Susan Orlean and Lydia Davis, masters of the unexpected

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Two masters of the unexpected gave writing fans a treat at Harvard talks Wednesday.

Susan Orlean’s takes on everything from Queens supermarkets to show dogs recall the protean talents of fellow New Yorker stars Joseph Mitchell, Calvin Trillin, and A.J. Liebling. Her technique: stay in the background and sop up knowledge.

Mordant minimalist Lydia Davis’s essay/story/poetic mélanges hit with maximum impact. She lets her work take it where it will.


In Bulgaria, some tennis balls are like dumplings.

All languages are welcome on Bangkok’s Khao San Road, including Drunkard.

If I were a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Truesdale.

As one fan put it Wednesday, those Susan Orlean leads dare you not to keep reading. Aware that her stories about chickens, orchids, or homing pigeons aren’t exactly breaking news, she says she always fights the question “Why would anyone care about this?”

“I have to make the reader share some sense of curiosity,” she said. “It’s like a strip tease, a come-hither look,” making the reader keep reading because they don’t quite understand it. I try to be engaging, not bewildering.”

Orlean honed her talent and productivity (including nine books, from which two hit films – Blue Crush and Adaptation emerged) in the 1980s at the Boston Phoenix, which she’s credited for teaching her to be enterprising and to search for unusual story ideas.

Orlean has since written nine books, from which two hit films emerged—Blue Crush and Adaptation. She’s now finishing a book about libraries, which tries to solve the 30-year-old mystery of who set fire to the Los Angeles Public Library.

She’ll often sit around quietly—at a trailer park or gospel tour—soaking up information.

Unlike most reporters, she profiles people who haven’t been interviewed and have nothing to gain by talking to her. She said that her profiles aren’t “neat,” like the “trend” stories she dislikes because they start with an editor’s conclusion of what’s “true” and plug in examples to support that.

“Often stories change, and it’s not good if the story doesn’t change while you’re reporting it,” she says.

And being there alters the situation, Orlean freely notes. She tries to replicate the oral tradition, acknowledging that all reporting is just her take on events. “It’s not possible to be objective, comprehensive. It’s more important to be honest.”

She’ll pull herself in for comic relief, as in her Esquire profile of a 10-year-old who deftly shot kibbles at her. “I don’t overprepare,” she says. “I immerse myself in the world and let events unfold.”


Davis uses a similar technique, explaining, “If I plan too much I lose momentum.”

Long or short? Letter of complaint or personal essay? First, second, or third person? These only emerge as she keeps writing, says Davis. “I let the material be in control. If I plan too much I lose momentum. One question will occur to me, and I’ll let it go from there.”

She started by writing very traditional short stories but realized she didn’t have to do that—she could do something else.

Davis, who discusses her method in-depth in a long Q&A with the Paris Review, says she had a “great feeling of liberation” when she abandoned the traditional “well-made” stories.

She revises intensely, aware that her one and two sentence stories can fail if a single word is wrong—or even a punctuation mark. In the last line of what turned out to be a poem, she called the comma crucial:

Heart weeps.
Head tries to help heart.
Head tells heart how it is, again:
You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even the earth will
go, someday.
Heart feels better, then. But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart.
Heart is so new to this.
I want them back, says heart.
Head is all heart has.
Help, head. Help heart.

Once called a “writer’s writer’s writer,” she’s won the renowned Man Booker International Prize but admits that some people don’t see the point of what she writes. They may be bewildered by stunts like turning a complaint about the packaging of frozen peas into an essay/short short story/whatever.

But she keeps on keeping on, deploring what she calls today’s “bottom line” literary atmosphere and relying on fellow writers, not agents or publishers, for support.

She worries that young authors have to deal with agents saying they have to produce “a novel that sells.” She advises them to continue to write what they want and make money somewhere else.

“I never expected to earn my living from writing,” she says.

Bill Kirtz is a retired Northeastern University journalism professor and a Media Nation contributor.

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Advice from the pros at BU’s narrative journalism conference

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Desert the herd. Fact-check memories.

