Nieman Storyboard » Storyboard Posts Exploring the art and craft of story Fri, 22 May 2015 13:51:57 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Memorial Day Reading List Fri, 22 May 2015 13:49:39 +0000 It’s easy to forget, amid all the cookouts and trips to the beach, that Memorial Day was created to remember the men and women who have died in military service. In honor of the holiday, we’ve gathered a few outstanding stories about wars and the soldiers who fight them:

“The Other Walter Reed,” Dana Priest and Anne Hull, Washington Post. 2007. A searing investigation into the treatment of veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, this project prompted public outcry, spurred federal reforms and received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for public service.

“Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan’s room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses.

This is the world of Building 18, not the kind of place where Duncan expected to recover when he was evacuated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center from Iraq last February with a broken neck and a shredded left ear, nearly dead from blood loss. But the old lodge, just outside the gates of the hospital and five miles up the road from the White House, has housed hundreds of maimed soldiers recuperating from injuries suffered in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“Black Hawk Down,” Mark Bowden, Philadelphia Inquirer, 1997. Before there was the Ridley Scott film or the best-selling book, there was the 29-part newspaper series documenting an attempt by American forces to capture the lieutenants of a Somali militia leader which, instead, erupted into the biggest firefight involving American soldiers since Vietnam.

“STAFF SGT. Matt Eversmann’s lanky frame was fully extended on the rope for what seemed too long on the way down. Hanging from a hovering Blackhawk helicopter, Eversmann was a full 70 feet above the streets of Mogadishu. His goggles had broken, so his eyes chafed in the thick cloud of dust stirred up by the bird’s rotors.

It was such a long descent that the thick nylon rope burned right through the palms of his leather gloves. The rest of his Chalk, his squad, had already roped in. Nearing the street, through the swirling dust below his feet, Eversmann saw one of his men stretched out on his back at the bottom of the rope.

He felt a stab of despair. Somebody’s been shot already! He gripped the rope hard to keep from landing on top of the guy. It was Pvt. Todd Blackburn, at 18 the youngest Ranger in his Chalk, a kid just months out of a Florida high school. He was unconscious and bleeding from the nose and ears.

The raid was barely under way, and already something had gone wrong. It was just the first in a series of worsening mishaps that would endanger this daring mission. For Eversmann, a five-year veteran from Natural Bridge, Va., leading men into combat for the first time, it was the beginning of the longest day of his life.”

“Generation Kill,” Evan Wright, Rolling Stone, 2004. Wright spent two months embedded with U.S. Marines during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. His three-part series, which won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting, was later adapted into a book and an HBO miniseries. 

“Culturally, these Marines would be virtually unrecognizable to their forebears in the “Greatest Generation.” They are kids raised on hip-hop, Marilyn Manson and Jerry Springer. For them, “motherfucker” is a term of endearment. For some, slain rapper Tupac is an American patriot whose writings are better known than the speeches of Abraham Lincoln. There are tough guys among them who pray to Buddha and quote Eastern philosophies and New Age precepts gleaned from watching Oprah and old kung fu movies. There are former gangbangers, a sprinkling of born-again Christians and quite a few guys who before entering the Corps were daily dope smokers; many of them dream of the day when they get out and are once again united with their beloved bud.

These young men represent what is more or less America’s first generation of disposable children. More than half of the guys in the platoon come from broken homes and were raised by absentee, single, working parents. Many are on more intimate terms with video games, reality TV shows and Internet porn than they are with their own parents. Before the “War on Terrorism” began, not a whole lot was expected of this generation other than the hope that those in it would squeak through high school without pulling too many more mass shootings in the manner of Columbine.”

There are many other excellent examples of writing about war and its aftermath, some of which we’ve previously highlighted on Storyboard. Esquire writer Chris Jones discussed “The Things That Carried Him,” his 2008 story about the return of one soldier’s body from Iraq, during a visit to Lippmann House in 2011. And Washington Post national enterprise editor David Finkel spoke to the most recent class of Nieman Fellows in October about his two books documenting the experiences of an infantry battalion in Iraq and upon their return home.

What stories would you add to our list? Tweet to @niemanstory.




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Annotation Live! The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos and Richard M. Daley Fri, 15 May 2015 15:48:37 +0000 If you’re read the most recent Storyboard feature for the Nieman Reports magazine — and, if you haven’t, here it is — you may know that narrative is increasingly taking to the stage and streets as journalism goes live to connect in new ways with its audiences. Storyboard just joined that phenomenon ourselves when, last weekend, we presented our first live version of the popular Annotation Tuesday feature from our website.

The annotation was part of the program for a conference in Chicago on covering the 2016 presidential campaign, co-hosted by the Nieman Foundation and the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. If you weren’t at the event in Chicago or couldn’t watch the live feed on Periscope, we’ve got good news: the video version of the annotation is here.

In keeping with the conference theme, we went in search of a political story with strong narrative elements and quickly chose the landmark profile of former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley by Evan Osnos of The New Yorker. Osnos won the 2014 National Book Award in non-fiction for his book about the modernization of China,  Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New Chinaand, yes, he reported the Daley profile from his former base in Beijing (he now writes for the magazine from Washington, D.C.). We selected this article in part because, aside from its sophisticated storytelling, it poses a dilemma faced by reporters in every genre: how do you write about someone that everyone thinks they already know?

To answer that question and many others, Osnos joined Nieman Fellow Dawn Turner Trice, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, for a discussion that touched upon everything from The New Yorker’s famed penchant for detail to what he regrets he didn’t include in the story. To read the profile before you watch the annotation, click here.


Nieman Storyboard: Live Annotation from Nieman Foundation on Vimeo.

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Exploring the Rise of Live Journalism Thu, 07 May 2015 20:44:15 +0000 In 2001, while interning at the Associated Press bureau in Rome, Samantha Gross started working as a guide, giving walking tours of the Vatican, meandering through St. Peter’s Basilica with visitors, telling them stories about the artworks around them. Over the next 10 years, Gross bounced among AP postings from Tallahassee to New York City, covering courts, city hall, politics, crime, and more. But she never lost her taste for tours.

“Probably my favorite part of the [AP] job was getting to enter into the lives of so many people whom I wouldn’t have met otherwise and hear them tell their stories,” says Gross. That piece of her job, though, was the part that her readers never really got to experience. “I never felt that I was able to fully convey that to the people who would then read the stories. They were always missing out on some piece of that experience. Why couldn’t we share the best of our jobs with them?”

So last year, Gross founded StoryTour, a live, experiential magazine comprised of guided stories that take place in New York City. In one recent story, “The Land of the Slow Food Startups,” the tour guide took the audience to an old Pfizer building deep in South Williamsburg to meet the entrepreneurs behind the burgeoning slow food businesses there. “Our nonfiction story tours are like an equivalent of walking into the pages of a narrative feature in a magazine,” Gross explains. Whereas in a feature, the journalist might describe the row of tall silver machines lining the walls of the Kelvin Natural Slush Co. or the building’s bricked-up windows, in a StoryTour the audience sees all that for themselves. Once inside, they watch as the journalist interviews the staff of Dinner Lab, a pop-up dinner club, and they eat pasta made by Sfoglini, an artisanal pasta company.

The piece is more than a walking tour, according to Gross; it’s journalism that uses many of the same narrative techniques any magazine feature might. “The StoryTour begins with a narrative focusing on the seismic shifts many work-obsessed New Yorkers have faced in the wake of the economic downturn, and the ways that many people began re-examining their priorities and finding the motivation to start something new,” Gross says. Zack Silverman, founder of Kelvin Natural Slush, left behind a promising legal career to start his business. The audience hears him speak about the ups and downs of leaving a stable job to start something new and risky. They can even ask questions. “It’s not just seeing a list of places or hearing interesting facts or tasting interesting food,” Gross says. “It’s really an experience that’s guided by narrative and story.”

