Editorial Speakers Challenge Convention, Provide Pointers

A pool of expectant faces before him — some eager, some cynical — Dan Baum jumped right in. His audience wanted rules for writing and narrative structure, but he urged attention to detail and an embrace of ambiguity. They wanted conflict, resolution, inverted pyramid structure and nut grafs, but he exhorted them to eschew J-school form for storytelling, and dry fact for suggestion.

He had to convince these journalists to write not articles but stories, not of sources but characters, to write…just…better. Readers aren’t obligated to sift through 5,000 words, and must be entertained.

Baum, with his New Yorker writing partner (and wife) Margaret Knox, created a stir around the topic of narrative journalism. So concluded Saturday’s AAN West editorial program.

Friday, attorney Susan Rutberg and Bay Guardian reporter A.C. Thompson kicked off two days of programming by speaking powerfully about vindicating and freeing men wrongly convicted of murder and rape.

Rutberg’s tale of excavating a palm tree in order to unearth a pair of bloody sneakers got all the aspiring gum-shoes breathing heavy, and she horrified them with stories of the junk science behind serology inclusion, dog handling and hair comparison. Take nothing for granted and question authorities that flash badges, Rutberg counseled, and don’t be cynical about a criminal who claims innocence.

Film critic Ella Taylor’s workshop, “Weaving the Backstory into Arts Reviews,” provoked AAN’s cultural gatekeepers into a fit of eyeglass-straightening reconsideration of their treatment of high and pop culture. Playing opposite, attorney Thomas Burke made the dry subject of media law come alive with illustrations from specific cases.

Gail Johnson, associate editor of The Georgia Straight, spoke about the health beat, offering tips on how to separate sources from propagandists, and urging writers to avoid focusing on themselves in their health articles.

Jake Bernstein carefully detailed the trail of potential clues left in a good campaign finance scandal. He doled out the resources that helped him get the goods for the Texas Observer — Form 990s, www.tray.com, www.guidestar.com and the experts already tracking campaign money. He paired this wealth of information with charming humility.

Upon the conference’s conclusion, attending editors and writers headed for their natural habitat — a local bar. Dan Baum was among them, beret firmly in place and clove cigarette in hand, to share cocktails and two day’s worth of pent-up conversation.

Lacey Phillabaum is a reporter for The Source Weekly in Bend, Ore.

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