, and if they do there’s amazing potential,” he said.
Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston.
Photos © 1978, 2012 by Barbara Kennedy
One afternoon in late 1978, my future wife, Barbara Tanski, and I were ushered into a dark, comfortable room in the Parkman House, a city-owned mansion on Beacon Hill. I was a senior at Northeastern University, and I was there to interview Mayor Kevin White for the Cauldron, the school yearbook. Barbara took the photos.
As you have no doubt heard, White died on Friday night at the age of 82. The must-read is Brian Mooney’s in-depth obituary for the Boston Globe. Also outstanding is this Hub Blog post by Jay Fitzgerald, who observes that White was the best of five consecutive good mayors.
In re-reading my Cauldron piece, I’m struck by how young White was. Just 49 years old at the time of our interview, he would walk away from public life at 53, and was rarely heard from again.
My story has a few cringeworthy moments, including some structural flaws I warn my students about. I’ve fixed a few typos. Other than that, here it is, exactly as it appeared in the 1979 Cauldron.
THIS IS THE CITY:
The Mayor talks about his city … where it is
today and where it’ll be tomorrow
Kevin H. White sat down on a couch, balanced himself on the edge and pondered the comeback his city has made during the past five years.
“I think that a city is no different than a single individual inside of it,” he said, pausing every few words for emphasis. “You can just be depressed for so long. And there are periods in which you get hysterical and upset.”
As the 49-year-old mayor munched on cheese and crackers in the historic Parkman House on Beacon Hill, waiting for supper, he tried to explain the sense of optimism he sees infesting Boston today.
“I think that, probably, when you add in all of Vietnam, all the problems of Watergate, throw in busing — those are abnormal problems ladened on the problems of crime and taxes and those things that are normal. Then it does get you down.
“I think city people are particularly resilient and vibrant, and they can take the normal problems,” White said. “It was the abnormal problems thrown on top of them that depressed them, that gave them a sense of malaise and despondency I think hung on the town as you came in in ’74.”
It was a hot, muggy day in late September 1974 when the Class of 1979 arrived at Northeastern. Many students were seeing the city for the first time and had no idea what to expect.
The Boston Globe checks in with Forbes to find out how the magazine’s annual rankings could penalize Northeastern University for having a low four-year graduation rate given that it is a five-year school. And a magazine editor actually defends the methodology, saying, well, gee, we’ve got to base our rankings on something.
We also learn that 27.5 percent of the rankings are based on student satisfaction, “determined primarily by feedback on RateMyProfessors.com.” Wow. Without getting into the pros and cons of RateMyProfessors, let me just observe that the sample size for most instructors is so low that the data are entirely anecdotal.
I really should be working, but I can’t let this pass. Forbes has posted its rankings of colleges and universities, and Northeastern comes in at a very low 534th.
Dig a little deeper, as one of my former students, @rachelsarahsays, did, and you’ll see that one of the reasons for the poor ranking is Northeastern’s four-year graduation rate — zero percent.
Uh, Northeastern is a five-year school. Good work, Forbes! Or, as @rachelsarahsays puts it, “such horrific journalism.” Indeed.