Attendees’ View: The Medill Workshop

Three Medill Attendees Discuss their Experiences at the Workshop.

During the recently concluded AAN/Medill Writing Workshop (Sept. 17-18), AAN informed attendees that if they wanted to write something about the conference, it would be published the next month in AAN News. We received the following submissions:

John Citrone, Folio Weekly :
By 3 p.m. on day two of the conference, attendees’ once-lively gazes had turned to fixed stares. It might have been expected, what with the first day spent examining writing processes and strategies followed by the tag-team of Washington City Paper’s David Carr and Westword’s Patty Calhoun, a blistering commentary on American “alternative” journalism by The Baffler’s Tom Frank and an elbow-to-elbow cocktail reception.

The festivities continued the next morning with Carr leading an exhaustive discussion on ethics (which gave way to some interesting — if heated — debates) and a panel addressing “Subject Rights” (more heat, more debates). Come the final group session, minds had been bent and twisted, expanded and minced, but the soldiers pressed onÛhalf into the realm of investigative reporting, half into the universe of the arts.

Gambit Weekly’s Michael Tisserand opened his session with “something useful you can take back with you,” which involved an empty plastic water bottle and a twist of his neck. After the uproarious laughter subsided, Tisserand introduced the topic “Arts: A Different Kind of Story.”

Storytelling is the focus of good arts reporting, said Tisserand, and arts writers must strive for the same depth and breadth as investigative reporters. His position is to “get off the press releases” and find stories in the community, stories that warrant immersion into the character and history of the subject. Tisserand, author of the book The Kingdom of Zydeco, favors a folkloric rather than critical approach to arts feature writing.

Tisserand also shot down the notion of “pegs” or the need to hang a certain subject on an attendant event (i.e. a story on an musician who recently released a box set or a feature on an visual artist whose show opened last week). A finely crafted piece will stand on its own, and the “pegs,” though inherent in many pieces, will be rendered virtually invisible.

After suggesting a few books — including Writing For Story by Jon Franklin and The Art of Fact by Ben Yagoda and Kevin Kerrane — Tisserand opened the table to discussion of his story “Dog Hill Days” and others brought in by workshop participants. Features presented included a short investigative piece on the management of a live music club, an analysis of Andy Warhol’s art versus celebrity and a cultural perspective on the life and work of Richard Pryor. Exchanges regarding the works led to questions about coming up with story ideas, the use of first person and ethics in art.

Tisserand’s advice for achieving in-depth knowledge of one’s subject should be taken to heart by all journalists. And as elementary as it may seem, its something writers too often forget. “Be a Martian,” he said. “[Go into it] not knowing anything. Lose your bias.” In so doing, said Tisserand, the writer becomes an expert on his or her subject, a concept foreshadowed in the Carr/Calhoun break-out “12 Commandments of Good Storytelling.”

Unfortunately, as was symptomatic of most of the sessions throughout the conference, there just wasn’t enough time to cover everything and everyone. But yea, we parted ways with more writing tools than we could possibly carry, trudging into the cool night air to pursue what the arts writer craves yet never seems to obtain: respect.

Hell, if all else fails, there’s always the plastic-bottle-behind-the-neck trick.

Ellison Austen Walcott, freelance writer:

While Hurricane Floyd bullied its way up the eastern seaboard in mid-September, a select group of writers and editors gathered on the picturesque Evanston, Illinois campus of Northwestern University for the AAN/Medill Workshop.

>From ethics discussions to investigative techniques, from the necessity of thorough research to an examination of the critical process, the conference provided an opportunity for learned discourse and not a small amount of inspiration.

Unlike other conferences I’ve attended, there didn’t seem to be any political hierarchy, any undue brownnosing, nor any desire to impress others. The driving motivation was journalistic integrity.

Certain workshops naturally stand out; some for the energy of a charismatic presenter, and others for the engaging topic at hand:

In a break-out session led by Missoula Independent Editor Blake de Pastino, we discussed the craft and responsibility of the art critic. The pros and cons of the first-person voice were debated, and everyone generally agreed that precious few know how to wield the “I” sword without self-indulgent sand traps.

During the “Subject Rights” panel moderated by Chicago Reader Editor Alison True, three seasoned Reader reporters raised some unconventional ideas about the relationship between reporter and subject. Steve Bogira, Tori Marlan and Kitry Krause each exuded a lack of cynicism that was no doubt the very quality that engendered trust and allowed them to draw the most from their subjects.

Willy Stern’s “20 Tips For Investigative Reporters” was heavily spiced with take-no-prisoners techniques for reporters hoping to get the goods on immoral corporate execs and other slippery miscreants.

For this freelance writer, hovering just outside the alternative paper loop, the conference provided a valuable education and a healthy dollop of affable camaraderie.

Cheryl Ross, Chicago Reader :

Having written for dailies before setting up residence at the Chicago Reader, I have seen first-hand the editorial differences, in storytelling and news gathering, between mainstream and alternative papers. One of the most glaring differences is that the mainstream press tends to show the world in black-and-white, while alternatives generally strive to serve it up in all its technicolor glory. Nevertheless, at this year’s AAN writing workshop, it became clear that many altie journalists get that color by using “black-and-white” reporting methods.

David Carr’s “Journalism Ethics” workshop provided a prime example. Several small groups were handed an ethical conundrum and asked to solve it. My group’s task was to decide if it was OK for a reporter to assume the role of a client in order to access a shelter. At least one person in our group admitted she once reported a piece undercover; we discussed the pros and cons of her surreptitious approach. Ultimately, we agreed that “our” fearless reporter should reveal his or her identify. As one participant put it, we’re doing journalism, not an episode of “New York Undercover.” We concluded that, no matter how difficult it may be to get the story, journalists should report stories without misrepresenting their identity.

Later, we presented our answer to the larger gathering of workshop participants. Not everyone agreed with us. Some argued that the only way to get the “truth” on some stories is to lie in the process.

In my previous incarnation at a Florida daily, there would never have been a question about whether to disguise a reporter to get a story. It just wasn’t done. Still, I appreciate that, in the alternative world, at least the question is asked. Would I have read the shelter story filed by the undercover reporter? Probably. Although I believe a journalist can get at the truth and serve up life’s colors without being dishonest about his or her identity, I am willing to keep an open mind.