Instead of having people read about a business, StoryTour brings them inside it

Gross fondly recalls her experience as a tour guide in Rome. “It was thrilling to look directly into the eyes of my audience and see them react as I told them stories,” she says. “Having experienced that allowed me to envision how StoryTour could work, and how exciting it could be.”

Gross is just one of an increasing number of reporters looking to take their work beyond the paper or the screen or the speaker in the form of “live journalism.” The format is flexible, and the boundary between journalism and journalism-adjacent forms—first-person storytelling, theater, lecture—is blurry, but live storytelling events like The Moth and ideas festivals like TED could provide news organizations with viable models for moving stories from page to stage.

Outlets like The Texas Tribune and The Atlantic now put on events that bring together experts and journalists to talk about everything from higher education to national security. Pop-Up Magazine, a live show that started in San Francisco, sells out in minutes. It has also extended its brand through a partnership with TED, putting on a mini-magazine at last March’s conference. “Radiolab” has done a number of popular events; its most recent, “Apocalyptical,” ran 29 times in 21 cities and featured an original score, dinosaur puppets, and a team of multimedia projection artists. “The Heart,” a podcast about love and sex, hosts live listening events nestled in dark, pillow-padded rooms. “This American Life” also puts on live variety shows, with performances by comedians and musical acts.

And people are coming. Pop-Up Magazine’s early shows filled a 360-seat theater; today, it sells out a 2,600-person venue. “Radiolab” and “This American Life” fill theaters across the country. (“This American Life” has streamed its variety show into movie theaters.) And start-ups like StoryTour can exist on ticket sales alone. Journalism outlets are experimenting with all kinds of new formats and technologies to enhance storytelling and engage audiences. Now is a good time for the art of live storytelling.

During “Truth and Dare,” for which Pop-Up Magazine teamed up with TED, Dawn Landes performed a song from her musical called "Row"

During “Truth and Dare,” for which Pop-Up Magazine teamed up with TED, Dawn Landes performed a song from her musical called "Row"

In the early 1990s, Anna Deavere Smith, whose background is in theater, explored complex political topics on stage, interviewing people involved in a series of controversial events, like Brooklyn’s Crown Heights riot in 1991 and the Los Angeles riots in 1992. She interviewed people on all sides of each conflict then edited the transcripts into monologues, playing each character herself.

In “Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities,” the performance that recounted the Crown Heights riot, a three-day span in which the neighborhood’s black and Jewish communities clashed, Deavere Smith played 26 different people, from Rabbi Joseph Spielman, a spokesperson for the Lubavitch community, to an anonymous young black man who lived in the neighborhood. The televised version integrates black-and-white images of the neighborhood and a soundtrack with a mix of hip-hop and traditional Jewish chants. “You could describe Anna Deavere Smith as a documentary filmmaker who has simply decided to dispense with the camera,” wrote David Richards in a 1992 review for The New York Times.

By that definition, Pop-Up is a magazine that has simply decided to dispense with the paper. Over the past six years, Pop-Up has built a loyal (not to say, fanatical) following and has sold out shows in minutes. Its founder, magazine writer Douglas McGray, realized that he had never met the photographers who shot images for his pieces. McGray launched Pop-Up Magazine to bring together all the creative people who make a magazine and have them show their work on stage, and then go out for drinks with the audience afterward. (McGray also recently launched a print/digital publication, The California Sunday Magazine, which is inserted once a month in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Sacramento Bee.)

Most Pop-Up events are not recorded in any way, and that’s a big part of the appeal. “The audience is very committed,” says Pat Walters, a Pop-Up senior editor. “They buy in: ‘I’m just going to be here.’” Stories happen in the moment. As soon as they’re done, they’re gone.

In 2011, Walters produced something that highlighted what a Pop-Up experience can be. During a show produced in partnership with ESPN the Magazine, Walters made a “weird little short story, half animation, half radio story, half playful moment” about a time when record-breaking free diver Tanya Streeter nearly died.

Before beginning, Walters asked the audience to take a deep breath and hold it. They then heard from Walters that Streeter packs enough air into her lungs to fill four basketballs, and then from a scientist who studies free divers about how one’s heart rate slows down to as few as 10 beats per minute during a dive. They heard from Streeter herself about how the pressure of a deep dive bends her eardrums in. The piece also discusses how on one dive, Tanya may have suffered from nitrogen narcosis, a condition that induces disorientation and potential loss of consciousness from the effects of breathing nitrogen under pressure. During the dive she became confused and nearly didn’t make it back up to the surface.

As the audience listened, they saw a projection screen filled with Caribbean blue slowly darken, paralleling Streeter’s descent, until at the bottom, where Streeter almost died, the room went black. As Streeter recovered and rose, the blue returned. When the story ended, about four minutes later, roughly the duration of one of Streeter’s dives, Walters invited anyone still holding their breath to exhale.

In a more recent Pop-Up event, the audience enjoyed a dinner in which the elements of the meal connected to the stories they were being told. Water glasses were filled to a line that illustrated how low Lake Shasta had dipped during the drought. The napkins had word art describing “topics of conversation” for the diners. The plates were made of clay pulled up from an oil well. The dessert was made of fruits bred by a rare fruit collector. With live journalism, “the possibilities are virtually unlimited,” Walters says. “You can do everything you could do in radio, on TV, on the stage, and the people are there. You’re talking to them.”

Live shows give “Radiolab” more opportunity to improvise than when in the studio

The creative possibilities are what bring many journalists to live events. When “Radiolab” put on “Apocalyptical,” staff combined the music of Noveller with comedians like Reggie Watts and Ophira Eisenberg, and puppetry. As hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich started a segment about the long history of scientific debate over what, exactly, took down the dinosaurs, a large dino puppet crept out onstage. “It would be so much easier, for the scientists, and for you and I right now, frankly, if we could just ask somebody who was there, an eyewitness,” Abumrad said during the show, unaware that the dinosaur is on stage, cocking its head at the audience in a distinctly bird-like way. Abumrad and Krulwich, with the help of a “dinosaur translator,” then asked the beast what exactly happened to its friends.

“What we’re trying to do is something that’s creative-feeling,” says “Radiolab” executive producer Ellen Horne. “We try to create a system where there’s a lot of reporting and facts and storytelling but there’s also this opportunity to rehearse and play.” She also says live shows allow producers and performers to improvise, something that’s much harder to do in a studio: “With ‘Apocalyptical,’ we wrote maybe 20 endings for that show. Every night we’d go out and try something new.”

“Rabiolab” co-host Jad Abumrad explores the science of extinction during his show’s “Apocalyptical” tour stop in Oakland

“Rabiolab” co-host Jad Abumrad explores the science of extinction during his show’s “Apocalyptical” tour stop in Oakland

Kaitlin Prest, host and creative director of “The Heart,” came to live events looking for ways to have her work live on beyond the one-time broadcast. “How can you appreciate something culturally that is only listened to in transit?” she wonders. At one event for “The Heart,” in partnership with an experiential travel organization, seven couples travelled to an abandoned honeymooners resort in the Poconos full of heart-shaped bathtubs and round beds below mirrored ceilings. They were told to call the front desk when they arrived. When they picked up the receivers of the old phones on the bedside tables, they heard a special audio piece by “The Heart.” Other “Heart” events have included a kissing booth and the blindfolding of participants to create a new sensory experience.

“My secret goal is that every radio piece I make will live in the real world,” says Prest. She and the other producers are considering how to take their work from earbuds and speakers, listened to while closed off from the rest of the world, and make people interact with those same stories in person, together with other listeners.

The desire to bridge the gap between isolated listeners and shared space is one of the driving forces behind a new series produced by WBUR, one of Boston’s public radio stations, called “Listen Up,” which pulls together radio pieces around a theme and plays them for an audience gathered at the Institute of Contemporary Art. With the lights down, audience members hear radio stories without any visual component. They can close their eyes or look out onto the Boston Harbor through the theater’s vast windows, but there is nothing specifically designed for them to see.

