Narrative journalism


Byliner CEO excited about ‘opportunity to discover some great writers’

People used to view technology as a threat to longform journalism. But in the past year, tools like Read it Later, Instapaper and The Atavist have helped change that mentality by making it easier to find, save and share longform stories online. and, which curate longform stories for online reading, have also helped.

These tools and sites are valuable resources, but they’re largely geared toward readers, not writers.

Byliner, which launched the full version of its site this morning, is different. It’s a publishing company and a social network that’s aimed at both writers and readers. The name Byliner suggests as much; it’s less about the product (longform) or reading experience (long reads), and more about the writer behind the product.

Filling the gap between magazines & books

CEO and Founder John Tayman thought of the idea for Byliner a few years ago after finishing his book “The Colony.” When deciding whether to start another book or write magazine stories, he began exploring the space between magazines and books

“There were stories I wanted to write — and as a reader stories I wanted to read — that weren’t served well by either of those two options,” Tayman said in a phone interview. “These stories needed more room than a magazine, but they didn’t require the time commitment of a book.” 

Since Byliner launched in April, its website has primarily highlighted Byliner Originals — nonfiction stories that readers can purchase online and read on their mobile or tablet devices. Now, the site has new features that distinguish it from Kindle Singles and other publishing platforms.

When users click on an author’s byline, they’ll be directed to a page featuring the author’s published work. The site’s custom-built aggregation system automatically updates the page whenever the author releases a new story. “If a classic article becomes available online for the first time, or if the writer elects to make it available, you’ll see it immediately,” Tayman said.

He noted that Byliner is encouraging writers to interact with readers on the pages and recommend other writers’ work. Each author page features “Byliner Stats” — the number of times a writer’s work has been read on the site and the number of readers who have chosen to follow that writer. It also features similar writers, the way Amazon features similar books.

Additionally, the site now has an archive — aka a “discovery engine” — of more than 32,000 longform stories. About two dozen editors curated content for the archive with the help of the custom-built aggregator.

“The entire system,” Tayman said, “is designed to help readers discover and discuss great stories, and become fans of great writers.”

Helping writers gain exposure, publish timely stories

Byliner, which plans to release about one Byliner Original each week, has already published pieces by writers such as Jon Krakauer and William T. Vollmann.

Despite skepticism over whether there’s a market for this type of writing, the Byliner Originals have done well so far. Krakauer’s “Three Cups of Deceit,” which suggests Greg Mortenson fabricated key parts of his “Three Cups of Tea” book, has been purchased or downloaded by more than 100,000 readers and was featured on a “60 Minutes” segment about Mortenson.

Vollman’s “Into the Forbidden Zone” — a 20,000 word-narrative about post-earthquake Japan — is already among the bestselling titles he’s published, Tayman said. He described both pieces as being too complex for a magazine piece, and too timely for a book.

The flexibility of the publishing process enabled Krakauer to add new information to “Three Cups of Deceit” hours before it was released. Vollmann’s story, meanwhile, was available online a week after he returned to the U.S.

“Byliner was created precisely to take advantage of the many things that being a primarily digital company allows,” Tayman said. “We can move swiftly, and get these great stories in front of readers while they’re still very current.”

Looking for the opportunity to discover great writers

Byliner has an editorial team that develops ideas for Byliner Originals and assigns them to writers they admire. Many of the editors have connections with writers, which makes it easier when looking for people to write Byliner Originals.

Editorial Director and Co-founder Mark Bryant, for instance, has worked closely with Susan Orlean, David Foster Wallace, Sebastian Junger and Krakauer, who he reached out to when Byliner was initially looking for stories to publish. Similarly, editor-at-large Will Blythe reached out to Vollmann after the editorial team came up with the idea for a piece about the Japan earthquake.

Writers can also pitch their own story ideas. Some of the upcoming Byliner Originals, Tayman said, originated from writers’ pitches.

“One of the things we’re really excited about is the opportunity to discover some great writers. You don’t have to be famous, but the stories have to be great and the writing has to be great,” said Tayman, noting that Byliner Originals are typically between 10,000 and 35,000 words. “Everything is carefully edited and presented in a way that allows the author to be really proud of what’s going out to his or her readers.”

Byliner, which handles all of the social marketing and PR for the Byliner Originals, pays assignment fees to Byliner Original authors. It then splits the sales profit 50/50. The website plans to generate affiliate and advertising revenue, Tayman said, but the majority of the revenue will come from book sales.

To expand its reach, Byliner has partnered with New York University’s magazine journalism program. It also created a distribution relationship with Read it Later, which gives the company access to about 4 million registered users who are interested in longform journalism.

“People respond to great stories by great writers. And we want to give them a spot where they’ll always be able to find something good to read, whether it’s a classic article by their favorite writer, a new article by a writer they’ve just discovered, or a Byliner Original,” Tayman said. “We have the editorial resources and the marketing resources to make this a success — not only for us but especially for the writers we’ll be working with.” Read more


NY Times’ Abramson: ‘Long-form narrative is not only alive but dancing to new music’

Forget the digital doomsayers, said Jill Abramson. “Long-form narrative is not only alive but dancing to new music.”

Other prominent journalists echoed The New York Times managing editor’s optimism about thriving in a Twitter age at Boston University’s annual narrative journalism conference last weekend.

Abramson said devices like tablets and iPads give long-form narrative new ways to reach new audiences. She said her paper focuses on integrated storytelling in series like “A Year At War,” with multimedia “freshening” the story by letting readers “see, feel and almost taste” soldiers’ and families’ experiences.

She added that new tools can’t trump journalism basics. Wary of “narrow specialists,” she worries that journalism schools’ new technology training may detract from traditional shoe leather reporting values.

Abramson, a former Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, said she hires “passionate storytellers who go the extra reporting mile.” Her mantra: “report and report some more.” Her favorite example: Gay Talese’s classic 1966 Esquire story, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”

The 15,000-word profile includes a short scene in which the singer hassles a young writer whose footwear offends him. For details of that minor event, Talese tracked down the unfortunate scribe.

That dedication sparked Abramson’s three-word reminder for aspiring narrative writers: “Harlan Ellison’s boots.”

Two prominent New Yorker writers — Ken Auletta and Susan Orlean — see great narrative opportunity in the new media world.

Drop the “woe is me” attitude to new technology and use blogs to get attention for your work, Auletta advised. When researching his latest book, “Googled,” he was struck by the founders’ “why not?” attitude. Writers should do the same, he said. Instead of whining, nonfiction writers should adapt. As an example, he said, multimedia can enliven –  not threaten — printed books.

