Medill Workshop Attendance Battered by Economy, Terrorism

Seminars more interactive than ever

Attendance at this Fall’s AAN/Medill Alternative Journalism Writing Workshop was down from last year’s record turnout, taking blows from both a faltering economy and travel disruptions in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on Washington and New York.

About 30 alternative newsweekly editors and writers attended the fifth annual writing conference at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill., down from 60 last year. After four years of steadily increasing attendance, this years’ turnout declined to a level last seen at the inaugural conference in 1997.

“September 11th’s events colored the perceptions of everybody who attended,” says Matt Olson, a freelance writer for Isthmus. “Everyone seemed to be in a state of melancholic shock when they got there. Everybody seemed to have an airport story.”

Andy Newman, editor of the Pittsburgh City Paper, agreed. “I think some of us had trouble corralling a lot of enthusiasm to get in an airplane and sit around and talk about how to make better stories.”

Despite the cancellations and initial low spirits, the journalists who attended got an intensive, hands-on experience and intimate interaction with workshop faculty, which included present and former AAN editors and Medill faculty, including Newman, Michael Lacey, executive editor of New Times, Tim Redmond, executive editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and David Carr, contributing editor at New York magazine and former editor of the Washington City Paper.

Once the shock wore off, people warmed up, says Olson.

“Even if the words and images of the last two weeks were lurking in everybody’s mind, it was clear that everybody who showed wanted to be there,” he says. “The pace of the workshops ebbed and flowed, but one theme was consistent: hard work + smart decisions + skill = great writing.”

“I thought this weekend was the best AAN experience I’ve had in five years,” says Kristen Sherwood, listings editor at the Colorado Springs Independent.

“The small size was excellent,” she says. “It allowed me to really get to know the other people in attendance, rather than the usual smarmy business-card shakedown we go through at the (AAN convention). … Michael Lacey made me begin to rethink my writing style and the importance of my own droning voice, and David Carr inspired me to stop being such a pansy when it comes to covering our arts scene—to ignore the popular fluff in favor of new approaches, an unsettling proposal in our market.”

“The workshop was great,” says Janel Davis of the Memphis Flyer. “Being new to the alternative scene (two months), it provided me an opportunity to learn more about the trade and meet key people in the organization.

“The sessions were also very informative, especially the investigative reporting session (led by Redmond)”, she says.

Jordan Lubetkin of non-AAN member Toledo City Paper says he “found the nuts-and-bolts tips from ‘Accounting for Poets’ and ‘How to Think Like an Investigative Reporter’ insightful and useful. The information I learned will help my writing, as well as the writing of other Toledo City Paper staff members. … (Hey, aren’t we always learning?)”

And Lubetkin vows that, “Michael Lacey’s crusade to overcome the first person will now be carried forth in Toledo.”

Newman singled Carr out for praise.

“He opened his first seminar by handing out a short piece he’d done in the aftermath [of the attack on the World Trade Center] about New York firefighters, and then he drilled into his own story and said how, in hindsight, he could have made it stronger.”

Newman says Carr had with him a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements Of Style that, “bizarrely, he’d practically kneeled on when he was cowering from an explosion on Sept. 11. It must have been blown out of a building and, when he dropped it on the desk in front of him, a ‘poof’ of yellow dust came out of it.”

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