The audience at the first “Listen Up” event heard the story of a woman whose family communicated with her kidnapped father in Colombia through a radio program that was broadcast into the jungle. They listened to the viral “bad haircut” story, where a reporter interviews his daughters about the terrible makeover one gave to the other. They heard Abumrad and Krulwich of “Radiolab” discuss the story behind the Golden Record sent floating out into space on the Voyager spacecraft.

The stories are all powerful celebrations of the human voice, but Lisa Tobin, senior producer of innovation at WBUR, wasn’t sure the format would work. “Asking people to focus on audio as a lone sensory experience was one of the most exciting things about it, and also the thing that terrified me,” she says. “Are they going to be bored out of their minds?” They weren’t. Tobin says audience reaction was positive enough to do another listening event, this time pegged to Valentine’s Day.

And advocacy groups are embracing the power of live events as well. In September, the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS), a social justice organization, will take about 100 people on a train along the Capitol Corridor Amtrak line, from Oakland to Sacramento. Along the way, riders will hear three live stories about the history of California agriculture. “We picked this neat and vibrant swath of the state,” says Ildi Carlisle-Cummins, the project director at Cal Ag Roots, a new set of programs from CIRS. “About two million people ride that route a year, and its past is full of all kinds of stories.”

One story riders will hear is of the invention of the mechanical tomato harvester, a long-running collaboration between scientists at University of California, Davis. “They were the laughing stock of UC Davis, because they had so many prototypes that failed,” Carlisle-Cummins says. But when they finally designed a machine that could pick the tomatoes, and a strain of tomatoes that were hardy enough to survive picking, they completely changed the tomato farming industry. Tens of thousands of farmers were out of work, and the university system was sued.

“I am wading into this world of putting on this storytelling project and then recording these stories because I have listened to so many episodes of The Moth and ‘Radiolab’ and ‘This American Life,’” Carlisle-Cummins says. “I just find listening to things, first-person perspectives to be really powerful and just an interesting way to go through the world.”

Live events have potential financial as well as storytelling benefits. In some cases, the events themselves make money. Pop-Up tickets generally go for $25 to $55 a pop. StoryTour’s ticket sales pay Gross’s salary, and her storytellers get paid based on a profit-sharing model. “Radiolab” breaks even on its live events. Other publications have managed to turn their events into moneymakers. According to a recent study, The Wall Street Journal’s series of live events—in which journalists interview invited guests on stage—earns over $10 million a year.

Listeners are invited to interact in real life with stories they hear on the radio

Even if the events themselves don’t make money, they can still be a net gain for the outlet. According to “Radiolab” ’s Horne, live shows are a crucial way to grow audience and foster community, which can then be monetized, if necessary. “A lot of people are brought to a ‘Radiolab’ show by a ‘Radiolab’ fan,” Horne says. “It seems to be a way that fans are able to introduce ‘Radiolab’ to people who aren’t listening to podcasts.”

The community aspect is also one of the reasons live events are so popular. “There’s been this incredible rise in all of our lives of virtual experience and virtual community,” Horne says. “One of the things that interests us in doing these live events is that it satisfies a need for the ‘Radiolab’ creative staff and the audience to have a real physical experience together. It’s almost palpable this hunger for these real experiences.”

StoryTour’s Gross agrees. When she was doing market research for her venture, she went to Moth events and asked audience members why they were there. “What almost every single one said to me was some variant on, ‘I care about these stories because I recognize a piece of myself in them.’ Which is, as writers, the reason we all think stories are important.”

Ultimately, doing a good live show is hard. Journalists often excel in their chosen medium, whether that’s print or online or radio or television, but live theater is a whole new set of skills. Reporters aren’t necessarily used to blocking things out onstage, thinking about lighting and live pacing and the set, figuring out the motions of their storytellers, the facial expressions, or working with audio and visuals and music. The arc of a print story might hinge on a quote or a phrase or a description, where the narrative of a stage show might pivot on a turned back or some other movement. Turning a story from a print or radio piece into a stage performance means learning all those skills. If done well, though, live events can bring a whole new level of interest and impact to narrative nonfiction.

“Journalism can be really effective when it actually entertains people,” says Pop-Up’s Walters, “and they don’t feel like it’s something they should be paying attention to but it’s something they want to pay attention to.”

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A Conversation with Pulitzer Prize Winner Diana Marcum Thu, 30 Apr 2015 12:39:03 +0000 Diana Marcum is the first to acknowledge that her path to a Pulitzer Prize may be an unexpected one.

“My parents died when I was young. I didn’t get through college. I didn’t have any of the right credentials,” she says. “But I could write. People seemed to think I could write.”

That certainly was the judgment of the Pulitzer Prize Board, which last week awarded her the 2015 prize for feature writing for her series of stories in the Los Angeles Times about the impact of the drought on people living in California’s Central Valley.

Diana Marcum

Diana Marcum

Marcum, 52, had freelanced for the Los Angeles Times on and off for years before being hired as a staff writer in 2011. She covers the 900-square-mile Central Valley for the newspaper and pursued the drought stories in between chasing fires and the other news a beat reporter has to manage. And while she and photographer Michael Robinson Chavez knew from the beginning that they wanted to explore the impact of the drought in a serious and sustained way, the series never carried the self-important imprint of a capital-P “Project.” The pair just went out, looked for stories and found them.

She wrote the pieces late at night at her dining-room table, fueled by Diet Coke and a copy of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” a gift from her editor that she set out to remind herself of the stakes of doing her subject justice.

We talked by phone as Marcum sat on her front porch in Fresno, where our conversation was momentarily interrupted by the arrival of a congratulatory bouquet of flowers and Marcum’s friendly chat with her mail carrier, whom she knows by name. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript.

How did the drought stories come about?

I cover the Central Valley. I live here, and where the drought was hitting wasn’t the city. It was out in the little towns and the farms, way far off the road. You can’t just go around and knock on doors. It’s pretty hard to just find the doors. This was an area where life is hard and people are incredibly resilient and there’s just these stories of just trying to make your way in the world. Little stories that fascinate me. I mean they’re not little stories, but they’re little-told stories.

I had already been driving around and going to all these little places because we were thinking about doing a series of stories on people who were hungry in the middle of the bread basket. And then we started seeing the drought hit. And remember, these stories were written about a year before anybody was paying attention to the drought. So that was how it started. We just started talking to people and seeing where the drought was hitting and it was in pockets. Like you could even go to a town, and you could talk to the first people you saw and they’d say, “Oh we’ve been fine, we all found jobs, we’re still farming.” But it’s because of California’s weird water rights, right? You could go three blocks away and there was a whole neighborhood of people out of work. So you had to really, really look.

You and the photographer, Michael Robinson Chavez, had envisioned from the beginning that it would be a series. Did you think of it in any more specific terms than that?

We started with the most vulnerable. We started with the farm workers who didn’t have papers. We did that story. And then, oh my goodness, you know, this is so much worse than we realized. And then we just kind of worked our way up. We started with the farm worker, then we did the small farmer. By then, a whole entire town was out of water. So we went there and then the land was sinking, so we found a small town where the land was sinking. It was always just kind of following the journalism gods.

These people are in really difficult circumstances but they opened up to you. How did you gain their trust?

We just go out and make friends. It takes a little bit of time. We hang out, we just sort of invite ourselves in, and we eat samosas with the Singh family, and say, “Oh, can we look at your almond tree?” And we do a lot of listening, maybe to things that would never end up in the story. People really want to talk, you know. I mean we all do. You know when you find someone that will really listen to you, most people appreciate that opportunity. I know I do.

This image of farm worker Hector Ramirez ran with the first story in the series. Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/ Los Angeles Times.

