By: Bill Kirtz
Upcoming Conferences In Austin, St. Louis, Seattle
Last weekend, more than 850 journalists jammed The Hartford Courant’s National Writers Workshop – the first of a seven-city series aimed at putting more tools in their kits. National workshop director Chip Scanlan called growing attendance at the annual meetings “a sign of great strength, an important message that no matter how tough the (economic) times, improving how we do our job is our most important priority.”
At the workshop, Keith Woods, a Poynter Institute staffer who edits the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ annual “Best Writing” collection, said great features come when reporters “tune in, and open your eyes and mind. (Ask) what do you see, feel, experience? Too often we don’t trust that as journalists.”
He said writers too often include details and quotes that just “dull down and puzzle readers about their relevance. They can get in the way. They have to more the story along.” Woods urged the “purposeful use of” details like a college student clutching her Teddy Bear slippers at a fatal dorm fire or a retarded man sporting 10 pens in his front pocket.
Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer Isabel Wilkerson of The New York Times said print reporters should view breaking news on the Web or cable as “appetizers to our main course, rather than wringing our hands about them. They’re an opportunity to do features even better. They prime the reader for our story-telling.”
Edna Buchanan, the legendary crime reporter who won a Pulitzer at The Miami Herald, said she didn’t consider editors while writing her compelling leads. Instead, she said, “I picture readers’ reactions.” To her, a good lead makes a husband spit up his breakfast coffee and shout, “My God, Martha! Did you read this?”
Buchanan and Baltimore Sun political columnist Jack Germond both said unhappy staffers make prime sources. A disgruntled sergeant once slipped her a list of officers’ home telephone numbers and addresses. Germond added that every presidential staff includes people who will leak things they’re not supposed to – to advance their own agenda. “It hasn’t happened yet in the Bush White House but it will. It always does,” he said.
Jack Fuller, Tribune Publishing Co. president and a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune, voiced “a problem with a great deal of literary journalism, because you can’t know what someone else is thinking.” He criticized the genre, which uses such fictional techniques as flashbacks and serial narrative, for “trying to get inside a person.” When a reporter asked him to amplify, Fuller said, “I love great metaphor, dazzling observation, and dramatic description, but when literary journalism technique treads water into the unknowable, I think that’s wrong. Journalism’s first and most fundamental obligation is to the knowable, the verifiable. It should be as brilliantly written as possible, but none of it should be made up.”
Literary journalism advocate Mark Kramer, who directs annual Boston University conferences on the subject, has stressed that the genre should be as well-sourced as any other in journalism. “Editors are just finding their way, and sometimes stumble,” he told a Hartford questioner complaining about newspapers’ front-page self-indulgent “literary” prose. “There’s plenty of room for discussions of ethics and craft,” Kramer said.
Workshops, which cost $75, will be sponsored April 28-29 by the Austin American Statesman, The Orange County Register, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Seattle Times, and The News-Journal in Wilmington, Del., and May 19-20 by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Scanlan said the 10-year-old program will expand to at least four more sites next year. Details on the upcoming sessions, which feature interviewing, organizing, and writing tips from scores of Pulitzer Prize winners and other top journalists, are available at http://poynter.org/2001/NWW.htm.
Bill Kirtz (email@example.com) teaches journalism at Northeastern University in Boston.
Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.