Celebrated writers Adam Hochschild, Samuel G. Freedman, and Alia Malek shared those thoughts last weekend at Boston University’s annual narrative journalism conference.

Conference founder Mark Kramer organized the three days of speeches, panels, and informal sessions as editors try new ways to tell complex stories.

“The best stories come when you don’t follow the pack,” said Hochschild, using examples from his new and well-received Spain in Our Hearts: Americans and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.

Although nearly 1,000 writers covered the war—eating, drinking, and occasionally, like Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gelhorn, sleeping with each other—Hochschild noted that they missed two huge stories.

The first: that Republican militias created a social revolution. The only one to explore this was George Orwell, who detailed the saga of idealism and betrayal in the classic Homage to Catalonia. Hochschild pointed out that Orwell was there as a fighter, not a colleague sharing wine and story ideas.

The reason they didn’t tell the second story: Nobody asked the simple question of who provided fuel for Nationalist dictator Francisco Franco tanks and Hitler’s planes. Hochschild details their delivery from America because Texaco’s chairman supported Franco and Hitler, despite a neutrality act forbidding that.

His point: “The best stories come when you don’t follow the herd. Explore on your own,” he said, adding that new technologies now let non-journalists do this without having to follow the “party line.”

As the memoir craze continues and the fact-fiction line blurs, Freedman insisted, “Photoshopping my memories is not good enough for me.”

The noted journalism teacher and New York Times columnist is the author of Who She Was, which has been lauded as a moving but candid probe of his mother’s past.

Freedman rejected the notion that memoir operates by different rules from any other kind of nonfiction.

To him, much-emulated memoirist Vivian Gornick’s admission that she’s invented scenes and used composite characters invalidates her work while prolific author and journalist Pete Hamill’s up-front comment that his memory can be faulty makes him trust his.

With memory as the starting point, Freedman applied reporting skills to his own life. For Who She Was, he interviewed family members the same way he did anyone else: letting them know he was a journalist. And, as with any other source, he let them fact-check the manuscript and considered any objections they might have—but told them that the final decision about what or what not to include was his.

Malek, born in Baltimore to Syrian immigrant parents, uses the same intensive reporting technique in her forthcoming book about her motherland. Her aim: to put today’s headlines in context.

Her third book, a still-untitled narrative, uses her family’s house as a metaphor to trace 100 years of history. Like Freedman—her Columbia Journalism School mentor—she said she reports personal conflicts as she would any other story.

“It’s difficult if you do your job diligently,” said the former Department of Justice trial attorney and Al Jazeera America senior writer who did award-winning reporting from Syria for several major outlets.

Like Hochschild, Malek mixes narrative with history. “I don’t want to bore the reader,” she said. “The difference between the novice and expert is good storytelling.”

She called expertise crucial to nuanced reporting. Her journalism teachers told her, “If you can cover a Kansas school board, you can cover anything.”

She disagrees, noting that many Western reporters covering the Middle East chiefs don’t speak Arabic, and call themselves totally objective while covering complex conflicts. “We don’t buy into that idea,” she said.

Bill Kirtz is a retired Northeastern University journalism professor and a Media Nation contributor.

Goldsmith Award winner, finalists talk about their craft

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Top investigative journalists used databases, graphics, video, and good old-fashioned shoe leather to reveal slave labor, expose unfair arbitration practices, and detail police shootings and school funding flaws.

Winners and finalists discussed their reporting challenges during last week’s Goldsmith Awards ceremonies at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. The awards are administered by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

The Associated Press series uncovering the use of slave labor in the Thai seafood industry won the top $25,000 award. Robin McDowell, a member of the four-member team that spent 18 months exposing abusive practices in the AP’s “Seafood from Slaves,” faced the problem of getting victims to talk on the record. “We had to honor them but not to use their names, or they’d be killed,” she said. “How do we hold on to the power of the story with anonymous sources?”

The Guardian US in “The Counted” and The Washington Post in “Fatal Shooting by Police” tackled a similar subject: underreported fatal shootings by police.