This image of farm worker Hector Ramirez ran with the first story in the series. Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/ Los Angeles Times.

Talk a little bit more about your relationship with your photographer. It sounds like you were together on this from the get-go.

Oh yeah, very much so. He’s very well-traveled, and he loves food, and he’s just charming. So he’s very good at talking to people, striking up a conversation. You know, if they’re from Yemen, he covered a story in their hometown. He always seems to have some touchstone with people, which is really handy. And I think he’s the more driven one of us. He’s the more, “Oh this is a national news story, this is gonna be a series.” And I’m more the writer, just kind of feeling it out as I go and thinking about exactly what’s in front of me in that moment. I think we make a good team.

I think that the other thing that’s kind of interesting about us working together is that our stuff doesn’t match. We work together in that we’re finding the people and figuring out the stories, but we’re not the kind of team where we’re telling the same story. There’s always some quirky side element to his photographs. I mean, you’ll see the certain farmer leaning on the fence and the dry landscapes, but there’ll always be a kid in the corner playing the trumpet or something. Which is I think pretty much how I write. So it’s interesting when I finally see his pictures and he finally sees my stories, and we saw such different things, but we saw the same overall story.

Walk me through the reporting process. How long were you out in the field? How long did the stories take to write? What were some of the challenges putting it together?

I think that where most of the time gets used is walking around and just talking to people. It’s interesting because I don’t know when I’m talking to people a lot of the time that that’s going to be part of the story. I find that what’s in my notebook is not what goes in the story. There’s like some back part of my brain that’s videotaping everything we do and later on, those are the things that I suddenly realize are key when you start putting it together in your mind.

How long did it typically take you to write a story?

Central Valley is my beat, and we were keeping it to ourselves that we had some grander vision. So we had not a lot of time to work on them. I would say a couple of weeks maybe.

So it’s not as though someone was saying to you, an editor was saying, “Go off for six months, Diana, and tell the story of the drought.”

No, not at all. I was covering fires and everything else. We still had our regular work to do. Which I kind of like, you know? I mean it’s so exciting winning the Pulitzer… I just wasn’t sure how a newspaper reporter who covers 900 square miles on top of trying to do this would ever compete with magazine writers that have a whole year to work on a story. So secretly I’m kind of jazzed.

The stories are very highly focused, without a lot of outside experts or data, etc. Did you have to fight for that approach?

Well, these stories ran in Column One. And Column One is this tradition at the Los Angeles Times. I’ve been reading it since I was a child. So there’s always been a place on the front page of the Los Angeles Times for stories that were quirky or sad or just full of humanity, just full of life. Just stories that were interesting to read. I think that we’ve not even ever defined it any more narrowly than that because we want them to run the gamut, right? I mean, they just have to be interesting. They have to be special. They have to be different. And that’s it. Just have at it, you know?

The LA Times has this umbrella that allows storytelling. I mean real storytelling, where you take somebody into a world and keep them there from the beginning to the end, and the main thing is about the characters and the feelings. And now it’s not like you’re going to be telling a story and then interrupt yourself and say, “Oh, and let me explain the history of almonds in California.” It breaks things up. That’s why it doesn’t work if too many fingers get in the pie. And I’m not talking about the paper I’m at now. I think that any feature writer has been through that thing where they start deciding they need two graphs of this and three graphs of that. And the story gets lost.

What was the editing process like?

It’s a dream. It’s just a dream, a dream come true. When you finally, finally meet somebody who’s like-minded. Kari Howard is the Column One editor. I’m a state reporter so it goes through the regular editing process with Steve Clow. He’s the state editor. He’s more hard-news minded. So he’s looking for facts, kicking the tires, which is great. And then it goes to Kari. And we’re reading the lines out loud, and we’re weighing connotations… We’re having a very back-and-forth conversation. It’s not that kind of editing where, “Oh, here’s my changes. Take a look and see what you think.” It’s like, “Well, I think you’re missing a beat here… Oh I see what you’re saying. Why don’t we move this line here? Oh yeah, we did that, but do you think we have too much of this?”

It’s very back and forth. We’re almost like those chipmunks from the Disney cartoons, you know? It’s very respectful and very warm, and we’ve developed a friendship from working together on so many stories. So we can almost complete each other’s sentences at this point. And sometimes if something isn’t working, we’ll say, “Let’s take a pass at this and see what you have.” And we’ll come back the next day and find out we changed the exact same things.

What did change in the stories and what didn’t, from start to finish?

Well, the leads and the ends hardly changed. I mean if you have your beginning and your end, sometimes, things move around in the middle in service of those two things. But as long as you know for sure this is where we have to start and this is where we have to end, then you’re home.

Do you start with the beginning or do you start with the end or do you start somewhere in between?

Ugh, it’s really my weak point. But I start at the beginning and I go to the end. Certainly, when I was a younger reporter, and editors are trying to hurry you up, and they always say, “If you don’t have your lead, just go write something else.” No.

You know, I have to have the blank page, and I can’t do anything until I have my lead. I have to really believe in the lead to at least get everything else on paper. Even if it changes later, you know? I’m not suggesting it for other writers, but for me personally, I’m a top-to-bottom kind of person.

One of the things I thought was really striking about these stories was the use of detail and imagery. For example, there’s a line in one story, about two girls, “a tangle of giggles.” I would love to hear about your process. Do you just see those things and put them in your notebook? Do you have to work at it?

I’m a night owl. So I’m usually writing at two o’clock in the morning with a Diet Coke, you know, getting a little punchy. And I’m usually playing the scenes in my mind. I’m seeing things. I’m kind of replaying. I’m watching what happened in my head. And a lot of times what ends up in the story is not what ended up in my notebook. I think it comes more from those mental images. And I was thinking about Francisco’s daughters, and I just typed “a tangle of giggles.” I just typed it. And I remember it just came out of nowhere. I remember feeling delighted. You know that feeling like, “Oh! I like that.”

There are some light moments in these stories, too.


Why do you feel it was important to include those?

I think my overall purpose was to introduce people to each other, to let them get to know one another. And I think how we bond with each other is through laughter. Like, the people we like to be with are the people whose sense of humor we share. I mean that’s how you make friends with people, like when you’re traveling. If you can share a little laugh with someone, that’s what breaks the ice and makes you feel a little comfortable.

There’s a saying. I don’t remember who said it, but my dad used to say it a lot: “Angels can fly if they take themselves lightly.” I think that’s true for a story, too. When you’re talking about something that’s very wrenching and has a lot of pathos, if it’s just all the grit and despair, it’s not servicing telling the reality because the kind of people that I’m writing about are very resilient, and they have humor. And there’s something to be admired there. And it usually comes through in the lighter moments. And you don’t care as much about the dark unless there’s at least a little pinpoint of light.

Pistachio farmer Fred Lujan   struggled to keep his trees alive. Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times

Pistachio farmer Fred Lujan struggled to keep his trees alive. Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times

I described the stories as quiet because they feel understated. There are moments, like when Fred Lujan starts crying, that other writers might have been tempted to really blow out or overdramatize. But you didn’t feel the need to gussy it up.

Oh, God no. Well, extraneous things never add power. Power comes from essence, right?

What was the moment like when you heard you had won the Pulitzer Prize?

When they said my name, I just did that thing you do when you’re a kid. I closed my eyes to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Because when you’re a kid and you want to check if something’s real, you know how you just close your eyes for a minute? And then it was a whirl and I was happy and there were speeches and there was champagne.

Why do you think these particular stories resonated both with the Pulitzer Board and readers?

