Friday, November 17, 2006

Calvin Trillin talks about the narrative, The New Yorker and the Web

At a conference put on by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, Clavin Trillin, staff writer for the New Yorker since 1963, spoke in the grand ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston this afternoon. Professional journalists shuffled in along with some young adults, who I assumed were students such as myself.

Mark Kramer, who has written for the Boston Globe, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, The Atlantic Monthly, Outside and other publications said while introducing Trillin, “we have to get the story right, and listen to the people who live it.”

After Kramer thanked the crowd for coming, Trillin started his speech with a joke saying, “I wrote a poem in The Nation explaining why Karl Rove seemed so confident. Had a plan to keep Republicans on top by revealing a plot of two Muslim men who are getting married.” Chuckles ran through the room as I watched journalists staring at the speaker then at their laps with pens and notepads in hand, courtesy of Poynter.org.

Trillin spoke about his writing process for narrative journalism at the New Yorker. William Shawn, Trillin’s editor at the time, assigned the writer 3,000 word pieces every three weeks. Trillin said that regular people would ask him how he kept up the pace, while newspaper people asked him what else he did. Laughter flurried across the crowd, as the room was filled with journalists who I’m sure empathized with his situation.

He said that he wasn’t trying to write pieces about typical people, but wanted to tell a story. “The New Yorker was a unique place when I started working there,” he said, “it had no pictures, no table of contents, no poll quotes, or two to three line descriptions.”

Trillin said that the narrative and good writing is a bonus next to the necessity of being accurate. “The basic foundation of journalism is getting it right,” he said. He went on to talk about the temptation that journalists have to blur the truth a little bit when it comes to transition lines and straightening out the facts. He said, “Accuracy is a basic part of this.”

The formal part of his speech ended with a reading of some humorous corrections. He read off funny errors like person x didn’t actually “sache” across the stage, etc.

I found that the most enlightening part of his talk was in the question and answer section. A man asked what Trillin thought of online storytelling and blogs. Trillin responded saying, “I’m not familiar with them, but I agree that this stuff changes in form and venue, but is still writing.” The writer said that when he was a boy there were 4 major magazines, which no longer exist. “Now there are magazines devoted to ferret owners,” he said. He admitted that although he’s not familiar with too much of the online materials, he reads some of the political blogs, particularly during election time.

The last question was from a woman who asked if he ever made any mistakes. Trillin said, “Sure I did.” For Trillin, fact checking is a great comfort. “If you hear a writer at the New Yorker saying that a certain fact checker is a pain, that is a bad reporter,” he said.

Trillin agreed that the Web helps a lot, but said that it is a mistake to rely solely on the Internet for research. He mentioned Wikipedia as being one unreliable source. He expressed his frustration with the free online encyclopedia, saying that they wrongly wrote he is very fond of comic books. “It wasn’t true, I am not fond of comic books,” he responded.

On the Internet as a resource for journalists he said, “It’s wonderful and democratic, but gives you less of an excuse to get it wrong.”

To read what Romenesko says about how Trillin's writing has changed click here.

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