Curtain Falls on Medill Workshop

AAN Reporters Learn From Editors Who "Really Knew Their Stuff."

Three dozen alternative newspaper reporters and editors assembled in the Chicago area Sept. 18-20 for the second annual AAN Writers Workshop at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill. The journalists — many of whom were veritable rookies — traveled from as far away as North Carolina, Alabama and Arizona to learn from some of the industry’s best minds.

This year’s three-day conference featured break-out sessions, discussion groups, some socializing and seminars on various subjects such as column writing and storytelling.

Unlike the ’97 workshop, where academics taught the majority of seminars, most of this year’s tutelage came from working professionals like LA Weekly Editor Sue Horton, author Alex Kotlowitz and recording artist and producer Steve Albini.

“I’m really glad I went,” says Chicago Reader Staff Writer Phoebe King. “Because I work out of the house like a lot of people do, you can get isolated from people, society. The workshop was good because it helps you stay plugged in…. I also learned a lot of stuff I can take back to my job — new websites for getting information, how to cultivate sources — and on top of all of it, I got to see Alex Kotlowitz speak. He’s one of my personal heroes.”

Adds Shepherd Express News Writer Kirsten Brauchli: “I would definitely go again. It was a great experience because when you’re all at work writing stories, trying to put the paper together, you don’t have the chance to just sit down, listen and share information with your peers.

“But the workshop — which took place in such an educational environment — gave us the opportunity to learn about different ways to approach a story, to network with people we might otherwise never meet and, I think, it also gave us the chance to get more confidence in the job we do.”

Two seminars at the ’98 workshop were led by Northwestern professors: Medill Associate Dean Abe Peck taught about arts writing while professor David Protess spoke to a packed classroom about identifying and reporting cases where innocent people have been wrongly incarcerated.

Protess — who along with several of his undergraduate students helped free four men unjustly imprisoned for 18 years — proved to be one of the workshop’s best speakers. His discussion was especially educational, according to many attendees, because he proffered nuts and bolts pointers.

“There are certain criteria I look for in cases,” Protess told his audience. “Was there any physical evidence? Blood, hair, fiber, semen, fingerprints? If not, that’s the first thing that makes me suspicious. Is there a credible eyewitness or not? Do the defendants have alibis? Is there a credible confession? And lastly, what is the background of the defendants?”

“He was such a dynamite speaker,” says Brauchli. “Listening to him gave me great insight as to what to look for and also new ideas about where to look [for information].”

Other speakers at the workshop were: Washington City Paper’s David Carr, who led a town hall meeting that explored the kind of ethical conundrums regularly faced by working journalists; Westword’s Patty Calhoun, who spoke about column writing; and the Riverfront Times ‘ Safir Ahmed, whose Saturday afternoon seminar was titled “Magazine-Style Writing for Investigative Journalists.”

“The speakers really knew their stuff,” says Doug Hanchett, staff writer at Worcester Magazine. “… Sue Horton gave me some terrific insights into the mind of an editor, and I think I have a better sense now of how to properly pitch a story to a skeptical supervisor. Patty Calhoun allowed a lot of give-and-take in her talk, which was quite interesting. Safir’s talk hammered home an interesting, overlooked concept: Taking a specific story idea and not being afraid to broaden it. Generally, it works the other way.”

Most attendees who spoke to AAN said they were satisfied with the workshop. However, some attendees offered suggestions for improvement.

“I think it might be helpful if the seminars were split up for experienced reporters and newcomers,” says one attendee.

“It seems some of the stuff was targeted at first-time reporters — a common pitfall at seminars — and it would have been nice to have smaller sessions covering more advanced techniques.”

The Reader’s King had this criticism: “Saturday was too jam-packed. It would have been better if things were spread out a little more.”