I’m of a divided mind on that. Because I always worry that no one’s going to be interested in reading them. You could argue that nothing happens. I mean my editor Davan [Los Angeles Times editor-in-chief Davan Maharaj] — his favorite story in the series is the one with the farmer who gives the water to his neighbors. And he says it’s his favorite story where nothing happens. So I guess there’s a part of me that always expects, and always does get some of those letters saying, “What’s this doing on the front page?” And then they’ll run down the list of news that day that they find far more important. I don’t know why it resonated, but I feel that it’s such a validation of this writing that it did. It just makes me so happy to think that there are stories whose main purpose is just to introduce people and make them understand a certain way of life or make them feel like they know this person.

That’s narrative, right? That’s what narrative does.

Right, exactly. That’s what narrative does. So at least this kind of narrative. Even though they’re very sad stories and very tragic circumstances, people will write me and say, “You know, I was having such a bad day, and then I read about this guy. And it made me want to do something kind for someone.” I get these “Thank you for the story” notes. And I am really the wrong person to be thanking; I’m just telling the story. But you get the privilege of being the go-between, of saying, “Hey, this is part of the world too.” If we only write about the bad, that’s not a complete picture.There is a lot of perseverance and faith and friendship and humor. There’s everything. It’s a big, complex world of good and bad. And the good counts.



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Three Pulitzer Winners to Read Now Tue, 21 Apr 2015 19:04:51 +0000 The Pulitzer Prizes are revealed in one fell swoop, winners and finalists alike, 21 separate categories that cover everything from music to history to local news reporting. And many of the winning stories consist of multiple parts. So, if you’re like most of us, yesterday’s announcement of the 2015 prizes suddenly dumped a lot more reading on your nightstand.

Where to start?  We’ll try to help with the suggestion of three prize-winning entries that stand out for their storytelling. A caveat, though: don’t let your exploration of this year’s best in journalism stop here. These are just a few highlights among many excellent pieces of work.

The New York Times won the international reporting award for its coverage of the Ebola crisis in West Africa, with a team who, as the newspaper’s nominating letter notes, included a Pulitzer-prize winning physician, a videographer so familiar with the area that he speaks a local tribal dialect and a staff reporter who is Liberian-American and returned to her homeland to write about the outbreak. The entire package is well worth your time but begin with the two videos by Ben Solomon. These taut, stark stories — one about ambulance drivers, the other about patients dying at the hospital door — illustrate the power that sophisticated visual journalism can bring to a complex issue.

Many narrative journalists, of course, turn first to the feature writing prize. This year’s contest was of particular interest because, for the first time, the Pulitzer board allowed the submission of entries from online and print magazines here and in the investigative reporting category. While The New Yorker fielded a finalist in Jennifer Gonnerman’s article about the three-year imprisonment of a teenager at Rikers Island, the winner was Diana Marcum’s intimate, detailed portraits of people affected by the drought in California for The Los Angeles Times. These are quiet stories in the best sense of the word, offering subtle but striking moments like this one, when a struggling store owner is asked for credit by a man buying two packages of hot dog buns and a roll of paper towels:

“Hey, Kenny, OK if I pay for these after Friday?” he asked, lowering his voice.

Alrihimi nodded. But his stomach dropped. This was a man who had never asked for credit before.

The store owner had 29 receipts that constituted the week’s IOUs. On the backs of two torn-up cigarette cartons, he wrote the running accounts: the ones where they owed $34, paid $12, then charged $8.

“It’s too sad to say no. I think of their kids,” said Alrihimi, a father of five. “They don’t have any money. I don’t have any money. We’re all trying to get through, little-by-little-bit.”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for its coverage of the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., but the images are anything but fleeting. Some, like the photograph of a young man tossing back a tear gas canister, have already etched themselves into our collective memory of the events; none shy away from the raw emotions and uncomfortable aspects of this story, including one photo that portrays a gun-toting looter. It’s clear from the depth and range of the work that, as the newspaper’s director of photography told The New York Times photo blog, “The staff are experts at St. Louis.”

Again, this is just an introduction to a collection of remarkable journalism, both winners and finalists. So when you’ve finished these, move on to the Post and Courier’s stunning series on deaths from domestic violence in South Carolina, which won the medal for public service, and keep going from there.






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Ari Daniel: “It’s so important to show stories that have hopeful threads.” Wed, 15 Apr 2015 12:32:54 +0000 If you heard a story last week on NPR’s “Here and Now” about a new kind of nuclear reactor or perhaps remember a recent piece on PRI’s “The World” about the death of the word “uh,” you’ve encountered the work of Ari Daniel Shapiro, a scientist turned science storyteller.

Ari Daniel Shapiro

Ari Daniel Shapiro

Shapiro, who goes by Ari Daniel professionally to avoid confusion with the other Ari Shapiro on public radio, earned a Ph.D in biological oceanography from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution but realized he didn’t want to continue doing research. Instead, he now works as a science journalist for public radio and NOVA and also hosts and produces the Boston branch of Story Collider, a live event and podcast where people present personal stories about science.

After a talk on the Harvard campus, he stopped by the Nieman Foundation to chat about the world of science narrative. An edited conversation follows:

You’ve spoken about the need to tell stories that include a thread of hope, especially in science journalism. Can you elaborate on that?

I feel very strongly that one of my roles as a science journalist is to achieve science literacy, is to help educate the public about science. I think that sometimes people have a kind of automatic response to science or to math where when they know that’s the topic coming, they shut down for a variety of reasons.

I think it’s important that I come up with strategies to help circumvent that shutting down. I speak specifically around the notion of stories around the environment or climate change. I think one reason why people would shut down is if they think that they’ve heard the story before, or that by listening to the story, nothing’s really going to get better.

I’m not saying that you delete the reality, but I think it’s about how you contextualize it. I think that it’s so important to show stories that have hopeful threads in them… It’s not like all the stories have that, but that’s one thought for how to create an entry point.

I think it’s just who I am. I try to find ways of adding positive sparks to narrative, to life.

What are some of the other challenges of doing science narrative and how do you address them?

I feel like one role I have when I’m doing my job is to empower my interviewee to participate in the story… During an interview, if someone gives me an answer that I know is not usable, I work really hard during the course of the interview to get — I want them to be a participant in the story. If we’ve taken the time to set this up and I’m spending all this time, I want them to be on tape in the story.

I think it creates a better radio piece when I can find this other angle in. Sometimes I’ll know we’ll have the science done, but there’s no story yet. Then I go around poking a bit.

I did an interview just last week about a new startup that’s experimenting with a different kind of nuclear reactor, and they’re hoping to make clean, safe, and very efficient nuclear energy, environmentally friendly at that. One of the scientists I interviewed was speaking in incredibly dense language.

That’s a big challenge. Because scientists can feel safe around vocabulary and sentence constructions that they write and that they express their technical ideas in, which don’t work on the radio. As he’s talking, I know it’s not going to work… I forget what I said, but it was something like, “I don’t understand that. That’s way too technical.” Basically, “What’s happening here? What in general?”

Then he gave it. He was like, “I want to help make clean, safe, energy.” Then, the young woman who started, co-founded the company said, “And save the world.”

That’s a good thing that I can use. They’ll both be in the piece.

How do you deal with story fatigue, especially when it’s regarding an important issue that should be talked about and reported on?

I try to be a bit of a proxy for the audience. Because I sometimes feel fatigue with this subject. The question is how do I take a story and make it feel different?

One of my editors asked me recently to find stories about climate change that were positive. I find climate change really tough. It’s the sort of thing where I have to find the right in. Someone had suggested a story that was taking place out in Arizona, in Tempe. Even going into it, I wasn’t feeling thrilled about it.

It’s about a team of people that are there who are working on carbon capture, coming up with a material that will pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere that they can then use to sequester somewhere else.

With this one, during the interview I found myself feeling really hopeful. Like, buoyant by the possibility of what they were suggesting… I felt the fatigue drift away. That’s an example.

I think part of it is I spend a lot of time just looking for the stories that are not going to feel fatiguing. If they do, then trying to find a different angle or a different topic or a way to address it. Ultimately I think I try to shed that. I try to make sure I don’t feel fatigued by it, and if I feel excited, then hopefully I can convey that excitement in the piece.