Auletta said engineering and traditional journalism worlds are coming together, with techies discovering the value of quality content and writers learning how to use new techniques to enhance their work.

Orlean sees a thriving narrative scene because, “There’s never been a better time to be a teller of stories.” New technology trends might be disturbing, she said, but writers should remember that those just affect the packaging. She said basic content isn’t threatened as the delivery system changes and that the difference between an e-book and a bound volume is the difference between white and manila envelopes.

The author herself is using new technology to promote her eighth book, on canine film star Rin Tin Tin. As part of her talk, she read an excerpt about the four-legged performer in advance of the book’s October publication. Orlean has even come to like tweets, enjoying their informality and comparing their 140-character limit to haiku.

Worrying about nonfiction’s problems “gets us nowhere,” she said, noting that a strong narrative voice can cut through the “clutter” of Internet information.

How to develop that voice? Like Abramson, Orlean said every good piece springs from good reporting. To spin a routine story into something richer, Orlean said, “be a storyteller, make it a yarn, lead people through the emotional experience of learning. You’ve got to be the best, most excited learner you can possibly be, tug on the public’s coat sleeves and say ‘this is really interesting.’ ”

Talese, one of narrative journalism’s godfathers, has been making the mundane interesting for six decades. At 79, he said he does the same thing he’s always done. “I just hang around. Anyone can do it.”

But, he said, not everyone knows how “to get the unstated permission of people to hang around them. It’s a courtship.”

To Talese, that courtship begins with knowing how to behave. “Journalism classes don’t teach politeness and traditional good manners,” said the famously stylish writer. Meticulous attire shows respect. “You have to dress up for the story.” Read more

1 Comment

Do we want a ‘narrative,’ or reliable facts about bin Laden’s death?

Something interesting has happened since news broke that Osama bin Laden had been shot and killed. We have already received different accounts from government officials about what happened during the American raid on the compound in Pakistan.

These accounts are being referred to as “narratives,” and some journalists are concerned with the implications and connotations of that word. NBC’s Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd tweeted that he found it “odd and a tad troubling” that the Department of Defense has used the word in such a way.

In a live chat, which you can replay below, I talked with Ben Montgomery, a narrative writer at Poynter’s St. Petersburg Times, about the use of the word narrative, and how it differs from a report.

When we hear the word report, we think of a vehicle for conveying information. A report contains at least some of the five Ws. A report is also written with language that is unloaded. A report is subject to verification by independent parties.

A “narrative” is something completely different. A narrative connotes story, expressed in scenes, moving in time, and communicated by a narrator, a storyteller. A narrative can be truthful, of course, as in the phrase nonfiction narrative. But its purpose is not to inform. A narrative is a form of vicarious experience, a virtual reality that transports us from the here and now to some distant place called Abbottabad.

The earlier narratives described bin Laden firing a weapon and using some woman as a “human shield.” Later versions said he had no weapon, and that a woman was injured trying to protect him.

This topic of the difference between report and narrative is essential to our understanding of how government uses and abuses language, and how journalists hold them accountable.

You can revisit this page at any time to replay the chat.

<a href=”″ mce_href=”″ >Do we want a ‘narrative’ or reliable facts about bin Laden’s death?</a> Read more


How ‘Hamlet’s BlackBerry’ & ‘Think Quarterly’ show why we should stop toggling between screens and stretch our minds

Google, the company that helped create our culture of constantly clicking, has unveiled Think Quarterly, a new magazine aimed at creating “breathing space in a busy world.”

Too bad we didn’t know about this last week. If any group needed to rein in their digital connectedness, it was the 19,000 attendees at the South by Southwest Interactive festival.

For five days, we streamed from one nerdy panel to another, up and down escalators, never looking up from our smartphones. At night we went from party to bar, toggling between our companions, Twitter and group texting services.

The challenge at an event like South by Southwest is that you spend all your time packing new ideas into your head and not enough time processing them. William Powers, author of “Hamlet’s BlackBerry,” would have told all those people to stop running around and staring at screens, and instead create some mental space to unpack everything they had seen and heard.

In fact, Powers did say this in a session called “Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Liberate Yourself from Digital Addiction” — but there were more empty seats than listeners. That wasn’t surprising; his central thesis runs counter to the culture at South by Southwest.

“I think,” he said, “we’re sacrificing depth in our lives, depth in our relationships, depth in our thinking, depth in our feeling, depth in the work we’re doing, if we never step aside from our screens …. never looking up to interact with the world around us.”

We’ve become digital maximalists

Perhaps the technophiles at SXSW expected an anti-technology rant. Instead, Powers praised the “miraculous, fantastic” devices that enable us to connect and consume in ways only imaginable 20 years ago.

Yet simply because those devices enable us to be connected every moment of the day, he said, doesn’t mean that we should be. We’ve become adherents of “digital maximalism” – that more is necessarily better – without considering the impact on our lives and asking if there is another way.

Guy Laurence, CEO of Vodaphone UK, discusses this in Think Quarterly from a corporate perspective. At one time, the key challenge for companies was getting access to data; now, it’s managing too much of it. “We were brought up to believe more data was good, and that’s no longer true,” he said.

On a personal level, Powers said, “I feel like the smartphone is becoming the new sweatshop. We’re prisoners of this bizarre factory we built ourselves, and we don’t want to step out of it.”

What I found fascinating in Powers’ talk was that this problem was not created by the zeros and ones behind those screens. Socrates, according to Powers, was addicted to the conversation. In “Phaedrus,” Socrates says he never takes walks in the countryside; he can’t bear to miss the action in Athens.

Centuries before we coined the word “oversharing,” Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca bemoaned how some people communicated the most intimate details of their lives to anyone who would listen. “Love of bustle is not industry; it is only the restlessness of a hunted mind,” he wrote.

The technology that spurred all that communication, Powers said, was the written alphabet.

And 1,800 years later, Henry David Thoreau described people who obsessively checked their mail at this place called the post office:

“You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.”

What digital place is your Athens? What bustling activity pursues your hunted mind? Has a mound of postal dispatches muffled your own voice?

Creating digital white space

Thoreau, Powers noted, built his cabin a short walk away from the village of Concord, Mass. “He was trying to strike a balance. He was trying not to become a prisoner of his connected life.”

The key, Powers, said, is to create gaps between these periods of connectedness. Just as white space on a page draws attention to what is most visually important, digital white space can help us focus on those ideas that take some time to formulate.

Our devices can play a role in making those associations, but only if we use them in the right way. Powers described how he called his mom one day to say he was on his way to her house. Hearing her voice and seeing her photo on his cell phone triggered a flood of memories, “this moment of pure ‘mom-ness.’”

