Being there: David Finkel on the importance of showing up

It’s a tenet of reporting so basic that it was right there on the syllabus for “Introduction to Journalism” when I was a teaching assistant at the University of Illinois: “The most important thing a journalist can do is show up.”

In a time when technology makes it possible to gather information from great distances — for instance, using Twitter to monitor messages coming out of volatile countries or Google Street View to explore a far-off city without getting on a plane — it’s a lesson that bears repeating. Nearly every story will be better if the reporter goes to where the action is taking place.

Last week, I had the good fortune of showing up at a lecture hall at the College of Media at Illinois (where I am employed as a reporter for CU-CitizenAccess.org) for a talk given by David Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post, titled “Beautiful Stories: Creating a Journalism of Felt Life.”

ImageThe focus of the talk was Finkel’s 2009 book “The Good Soldiers,” a ground-level account of the 2007 troop surge in one of the most dangerous areas of Baghdad. At the time, Finkel said, there were already “great macro, big-picture journalism done on the war,” along with soldier memoirs that were beginning to be published. Continue reading

Science journalism site is an open (note)book

For a freelance journalist, there are few experiences more nerve-racking than crafting a query letter to pitch a story to an editor.

You’ve devoted time and energy to researching an idea that excites you, and now seeing that idea become a published story depends your ability to communicate it succinctly in a way that will appeal to the personal preferences of someone you’ve never met. (This is especially true for those who are just starting out and have few established contacts in the industry.)

Thanks to the email listserv of a professional organization to which I belong, I came across a resource that will help demystify the process for freelancers like me, especially those who are interested in science journalism.

The Open Notebook is a nonprofit website, launched in 2010 by freelance science journalists Jeanne Erdmann and Siri Carpenter, that aims to help other science writers hone their craft. The site’s Behind-the-Story Interviews ask writers to break down their work, from the nuts and bolts of reporting to art of crafting the story. It even includes interesting bonuses like this handwritten outline for Amy Harmon‘s recent New York Times piece “Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World.”

The section of the site I believe will prove most valuable for me is the Pitch Database. For the database, writers have generously shared successful pitches that landed stories in publications such as Wired, Scientific American, Smithsonian and even one for a piece broadcast on This American Life.

Journalism has a reputation for being a hyper-competitive field. And, while this competitiveness can be an important motivator for all of us to do our best work, it’s also great to see experienced, successful writers willing to share what they could hold as closely guarded trade secrets.

A word from the author

In my review of Robert S. Boynton’s 2005 book “The New New Journalism” last week, I ended on a question I was left with after finishing the book: “In today’s changing media environment, how does a young writer who aspires to do this kind of journalism find a viable outlet for his or her work?”

Much to my delight, after I shared the post on my Facebook page, Boynton himself responded with something that – at least in part – answers that question and also offers his views on where journalism is headed.

This month, Boynton published an essay on Byliner.com titled, “The New New Journalism, circa 2011,” in which he addresses many of the Chicken Little-esque pronouncements about the future of journalism, particularly long-form journalism.

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Book Review: “The New New Journalism” by Robert S. Boynton

When I was a journalism teaching assistant at the University of Illinois, I signed up for a seminar called Writing Across the Curriculum, which was designed to help teaching assistants incorporate writing into their classes in more meaningful ways.

During the two-day workshop, one of the activities involved each participant drawing a sort of comic strip describing his or her writing process. Up to that point, despite holding degrees in creative writing and journalism, and having worked as a newspaper reporter for a few years, I had never really given much thought to the individual steps by which I gathered information and turned it into a piece of written work.

As we went around the room and shared our drawings, it was evident that the writing process is incredibly idiosyncratic. It didn’t just vary among academic disciplines but also from each individual writer to the next. Some people’s processes included breaks to go for a jog or to do the dishes. So, while some wrote more efficiently than others, there was no single right way to approach the task.

One of the beauties of Robert S. Boynton’s “The New New Journalism” (Vintage Books, 2005) is that it shows that this phenomenon is not exclusive to a group of a few dozen graduate students at a Midwestern research university.

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Behind the scenes of “The Daley Show”

Photo by Kate Gardiner, used under Creative Commons license Non-Commercial 2.0

In a piece for The New Yorker last year, Evan Osnos, who has been the magazine’s China correspondent since 2008, wrote about a leader who rose through the ranks of the political party that has dominated his city for the better part of the past century to assume a position of power once held by his father. But the story’s subject isn’t a Communist Party boss. He is Richard M. Daley,whose sixth term as the Democratic mayor of Chicago ends Monday. Osnos’ profile offers rare insight into the life of a man who is well known for his contentious relationship with the press. “The Daley Show” appeared in the magazine on March 8, 2010, before Daley announced that he did not intend to seek re-election.

Osnos has been familiar with Daley since he interned at the Chicago Tribune while he was an undergraduate at Harvard. “He struck me as a fairly unique American political figure,” the writer said. Around the time of Barack Obama’s historic election, Osnos, who came to The New Yorker from the Tribune’s Beijing bureau, pitched a story to the magazine‘s editors about the man who wields seemingly unchecked power in the new president’s political training grounds. The editors were very supportive of the idea. “They were interested in understanding, ‘Who was the guy who controlled the city that produced Obama?’” Osnos said.

To do the story, Osnos knew he would need to spend a lot of time with the mayor. Given Daley’s fiery attitude toward reporters this could have been an insurmountable obstacle. “For a New Yorker piece of this kind, you need to have a lot of access,” he said. “I wasn’t going to do the story unless I knew I was going to have access to Daley to interview him repeatedly.” He approached Jacquelyn Heard, the mayor’s press secretary, with the idea in early 2009. While the administration had the “usual level of concern” expected from any political operation, Osnos was guaranteed the time he needed with the mayor.

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Welcome!

One of my goals for the new year was to set up a website to display my professional work, and — amazingly — I managed to get it done. And in January, no less!

In addition to showcasing my writing and multimedia work, I plan to use the blog on this site to provide updates on my career and share thoughts and tips about journalism.

If you want to see some things I’ve done recently, check out my clips. For a more complete overview of my experience, please take a look at my résumé. And if you want to get in touch, you can find me on Twitter.