You’re the Boston producer of Story Collider, a live show and podcast that presents stories about science. What role do you think live events now play in narrative and storytelling? How is it similar or different from your other work?

They’re all variations on a theme. What’s different is that it’s live and you can rehearse…The other producer on the show and I work with the storytellers in advance to get them ready for the big night. In some ways, it’s a bit like working through drafts of a radio piece.

The live storytelling has this wild element to it, which I think makes it a kind of — what’s the right word? It makes the experience, brings it alive and makes it electric.

… The sense of it feeling real and visceral and raw — I think there are ways of doing that with radio. Each provides its own magic. The story, the live storytelling is, it’s a real thrill. To be up there and to have such a positive vibe in the room, people have come out to hear people talk about science. It’s like a social night out. It’s really gratifying.

What else would you want to include or emphasize in a discussion of storytelling, particularly science storytelling?

I think that ultimately what drives many, many scientists is this curiosity that remained active from when they were kids. Many kids are scientists just naturally. They don’t take things for granted and they’re asking why and how about everything. Scientists just pull that forward.

Science can be accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. Because I think that questioning and curiosity is inherent to the human condition. People can tap into that. As a reporter, you can tap into that to hopefully reawaken that sense of questioning.

That’s why I don’t like to think about dumbing something down. I think people can handle complexity. Because I think people are curious beings somewhere inside.


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Weekend picks: Child stars, scandal and poetry Fri, 10 Apr 2015 14:28:05 +0000 Want some smart, provocative, moving stories for your weekend inspiration? Here are Storyboard’s picks of some notable recent work, ranging from poetry about race to essays on journalistic misdeeds and a tale about a forgotten child star from the 1970s.

Claudia Rankine’s fifth volume of poetry, “Citizen: An American Lyric” won this year’s National Book Critics Circle poetry award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. It’s a remarkable book, weaving together prose poems, essays and visual images in a sharp, haunting exploration of racism. And, in a week that featured the release of a horrific video showing a South Carolina police officer repeatedly shooting an unarmed, fleeing man in the back, her voice takes on even more resonance. Here, in a poem that explicitly addresses the issue of black men being pulled over by police, she writes:

“Then flashes, a siren, a stretched-out roar– and you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.”

This YouTube video, depicting 1970s child star Mason Reese breaking down into tears on “The Mike Douglas Show,” prompted Jonathan Goldstein, host of the CBC radio progam “WireTap,” to investigate why clips of the precocious television and film actor had suddenly begun showing up on the video-sharing service 40 years after his heyday.

In a co-production with the podcast “Reply All,” Goldstein tracks down Reese to find out what became of him. The story is a beautifully structured hourglass, seamlessly leading you from general musings about late-night nostalgia to the claustrophobia of a memento-filled two-room apartment in New York and back out again. And, like the best of this kind of work, it takes you through a narrative that is far more complex and nuanced than you might expect.

In the chorus of reaction to the release this week of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s report on the discredited Rolling Stone article about campus rape, two pieces stood out. The first is the Columbia Journalism Review Q-and-A with the report’s lead authors, journalism school dean Steve Coll and Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs. The interview offers valuable insights into what the two discovered during the investigation and believe should be its lessons. Coll, in particular, emphasizes one interesting point that did not get as much attention elsewhere:

“If anyone thinks there was a golden age of excellent reporting practice, that’s probably wrong. But certainly now, there are a lot of new entrants and a lot of young self-educating reporters who need a way to talk about these practices at a level of real ethical detail and seriousness. Because if you get it wrong that can not only have consequences that are serious for others but you can end your career, real quickly.”

And in The New Yorker, George Packer implicates the “tyranny of narrative” in the debacle, citing various points where the reporter and editors made decisions that favored story over truth:

“One can imagine the impulses competing in the feature editor’s mind—carefulness and transparency on the one hand, the stylistic pleasure of an uninterrupted flow of narrative on the other. It’s a question that comes up in every piece of literary journalism worth the name.”






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“Power of Narrative” Conference: Three ways to tell a story Tue, 31 Mar 2015 13:16:41 +0000 Editor’s note: In his second and final installment from last weekend’s “Power of Narrative” conference at Boston University, current Nieman Fellow Gabe Bullard explores strategies for storytelling as outlined by author Joshua Wolf Shenk during his session at the event. In his first dispatch, Bullard covered a panel discussion featuring “Serial” producer Sarah Koenig and New York Times reporter Fernanda Santos, among others, discussing how to get access to difficult sources. 

Here is one way to tell a story:

Notice how the life-or-death stakes are established in the first 30 seconds. Then the story is filled in, with a nice mirroring between emotional and physical peril. It’s effective and powerful. But it’s just one strategy.

This video was the first example author and journalist Joshua Wolf Shenk used in his session last weekend at the “Power of Narrative” conference at Boston University. Called “Plotting the Course: Narrative strategies for long-form non-fiction,” it focused on three techniques for managing true stories.

While explaining this first technique—setting stakes and following an arc—Shenk reminded the crowd that “it’s not enough to move through time.” A story that progresses this way needs an arc. Sometimes, that arc can be seen as an actual arc – a shape, as illustrated in Shenk’s second example, a videotaped talk by Kurt Vonnegut.

But the story doesn’t have to be entirely linear. Shenk highlighted E.B. White’s essay “Death of a Pig” and Katherine Boo’s book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which both reveal major plot details early on (spoiler: White’s pig dies in the first paragraph).

The second technique was what Shenk called the “Frank Gehry approach to nonfiction.” Find the shape a story takes, then build it with your facts. The most extreme example is Janet Malcolm’s New Yorker piece “Forty-One False Starts,” which takes the form of its title—41 abandoned ledes that coalesce into a story about artist David Salle.

Shenk’s other examples of Frank Gehry narratives also came from The New Yorker. Ian Frazier’s “Canal Street” follows the shape of the street and the pace of its traffic, slowing at the section about the Holland Tunnel. The most meta — and most recent — example of the structure was John McPhee’s “Structure.”

The final story form is not quite as direct as the first, nor as abstract as the second. It’s the method of building a story with voice and example, going, as Shenk described “around rather than through” the topic, as Joan Didion does with the Haight-Ashbury lifestyle in “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.” It’s attitude up front, followed by scenes. “Manifestations of chaos,” according to Shenk, in his description of Didion’s piece, which opens with a summary, but concludes with a sort of second nutgraf, all filtered through her critical style.

“The primary image a reader will see in your piece is you,” Shenk said, citing David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” another narrative piece that follows the author’s voice through a series of scenes, resulting in a conclusion suggested in the lede.

These three forms aren’t just ways to write the stories, and they aren’t only meant to be considered once you’re at your desk, sorting through notes, Shenk said. They can shape a piece much earlier, and Shenk described an instance of the form changing his approach. While reporting his 2002 Atlantic piece on Lincoln presenters, people who dress as the 16th President, Shenk realized the story was truly about “how to be a Lincoln presenter.” This guided the rest of his reporting (some of it conducted in costume) and writing. “Pursue [your form] to the end of the earth,” Shenk said, “and see where it leads.”


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“Power of Narrative” Conference: The Secrets of Access Mon, 30 Mar 2015 13:55:49 +0000 Editor’s Note: Last weekend, Boston University hosted its annual conference on narrative journalism. In the first of two dispatches from the conference, Nieman Fellow Gabe Bullard writes about a panel discussion featuring “Serial’s” Sarah Koenig, among other accomplished journalists, on gaining access to sources.

What do you do if the subject of your story is in jail, in hiding, or otherwise unwilling or unable to talk to you? You keep trying.