“I was only able to have that moment because I put the phone away,” he said. “I didn’t move on to another digital task.”

Powers doesn’t ask that we give up our digital devices; he just wants them to work for us, rather than the other way around. On our smartphones, why must the fire hose of connectivity be open all the way, all the time? Why can’t we easily set times of day in which we want only certain types of connections? No email after 7 p.m. No texts. No direct messages on Twitter.

It’s possible to change these settings manually, but at least on my iPhone, I would have to do it piecemeal, if they can be managed at all.

And when we sit down at our computers, shouldn’t we be able to specify how connected we want to be?

The next revolution, Powers predicted, will be devices that enable you to “design your own digital life.” Perhaps the iPad, which favors one activity at a time, is the first step in this direction.

Write what you don’t know

Unplugging is particularly tough for people who work in online media – those who respond to breaking news, follow discussion blogs and on Twitter, and operate in a never-ending, read-react cycle.

Even the hyperconnected attendees at SXSW acknowledged the problem. The day before Powers’ talk, people packed a room to hear The New York Times’ David Carr and several others in media discuss the quandary of being so busy with Twitter, RSS readers and email that they never get their work done.

“Lately I’ve been so busy promoting what I do,” Carr lamented, “that I don’t do what I do.”

There are ways to shut it all out. You can turn off your Gmail notifier, close Twitter and minimize your email window. (I have started to do all of these things when I start writing.) If you really can’t tear yourself away, there are tools that will yank down the shade on your window to the Web.

Carr suggested that people leave fact-checking to the end of the writing process so they don’t go online and get off track. “Get your narrative up and running, and then check your links.”

But the real challenge, the one that Powers addresses, isn’t doing; it’s thinking. It’s taking the time to figure out what you think. In Carr’s panel, Atlantic Senior Editor Ta-Nehisi Coates alluded to this challenge when he said that one side effect of blogging is that he thinks fewer deep thoughts.

“You have to go to a place of depth,” Powers said, “and make new associations that I think it’s harder to make when you’re constantly attending to the screen.”

This reminded me of something that Chip Scanlan, my writing and reporting teacher at Poynter 14 years ago, said about how writing can be a process of discovery. Evoking longtime writing coach Donald Murray, Scanlan told us, “Write what you don’t know.”

Back then, Scanlan encouraged us to write daily in a “day book”; of course, few of us carry a notebook around anymore. Yet the concept has been taken online and even improved in the website 750 Words, which has the tagline, “Private, unfiltered, spontaneous, daily.”

750 Words gives you a private place to write, judges how focused you are by tracking your typing speed and breaks, scores you based on how often and how much you write, and even does basic sentiment analysis to tell you how you’re feeling.

Why 750 words? Buster Benson, who created the site, answers:

“The idea is that if you can get in the habit of writing three pages a day, that it will help clear your mind and get the ideas flowing for the rest of the day. …

You can’t just fart out 3 pages without running into your subconscious a little bit… 750 words takes a bit of effort, and it never fails to get me typing things that I have wanted to articulate without realizing it. And that’s the point.”

The deep Web

Powers argues that there is a growing interest in the “conundrum of connectedness” in Silicon Valley. He’s spoken at Google and Facebook — Facebook, the Death Star of Internet time stealing!

Google’s launch of Think Quarterly seems to show that the company is exploring a slower, more thoughtful side of the Web. The introduction to the magazine reads:

“SPEED. At Google, we often think that speed is the forgotten ‘killer application’ – the ingredient that can differentiate winners from the rest. We know that the faster we deliver results, the more useful people find our service.

“But in a world of accelerating change, we all need time to reflect. Think Quarterly is a breathing space in a busy world. It’s a place to take time out and consider what’s happening and why it matters.”

There are other signs of this countermovement. Amazon created the Kindle Singles store, showing that the online super-retailer believes there is a market for texts longer than a magazine piece, but shorter than a book. and @Longreads highlight in-depth journalism that you shouldn’t miss. Instapaper and Read It Later enable people to save those stories and read them when they have time.

We often talk of time — mostly, how little there is. But the next time your phone buzzes urgently and you glance down at the screen, think about how small that space is.

CORRECTION: This post originally stated that Socrates talked about his affinity for the action in Athens in “Phaedo,” but it was actually “Phaedrus.” Read more


Girl versus virus: The 4 things I learned about journalism when I became the story

Nearly two years ago, my boss suggested that I turn myself into a story.

I was halfway through a grueling round of experimental treatment for hepatitis C, a potentially-fatal liver disease I contracted as an infant. My experience had all the trappings of compelling journalism. There was a simple central tension — girl versus virus — and a simple, central question: Will she be cured? Plus, HCV is a sweeping, under-reported epidemic with the potential to cost billions of dollars and millions of lives.

The journalist in me knew all this was newsworthy, but it was Concord Monitor Editor Felice Belman who urged me to use myself as a source.

Over lunch one day, she sketched out her idea: a heavily researched, first-person narrative told in short, serial installments. The piece would explore the epidemic, the idea of medical research on humans and the reasons why so few people know about a virus that affects four times as many Americans as AIDS.

It was an ambitious project for many reasons. For starters, I felt awful. Antiviral medication can cause brutal side effects, and keeping up with my normal workload was already a struggle. Plus, the Monitor’s newsroom is small, and the demands on our time seem to grow every day.

The research and writing took months longer than expected, but we finished the project, called “My Epidemic,” last December. Each day for a week, we published a new chapter in print and online, and used social media to promote the series and to invite feedback.

The result was a profound reminder of the power of storytelling and an illustration of the potential for new media to allow our stories to live on.

Lesson 1: Share your story in a way that works for both print and online.

Yes, journalism has changed, but narrative is still effective, especially if it’s structured to work in print and online. We picked a serial format for reasons both practical and organic. The ups and downs and cliffhangers inherent in serial narratives mimic the reality of living with a chronic disease.

In print, multiple chapters were also easier to place in a tight news hole, and we had multiple opportunities to find space for graphics and photos. Online, each chapter gave us another chance to invite readers into the story through Facebook and Twitter, and to promote HCV resources we’d assembled on our website.

The project was a boon for online traffic. Visits to our website shot up 12 percent compared to December 2009 — by far the largest month-to-month increase in recent memory.

Lesson 2: Find documents, include details for context.

Writing about myself demanded more research than writing about someone else.

When I’m writing about other people, I try to climb inside their heads, which means many hours of watching them just live their lives. In this case, I needed to do just the opposite and place myself in the context of the broader epidemic.

My brother, a doctor, directed me to medical journals and helped me decipher the articles. A database at the local public library supplied archival information about media coverage of HCV, and the Congressional record revealed how public health officials are — or are not — responding to the epidemic.

