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.

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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.

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.

Matt Bai, Tom Fiedler set sail aboard the Monkey Business

jpgPreviously published at WGBHNews.org.

It was the summer of 2009, and the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication was in town. A group of us went out to dinner at Legal Seafoods at the Pru. Among them was Tom Fiedler, dean of Boston University’s College of Communication and the former executive editor of the Miami Herald.

Fiedler held us in thrall with a blow-by-blow description of his best-known story: the sinking of Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign aboard the good ship Monkey Business. It was the Herald that staked out Hart’s townhouse in Washington and learned that a woman named Donna Rice had been staying with him. Hart soon dropped out of the campaign; he later re-entered it but failed to gain any traction.

Last month The New York Times Magazine published a long excerpt from a book by Times political reporter (and Boston Globe alumnus) Matt Bai arguing that the Herald’s pursuit of Hart represented something new and disturbing in American politics: Journalists in the skeptical post-Watergate era were no longer willing to give politicians a pass on any misbehavior, including their sexual peccadilloes. Perhaps the most damning part of Bai’s piece was his discovery that Fiedler, who had long cited Hart’s challenge to “follow me around” as justification, had actually not learned of that challenge until after the Herald’s stakeout.

Now Fiedler has written a strong, thoughtful article for Politico Magazine in which he responds to Bai, taking the view that a presidential candidate’s lies should not be considered “inconsequential.” Fielder’s take on the “follow me around” matter is worth quoting in full:

For Bai, much hinges on the precise timing of this quote. He claims that the Herald used the “follow me around” challenge to justify its pursuit of Hart. This was dishonest, he suggests, because we couldn’t have known about it before the stakeout — the quote appeared in the [New York] Times on May 3, the same day our story ran. What Bai doesn’t acknowledge is that we didn’t need the [E.J.] Dionne quote for justification.

A week or so before the Herald and the Times’ articles ran, in an interview with me, Hart had been similarly dismissive of the womanizing allegations, saying, “I’ve been in public life for 15 years and I think that if there was anything about my background that anybody had any information on, they would bring it forward. But they haven’t.” The Hart quote I published wasn’t as dramatic as the one Hart provided to Dionne, but its intent was the same. And it was a lie. That’s not news?

Fiedler’s purpose is not to discredit Bai. Indeed, Fiedler calls himself “a great admirer of Bai’s talents as a journalist and a writer.” But Fiedler does manage to provide a different context for why and how Hart’s downfall was covered. If you read Bai’s article, you owe it to yourself to read Fiedler’s as well.

(Disclosure: Fiedler is a friendly acquaintance and a colleague on WGBH’s “Beat the Press.”)

The Globe’s detailed look at student housing abuses

Shadow Campus

As a Northeastern professor, I’m certainly aware that many of our students live in less-than-ideal conditions. But to the extent that I’d given it much thought, I had assumed the squalor was largely of the students’ making (see this, for instance), compounded by greedy landlords who pack too many residents into their buildings.

According to The Boston Globe’s just-completed series “Shadow Campus,” that may be true, but it’s just the beginning. From Sunday’s account of a fatal fire, to Monday’s story on hazards elsewhere in the city, to today’s profile of landlord-from-hell Anwar Faisal, the series, by the paper’s Spotlight Team, documents the dark side of Boston’s student-fueled economy.

The series was many months in the making, and (full disclosure) was reported in part by student reporters, including some from Northeastern, who are not identified in the story. Certainly the large universities in Greater Boston — particularly Boston University, Boston College and Northeastern — will be challenged to build more on-campus housing. Given the failure of the city’s overwhelmed inspectional services to do better, the story also removes a bit of a shine from former mayor Tom Menino’s legacy and puts Mayor Marty Walsh on the spot.

Online, “Shadow Campus” has all the multimedia bells and whistles we’ve come to expect with long pieces: a beautifully designed, easy-to-read layout; lots of photos and video clips; and official documents the Globe dug up in the course of its reporting.

Overall, a very fine effort.

More: Here’s a complete list of everyone who worked on the series. Student reporters are listed under “Correspondents,” though not everyone in that category is a student.

David Carr: These are the good old days

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

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 Foundand 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.

CommonWealth reviews “The Wired City”

Tom Fiedler, dean of Boston University’s College of Communication and a fellow “Beat the Press” panelist, reviews “The Wired City” in the new issue of CommonWealth Magazine. He writes:

Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and author of the well-read blog Media Nation, packs a lot of other material into this book that withstands the passage of time. His explanation of how the newspaper business model fell victim to the Web’s ability to match advertisers with consumers, thus forcing publishers to trade print dollars for digital dimes, is as cogent as I have seen anywhere. I admired also Kennedy’s insights into the way online sites have upended the journalistic paradigm by enabling news consumers — formerly known as the audience — to also be news creators.

Additional disclosure: my master’s (in American history) is from BU.