That was the message of five journalists who have written stories with seemingly impossible insight and access to their subjects: Fernanda Santos of The New York Times; Masha Gessen, who has written about Vladimir Putin, Pussy Riot, and Boston Marathon bombing suspects, the Tsarnaev brothers; author and journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis; Beth Schwartzapfel with the Marshall Project; and Sarah Koenig of “Serial.” The five sat on a panel on access in journalism at the “Power of Narrative” conference at Boston University.

When Gessen was looking for ways to write about the Tsarnaev brothers, she went to the region where their ancestors lived. She also spent time in Boston, at one point checking into an AirBnB on the street of a person she hoped to talk to. “There’s nothing like being there. Just be there physically,” she said.

Santos, the Phoenix bureau chief for the Times, also said her experience on the scene helped build contacts for her reporting on the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a firefighting group who lost 19 members in a fire in 2013. Santos, who is writing a book on the group, had a relationship with some families of firefighters, and her presence helped her to meet more families and understand the culture of the team and why they would go into danger the way they did, she said.

But being present doesn’t necessarily mean anyone will talk to you. Santos said the firefighters’ families appreciated that she wasn’t busting down their doors, demanding to talk in a time of tragedy. A calmer approach, through letters and mutual contacts, worked better.

The others agreed. Gessen once offered to help a reluctant source shovel snow. (The source declined, but later talked.)

“The nice ask can get you really far,” said Schwartzapfel. Schwartzapfel writes frequently about people who are in prison, which means she often communicates with her subjects through letters. One letter recipient, a prisoner who was denied parole, called Schwartzapfel “an angel” for simply reaching out, she said.

And it has to be genuine. “They don’t give a shit about your scoop,” Schwartzapfel said, adding that compassion and empathy are key, and kindness shouldn’t be employed to use subjects as means to an end in reporting. She then asked if anyone had read Janet Malcolm’s treatise on ethics and honesty, ‘The Journalist and the Murderer,’ a few crowd members raised their hands, and so did Koenig.

“I’m a big proponent of a super nice, super respectful approach,” said Koenig. “I wasn’t an asshole,” she said of her approach while reporting “Serial.” Koenig added that aside from being kind, the technique had advantages. It made it easier for her to circle back to people who initially didn’t want to talk. Half the time, people would speak to her on the third or fourth approach, since no bridges had been burnt earlier. (Koenig’s technique in approaching subjects was on public display in a series of articles last year, in which The Intercept published excerpts of emails she sent one of Serial’s main characters, Jay.)

Koenig’s access to “Serial’s” central voice, Adnan Syed, came only through the phone. He called her from prison, where he is serving a sentence for the murder of his former girlfriend. This was a workaround. Koenig wasn’t allowed to record Syed in person, so she visited in person, then worked to build a relationship that led to him calling her. (The prison put a stop to this in the last week of recording, she said).

Syed had limited time to talk to Koenig. Others weren’t willing to talk at all. But a number of sources had talked in court, and Koenig had access to recordings of Syed’s trial. But those recordings almost didn’t made it on the show. Koenig explained how Baltimore officials had warned her and the other producers that they weren’t allowed to broadcast the audio from the videotapes of court proceedings. But they pushed back, and realized the rule officials cited referred mainly to broadcasting the actual video, not just the audio, and that, according to the lawyers they consulted, legal action would be unlikely.

“If you push at this stuff, even a little bit, it works,” Koenig said.

Sometimes it helps to step back. Denizet-Lewis described how he got access for his story, “Double Lives on the Down Low,”  about a sex subculture in which nonwhite men who identify as straight have sex with other men. Denizet-Lewis went online and found Down Low groups on AOL. There he found people who became what he called “ambassadors,” and helped him gather trust and contacts. But, he said, it’s important to not constantly be around asking questions. “Know when to go away,” he said. Subjects can get tired of being watched.

In addition to offering a reminder to follow the basic ethics of never deceiving someone into thinking you’re not a journalist or that you’re not on the record during conversations, the panelists pushed the importance of being honest about who you are as a person.

“Use the thing in your personality that people like,” said Koenig. Whether shyness, humor, or charm, these traits endear journalists to friends off duty, and they can work on duty, too. Denizet-Lewis said the nature of reporting a narrative piece involves spending a lot of time with people, and you share your personality with the subject. The fact that the sources’ words are the story must never be blurred or forgotten, he said, but openness is inevitable, to a degree.

This can also lead to a better outcome, said Schwartzapfel. She said sources feel that “you’ll do right by them” if you’re honest the whole time you’re dealing with them.

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Virtual Reality Lets the Audience Step into the Story Thu, 19 Mar 2015 18:37:58 +0000 You’re standing in the middle of an eerily empty two-lane road. Cookie-cutter apartment complexes surround you. Broad-leaved trees line the street. It looks like an average American suburb, but something’s not right.

You look left, then right. Yellow police tape blocks off the street, and red and blue lights flash in the distance. You move forward a bit and notice the white outline of a body on the asphalt, sprawled with its left hand above its head. Glowing arrows beckon away from it. Following them, you end up at the passenger-side window of a police cruiser. You enter a flickering cylinder. It brightens, and a comic strip appears showing an illustration of a man wearing a baseball cap, looking down the road you just walked along.

This is a 3D rendering of Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was fatally shot by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014. Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown when he died and is the man in the baseball cap featured in the illustration, is just one character you meet in this virtual world, created by graphic journalist Dan Archer with the help of photographs, satellite imagery, and video game software.

Archer, through a fellowship at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute and a partnership with Fusion, where “The Michael Brown Shooting Visualized: Eyewitness Accounts” was published last December, reconstructed eight eyewitness accounts for users to explore, guided by arrows that lead to the locations where each person observed the event. He notes that users spend on average over 10 minutes with his Ferguson piece, “practically unheard of in the ADD [attention deficit disorder] world of online news,” he says. Those are promising stats at a time when media outlets are fiercely competing for users’ attention. Immersive journalistic experiences like this one could become a way to keep audiences engaged while offering reporters innovative new ways to tell stories.

The goal of journalism has always been to be immersive, to bring audiences as close to unfolding events as possible. New Journalism icons like Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and Gay Talese practiced their own form of low-tech immersive journalism by inserting themselves into their stories in imaginative ways. The qualities that lend virtual reality its “wow” factor are the same ones inherent in any well-crafted tale, fiction or non. Though his digitally rendered version of Ferguson is far from seamless—the graphics are pixelated, and the mouse controls don’t always work the way you want them to—Archer believes immersive storytelling is the best model for presenting “complexities, ambiguities and all-out contradictions inherent in larger, longer-running stories.” Someday, he hopes, this interactive model could give the old-fashioned feature a run for its money.

Immersive journalism is picking up now in part because the necessary technology has gotten better, cheaper, and more portable. The smartphone’s ability to stream high-definition video as well as its increasing popularity—58% of Americans had one as of January 2014, according to Pew Research—have further accelerated adoption. Add to that the more widespread use of interactive data visualizations and advances in wearable computing and the stage may be set for a more robust adoption of virtual reality. “It’s not just the media coming to you,” says Dan Pacheco, professor of journalism innovation at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. “You move into the media.”

Immersive journalism is picking up now in part because the necessary technology has gotten better, cheaper, and more portable

Immersive storytelling was on prominent display at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring in the form of “Use of Force” by former Newsweek correspondent Nonny de la Peña. When you strap on the headgear to experience the piece, the first thing you hear is crickets, then screaming. Two uniformed agents drag a man dressed in white to the ground and start kicking him. A dozen other officers stand quietly by as he screams. Other bystanders watch in horror. A man asks, “Why are you guys using excessive force?” A woman shouts, “He’s not resisting! He’s not resisting!”

