Archive for the ‘Nieman’ Category

Bloggers as Reporters #3

October 26th, 2007

You may have noticed the increasing proliferation of narrative articles in big and little daily newspapers, and even weeklies. Rather than just the facts, Ma’am reportage we see real stories. There are colorful images, lots of detail on the people, scenes and objects related to the article. The good guys, and the bad guys too, get verbal portraits to tell by showing and entertain us as well as inform us.

At last weekend’s Nieman Foundation Making the Most of Your Local Advantage seminar, two sessions addressed aspects of this. I had a conflict with the St. Petersburg Times’ Lane DeGregory’s Ordinary people, extraordinary profiles. However, I did get to her co-worker Ben Montgomery’s Writing the short narrative on a deadline.

He had good stuff for bloggers as well as weekly reporters. Many of us bloggers don’t have time for a lot of reporting and many don’t have experience at it. We can be shy about intruding and interviewing. Montgomery is young but has gotten over any of that he felt.

He has quickly adjusted to being a pro at what he needs to do to educe and observe enough and well enough to create that narrative from what most people would miss or forget. He chock full of tricks and techniques.

Reporter’s notebookThe notebook. His slim reporter’s notebook is more of a tool for him than for most of his peers. Montgomery leaves it in the back pocket of his jeans or in his jacket when he starts talking to a source, which avoids seeming pushy or in too much of a hurry. Then when he hears a remark he’s sure he’ll quote, he whips the notebook out, says, “That’s great. I’d like to use that,” and puts the notebook back. He says that often the source becomes increasingly eager to say something good to make him pull out the notebook again.

Across the table. Montgomery says he never eats with a source. He eats before he goes. He then buys the meal, but keeps his hands free, his mind focused and his mouth filled with words instead of food.

Pulling out a story. He aims to get the source to tell a story, not just sketch basic facts. He likes to ask questions that get them to connect to the situation as it happened. Moreover, he says a key to the narrative is to keep an eye out for any real emotion that the source shows and follow up on that. The hardest aspect would be if the source is hesitant and wants to avoid talking about something. There again, gentle questions asking for details on that subject often yield the best images and recollections.

Framing. Montgomery suggests visualizing the people and scene as you might be doing a video. Literally looking with that kind of cold eye can help frame the article and provide the best details and insights at writing time. He even suggests reporting the scene just as you would the source or other characters. Use observable detail to develop the city or the specific scene as though it is a character.

One in the audience asked how we can avoid a narrative becoming a formula. Montgomery didn’t see that as a problem. His pretty contagious enthusiasm suggests that so far, he is not in a writing rut.

I confess to a negative connotation from a previous professional life. Formulaic writing is often a sort of hand clasp between writer and reader. The readers know what to expect and have come to like it.

I think specifically of my time as a writer (senior editor on the biz card read) at Inc. Magazine. Its feature-article formula has been humming along for three decades. It works, but many of the writers got real tired of it.

The basics run like this:

  • Start with a sensory image, like the protagonist walking through a field of hops or sitting on a sailboat deck on a sweltering day. Image is all.
  • Jump into a business crisis. Ideally the protagonist was one of those who caused the problem.
  • Detail the situation and show how the company was on the edge of bankruptcy or having to sell to a competitor or such humiliation.
  • The protagonist (usually the company founder) explains how an analysis or insight produced the innovative solution.
  • Ta da! The protagonist saves the company and shares the technique with readers.

Inc. founder Bernie Goldhirsh used to tell us he wanted it to be an MBA inside the covers. By the end of the year, the reader will be smarter and more capable than at the beginning. That attitude from my boss’ boss’ boss was pervasive. We writers churn them out. It’s not difficult to tailor a non-fiction piece that way, but while the readers continue to love these entrepreneur-as-Superman tales, the formula can wear on the writers.

More from the seminar: Coverage of finding the time to do the meaningful stories is here. Also, more general talk about bloggers as reporters is here. Finally, a personal tale of white folk at Black papers is here.

Bloggers as Reporters #2

October 25th, 2007

I sit here with my 3×5 cards listing BIG ROCK on some and ROCK on others. I came to the Making the Most of Your Local Advantage seminar to pick up some blogging techniques, which I did. The how-the-devil-to-prioritize stuff was a big bonus.

Dean MillerA future post will creep a little into writing at the seminar. Meanwhile, Nieman Fellow Dean Miller’s story of the jar (as relevance would have it, a Ball jar) was one of his main props. I’d heard the underlying story before, but this self-described nag played the implications for writers beautifully.

Miller, shown here in a FocusWest PBS pic, is off from his duties at the Idaho Falls Post Register.

That Jar

Just in case you haven’t heard the jar story, it runs like this. A fellow puts a Ball jar on the desk. It has three big rocks in it, one poking out the top. He asks whether the jar is full and people enthusiastically say it is.

He then pours pebbles into the mouth. They fill the spaces around the rocks. He asks whether it is full now. Folks say, a little less enthusiastically, that it is.

This repeats, first with sand and then with water. Each time, the doubt rises in the audience and more stuff goes into the full jar.

There are different morals to infer from this process. Miller made it career personal.

Scheduling the Big, Good Stuff

It is a pretty accurate stereotype that newspaper reporters (and any writer) have a barrow full of essential work to do. After those tasks, they often are out of time or energy to get onto that great investigative piece (or novel or magazine article) that they really, really know they have in them.

Good Cliché:  Miller’s a colorful speaker, even to drawing onto Western images. He use one that surely will stick in the mind of writers wh o consider themselves overworked and hard pressed to find the time for the big rocks. He quoted a Blackfeet aphorism — the wolf hunts with the teeth it has.

The technique he advocated and facilitated (in his nag capacity) was to get commitments for some of the big rocks we want in our jar, but always seem to have excuses for not doing. He sais that the “only obstacle is excuses,” and challenged us to choose “to be one of the happy or one of the many.”

Essential to this is committing that day to one or more big rocks. That commitment comes with a list of the big-rock steps if necessary, each with a target completion date. He said that breaking it down into manageable chunks was essential to the busy. That might mean a 15-minute piece of phone or internet search related to the larger article or book. List those and check them off as you do them instead of goofing off or socializing during a break.

Miller stayed true to his description. He provided each of us with a big-rock sheet for the details. We self-addressed them, so that he can send them in a month. Nag. Nag. Nag.

He suggested that this can work well for procrastinators. “Most of us rebel against structure,” he said. Yet, he used poets as an example, adding that they often did their best work in a highly restrictive form, such as a sonnet.

Well, I’m sitting with several big rocks before me, enumerating the steps and trying to balance reasonable deadlines.