Ted Baxter, R.I.P.

The 2008 Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism at Harvard

In 1937, $1 million was a lot of money, so when Agnes Nieman came to Harvard with that sum in hand to found a program that would commemorate her late husband, Lucius Nieman, the founder and publisher of The Milwaukee Journal, university president James Bryant Conant took notice. While it was a restricted gift, pegged to a specific goal, the Nieman money came with a remarkably large and open-ended mandate: “To promote and elevate the standards of journalism in the United States and educate persons deemed specially qualified for journalism.” Since then, the program has sponsored the country’s most prestigious fellowship for mid-career journalists. Nieman Fellows are chosen from the best journalists in the United States and invited to spend a year on campus at Harvard pursuing whatever studies will benefit them most professionally.

But that’s not all. In addition to promoting the quality of journalism through fellowships, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvardalso sponsors a yearly conference that brings together journalists working in every medium to share their insights and experience telling stories. This year’s Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism took place at the Sheraton in Back Bay, Boston over three days between March 14 and 16. The keynote address on Friday was given by NBC veteran and multiple-Emmy winning reporter John Hockenberry. Hockenberry is one of the most engaging speakers in the contemporary media, and his remarks were barbed at times, reflecting a disillusionment with mainstream media that was a frequently heard point of view throughout the weekend. Hockenberry, who is best known for his television work with Dateline NBC and on PBS, was openly critical of the network news business, characterizing FOX News as a relic of the Cold War while at the same time granting Roger Ailes, the architect of that system, special status as a kind of evil genius. Hockenberry heaped scorn on the trumped-up Dateline spin-off, “To Catch a Predator,” saying that he would rather watch “To Sign a Release,” in which the show’s producers would reveal the secret leverage techniques they use to convince participants to allow them to air their footage. Like a lot of people at the conference, Hockenberry has his eye on the radio, and will introduce his new National Public Radio show, The Takeaway, in April 2008.

James Wood, the distinguished book reviewer for the New Yorker, kicked off Friday’s panel on covering the arts with an elegant statement of the fundamental goal of arts writing that was so perfect that, as co-panelist Alessandra Stanley of the NYTimes said later, looking at the hundred or so people in the room, “I think we all wrote that down.” What critics should be aiming for, said Wood, is a “vivid and passionate re-description” of whatever it is they are reviewing. The goal is something, he went on to say, that offers equal value to two different groups, “those who have seen or read what we are writing about, and those who have not.” With enviable economy, Wood set the tone of a conference that would be remarkable for how thoroughly grounded and useful most of the presentations would be.

On the same panel, Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times responded to a question about getting started with the advice she was given by her Times colleague Maureen Dowd, who told her that the best guide to reviewing was to “think what you would tell your friends at a dinner party and that’s your lead.” Washington Post Book Review editor Marie Arana quoted Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s remark that “every piece of writing should strive to hypnotize the reader.” That last one may sound like over-reaching, but to a practicing critic attempting to straddle many genres and mediums, it rings true.

Friday night I skipped out on the documentary films in order to join a convivial group of Texans for dinner at Jasper White’s deceptively casual Summer Shack restaurant, a shrine to fresh New England seafood masquerading as a dive bar. It was a great meal and an even better conversation, with writers from the Houston Chronicle and the Dallas Morning News showing what the next generation of Texans after the mighty Molly Ivins has to offer.

Saturday morning offered another winner of a panel, this one on writing profiles of people, and anchored by two excellent writers and speakers, Tommy Tomlinson and Marcus Mabry. Mabry, who spent many years on staff at Newsweek, and is now the international business editor of the New York Times, was so interesting that he actually made me want to read a whole book-his-on Condeleeza Rice. His ten commandments of journalism are worth re-listing in full.

1. Come alone to your keyboard

2. Follow where your reporting leads

3. Don’t become a tool of someone else’s score settling

4. Know when you are writing for

5. Be prepared to be unknown

6. Write everyday

7. Don’t only write

8. Don’t lose yourself

9. Luxuriate in language, but not too much

10. All good writing is narrative writing

Mabry made the drama of his two-year pursuit of the real Condeleeza as compelling a story as any I have heard this year, and he did so with a lightness and wit that was utterly beguiling. No matter how prepared he may be for it, Mabry is unlikely to remain unknown. In the meantime, I am going out to look for Twice As Good, his bio of Rice.

Of all the excellent advice given by veteran reporter Tomlinson, the thing that stayed with me most was this, “hang out time is worth more than any answer to a direct question.” Both panelists were in agreement about this-profile writing, when it is good, is sparing with direct quotes and organized around revealing moments and gestures. Tomlinson told the story of a profile he wrote about a man who had been rendered paraplegic in an accident. The man regained mobility and eventually passed an entrance exam for the police force that included running an obstacle course. The moment when he was said to have been “running free” on the obstacle course was one of several points during the conference when I felt goosebumps, a sure sign that something interesting is happening, story-wise.

Saturday at lunch I ran into Courtney Leatherman, now an editor at The Nature Conservancy, but to me a familiar by-line from her time at the Chronicle of Higher Education. In a period-the mid-90s-when tensions over graduate student unionization were at a fever pitch, especially in New York and New Haven, Leatherman was the best and most consistently informative voice in an information-poor, publicity-resistant situation, and it was a pleasure to run into her and remember some of the pressures and terrors of a bad time for academics.

After lunch I headed to see Roy Peter Clark, the author of Writing Tools and one of the very few commonly acknowledged “rock stars” in the teaching of writing for journalists. Little did I know how literally Clark would fulfill his metaphorical status-title. He had a guitar with him, and he used it, but, even though he played pretty well-he’s really a keyboard player-and even sang a bit, the highlight of his session came when he took an off-the-wall request. “My Humps” someone shouted out, and suddenly Clark rapped, hard and fast. It was just one verse, but he brought the house down.

What Clark had to say about writing could fill-and in fact has filled-a book. But the real “take away” from this amazing three-hour workshop was the incredible energy and excitement in the room. My partner in the writing exercise wept over the memory of an editor she had worked for who then became the subject for an excellent five-minute essay on a special object.

Clark has a rare ability not only to write well, but to be the cause of good writing in others. If you ever get the chance to see this legend-in-the-making in action, do so. His “tools, not rules” approach is the future of effective writing instruction, and will make you forget about Strunk and White.

On Sunday I got hip to probably the most buzzed-about trend of the 2008 conference, which was multimedia, or, more particularly sound and video on the web. There is a new breed of multimedia producer out there, schooled in documentary film, addicted to This American Life, and working in Final Cut, and she has arrived not a moment too soon. Brian Storm, an independent web producer at stormmedia.com, got off to a rather contentious start, but soon stabilized and ended up making a vivid case for the advent of an entirely new era in television journalism, one that will start on people’s desktops and entirely bypass the old media gatekeepers who run our local and national television news. This was the most promising trend of the weekend, and the one that lit up the faces of the most interesting and progressive young journalists in attendance. Ted Baxter is dead, long live the audio slide show.”


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