The most important documents were my own medical records. They included detailed doctors’ notes about all the tests I’d undergone as a teenager and a time-stamped transfusion report that revealed exactly when I’d contracted HCV.

One of the hardest parts was choosing what to include, particularly when it came to describing my birth. There were so many details: my hurried baptism, my father sleeping on the waiting room floor, my parents in their Jeep following the ambulance from one hospital to another, not knowing if I was dead or alive. Those are all important pieces of family lore, but they didn’t advance the story. Including them would have been indulgent, a disservice to the reader.

Lesson 3: Be honest about your fears, discomfort.

I was a crummy photo subject.

For more than a decade, I’ve been trained to collaborate, collaborate and collaborate some more with visual journalists. That’s what I planned to do with this story, but it didn’t quite work out that way.

Photographer Katie Barnes joined the Monitor newsroom a few months after I’d started working on the project and was soon assigned to my story. I was hesitant to drag Katie through my medical hell, and I (irrationally) didn’t trust anyone but myself to get it right.

There were logistical challenges, too. One of the side effects of antiviral medication is temporary absentmindedness. In my case, that meant showing up to work with mismatched shoes, getting lost in the grocery store and forgetting to tell Katie when something important was happening.

Finally, she made me a list of things I might do — walk the dog, cook dinner, visit the acupuncturist — that would help her tell the story.

I know now what it means, what it feels like, to be the subject of someone else’s journalism. Our sources have so much at stake: their reputations, their public images, the truth of how they view themselves. Building trust with the people we cover is everything, and that’s why honest storytelling requires so much time.

Katie ultimately made my discomfort a part of the story, producing a video focused on my feelings about the project. I was terrified when I sat down in front of that camera, but we’d been working together for almost a year, and I understood that this was part of the story only she could tell.

Lesson 4: Tend the seeds you sow.

The response to the series was overwhelming. By the time the last installment was published, I had Twitter followers from Russia and my e-mail and voicemail were full of messages from other people living with HCV.

My editors and I decided to turn some of those responses into an impromptu seventh installment. As I was writing, I found myself wondering if such a swift, multifaceted (and international) reader response would have been possible a decade ago.

The story continues to live on. I receive new e-mails every week from people who have discovered the series, often through Facebook or Twitter. More often than not, they have a personal connection to HCV. Take, for instance, the teenage girl in California who, like me, contracted the virus as a baby and who, like me, has faced cruel judgment from her peers.

As I read the e-mail, I was devastated that another young woman had endured such fear, shame and humiliation. Then she told me that she showed her family and friends my stories and, at last, people began to understand.

Meg Heckman splits her time at the Concord Monitor between writing and exploring digital storytelling. She is a 2001 Poynter summer fellow and a graduate of the University of New Hampshire, where she now works as an adjunct instructor in the journalism program. Read more

Willie Mae Norton, who raised Hydra Lacy Jr. from the time he was 12, holds a picture of him from the 1980s. (Kathleen Flynn/St. Petersburg Times)

Coverage of officer shooting models 6 ways to turn breaking news into a narrative

In the aftermath of a shooting that killed two police officers, journalists at the St. Petersburg Times were searching for answers.

What kind of relationship did killer Hydra Lacy Jr. have with his wife Christine, who shortly before the shootout told officers that he was hiding in the attic? And why did he kill himself and the officers in a house that the city has since razed?

A team of reporters dug through court records, revisited the crime scene and interviewed Lacy’s friends and the woman he raped years ago. Their work came together in a 3,400-word narrative that ran in last Sunday’s paper. I talked with Ben Montgomery, who wrote the story, and his editor Kelley Benham to find out what they learned about turning a breaking news story into a narrative.

Find gray areas to make characters more 3-dimensional.

The goal of this narrative, Montgomery said, was to show that Lacy and his wife were neither all good nor all bad.

Willie Mae Norton, who raised Hydra Lacy Jr. from the time he was 12, holds a picture of him from the 1980s. (Kathleen Flynn/St. Petersburg Times)

“I think that the power of good narrative comes from complexity, and characters are complex,” said Benham, enterprise editor at the Times, which Poynter owns. “You want to believe that Hydra Lacy was evil every day of his life, but that’s not what the reporting shows. On some days, he was pretty ordinary, even successful. We’re not trying to make a cop killer look like a saint, but we want to show him as a three-dimensional character.”

Related: Click here to view an X-ray reading of the St. Pete Times story, with a deconstruction of the writing.

To capture the multifaceted lives that Lacy and his wife led, Montgomery quoted Lacy’s employer, who said he was “one of the best workers we ever had” — information that’s in stark contrast to a passage about Lacy raping a woman and attacking Christine with a sword. Similarly, Montgomery used dialogue from a deposition to show that while Christine was a victim, she could also be abusive toward her husband.

“For whatever reason, nobody up to that point had gone very deep in terms of their relationship,” Montgomery said in a phone interview. “They just reported on the domestic violence issues in a black and white, bureaucratic way; he was charged with x and convicted with y and he served this number of years in prison. There was no real context, so we wanted to get more.”

Pay attention to scene-setting details that breaking news stories often miss.

The first few paragraphs of the Times’ narrative are full of descriptive details about the crime scene.

“Sprinkled among the cracked cinder blocks and broken tiles are photographs of a wedding cake, a Valentine’s Day card and a string of Christmas lights,” the lead reads. “Pioneer Brand Brown Gravy Mix and a crunched tub of Country Crock. Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia Vol. 4 and a red dictionary splayed on the heap like a dead cardinal.”

Many of these details came from Cherie Diez, a Times photographer who had come across a pile of debris from Lacy’s house. Deiz took hundreds of pictures and brought them back for Montgomery and Benham to view. When they saw a hint of color, they’d zoom in on the image to examine what was there.

“We were abstracting from these photographs … personal information that brought to life their house a little bit,” Montgomery said. “So I thought, that’s where their relationship is right now — this pile of rubbish — and I wanted to start the story right there.”

Other details presented challenges, such as the nickname Lacy’s friends gave him. Montgomery worried that if he spelled the nickname “Hide,” it may have seemed too gimmicky given that Lacy hid in the attic during the shootings. If he spelled it as Hyde, it may have evoked a comparison to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Ultimately, he mentioned the nickname twice and spelled it as “Hide” to match the spelling in a photo of a memorial message that Lacy’s friend had written.

The nickname was a good detail, Benham said, but “it was almost too good, so you have to really not overplay that. We didn’t want to hit that note too hard.”

Split up the work, based on each staffer’s strengths.