Masters of narrative journalism share their insights

Image (1) B_Kirtz.jpg for post 10773By Bill Kirtz

“Revel in hardship,” NPR’s Beirut-based correspondent Kelly McEvers told last weekend’s annual narrative journalism conference at Boston University. “Don’t despair if you have a scarcity of resources.”

Sneaking into danger zones where sources were too terrified to speak, the award-winning reporter has spent the past two years covering the Arab Spring uprisings, producing vivid stories with ambient sound, protective descriptions and a remote network of dissidents.

International photographer Alan Chin echoed her comments. He’s an editor at Newsmotion.org, a Kickstarter-funded collation of amateur and professional voices and video that focuses on undercovered human-rights stories. As traditional journalism faces financial crises, “we have to take chances…. We can’t just sit around” complaining about our problems, Chin said. “We have to absolutely be willing to fail.”

Newsmotion founder Julian Rubinstein, a prize-winning magazine and book author, hopes the site offers insight that deadline-driven traditional outlets often neglect.

And narrative journalism’s goal is insight, using fiction’s tools to create compelling scenes — with one huge distinction. Every detail must be as accurate and well documented as in the best investigative reporting. Mitch Zuckoff and Dick Lehr answer the perennial “How did the author know this?” question with 30 to 40 pages of endnotes verifying every detail.

The two, who won several reporting prizes at the Boston Globe and who now teach at Boston University with conference organizer and narrative journalism exemplar Mark Kramer, stressed that point with examples from their latest books.

For Zuckoff, the challenge is to tell an important story in the “richest possible way” — not “lecturing to people,” but drawing them into a complex history. In “Frozen in Time,” he weaves a World War II search-and-survival story into recent attempts to locate a long-missing rescue plane.

Lehr followed the traditional reporter’s dogged tactic of never abandoning the fight to get documents about mobster James “Whitey” Bulger. After years of trying, he found a “treasure trove” of prison files to use in his co-authored “Black Mass,” which chronicles the FBI’s corrupt ties to the fugitive killer.

Narrative journalism doesn’t take years’-long immersion in a story, noted Amy Ellis Nutt. Although she won a Pulitzer Prize ago for a 20-page Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger feature series, she said she’s now a big fan of “miniatures.”

Why? “We don’t live life in long narrative span, [so] short is natural,” she said. “You [can] just jump in the middle.”

To make her point, Nutt cited Ernest Hemingway’s ability to tell a dramatic tale in six words: “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.” One of her recent narratives, which starts by saying it was “too cold even for the seagulls,” delivers precise description in relatively few words.

Neil Shea, a BU lecturer and award-winning war reporter, has also turned to short-form narrative. He said that conventional coverage of such familiar topics as Afghanistan can become “background noise” for news consumers. So he’s doing regular 300- to 1,100-word vignettes of colorful dialogue and scenes without overwhelming readers with context.

Shea was one of several speakers who underscored the need to prune excess material ruthlessly.

“We have to be merciless self-editors,” he said. When considering using the first person, he said, ask yourself, “Do I really need to be in this story?”

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Rosalind Bentley advises cutting anything, no matter how compelling, if it doesn’t support the story’s main thesis. She pored through the 500-page trial transcript after the poet Natasha Trethewey’s stepfather killed her mother to winnow out just this detail: “She died on the pavement.”

Any quote she uses “has to sparkle like the Hope diamond.” If it doesn’t, she’ll paraphrase.

“You can’t just wing it and start writing,” she said. “All your choices have to be deliberate.” So she wields multi-colored highlighters over pages of scrawled notes to boil down the essence of a story in one sentence, and then just one word.

In her definitive profile of Trethewey, the word was “self-definition.”

Why do narrative journalists keep plugging along in an age of economic uncertainty and audience fragmentation?

Author, magazine founder and University of California Berkeley journalism professor Adam Hochschild put it this way: “When you tell a story, it takes on a life of its own and sometimes it affects people.”

He said “Bury the Chains,” his 2005 account of how a few men started a movement to free the slaves in the British Empire, got good reviews, many awards and decent initial sales — then languished on remainder shelves for years.

But recently, Hochschild started getting speaking invitations from global-warming groups, who saw his 18th-century abolitionists as a model of how a few people could change how the world thinks about an issue.

His point: “A story can come bouncing back to you.”

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

At BU, a big mistake and a tough call

Interesting. Yesterday I told the Boston Globe I thought the Daily Free Press, Boston University’s independent student newspaper, did the right thing in asking editor Chelsea Diana to resign.

Today a Globe editorial argues persuasively (link now fixed) that the paper overreacted.

It’s a tough call. My sense is that given the nature of the Free Press’ offense (putting out an April Fools Day edition that indulged in alleged humor about rape), this wasn’t going away without a suitably dramatic move. Better a resignation now than demonstrations and a whole slew of resignations a week later.

But the whole idea of a student press is to give young journalists a chance to make mistakes and learn from them. Yes, this was a big one. Still, I hope this does no serious or permanent damage to Diana’s prospects. If anything, she should get credit for doing the right thing.

Here’s some useful background, with links, from Lauren Landry of BostInno.

Tracing the arc of the narrative

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.