The Post’s Kimberly Kindy called the job “ugly and messy”—and unprecedented. “Nobody had done it before,” she said. “There was no model. Going into this, we had no notion of how hard it was going to be to cover every fatal shooting in real time.… The information didn’t rush out. We had to keep going back to get more details.”

She said The Guardian’s competitive efforts helped the Post because “it made it harder for authorities to look the other way.”

Jon Swaine, part of the five-member Guardian team whose findings—along with the Post’s—led the FBI and the Department of Justice to revise their system for counting killings by police, said his biggest challenge was the small staff. Like the Post reporters, they worked nights and weekends keeping up with the constant flow of reports. The Guardian will combine reporting and verified crowd-sourced information to continue building a database of the killings.

Lisa Song, one of the four-member InsideClimate News team that disclosed that Exxon documented but buried climate change research in “Exxon: The Road Not Taken,” said they initially thought it would be impossible to prove the cover-up.

“The main challenge was finding people willing to talk,” she said, but with a lot of “shoe leather reporting,” including door-to-door visits, they induced ex-employees to tell their stories. And finally, they unearthed thousands of internal memos that revealed what and when Exxon knew.

Michael LaForgia said the three-person Tampa Bay Times team that produced “Failure Factories” had to overcome editors’ and educators’ mindset that student underachievement was “inevitable, ignoring the basic question—why does this condition exist?”

The Times’s 18-month investigation used an extensive database along with graphics and video—as well as traditional storytelling methods—to show how resegregation transformed five once-average schools into the state’s worst.

For “Beware the Fine Print,” Jessica Silver-Greenberg and her two New York Times colleagues faced the challenge of knowing the arcane subject of arbitration clauses as well as the high-priced lawyers who used them to prevent people from suing credit card companies and retailers.

“A huge challenge was [detailing] ‘How did they do it?’” she said. To gain corporate lawyers’ trust, she added, the reporters needed to know the law. Then, she said, they could flatter attorneys by saying, “‘I understand the genius of what you did.’ That helped us gain their respect One lawyer was thrilled to talk about it.

“It wasn’t drama on the high seas or the battlefield, but in Park Avenue boardrooms.”

Bill Kirtz is a retired Northeastern University journalism professor and a Media Nation contributor.

The Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief comes in from the heat

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Journalism’s toughest assignment?

Being The New York Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief is right up there when the same story gets you called both a self-hating Jew and a Zionist mouthpiece.

After three and a half years in the hot seat, Jodi Rudoren leaves more concerned than ever about the “dueling narratives” that prevent Israelis and Palestinians from understanding each other.

“There’s a growing sense of hopelessness on both sides,” she told a Northeastern University audience last week, and “very few agreed-upon facts.”

She analyzed that political situation recently in the Times.

Rudoren, who will become a deputy editor on the Times’ foreign desk, is no news novice. She’s been the paper’s education editor, deputy metropolitan editor, and Chicago bureau chief after six years at the Los Angeles Times.

But she still finds it “bizarre” to be excoriated for writing too much about people who commit acts of violence. “This is myopic,” she said. “We have to know their motivations. We humanize them. We don’t glorify them.” Referring to the shooter in the recent Colorado Springs attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic, she asked, “Don’t you want to know who Robert Dear was?”

She called empathy a key to being a journalist—and being a human being: “If empathy’s only for one side we’re in big trouble.”

Rudoren rebutted critiques of Times stories that are based on numbers or the ratio of victims to attackers. She called it “simplistic. Numbers don’t tell the whole story.” She said it’s more important to write about the few who perpetrate violence than about their many random victims.

One of her stories drawing intensive fire from both sides profiled a family of Palestinian stone throwers.

“Children have hobbies, and my hobby is throwing stones,” she quoted one as saying.

Some pro-Israeli readers mistakenly thought that she thought it was a hobby, Rudoren said.
But not to worry: Palestinians hated the story too, she said.

Reporters are routinely chastised for not doing the impossible: putting a complicated story into full context.

Recalling critiques for not going back in Middle Eastern history every time she’s on a tight deadline and word count, she quipped that every 800-word story should note, “Abraham had two sons.”