The reporting for the Times’ narrative was split among several reporters, many of whom had covered the story since day one.

“What was cool about how these writers came together is everyone has different areas of expertise and we needed all of it,” Benham said by phone. “Everybody brought something really different to the story. It was a beautiful thing to watch.”

Breaking news reporter Kameel Stanley, for instance, had been at the crime scene for several days and was able to get some of Lacy’s friends to talk. Steve Nohlgren and Curtis Krueger are skilled at interpreting court documents and other public records, and running down the clues inside them. And Leonora Lapeter Anton — who talked with the woman Lacy had raped — has a gift for getting people to open up, Benham said.

Having other people do most of the reporting enabled Montgomery to focus on writing and include narrative elements that don’t always make it into breaking news stories — scenes, dialogue and quality writing that take you back in time.

Montgomery’s nut graf did an especially good job of this: “If you could untwist the metal and re-shelve the books, stuff bullets back into Glocks and bring Hydra Lacy Jr. down from his attic, you’d find a tidy house owned by two people who said they were in love.”

Montgomery got the idea for this passage from former Times colleague Thomas Lake, who wrote a similar lead in a Sports Illustrated story a few years ago. “Some people might try to tell you they’re original,” Montgomery said, “but everything I do is basically begged or borrowed or stolen. I just try to do it in a different way.”

Create a time line of events.

When so many people are working on a story, creating time lines can be an effective way to organize information. Montgomery collected everyone’s notes and, using Google Docs, created a time line that began with Lacy’s birth and ended with the minutes leading up to his death.

Other news organizations have also turned to time lines to organize information — not just for themselves but for their readers. The Seattle Times, for instance, published a Dipity time line to accompany its breaking news stories about police shootings in Lakewood, Washington.

Montgomery’s time line served as an outline that helped piece together the various parts of the story. “You could see how one thing led to the other, which made the writing easier,” Benham said.

Don’t underestimate the power of good editing/reading stories out loud.

The narrative was a “beast” to edit, Montgomery said, because he had to check with multiple reporters to make sure he interpreted their notes correctly. During the editing process, Benham helped him tighten the piece and identify cliches.

“Typically when I write, I’ll include cliches because I’m flowing, but then you go back and turn your cliche radar on and you pick that stuff out of your copy and hopefully turn in a draft that’s void of those kinds of cliches,” Montgomery said. “I kind of look at it as scaffolding; you need it to support the story, but once the story is building, you go back and take it all down.”

Montgomery, who pulled an all-nighter writing the story, needed to cut 20 to 30 inches from the piece. So he read the story out loud to Benham and a few other reporters who helped him identify wordy passages and awkward syntax.

“If your tongue gets tied and you have to start the sentence over again, you know the sentence isn’t constructed appropriately,” Montgomery said.

Follow your curiosity.

Ultimately, any good narrative stems from reporters seeking answers to their own questions.

In the aftermath of a breaking news story, asking simple questions such as, “What do I want to find out more about?” and “What questions are still not answered?” can help you figure out your angle, Montgomery said.

“The beauty of stories like that is you’re given the chance to follow your own curiosity,” he said. “You get something incredibly interesting like a guy who’s hiding in an attic and kills two cops and you say, ‘Why?’ And you get paid to run and chase that answer. These are the types of stories I would do for free.” Read more


How Technology Is Renewing Attention to Long-form Journalism

When we’re constantly inundated with information via e-mail, text messages, push alerts, tweets and Facebook updates, it’s hard to make time for that 5,000-word New Yorker essay we bookmarked or the serial narrative we keep telling ourselves we’ll read but never do.

For as much as technology can distract us from long-form journalism, though, it can also be a gateway into it.

Five guys — Nate Weiner of Read It Later, Marco Arment of Instapaper, Max Linsky and Aaron Lammer of, and Mark Armstrong of @LongReads — have found ways to use Web tools to renew attention to long-form journalism, increase its shelf life and make it easier for people to consume and share it.

The tools they’re using to create an immersive, focused environment for reading are the same ones that challenge our ability to avoid distractions at work and when we’re out with friends: mobile apps, websites and Twitter.

Tools, mobile apps that let you read with fewer distractions

Nate Weiner calls himself a “dude with a lot to read, but not a lot of time.” He knows what it’s like to get caught in a “conundrum of connectedness” — a pattern in which you’re so overwhelmed with information that you rarely have time to pause and make sense of it.

In the past, he said, he would come across magazine-length stories that he wanted to read, but never had a good way to save them for later. To remedy that he created Read It Later, a tool that enables people to save stories from their computer, smart phone or iPad, and makes them available for offline use. The tool, which just turned 3 years old, has more than 3 million users.

Read It Later is different from social bookmarking sites such as Digg and Delicious, which are tools that save, share and organize URLs. Read It Later saves the entire article page, making it available when you’re offline and have spare time. Users who want a less distracting experience can select the “text view” option, which strips out just the text.

Weiner said he’s talked recently with journalists and publishers about the importance of making it easy for readers to save stories — particularly longer-form ones that take awhile to produce and can get easily lost among other content on a news org’s website.

The biggest question he gets from publishers is, “Why would we want to allow the reader to read off our site, away from our advertising and other articles?” 

“Read It Later is essentially the article’s second chance. It actually improves the likelihood that the article will be seen,” Weiner said via e-mail. “If any article is there, the user put it there. And in order for a user to have put it there, they would have to have visited the publisher’s site.”

Marco Arment, who developed Instapaper, told me, “The best thing authors and publishers can do is give the world great content to read. Without that, all of this technology is pointless.”

Similar to Read It Later, Instapaper is a tool for saving Web pages to read later — a “DVR for Web content,” as Arment said in an e-mail interview. It also lets you create a customized RSS of the stories you save on Instapaper and it features “Editor’s Picks” that showcase the most popular bookmarked content.

Arment, who is also the lead developer behind Tumblr, said gets about 3 million page views per month and that the service has a few hundred thousand active users altogether.

Arment is working with publishers to integrate Instapaper buttons and links directly to their sites, similar to other sharing tools that most sites already have. And he’s made mobile accessibility to long-form stories a priority, saying that Instapaper’s iPhone and iPad apps “play a critical role” in its success.

Some may find it strange that a cell phone — a source of distraction for many of us, with its texts, e-mails and alerts — could be conducive to reading narratives. But compared to a laptop, Arment says, a cell phone is the better option.

“The modern computer is packed with distractions. Your hands are always on the controls, waiting to click around and find the next bit of information. Every few minutes, something beeps or pops up a balloon or displays a big red number,” Arment said. “Long-form content requires attentive reading, and attentive reading requires a distraction-free environment. You need to pull people away from their computers.”

