AAN East Roundup: Editorial Programming

AAN writers value edginess and independence, so when they arrived at AAN East’s first editorial seminar they were alarmed to see small plastic and metal “clickers” — the kind you use to train your dog in obedience class — sitting atop their chairs. But workshop leader and writing coach Jim Stasiowski quickly put to rest any fears about creeping conformity. Turns out he distributed the noisemakers so his listeners wouldn’t have to raise their hands to respond to his questions.

Stasiowski’s shtick revolved around telling AAN writers that they’re not edgy enough. His three-hour session began a two-day discussion about how AAN writers and editors can produce stories that both engage readers and challenge the status quo.

This was Stasiowski’s major complaint, in his own words: “When I look at your papers,” he said, “I don’t see that much alternative stuff…. Are you trying to out-mainstream the mainstream?”

The energetic writing coach instructed writers to start with an identifiable point of view, and even to risk libel. “Libel is a potential problem,” he acknowledged, “but we have a real problem — boredom.”

His criticisms elicited passionate rebuttals and led to heated but healthy debate. When his listeners’ enthusiasm flagged, he tried to pump them up. “I know we’ve only got 15 minutes left,” he cajoled as he clapped his hands. “Now wake up and talk to me!”

The next morning, Bill Moushey, investigative reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, woke his listeners up with lively stories of mafia killings, drug cartels, pimps and “scumbag snitches.” The gruff, gravelly voiced son of a cop delivered a scathing critique of police work, and told reporters looking for juicy stories to examine claims of wrongful convictions.

San Francisco Bay Guardian editor Tim Redmond ran a riveting workshop that demonstrated another approach. He urged reporters to read daily and community papers with an eye for anything that JDLR — Just Doesn’t Look Right. If what you read raises questions you can’t answer, he said, start asking WWK — Who Would Know. He demonstrated the technique by passing around handouts containing the clues he followed in a real-life investigation of police misconduct.

The Texas Observer’s Dave Mann conducted a seminar about following the money trail to a good political story, offering helpful suggestions to craft engaging stories about what can be a less-than-scintillating topic. Later in the day, Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader spoke about how to incorporate the results of research and reporting into arts reviews and avoid underrating information while overrating opinion.

In a talk entitled “Giving Voice to the Voiceless,” Jennifer Gonnerman of the Village Voice advised writers that they need to do more than just find good stories — they also need to make readers empathize with people dehumanized by institutions like the criminal justice system and the media.

She pointed out that most subjects of these stories have never been interviewed. She recommended talking with them for a few minutes before pulling out a notebook, and taking the time to learn their vernacular. Gonnerman herself is proof that this kind of patience pays off; her recent book, “Life on the Outside: the Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett,” was a non-fiction finalist for the 2004 National Book Award.

Despite her newfound national success, she told her audience that she thinks alternative weeklies are still “the most exciting and best place to be in the media landscape.”