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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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.

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.