A website that builds community around long stories

After discovering Instapaper, Max Linsky and Aaron Lammer created, a site that aggregates long-form journalism dating back as far as 1899. The goal of the site, they say, is to give people a go-to place for this type of content — and to give it a second chance on the Web.

“We wanted to have a bunch of awesome stuff to read all the time and we assumed people would too, ” said Linsky, a freelance journalist.

Lammer, a book editor who never used to make time for magazine-length content, says Instapaper and his work at have made it easier to share and keep track of longer stories. The site has also helped him develop, and become part of, a community of people who love narratives.

Visitors of the site, who Linsky and Lammer describe as “long-form journalism addicts,” regularly send them suggestions of stories to feature.

“We have a bunch of people get in touch with us who have kept their own archives,” Linsky said. “The coolest sources have kept their own personal archives on Delicious or a manila folder in their house.”

The number of people who turn to the site to share stories rather than storing them in a folder is proof that technology is breathing new life into long-form content, Linsky said. He’s such a big believer in this that he proposed a South by Southwest Interactive panel called “The Death of the Death of Longform Journalism.”

A Twitter account that makes it easy to share long reads

Similar to Linksy and Lammer, Mark Armstrong was inspired by Instapaper to start his own collection of long-form stories. In April 2009, he created a Twitter account called @LongReads and has since tweeted about 1,200 stories.

Each day, Armstrong tweets links to about five recent long reads, some of which he finds through the #longreads hashtag he created. The @LongReads account has about 4,500 followers — which spiked after the iPad was released — and continues to increase by about 15 percent each month. ( also has a Twitter account with about 1,700 followers.)

Armstrong, director of content for Bundle, said Twitter is a good place to post longer-form content because people can easily retweet links to the stories and advance their exposure. He explained the goal of @LongReads in a phone interview.

“I think that ultimately, 1) we want to drive more traffic to publishers who do this kind of work, and 2) encourage people to help organize the Web in a way that makes it easier to find this stuff,” said Armstrong, who uses Instapaper and encourages his followers to do so.

All of these tools are connected; as a reader, you can follow @LongReads, save the story to Instapaper or Read It Later, and send it to Lammer and Linsky to post on

Armstrong said he’d ultimately like to see websites start to use a “long reads” tag to aggregate all of the longer content they publish. Inspired by @LongReads, The Awl made its site searchable by “long reads” this week.

“I’m pretty excited about this development,” Armstrong said, “and I think we’ll start to see more publishers follow The Awl’s lead in organizing their sites to help surface substantive, longer content.”

As more people drive traffic to long-form journalism via the Web, Twitter and mobile apps, they may give publishers more reasons to produce it.

“We’re hitting a point where hopefully the traffic will justify the level of effort that goes into writing and reporting these stories,” Armstrong said. “They’re not disposable.”
Read more

0 Comments Uses Slide Show for In-Depth Narrative Story

Like most investigative reporters, the culmination of Bill Dedman‘s reporting is generally an article or a package of articles. As he worked on his latest project, he collected images and documents that helped tell the story of a wealthy, elderly heiress who owns several expansive homes but doesn’t appear to live in them.

When he was ready to write, he decided that, rather than craft a 2,500-word story, he’d rely on the images he had shown to his family and coworkers, accompanied by captions. The slide show would be an experiment, a way to see if in-depth reporting could be presented in a way that would reach far more people.

Judging by the response, it may have been. Dedman told me that he’s received 500 e-mails from readers about the story, entitled, “The Clarks: an American story of wealth, scandal and mystery.” That’s more than he’s received for any story he’s done in 30 years. And with 78 million page views, that’s more than any other story on

Dedman and I corresponded by e-mail and discussed how he decided to do a slide show, what he gained and lost with this story form, and whether this can work for other stories. Here’s an edited version of our exchange.

Steve Myers: What is this story about?

Bill Dedman: It’s a historical mystery with connections from the Civil War era to today. Why are the mansions of one of America’s richest women sitting vacant?

The mansions are owned by the reclusive Huguette Clark, now 103, whose father, copper miner William Andrews Clark, was one of the richest men in the country and also a U.S. senator from Montana who had to leave the Senate in disgrace — then was re-elected.

People in Montana were surprised to learn that his daughter was still alive. But where is she? And what will become of her fortune?

How did you get interested in this story?

Dedman: I got into the story last summer, when I saw the Connecticut house for sale. Tiring of looking at real estate listings for houses I couldn’t afford, I looked at houses I really couldn’t afford.

The mansion in New Canaan is on the market for $24 million. In the assessor’s records online, I saw the owner’s name, Huguette Clark, but didn’t recognize it. I read in the zoning minutes online that her attorney said it had not been lived in for 50 years. Then I saw an online discussion in Santa Barbara about her empty mansion there. And her father’s political history was interesting. So I was hooked.

If you write about what you’re interested in, others will be interested, too.

How long did this take?

Dedman: I started last summer, but I did other stories, went to Haiti, etc., in the meantime. It was probably two months of work, counting reading all the Clark books I could find, tracking down a few distant relatives, waiting for public records to be dragged out of archives, hanging out with the doormen.

In your reporting, were you guided by your research, which led you to seek photos to illustrate it, or were you guided by the images you found?

Dedman: All along I was collecting all the photos I could. I had planned to do a normal story format, with as many photos as we could use.

The photos also help with interviews; if you show up at an interview with a notebook, you are in a subservient position, begging for information. If instead you show up with printouts of photos to show, then the person you’re interviewing is learning something, is eager to see them all, and it helps the conversation along. It’s the same trick as making the graphic for a story as you do the reporting, so you can take the graphic to the interview, and let the sources draw on your draft copy, correct it, add what they know.

Where did you find the images?

Dedman: Some were free: The New York Times generously shared two old photos; the Library of Congress; the Realtor for the Connecticut home; the Corcoran Gallery of Art had old photos, photos of the art, and a color photo of the salon that it still has on display from Clark’s mansion. The grand-nephew, in Austria, let me use a couple of old family photos from his book, which unfortunately is published only in French. Old newspaper clippings came from the Google News Archive, a New York Times subscription and ProQuest Historical Newspapers, which many public libraries have access to. Pictometry gave us one aerial of Santa Barbara, similar to what you can see on Bing. And I took photos at Woodlawn Cemetery and her apartment building.

The only photo I just grabbed off the Web was the Renoir; that image was the best I could get. Sotheby’s, which sold the painting, would not hand over a better image, but this one is good enough.

