It’s safe to say that the 50 staff writers and editors who attended our Sept 27-29 writing workshop at Medill would agree that David Carr, who led the proceedings, was never less than engaging. Employing a nomenclature instantly recognizable to all who know him as deeply Carr-ian, he was also by turns funny, informative and inspiring. “This is what works for me,” he said, offering a rapid-fire succession of tips and suggestions designed for opportunistic and enterprising reporters.
Shuffling between the chair and folding table that sat in the front of Room 311 in Fisk Hall, he illustrated the tips with stories that were funny and richly detailed and in which he was, more often than not, the butt of the joke. Like the time he was interviewing firemen at the World Trade Center in the days following Sept. 11, and his New York magazine colleague Jennifer Senior asked rhetorically, “Did you ever notice how you interrupt your subjects at the precise moment that they’re about to say something important?”
Wounded, Carr dismissed the criticism until he listened to the tapes and heard incontrovertible evidence that he couldn’t keep his “big piehole” shut.
Keeping one’s piehole shut during an interview was just one of the many valuable lessons we learned over the course of a weekend focused on best practices and suffused with a love for the craft of alternative journalism.
After Carr seduced us with his charmingly eccentric manner, Nashville Scene’s Willy Stern blew into the room and slammed through a mesmerizing 45-minute seminar on investigative reporting. With the fury of a caged animal, Stern counted off 20 pitiless tips calculated to bag miscreant corporate executives and corrupt public officials. (e.g., “Number nine, blackmail works”). For Stern, an investigation is the moral equivalent of war, and victory is to “get the fuckin’ story.”
The human fireworks subsided Sunday morning when the Hartford Advocate’s Janet Reynolds took a seat at the front of the room and calmly provided tips on project management and time-saving techniques (ironically, yet not surprisingly, half the crowd showed up late). Just what the doctor ordered after a late night out, Reynolds radiated maternal competence as she ran through dozens of common-sense ideas designed to bring order and discipline to the routine of wayward reporters.
There also were valuable contributions from the Chicago Reader’s Michael Lenehan and other members of the AAN editorial committee, and from special guests like Steve Bogira, Rob Warden and Medill’s Abe Peck
Not everything worked. The “Best Stories” seminar wasn’t well thought out; we didn’t leave enough time for SF Weekly’s Lisa Davis and Phoenix New Times’ Amy Silverman to talk about their award-winning investigations; and it’s clear that we need to think of a better way to approach arts issues.
Nevertheless, although I have enjoyed all six Medill workshops, this one was the most fun, in no small measure due to the social events. The Friday night dinner at the Firehouse was just average, but the Saturday night dinner party in Chicago at the Beat Kitchen ranked with the best AAN parties. After dinner that evening, Medill professor Bob McClory, with great aplomb and humor, presented Davis and Silverman with their John Bartlow Martin Awards. Later we joined the crowd downstairs at the bar and took in an amazing show by The Waco Brothers, led by Mekons founder Jon Langford, who participated in our arts roundtable earlier that day. I know everyone had a great time because on the bus back to the hotel they gave me an ovation for putting it together.
When we arrived back at the Best Western, there was still a half-hour left in Karaoke Night at the hotel bar, just enough time for David Lee Simmons of Gambit Weekly to cap the evening with a swinging, perfectly cadenced rendition of “Rappers’s Delight.” Sherman Street Saloon, when uninhabited, ranks among the most depressing 2,000 square feet of watering hole I’ve ever seen, but that night it might as well have been McSorley’s.
“At the end of the weekend, I’m reinvigorated, gloriously in love with my craft all over again,” said Westword reporter David Holthouse, in his post-conference evaluation. “It’s really sweet.”