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

Polls, pols and the obsession with horse-race journalism

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Does polling drive or mirror public opinion?

Three prominent political figures offered different answers during a spirited discussion Friday at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. They agreed that that there are too many context-less statistics and too few ways to winnow the precise survey from the sloppy.

“We’ve stopped listening to the voices of the people — everything is numbers,” said Peter D. Hart, whose company polls for NBC and The Wall Street Journal and who has worked with more than 40 senators and 30 governors. “All the media care about is the latest head-to-head” competition between candidates.

He said the polls have no “bandwagon” effect of driving more support to the favorite, saying he’s never seen the “undecided” vote break toward the winner. “We’re takers, not makers. We reflect public opinion,” he said.

Without a sense of public opinion, he said, Richard Nixon wouldn’t have been impeached. He added that “the public was way ahead of the politicians on opposition to the Vietnam War.”

Hart said he’s never seen public opinion change as rapidly as on the issue of approving gay marriage, saying public opinion helped shape politicians’ growing support.

Hart and former CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley agreed that the media don’t know how to report and analyze a poll. “The problem isn’t the polls. It’s the use of them,” she said. “‘Horse race’ numbers are catnip to reporters.”

Differing with Hart, she contended that polls influence elections because “Americans love to be on the winners’ side.”

Crowley said polls are like tweets, and there’s nothing like talking to people to get nuanced views, as Hart said he was able to do at the start of his career.

Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore said, “In the world of [financially] starved journalism, polls are cheap journalism.” She asserted that pollsters directed opinion in support for the Iraq War.

Thursday night, she had told the Harvard audience, “We’re drowning in a sea of polls. Polls raise the pulse of democracy — they don’t take it. A fast pulse is not a sign of health but of distress.”

She added, “Polls drive polls,” causing a “bandwagon effect.”

Lepore and the other speakers deplored the plummeting response rate to pollsters. In the 1950s, she noted, there was a 90 percent response rate while now it’s in single digits.

Friday, she said Internet polling over-represents left-leaning young, white males.

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

Charles Fountain’s colorful new take on the 1919 Black Sox

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Print the legend?

Charles Fountain doesn’t.

Meticulously researched and colorfully written, his new book, “The Betrayal: The 1919 World Series and the Birth of Modern Baseball” (Oxford University Press, 290 pages, $27.95), offers a host of new information about the often-told 1919 Chicago Black Sox saga.

He’s unearthed a ton of fresh material, including the papers of American League founder Ban Johnson and the files of cover-up maestro Alfred Austrian.

Fountain, a long-time Northeastern University School of Journalism friend and colleague, sorts through the myriad versions of how and why the World Series was fixed, never resorting to easy conclusions. He separates what’s ain’t from what’s so. When the facts are murky, he’s content to present — not pontificate.

This tapestry of baseball and social history encompasses 19th-century game-throwing, the 1920s melange of politics, sports and gambling, and colorful portraits of legendary lawyers and sportswriters.

61zSPKXvyGL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_We learn that “hippodroming” — game-fixing — is as old as organized baseball itself, as supposed amateurs took “sporting men”’s money to drop flies and strike out. And we see the machinations of White Sox owner Charles Comiskey and baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis as they try to contain and manipulate the burgeoning Black Sox scandal.

Fountain, the author of two well-received sports books (on famed scribe Grantland Rice and on the history of spring training), is especially good on tracing the incestuous relationships between writers and their subjects — and on the wink-and-nod clubbiness and vicious newspaper competition that prevented the biggest baseball story of the (or perhaps any) era from leaking earlier.

“The Betrayal” is a treasure trove of bizarre incidents, including Keystone Kops detective efforts fueled with Scotch, fishing trips and apartment-sharing with a conspirator’s paramour. There are vignettes galore about larger-than-life characters like lawyer-jury rigger William Fallon and criminal mastermind Arnold Rothstein.  Fountain even manages to bring in “Jazz Age siren” Peggy Hopkins Joyce for a cameo.