Paid images: New-York (yes, there’s a hyphen) and Montana and Las Vegas historical societies and archives. Maybe $100 apiece. We paid a Santa Barbara photographer for a better copy of an aerial he had already shot — $150. Altogether, perhaps $1,000 or $1,200.

Documents included a marriage license, divorce record, wills and probate files, cemetery lot cards, passenger ship’s registries, passport application, zoning records, assessor records, and census forms from 1880 through 1930.

How did you decide to do a slide show?

Dedman: I like to talk stories through before I write them. As I was collecting photos of the Clarks, I kept showing them in a little slide show to my family, to my mother (81) and my daughters (7 and 10). It really helped tell the story.

I put the photos online to show our projects team at, and photographer Jim Seida said, why don’t we just publish it as a slide show? I was skeptical at first — would that crimp the writing? — but in the end I was advocating doing it this way when the photo team was skeptical. I thought far more people would read through it this way, and it would be worth an experiment.

We’ve done slide shows for years, of course, but the slide show is not our usual medium for telling an investigative or in-depth story.

The photo editors threw the photos into our standard slide show template, which was built in-house years ago. You just drag the photos into a folder and it makes a slide show, which you can edit by moving the photos around and writing captions.

One problem: I didn’t like the font, which was way too small for reading a long narrative. Our standard caption text is smaller than our standard story text, too small to read that many words comfortably. The solution was to put the text in the headline field of our slide show template, so it came out larger. A workaround.

Once you decided that this could work as a slide show, how did you construct the narrative?

Dedman: The order of the photos was determined by what I had found would draw the listener/reader/user into the story: first just a shot to establish the two main characters (father and daughter), then the empty mansions, and from them on it was chronological. Readers sent e-mails saying they thought “Oh no!” when they saw that it was 47 slides, but then after the first four, they couldn’t stop.

Chronology is the easiest way to tell a story, and easiest on the reader. It’s just like telling a bank robbery or other story. You might tell the main points or the most interesting part first — “Four people were taken hostage …” — but soon you have to start at the beginning: “It all began just after closing time …” In this slide show, that transition comes on slide 5, “Where did such wealth come from?” which takes us back to 1863, the beginning of the story of William Andrews Clark.

What did you gain by presenting this as a slide show? What did you lose?

Dedman: First, it’s a pain to write in 50-word chunks. I had to go over and over that text, to tighten, far more than I would have if it had been a “story.” That’s a gain.

An enterprise story on the site, presented in a normal story page, might get a million page views. The page views for this slide show, so far, are 78 million.In writing a story, you can throw in a phrase or sentence when you need to clarify something; no room for that here. If you don’t — or can’t — throw in that extra phrase or sentence, the narrative moves much more quickly. So something gained and lost.

You lose attribution. Except for attributing the quotes, I removed all the “how do you know this” material. That all went into the “notes and sources” page, along with the tidbits that couldn’t fit on the slide show.

You lose complexity. For example, we quote Mark Twain, who had a grand time going on for pages about how bad Sen. Clark was. “He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a chain and ball on his legs.” Well, the story is more complicated. As I point out on the notes page, Twain’s benefactor, the man who rescued Twain from bankruptcy, was Henry Huttleston Rogers, who was a business competitor of Clark’s. It’s possible that Twain’s wallet was talking.

You also lose paragraph marks. I could have put them in, but that adds more lines, and I was worried that the text would run over, breaking the whole experience for readers in some browsers. So I chose in the end to keep the captions to one paragraph. That makes it harder to maintain clarity.

The story is more readable in the print version, for that reason. That print version is also the life raft for people who have trouble seeing the slide show in their browser.

How would someone know if this approach would work for his story? Are there certain types of stories that would be appropriate?

I’m not a fan of slide shows that are created just to generate page views. If you have 10 reasons the Red Sox are going to be better this year, just tell me the 10 reasons; don’t make me click through 10 slides to find out. The readers know they’re being manipulated.

But if you have a tale that you’re finding is much easier to tell to your friends and family and colleagues if you show them the photos, then you should probably tell it that way to the reader, too.

Are the captions really 2,500 words? Didn’t seem like it.

Dedman: Thanks! It’s 2,788 words, not counting photo credits.

The idea that we have to write shorter for the Web is hooey. If we write about something that people care about, they keep reading.

Of course, on a normal story that jumps to two or more pages, far fewer people read the second page than the first. It drops off significantly. We might have 600,000 people read the first page of a story, and only 60,000 read the second page; most of those 60,000 readers will then stick with us for several more pages.

But so what if fewer people read page 2? The ones who want more are getting the full story, and we’re getting more page views, and more time on the site, which are the main measures that advertisers are interested in.

What is the rationale to write shorter on the Web? There’s no savings in time. You have to research a story thoroughly either way, and as Mark Twain and others have pointed out, it takes longer to write short than it does to write long.

How has traffic been? Is there any way to compare that to traffic for a similar 2,500-word story?

Dedman: The page views so far are 78 million. There are 47 slides, so that’s the equivalent of more than 1.6 million people reading every slide. Not that it works that way, of course; some people dipped in and out. In all, 2.2 million unique users (computers) went to the slide show.

A typical slide show, such as snow photos from a big storm, or the Week in Pictures, might get 3 million page views. “An evening at the Oscars” might do 6 or 8 million.

The 78 million isn’t a record. Our Haiti earthquake slide show got 99 million page views in a week. But it’s more than the death of Michael Jackson (56 million page views on the slide show and 7.4 million on the first story about his death).

An enterprise story on the site, presented in a normal story page, might get a million page views. It all depends how long it’s on the cover of, and whether our half-sister company MSN picks it up. Some stories go over that number. For comparison, the story on Todd Palin’s e-mails was about 1.5 million. The series on abusive interrogations at Guantanamo got 3 million. A story on Hillary Clinton’s hidden thesis at Wellesley reached 3.2 million.

If this same slide show had been told as a story, and had gotten the same display on our cover, I’m guessing it would have had 1.5 to 2 million page views. But the time spent by readers would have been far less. The average time spent by readers on this slide show was more than 13 minutes. Read more


Former Journalists Start Coaching, Consulting Services

When Tom Shroder took a buyout from his job as editor of The Washington Post Magazine last September, he didn’t want to leave behind the perks of life in the newsroom.

Despite the cutbacks, there was a lot that kept him energized — the critical thinking that comes with editing long-form narratives, the relationships he built with writers, the desire to help people tell their stories.

Hoping to keep this energy alive, Shroder created Story Surgeons, a coaching service that lets him continue to work with writers outside of a newsroom. Since starting the service in October, he’s coached dozens of people with varying writing abilities. And he’s gotten paid — anywhere from $22 to $10,000 per client.

