Record Number Attend AAN/Medill Conference

Workshop highly rated in post-conference survey.

Five dozen reporters and editors attended the fourth annual AAN/Medill Alternative Journalism Workshop, which was held Oct. 6-8 at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Most of the attendees who responded in the post-conference evaluation found the classes informative, the social events enjoyable and the immense amount of required reading agonizing.

The workshop was led by four veteran journalists who covered everything from the literary style of the New Yorker Magazine’s late, great Joseph Mitchell to the need for journalists to question their own assumptions. Most of the attendees who critiqued the classes were impressed by what they learned, although a few of the more experienced journalists found the instruction too basic.

Classes began on a Friday afternoon with a seminar taught by Ben Yagoda, a journalism professor from the University of Delaware. Yagoda discussed personal “voice” and style, referencing the work of groundbreaking journalists like A.J. Liebling, Tom Wolfe and Joseph Mitchell. Attendees were split between those who found the course useful (“felt like I was looking at my work through a fresh pair of eyes afterwards”) and those who didn’t think “the New Yorker stuff was particularly relevant to alternative weeklies.”

Saturday morning, attendees split into two workshops — Nation/Salon scribe Bruce Shapiro on local reporting and Medill professor Abe Peck on arts criticism and feature writing. Most attendees loved Shapiro’s enthusiastic delivery and real-world advice, although a few said they thought the course was too elementary. Peck received mostly rave reviews; one survey respondent said Peck “was an engaging, effective teacher who broke things down to basics but always kept it interesting.”

Shapiro also led the Saturday afternoon workshop on writing style and story structure. Seventy-five percent of the survey respondents gave it their highest rating, including the attendee who said, “This class made me excited about writing again!”

During Shapiro’s workshops, attendees broke into smaller groups to critique each other’s work. Many said this gave them a good chance to “pick each other’s brain” and exchange ideas, but several attendees commented that their peers were not critical enough or that the sessions were too short. In addition, a few survey respondents noted that the critiques required a substantial amount of reading on short notice.

Chicago Reader reporter Steve Bogira presented the weekend’s highest-rated workshop, “The Importance of Being Doubtful.” Although the class size had dwindled by Sunday morning, 90% of those who attended gave Bogira’s presentation their highest rating. One reporter said that Bogira helped her to realize that an article she had submitted prior to the conference contained errors; she was able to correct her mistakes before the piece went to print. Another said “Great talk. Made me think. Some things I just accept without questioning. Bogira changed that.”

And despite the disparity among attendees in age, experience, and newspaper size, the social events were each well received as writers from around the country compared notes at dinner or at the breakfast table. Everyone especially enjoyed the Friday night dinner at a local tapas restaurant. The only sour note was sounded by a handful of diners who were disappointed at the lack of vegetarian choices throughout the conference.

Journalists with less experience seemed to benefit the most from the weekend workshop, according to the post-conference evaluations. One of the attendees wrote: “This helped a lot. [I] never had any formal training with any of this stuff and [they] made me realize the purpose of alternative weeklies and where we fit in. Plus, this gave us a sense of direction and made me feel useful (rather than despair-filled).”