Medill Conference to Address Practical Concerns

Writers Workshop Will Be Held Sept. 17-18.

Would you pose as a homeless person in order to experience and expose dreadful living conditions and heartless government bureaucrats in action? Willing to go drinking with law enforcement officers before you need their help on a story? Want to learn how to write across ethnic and linguistic boundaries?

The 3rd Annual AAN Alternative Journalism Writing Workshop will address these issues and a host of other practical concerns faced every day by alternative newspaper reporters. The workshop will be held Friday and Saturday, Sept. 17-18, on the Northwestern University campus in Evanston, Ill.

The first day of the conference will be devoted to interactive, small group discussions focusing on issues like writing process, critical voice, storytelling, story prospecting and interview techniques. Each discussion group of 3-4 writers will be led by one of the experienced editors serving on the AAN Editorial Committee.

Friday’s program will conclude with a presentation by Tom Frank, editor of the cultural review The Baffler, and author of “The Conquest of Cool”. Frank’s semi-notorious essay “Alternative To What?” in The Baffler #5 epitomizes his belief that the outward trappings of rebellion have been so thoroughly co-opted by corporate media that true “alternatives” in music, film or journalism, are almost invisible today.

The second day of the conference will feature an assortment of presentations and panels, with separate tracks for arts and news reporting. David Carr, editor of the Washington City Paper, will reprise the Journalism Ethics workshop that proved to be the most stimulating session at last year’s Medill conference. Following the conference, one attendee wrote, “By far my favorite session — Mr. Carr was wonderfully enthusiastic, and the discussions were fun. I think everyone enjoyed this one.” Another said: “An eye-opener. Proved that ethics is in the eye of the beholder. One of my favorite sessions.”

Abe Peck, chair of the Medill School’s Magazine program and director of the Teaching Magazine, will also make a return engagement, moderating an arts panel examining critical standards. Panelists include Chicago Sun-Times rock critic Jim DeRogatis and Chicago Reader arts critic Lee Sandlin.

Award-winning investigative reporter Steve Bogira of the Chicago Reader will get down to the nitty-gritty with “Reporting From the Bottom Up.” Bogira says his presentation will help reporters avoid the temptation of “expert” sources and “air-conditioned solutions” when the “real subjects of our stories are too young or too old or too uneducated to be ‘quotable,’ when they’re dead or in jail, or friendless or phoneless, when they live in tenements or on the upper floors of high-rise projects.”

Nashville Scene’s Willy Stern, whose 1995 story for Business Week, “Did Dirty Tricks Create a Best-Seller?” blew the lid off the manipulation of the New York Times best-seller list by crooked authors, brings his “20 Hands-On Tips for Investigative Reporting” to the table. (Sample: Stern will demonstrate how to get friendly with secretaries so they’ll leak those key documents without tipping off their bosses.)

Alison True, editor of the Chicago Reader, will moderate a panel on “Subject’s Rights,” examining the ethical and legal concerns that influence reporters’ decisions about how to treat a subject.

“The impulses governing our behavior toward subjects spring mostly out of personal ethics, so the rules vary widely from writer to writer, shop to shop,” says True. “We’ll examine questions like, ‘If you show a subject a story, how do you establish guidelines for how much input they’ll have in the final piece?’ and ‘What about when you know better than your subject does what’s good for him — and it’s bad for your story?'”

Michael Tisserand, veteran of the Oxford American, Musician, Down Beat and the Washington Post, author of “The Kingdom of Zydeco,” a finalist for the Ralph J. Gleason music book award, and editor of Gambit Weekly, will run what he calls “a writer’s jam session” for arts reporters. Participants in “A Different Kind of Story,” will tackle these questions: What type of article works best for which subject? How do I (or should I) use critical voice in feature writing? What about nuts and bolts (historical research, tape v. notes)? And what about using the first person?

An added bonus: The first 50 registrants will receive a promotional copy of the CD Lies, Sissies & Fiascoes: The Best of This American Life, courtesy of Rhino Entertainment. Lies reprises the best of Ira Glass’s highly rated show on NPR. Carr says he uses the CD to teach his writers about pacing, metaphor and narrative.

Registration forms were mailed last month to all AAN publishers and editors. Space is limited, and registrations will be accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis. Tuition is $150 per person for AAN members and $250 for non-members. If you need a registration form, call AAN at 202/822-1955.