Medill Workshop Generates Heat, Inspires and Challenges

A remarkable assortment of young reporters and middle-aged editors descended on Medill School of Journalism’s brand new McCormick Tribune Center two weekends ago for the seventh annual AAN-Medill Alternative Journalism Writing Workshop.

University of Illinois journalism professor and former Washington Post reporter, Walt Harrington, headlined this year’s workshop and launched the weekend program with a rousing exhortation to truth and accuracy in journalism in the age of Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair. On day two, Harrington delivered an encomium to “intimate journalism” about ordinary people — i.e., middle class, non-celebrity, working families — that many attendees found inspiring.

“Walt Harrington is a great addition. It will be difficult to find someone who can add something fresh for next year’s conference who’s still as good as he is,” says Creative Loafing Editor Ken Edelstein.

Whereas Harrington focused on covering ordinary folks, Westword’s David Holthouse addressed the special logistical and ethical challenges associated with reporting on oddballs and freaks. In a discussion with his editor, Patty Calhoun, Holthouse reviewed several of his recent efforts, including one feature that was a result of his consorting for 72 hours with a group of young professionals on a meth-smoking binge, and yet another where he was invited to explore the pimp underworld.

The panel discussion that followed the opening night dinner —- held in the backroom of a barbecue joint that wasn’t, ahem, designed for panel discussions — generated heat, if not light, on the topic of the local dailies new youth pubs, RedEye and Red Streak. The editors of the new youth-dailies joined Northwestern University newspaper marketing professor Mike Smith in a tête-à-tête on the subject of what young people “want,” and sparred with AAN members who argued that the Reds should think more about what young people “need.” At one point during the discussion, moderator David Carr reminded the high-minded in the audience that the Tribune Co. (RedEye) and Hollinger (Red Streak) “didn’t start these papers to end the War in Iraq.” It should also be noted that sassy African-American Red Streak Editor Deborah Douglas, who enraged many Medill attendees with her breezy approach to journalism, gave as good as she got.

Carr, entertaining and challenging the audience from his position as moderator, was the glue that held the weekend together. He used what Edelstein calls “his superlative MC skills” during Saturday morning’s wide-ranging ethics discussion to poke and prod panelists Harrington; Chicago Reader executive editor Mike Lenehan; and Medill’s Patti Wolter, Charles Whitaker and Abe Peck. The discussion avoided the obvious no-no’s — don’t write fiction, don’t steal other’s work — and as a result didn’t generate any black- letter rules about right and wrong.

“It was clear from the disagreements that there are no clear answers, and that in certain cases it’s probably okay to lie, steal, and risk your life in the name of our profession,” noted Monterey County Coast Weekly Assistant Editor/Staff Writer Brett Wilbur . “Always a great thing to come away from a conference with. Seriously, it was an illuminating, fairly intimate event that inspired much debate.”

The conference ended on Saturday with a colloquy between Miami New Times Editor Jim Mullin and Abe Peck about how to find compelling local stories. Mullin used his paper’s award- winning theme issue on Miami’s status as the poorest city in the nation —- “We’re No. 1” —- to provide many rich examples. He also took a jab at Walt Harrington’s approach, which Mullin said promotes national “archetypes” at the expense of the obsessively local focus that he believes defines alternative journalism. Mullin speaks with some authority on the topic: At the closing dinner on Saturday evening the 25-year alt-weekly veteran picked up the John Bartlow Martin Award for “We’re No. 1”.

There were a few hiccups. Sixteen attendees were never sent pre-conference e-mail notices and were therefore unable to complete reading assignments or participate in small-group critiques. In addition, post-conference surveys suggest that the “finding documents” session was ill-conceived (AAN’s fault, not the instructor). However, the conference received high overall marks from attendees. With turnout at approximately 50 delegates, attendance reached roughly the same level as prior years.

“I thought the conference was really useful, particularly in terms of providing ideas I can use at my paper,” says Santa Fe Reporter Editor Julia Goldberg. “I hope to send staff members next year, because I think they will get lots of ideas and motivation and they will get to hear things from someone besides me.”

Omaha Reader Weekly’s Editor and Publisher John Heaston concurred: “Thanks for a great writer’s workshop. Nothing can protect our franchise better than a weekend like this.”