What “good old days”?
None that David Carr wants to remember. He says new technology’s ability for instant research, compelling graphics and dramatic video give writers more tools than ever to attract readers.
Carr, The New York Times media writer featured at last weekend’s narrative journalism conference, said research shows people want “big, glorious stories” that display well on the “endless scroll” of ad-free devices like iPhones.
He told some 400 news staffers, authors and freelancers at Boston University College of Communication’s annual conference of his delight in “absence of friction” in getting a story from idea to audience. An example: his instant and editor-free reaction to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death.
Carr does see a downside of new information technology: writers can stay at their desks and not get out to do shoe-leather reporting.
Carr and another featured speaker, Jacqui Banaszynski, agreed that journalists need compassion. Carr said: “Don’t hide behind your notebook. Don’t hide behind some robot notion of what a journalist is.” Banaszynski said: “Don’t be afraid to care.”
Banaszynski, a University of Missouri journalism professor who won a Pulitzer Prize for her St. Paul Pioneer Press series on AIDS in the heartland, said a writer’s first task is “to make the reader see someone else’s world — not yours.”
New York Times columnist Dan Barry joined many speakers in advising writers how to “seduce” readers into keeping on with a story.
One of his tricks is suspense: stopping the action at a moment of high tension, which he did while telling about a baby in a burning building.
He said only about 10 percent of the massive amount of information he gathers makes it into print but that all that material gives him a “sense of authority” when he writes.
David Finkel delights in “being in a place that mattered,” which he was during the 2007 “surge strategy” in Iraq. The Washington Post national enterprise editor and Pulitzer Prize winner said he started thinking of what became “The Good Soldiers,” his account of an infantry unit’s 15-month deployment, not as a story but a question: What happens to young men in war?
He gained troops’ trust, he said, because “I didn’t pop in and out, I stayed and stayed. I wasn’t in their way.”
Such immersion journalism raises many ethical questions, he noted. For a theoretical example, he cited his obligation to the truth if a soldier who saved his life later kills a civilian.
He repeated a dilemma he has discussed at length, over whether to include a gruesome detail about a dying soldier. Would it offend the soldier’s parents?
Mark Kramer, conference organizer and Boston University journalism department writer-in-residence, reiterated his tips: short sentences, active verbs, few adjectives, find the fulcrum character or moment, find the “doer”: Who’s doing what to whom?
Suketu Mehta, author of the much-lauded “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found”and a New York University journalism professor, echoed Kramer’s point about brevity, saying he trimmed his Indian prose flourishes by studying Hemingway.
As have many nonfiction experts, he urged journalists to read poetry. “Nobody,” he said, “knows about economy as much as poets.”
Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.