Cronkite conversations

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Creative nonfiction, narrative journalism, long form reporting – whatever you call it, that’s what this week’s Must See Monday / Cronkite Conversation was about. As an aspiring writer myself, I’d been looking forward to this one ever since this semester’s event list came out. I didn’t know a lot about creative nonfiction, mostly just two things. I knew that it was included in KU’s new MFA program which one of my favorite professors at KU had worked hard to set up. Also, to borrow a phrase, I know creative nonfiction – and appreciate it – when I see it.

Oh, and I know that creative nonfiction’s relationship with journalism is new and growing. There’s lots of discussions about how journalism is changing – are newspapers going to survive, must journalists master multiple media formats, and will stories go mobile? But change isn’t always dramatic. Reporters who are seeing their audience respond to creative nonfiction are learning how even more subtle changes can make a big difference. The definitions of creative nonfiction are well discussed all over the web (like here, here, here, and here) so I’ll cut to the chase : great advice from great writers.

Lee Gutkind Lee Gutkind is editor of Creative Nonfiction as well as being writer-in-residence for the Consortium For Science, Policy, and Outcomes and working with The Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. Terry Greene Sterling is also writer-in-residence at ASUher blog is here and her newest book, Illegal, will be coming out this fall.

Lee Gutkind, Grandfather of Creative Nonfiction

Gutkind pointed out that with creative nonfiction, creative equals the dramatic part, and nonfiction equals the journalism and information part. “Every time you write a story, every single time you think about a story, you’re trying to draw the reader in as long as possible” – creative nonfiction is one way to do this, whether it’s personal narrative about the journalist or public narrative the journalist writes about others. Either way, the building blocks for creative nonfiction are scenes. Gutkind uses the yellow test – taking a favorite piece of writing and a yellow magic marker, then highlighting all the scenes.

“If you’re doing a serious story, 50 to 60 to 70 % should be scenes,” Gutkind said. “The way I work – I gather my information and think of the stories, and am constantly thinking of where the stories go.” He sits down and writes the scenes of the story, then looks for where the information goes and “the story determines the information you provide, the story determines the reportage – so instead of worrying about the reporting, I get the information the story needs.”

Gutkind doesn’t just work with journalists – when he’s not working on Creative Nonfiction, he’s applying creative nonfiction to other kinds of narrative like science and law through a mixture of classes and workshops. In fact, Gutkind said that in some ways it’s easier to teach scientists, historians and lawyers to start writing, since journalists are often very set in short, short formats – they must break familiar writing patterns to switch to creative nonfiction.

Terry Greene Sterling

For Sterling, narrative journalism equals telling true stories that matter…and that people love to read, and hear, and see, and interact with. It uses the techniques of fiction to tell true stories. She points out that you can’t be a good writer if you can’t be a good reporter since you have to have the material first – Sterling describes public records as “gold.” Also, narrative journalism doesn’t come easy and “you have to train yourself – train yourself every single day.” Sterling described narrative journalists as risk takers who “should learn something new very single day” and “see stories everywhere.”

Sterling organizes her work as she goes along by keeping running lists on the whole project and each section and going over her notes regularly. She said that her stories evolve during the reporting and then the framework comes together. Finally, it’s important to tell the reader how she got the story – it’s also tricky to work citations in to a narrative form. Writers like Sterling and Lane DeGregory, who don’t want to clutter the narrative put the attribution at the end.

During the questions and answers, two other attending journalists – New Times reporter Robrt Pela and freelance award winner Valeria Fernández – also answered questions about they organize their work. Fernández described her work as making a good meal – she gathers the ingredients, starts cooking, and gets more salt as needed. She uses “check on this” markers to get the story down. Pela calls these “apocryphal markers” and uses them for follow up interviews. I really appreciated this advice, and the rest of the evening. Coming back from break can be hard, but having the first day back end with inspiration sets a strong precedent for the rest of the semester.

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So the timing of this Must See Monday could not have been better – in the middle of the radio segment of broadcast, sound is a big topic on all of our minds lately. This week’s speaker, Susan Feeney is Senior Editor for Planning at All Things Considered.

Why is this relevant to travel? Well, I probably inherited the itchy feet and restless nature, but I might have gotten the idea that I could tie this into making a living from somewhere else. As I listened to the clips Feeney brought as examples, I was transported back to how I felt when I was a kid and the radio, especially NPR, first started to take me places. Growing up without reliable television reception meant I spent a lot of time listening to radio in the house, as well as in the car; I heard news long before I got older and interested in newspapers. The drive to school, five minutes early on but, as I got older and switched around a bit, up to half an hour, meant morning updates. Road trips meant frantic searches on the radio dial for the next public broadcast station, because static and station boundaries always seemed to hit just at the good parts.


One of the reporters I remember most is Sylvia Poggioli – her stories and, even more, her frequent signoff from Rome, sunk deep into my memory and imagination, even as she continues to broadcast.

Now, I still put radio on whenever I’m in the car. However, a bike commute means I drive much, much less and the unexpected (and probably only) downside means much, much less radio.

It was startling, after just a semester, to see how differently I could listen to a radio piece. Feeney’s discussion of each piece, and radio in general, really made the presentation even deeper. Information, like behind the scenes information like what happened to the journalists reporting on the earthquake from China, how their stories got put together, or the reaction afterward made good listening. But they helped us understand how reporters operate in tense, emotional, possibly dangerous situations and still get their jobs done. These examples also illustrated some of the differences between radio and other formats, especially the discussion of whether the family’s search for their son would have been different in print or television.