Fountain also offers a reporting primer. The criminal trial of seven players and four gamblers began in torrid heat. How hot? Ninety-four degrees. (Fountain looked up that day’s weather report.)

From Attell (Abe: boxer, bagman and one of the saga’s host of double-crossers) to Zork (Carl: gambler and plotter), “The Betrayal” is a richly detailed page-turner.

There’s only one real rattlesnake here but plenty of two-legged ones in executive offices and judicial robes — as well as in dugouts.

“The Betrayal” is a must-read for anyone interested in American sports, morality and justice — and how they occasionally mesh.

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

How social media contribute to ‘remote-control terrorism’

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

NEW YORK — Tracking “remote control terrorism,” showing climate change’s impact and following readers’ shifts to mobile devices were panel highlights at last weekend’s Columbia Journalism School reunion.

Top reporters stressed the so-called Islamic State’s ability to innovate, forge social media connections and take “credit” for terrorist attacks it didn’t plan.

NPR counterterrorism expert Dina Temple-Raston noted that while U.S. anti-terrorism efforts are a “matrix,” ISIS keeps experimenting and improving their outreach to alienated youths.

“Don’t over-ascribe associations” between ISIS and every case of violence, she said. “But they’re very careful to take credit” for such incidents.

Washington Post reporter Abigail Hauslohner expanded on that. “An obsessive focus on ‘who gives the orders’” for a terrorist attack misses the point, she said. You can find “inspiration online.” You don’t have to go to Yemen for training.

“The remote-control terrorist” is a new phenomenon, said Fox News chief intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge. With social media, today’s teenagers can have “one-on-one intimacy” with ISIS recruiters without the need for face-to-face contact.

A former Al Jazeera English producer and host, Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, said that framing the war against terror as a “clash of civilizations plays into ISIL’s hands. Two to three weeks of incessant texting” can convince alienated youths to adapt terrorism as a way of defending their culture.

It’s not easy being green

Climate change is a concept that’s hard to grasp. But its effects are real, and ClimateWire editor John Fialka tries to deliver the message through stories that use popular-culture references.

An example this week cites “Game of Thrones”: “As fans well know, winter is coming. But they might not realize some people are using the HBO megahit’s catchphrase to spark a conversation about shifting weather patterns brought about by climate change.”

Former Associated Press environmental journalist Dina Cappiello said the topic is underreported because “politics dictates where the coverage goes.” Now with a public relations firm, she said 2016 presidential voters will focus on health care, the economy and their own jobs — not on the environment.

Serving the mobile audience

How to give time-starved mobile device clickers both what they need to know and what they want to know?

Lydia Polgreen, New York Times deputy international editor, said her paper’s “future lies in figuring out what 20 stories each reader wants to know.”

She said the Times hopes to provide a personal and a general experience. The challenge is how to preserve the serendipity of riffling through the paper and finding interesting stories about random topics — while giving them what they need to know.

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

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.

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.

Jill Abramson reveals few details about startup venture

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Jill Abramson, fired (her words) last summer as New York Times executive editor, will join with Steven Brill on a startup to “give great journalists money they can live on.”

In a Boston University question-and-answer session Monday evening, she provided few details but said she and Brill — who won the National Magazine Award last year for his Time magazine cover story on medical costs — will write one story a year for the site. She said they’ve been pitching potential investors on the project.

Abramson was joined on stage by New York Times media columnist David Carr, a visiting professor at BU, who served up a steady stream of questions to his former boss.

In other remarks, Abramson praised former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee as “the most consequential editor of my lifetime”  and called The New York Review of Books a “perfect publication.”

Abramson, now teaching a once-a-week class at Harvard on narrative journalism, condemned “false equivalence” — reporting “on the one hand/on the other hand” as if each side is equally credible.”

After weighing and sifting all the facts, she said, journalists have the right to determine which side is right. As an example, she cited “Strange Justice,” the 1994 book she wrote with her then Wall Street Journal colleague Jane Mayer. They concluded that Supreme Court nominee (now Justice) Clarence Thomas had lied about significant incidents in his past.

“What is the press but calling power people and institutions to account?” she asked.

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