His service is one example of how former journalists are putting the years of experience they gained in newsrooms to good use by pursuing independent, financially sound ventures.

“As I was contemplating leaving the Post and thinking about what I’d miss most, I realized it was the challenge and satisfaction of encountering all kinds of writers with stories to tell and a passion to tell them, and helping them discover the best possible way to do that,” Shroder said. “I realized that through the connectedness of the Web, I could both get my message out there and communicate” with those writers.

Shroder’s coaching service has enabled him to further develop his editing skills, make some money and give writers the kind of one-to-one editing they say they’re not getting from their editors.

“In most cases, it’s rare these days when you get an editor at a publishing company who really gets into the heart of a story and is fully attuned to it to the point that the writers are,” he said in a phone interview. “It happens, but my experience is that it’s the exception. This is a problem in newsrooms, too.”

Shroder’s clients so far include a Virginian-Pilot columnist who sought advice on how to improve his work, a man who wanted help with a speech, and two Washington Post investigative reporters — Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz — who asked him to edit a book they’re writing about the Chandra Levy case.

Shroder charges 3.5 cents per word for basic pieces that require a single review and 10 cents per word for more complicated projects that require several edits. (Story Surgeons isn’t his only source of income. In addition to his Post pension, the newspaper is paying him to edit Gene Weingarten’s column.)

People are craving Shroder’s help. “That was my whole question: Are people really going to be willing to pay for this kind of service?” he recalled. “But there are enormous amounts of people who want to write. Look at all the money people spend going to writing seminars. Some people just look at it as an education.”

It helps that prior to starting Story Surgeons, Shroder had already built a reputation as a respected newspaper editor. He was Dave Barry’s editor at The Miami Herald when Barry won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1988. At The Washington Post, he edited Gene Weingarten’s stories, including his 2008 Pulitzer-winning piece, “Pearls Before Breakfast.”

Shroder said that although Weingarten jokingly refers to him as “Tom the Butcher,” he likes to think of himself as “Tom the Surgeon” — keeping stories alive, making them healthier. “A story is like a living thing,” Shroder said. “You don’t just want to chop it up willy-nilly.”

Since starting Story Surgeons, he’s acquired some new skills — namely, how to edit a novel. The process, he noted, isn’t that different from editing long-form nonfiction. “It’s just that in a novel you can actually invent stuff if the facts don’t line up properly,” he said. He’s now researching a book proposal of his own.

Shroder’s not the only former journalist who has left the newsroom and turned to coaching. Andria Krewson, who left her job as an editor at The Charlotte Observer last April after 23 years there, is working with a group of neighborhood leaders who want to become better citizen journalists.

Krewson said she plans to teach them skills that a hyperlocal neighborhood reporter or Web site editor needs to know, such as how to make ethical decisions, write search-optimized headlines and find reference materials about fair use and copyright.

Krewson’s former colleague, longtime Charlotte Observer columnist Jeff Elder, is now training professionals on how to use social media. Since taking a buyout from the Observer in November, he has begun consulting with a wide range of businesses and professionals, including sports franchises, a chiropractor and a company that makes bathroom stalls.

“I’m able to advise businesses about traditional media and new media,” Elder said via e-mail. “Years ago, and in a different era for media, I might not have been drawn to that, but things are changing. Ordinary people are creating a great deal of media, and they need guidance. That’s worthwhile.”

The money’s not so bad, either. “At this early stage of the game, I have opportunities to make more than I ever did as a journalist,” he said. “The difference is, it’s entirely up to me to make that happen.” Read more


Authors Describe What it Takes to Move from Short-Form Journalism to Historical Books

Top reporters detailed at a Boston University conference this week how they moved from deadline to years-long projects and blended storytelling and research skills to bring the past alive.

Isabel Wilkerson, who won a Pulitzer Prize at The New York Times and now directs B.U.’s narrative nonfiction program, made a point that many echoed throughout the day: Journalism and history borrow from each other. “We want compelling narrative reporting to try to make sense of a complicated world,” she said.

Pulitzer-winner Tim Weiner told the B.U. audience that he turned his CIA beat reporting for The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times into a book by keeping his notes and delving into tens of thousands of declassified documents. The result was “Legacy of Ashes,” a history of the CIA that won a National Book Award.

He compared the job of condensing so much information “to turning an ox into a bouillon cube” while retaining the flavor. “Bait your hook for the reader” in the first few pages, he advised, saying he rewrote his opening section 24 times. And to keep decades of events clear, “there’s no logic like chronologic.”

Vanessa Mobley, who has edited two Pulitzer-winning nonfiction books, agreed that the best books go through many drafts and that some have to be “boiled down” in length. Mobley, a senior editor at Broadway Books, a division of Random House, said she looks for original stories and a “fruitful combination” of subject and author. Her advice to reporters with authorial ambition: Think about new ways of telling stories to get beyond the ordinary. “What is the theme driving this story?”

In “Black Hawk Down,” his award-winning account of a U.S. humanitarian debacle in Somalia, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Mark Bowden tried “to illuminate a moment in time as deeply as I can. … My goal wasn’t to interpret but to explain. I keep my opinions to myself, my goal is to flesh out in more detail and try to understand how and why things happen.”

He noted that his book necessarily isn’t the whole truth; Somalis would have a dramatically different view. His hope: that historians and political scientists can build on his reporting.

Bowden, who also writes for The Atlantic and Vanity Fair, drew nods from the audience when he said, “Good journalists write authoritatively only about what they know.”

Annoyed by what he called pundits’ “pose of omniscience,” he said every nonfiction writer should “be honest with the reader and yourself about how much you know and why. The real temptation of journalists is to pretend they know more than they do.”

Larry Tye chooses his topics by finding “a story that needs to be told.” In “Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend,” the former Boston Globe reporter who now trains medical journalists traces the Jim Crow era through pitcher Satchel Paige’s colorful career.

For this, his fifth, book, Tye found researching easy, using daily reporting techniques. Interviewing old ballplayers (including an 111-year-old) was the “fun part,” and journalism training came in handy when checking out claims of decades-old athletic feats.

He aims for compelling narrative in hopes of focusing “a lens onto an era; we all look for that perfect little story that tells a bigger story,” such as separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites to illuminate the Jim Crow era.

Tye blended lucid writing — so bright 9 and 10-year-olds could understand Paige’s exploits — with research that produced 72 pages of footnotes and bibliography. “You can’t wing it with book editors anymore,” he said. “You have to have deep subject knowledge.”
Read more


Get the latest media news delivered to your inbox.

Select the newsletter(s) you'd like to receive:
Page 2 of 512345