Feeney played a piece on Hurricane Katrina by Robert Siegel to discuss accountability journalism, a piece which also happened to have very little natural sound, but a high emotional impact for many listeners.

She also played two pieces from a series by Melissa Block that took place in Sichuan province, China. The first actually recorded the 2008 earthquake that hit Sichuan province and the second documented a couple’s search for family members. A third piece, which I came across on NPR’s website, has Block’s follow-up work one year later in pictures as well as sound.

Overall, while I wish I had more time in radio this semester, an evening listening to/with Feeney is the perfect way to keep me interested in sound – and set the bar very, very high for anyone who wants to get involved.


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So for this post, I borrowed the base from my Cronkite Conversation, expanded, and still feel like I only scratched the surface of all the ideas that came up. Anyway, journalist and author Mei-Ling Hopgood was on campus early this week. She currently lives and works in Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, and talked about living between the challenges of changing journalism as well as the challenges of living abroad.

Hopgood spoke several times over the last few days, including a Monday lunch, an evening discussion and in at least one class. I really appreciated her stories, thoughts, and insights on journalism, working from abroad, and on transitioning to writing books. For freelance journalists (whether by choice or circumstance), Hopgood advised keeping busy with projects and ideas so that you “always have something and something coming.”

For those who want to go abroad, she recommended going less comfortable, where you can find under-covered stories and stand out from the crowd. Technology has made it possible to write and keep up with media almost anywhere, and really opened up new places (and therefore new stories, to go along with the new platforms and traditional reporting skills taught at places like the Walter Cronkite School). In Hopgood’s case, location is Buenos Aires. When pitching stories from abroad, look for local connections so that your story becomes “local news abroad.” Those who work and report from other countries get a different experience than a tourist gets, Hopgood said, emphasizing that it’s important to learn as much as possible before going. The reward is that reporters are “licensed” (whether officially or by curiosity) to go ask questions and may end up in places they wouldn’t see if they were just visiting. She also emphasized how much learning the language of the area you want to cover will make an impact – without it, the language barrier will make finding some things out tricky.

Hearing how the transition into books began, with Hopgood applying her journalism background to her own personal story, really painted a picture of how to approach a very personal story and a very different project than newspaper or magazine articles. Hopgood said she knew the basic facts of her adoption from Thailand all her life, and wrote about it for the first time in an article around the time she began to learn more about her birth family. For the book, there were longer outlines and a lot more writing, but also the usual fact checking. There were extra ethical dilemmas when working with sensitive material and her own personal stories, but Hopgood said her experience kicked in again to help her navigate challenges and get the story. Her portfolio of writing didn’t hurt when it came to getting her book picked up, either, by showing her award winning skills to a new audience. Now part of the publicity tour includes – writing articles that cover new angles of her book material (as well as planning much of her own publicity and logistics – probably familiar ground for most freelancers!).

Perhaps most importantly from Hopgood’s advice – write regularly!

All in all, I’m really looking forward to reading “Lucky Girl” and the next book Hopgood is working on, about parenting around the world. Luckily while I wait for one to arrive in the mail and the other to be released, I don’t have to wait to get started: check out this in-depth piece for Dayton Daily News, Casualties of Peace.

For more on Hopgood’s thoughts on Argentine media, check out Alyssa at The World Beat.

And here’s Hopgood’s home page.

For more amazing photos including Buenos Aires, check out lrargerich on flickr.

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Spent part of the evening at this lecture, Visual Storytelling: The Power of Photos, by James Gregg.  Gregg is a photojournalist at the Arizona Daily Star, and the lecture was part of the Cronkite Schools Must See Mondays series.

I felt a lot of Gregg’s advice, which was all fantastic, could be applied to travel as well as photography – and photography plays a huge part of travel anyway. Therefore, I’m double posting my Cronkite Conversation post, and adding the travel twist on it over here along with a photo of my own.

James Gregg was a perfect speaker for this series. Gregg started with his thoughts on incorporating video with his still photographs, which he sees as an enhancement, and pointed out that video and still photos can each do something the other can’t. Specific insights like this and broader advice on photography and journalism made the lecture a valuable experience to aspiring photographers and journalists. But Gregg himself is a valuable lesson. In a time when journalism is shifting and adapting, Gregg talks about standards and challenging himself, finding stories and constantly looking for material, and being his own advocate. Gregg described the exhilaration of “pinch yourself moments” like photographing rodeos up close and personal, to the times people have allowed him to witness intimate moments like his first piece involving illegal immigrants. I was amazed that Gregg says he’s happy if he gets one photo a month that’s up to his standards – and impressed when he said that the more he knows, the higher his standards get. In short, I left the lecture intimidated and inspired – and really ready to get into the field to start learning and practicing and seeing what stories I can find and put together.


“We have an opportunity from one moment to the next to enter into someone else’s world.”

“It’s really important to listen to your gut.”

“I just started asking people, ‘How can I see more?’”

“Take people where hey can’t go themselves…if that means getting on a horse, get on a horse…when you don’t have a horse, take a mule.”

2008-01-23 (46)mini

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