This incident occurred in May of 2010 at the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego. The death of Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas, the man in white, was ruled a homicide by the San Diego coroner’s office. Border agents maintain force was necessary because Hernandez-Rojas, who had methamphetamine in his system, was combative. It is a very disturbing few minutes to re-live. Though the computer-game feel of the graphics creates some cognitive distance between you and the action, you are confronted with the stark brutality of the beating in a way that feels more intimate than the documentary footage on which the virtual rendering is based. In the immersive version, you feel powerless to stop a violent act that feels like it’s happening before your very eyes.

De la peña also presented an immersive piece at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Project Syria.” It transports you to a lively intersection in Aleppo, Syria. You hear a girl sing in Arabic. Suddenly, a bomb explodes. People flee in every direction, and through the thick cloud of debris you see several bodies lying on the ground. A screeching fills your ears. When it stops, a narrator’s voice breaks in, “A third of all Syrians have been displaced by the war.” A child runs by as the narrator continues, “Reports indicate children have been specifically targeted in the violence.” The chaotic sounds crescendo and then cease as the scene fades to black.

You are then transported to a desert, with trailers and tents visible in the distance. Translucent white figures stand before you. More and more figures and more and more tents appear as the narrator continues, “There are now over a million refugee children.” For de la Peña, the virtue of virtual reality is that it puts “people inside the story so they can experience the action as it unfolds. [It] allows you to experience stories in a visceral way.”

Just a few years ago, head-mounted displays that simulate 3D environments cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. They were rarely found outside military research labs. Then, in 2012, inventor Palmer Luckey raised $2.4 million through a Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus Rift virtual reality system. He offered development kits to early adopters who wanted to make games for it. Facebook bought the company for $2 billion. Though the Oculus Rift has yet to reach the general public, anyone who wants to try it out can order a prototype. Other competitors have also launched consumer-grade devices.

Video game technology has attracted journalists looking to experiment with storytelling forms, including David Dufresne, who is a fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Open Documentary Laboratory. Dufresne is convinced journalists can deepen users’ experiences by borrowing narrative and nonlinear techniques from filmmakers and gamers. “The video game industry has revolutionized the narrative,” he says, particularly by encouraging audiences to participate in the story.

In “Fort McMoney,” Dufresne put the fate of a real Canadian town in Alberta, Fort McMurray, into users’ hands. Fort McMurray sits atop a large oil sands reserve, and you get to decide its future in a Web-based documentary game. The experience opens cinematically. Driving down a snowy highway, you pass an overturned car. A woman’s voice narrates, “You have reached the end of the road, at the world’s edge.” You’re eventually left to explore the photorealistic setting.

There’s a woman facing you from the passenger seat of a Ford F250, door ajar. When you hover the mouse over her, everything around her blurs. When you click, titles appear on the screen identifying Marquesa Shore, a waitress and car saleswoman. She arrived in Fort McMurray two months ago and earns about $10,000 a month. “It’s good,” she says. “It’s good to be a woman here.”

Users are then offered two choices: Get Into Her Pickup Truck or Speak To Her Later. If you choose the latter, you can explore other characters. If you choose the former, you take a ride in her truck as she tells you about life in Fort McMurray. A few minutes later, she offers to drop you off at City Hall, where you can meet the mayor. Throughout the game, users refer to a dashboard that tracks their progress. For Dufresne, this kind of gamification can attract users to stories they might otherwise ignore. “Nobody wants to read a news report or watch a movie about environmental issues,” he observes. “What we saw with ‘Fort McMoney’ is a lot of people who came for the game stayed for the topic.”

MIT’s David Dufresne aims to create a template for interactive documentaries

One of the biggest challenges in constructing a story with so many different possible outcomes is thinking non-linearly. Rather than watching a documentary that unfolds scene by scene, the audience explores the people and places of Fort McMurray based on their preferences. If you don’t want to meet the mayor and hear her perspective on things, you can click away. If you’re interested in the real issues behind the game, you can debate them with other players. As part of his fellowship at MIT, Dufresne is building a tool that he hopes will make it easier for journalists to create interactive projects of their own, a kind of Microsoft Word or Final Draft for interactive documentaries. “We lose a lot of time explaining to each other what we are doing,” he says, and he hopes his software template will enable editorial teams to collaborate more efficiently.

There are potential downsides to immersive experiences. For starters, virtual reality technology can make some people feel sick. Simulators make you think you’re moving when you’re not, and some experience motion sickness. “You don’t always get a good match between what the sensors in the system are reporting compared to what the inner ear is experiencing,” says Douglas Maxwell, a project manager for the U.S. Army who has been studying virtual environments since the late 1990s. The Oculus Rift developers have tried to address the problem of motion sickness by reducing the lag that can occur between a user’s actions and the reaction of the program.

Simulations that supposedly portray real-world events also raise psychological questions, such as: Are you “you” when you enter these worlds or one of the individuals depicted? How do you distinguish your own views from whomever’s perspective is being displayed? And where does the journalist exist in these spaces? Karim Ben Khelifa provocatively plays with questions like this in “The Enemy,” an audio-video installation that puts users directly between two soldiers on opposing sides of a conflict.

Khelifa is collaborating with D. Fox Harrell, founder of MIT’s Imagination, Computation, and Expression Laboratory, to tailor the action to each individual visitor. “Your virtual representation shifts depending on how you interact with the soldiers,” Harrell explains. Are you looking the character in the eye, shifting to the side, or spending more time with one person than the other? The answers alter the narrative. That sort of advanced interaction creates a sense of intimate presence, says Harrell. You’re not just telling people a story; they’re participating in the creation of it.

“There are a lot of ethical questions, but it’s not unique to digital media or virtual reality,” says Harrell. “Even media that seem to be very direct are actually very subjective.” Harrell points out that a unique advantage of stories with game-like qualities is that people see different perspectives with each exposure to the story and can come to their own conclusions.

As virtual reality enters newsrooms, journalists will need to develop standards for working in the new form. One of the first to test them is The Des Moines Register with an immersive experience called “Harvest of Change.” It brings readers into the simulated world of the Dammanns, who have run their farm for the past century, to illustrate how climate change, new technologies, and cultural shifts are affecting agriculture. It combines a computer-generated world with 360-degree video to depict the nuances of farm life. In the video scenes, you feel like a voyeur, witnessing intimate moments like a father-son outing on a tractor.

The 360-degree video Dan Edge is shooting in Africa will give Frontline viewers a new perspective

The 360-degree video Dan Edge is shooting in Africa will give Frontline viewers a new perspective

A team at Frontline, in collaboration with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and the Canadian company Secret Location, is taking users into the Ebola crisis. Director Dan Edge is filming 360-degree video in West Africa for the project, which includes a standard 2D, linear documentary as well as digital interaction. The project will present the Guinea village of Meliandou, where scientists have pinpointed what they believe is the first case of Ebola. In one planned scene, you can explore the inside of a towering, hollowed out tree, home to a colony of bats that scientists are studying to determine if they were the source of the outbreak.

While “Harvest of Change,” Dan Archer’s Ferguson piece, and the pioneering work by Nonny de la Peña rely heavily on computer graphics, the Ebola project replaces 3D modeling with 3D film footage. Raney Aronson, deputy executive producer at Frontline, envisions layering multimedia data visualizations into this 3D environment. “The dream would be that you could go inside the tree and then explore everything we know about it”—from inside, she says.

There are many questions to address as the team completes the project in the coming months. A big one, says Taylor Owen, research director at Tow Center, is: Where do you situate the journalist? What does narrative look like when cuts are no longer needed because the camera captures an entire room at once? In documentary interview scenes, for example, the subject is often the only person on screen. With 360-video, both interviewer and interviewee are captured and the viewer can look back and forth between them, just like they would in real life.

Though the technology is new, the ethical challenges facing journalists are not. “Any time you’re creating a computational world or self, you’re abstracting from the real world, taking some elements from the real world, leaving some out,” says MIT’s Harrell. “There are changes.” The imperative of remaining true to the reported facts is the same, regardless of whether the story is intended for the evening paper or the Oculus Rift.

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