Transparency and Gene Weingarten’s Visit


During his recent visit to UMass, Pulitzer prize-winner Gene Weingarten told a few stories.  One of them involved an exchange with Bob Kaiser — one of my favorite editors from my time at The Washington Post.

The story was an amusing one and involved an effort by Weingarten and one of his reporters to construct a profile on a person who made a living off of writing term papers for college students.  After the interview turned out not to be the best, the reporter jokingly suggested they have the term-paper writer write the story, put it under the reporter’s byline and wait until the kicker at the end of the story to let the reader know they had been duped.

As with most of Weingarten’s story, there were chuckles from the crowd when Weingarten decided to go ahead with the idea.

But Weingarten continued and said that Kaiser, then the managing editor at The Post, said that while he liked the story, misleading the reader violated the contract of trust that journalists have with their audience.

“We don’t lie to our readers,” Kaiser told Weingarten.

The story was from the pre-Web days but even then Kaiser seemed ahead of his time with his notions of transparency.

Weingarten also gave some old-school stories about getting information and interviews through some questionable means early in his career — including hiding behind a curtain during a city council meeting.

Finally, Weingarten spoke about the stories surrounding both of his Pulitzer Prizes, including “Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car is a Horrifying Mistake. Is it a Crime?” In describing how he was able to get people to talk to him about this difficult topic, Weingarten said he related his own story to interview subjects, sharing how he almost killed his daughter, Molly, the same way.

To a near-quiet audience of a couple of hundred people, Weingarten related how one day in the early 1980s he was taking his daughter to daycare, made a wrong turn and ended up in parking lot of The Miami Herald.  He was about to get out of his car when his daughter saved a tragedy from occurring.

“As I was about to get out, Molly said something and that’s the only reason she’s a veterinarian today,” recalled Weingarten.

It was a moving story, especially since it was delivered to a room filled with budding journalists.  Yet, the admission is not found anywhere in the narrative of the Pulitzer prize-winning story.  In an online discussion after the story was published in The Post, Weingarten told his story. So, while there was transparency, it was transparency after the fact.  Since Weingarten’s visit, I’ve had several class discussions on Weingarten’s appearance and what it means to be transparent in today’s 24-hour news cycle.

And, after reading the online discussion, some students felt angry, almost emotionally manipulated by the story he wrote.  Would readers’ opinions on the topic have been different if Weingarten had been transparent within the story?


For me, I remember the huge discussion that happened after the story was originally published.  As a father of three, I have a built-in bias.  I was repulsed by the headline and the attempt to classify these deaths as “mistakes.”

Being transparent would have provided Weingarten with a different approach to the story and perhaps swayed those holding my opinion.  But, most importantly, Weingarten would have been honest with the reader.  Letting the reader know you have an emotional investment in the story is one of the main arguments for being transparent.

The 5 W’s of a Story Pitch

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Brad Tuttle recently came to Bartlett Hall to deliver a talk about how students can make it in the world of freelance journalism.  Part of his presentation included an examination of how students can get their work published as freelance journalists.  His presentation was titled:

The 5 W’s of a Story Pitch:

Why this story? – Is it narrative, first person?   Show a little bit of your story and how it might be put together.

•    Why this publication? What else is out there; why are you pitching here?  Know what they’ve done in this area and in the magazine you’re pitching to:  “What has it done and will do?”  Browse through a year’s worth of stories/issues of a publication, it shows editors that you care.    Draw parallels between what they’ve done and what you hope to do.

•    Why now? Mostly for magazines, but can translate across mediums.  Travel – get a lot of pitches for the “I’m just back from story” ….but a lot has been covered elsewhere.  What is now, what is a trend?  Neighborhood in Barcelona with four  new chefs…places with an actual story.    This is why we need to do this right now.  Plan 6-8 months ahead.

•    Why in a particular format? Make the case for why the format is the perfect format – 500 word first person essay – why?  List of tips, infographic, photo essay – why one or the other – make your argument.  Editors want you to care.

•    Why  you? Why of all the writers in the world should I give this to you?    “You prove it all the time in everything you do – when you are a journalist you are selling yourself all the time, you are the product.  You are constantly making an impression on people.”

Other Tips:
•    Every rewrite that you are asked to do proves you can work with an editor and an editor can work with you…..be casual and friendly.   Find ways to work with editors.
•    “My personal work ethic comes knowing that I can be replaced;  I don’t take anything for granted….nobody is safe, there is very little stability in the industry.”
•    “Everyone needs an editor; you can’t be thin-skinned about it; you won’t last if you’re thin-skinned…instead of digging your heels and cursing your editors, think about how you can learn and get better.”
•    “Writers and editors and professors have same goal; not to make your life easy but to produce the best story; at the heart of true pros out there is the desire to produce the best stuff.”


ESPN Editors Visit UMass Journalism

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ESPN's Jena Janovy, Sarah Goldstein and Matthew Lee spoke to UMass journalism students this week.  <br> Photo Credit: Brian McDermott

ESPN's Jena Janovy, Sarah Goldstein and Matthew Lee spoke to UMass journalism students this week. Photo Credit: Brian McDermott

About 40 UMass journalism students heard from three editors from ESPN this week.  Jena Janovy, Sarah Goldsteein and Matthew Lee spoke about the state of the industry and their duties during a 90-minute discussion.

The trio dispelled several myths, including notions that ESPN does not do serious journalism.  Janovy spoke at length about the cross-platform, long-form journalism she does.  She spoke about how she and her writer spent more than six months putting together the award-winning Ray of Hope package.

All three work for ESPN’s Web site and quickly dispelled the notion that Web journalists do not practice under the same ground rules as “traditional” print journalists.

“First and foremost, journalism and basic skills you need to write a proper story are the same no matter what,” Goldstein said.

All three said there were jobs available but admitted that the pool of available talent is much larger because veteran journalists are being laid off at newspapers.  The advice was consistent from all three:  Journalism students should acquire as many skills as possible while in school and do as many internships as possible.

Lee polled the crowd as to those who had taken part in internships.  When about half of those present raised their hands, Lee looked out at the group and asked:

“What are the rest of you waiting for?”

Good advice indeed.


David Maraniss to Visit UMass Journalism

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A huge coup for Journalism, courtesy of Maddy Blais:

Just so you all know and in case you want to tweak your syllabi when there is still plenty of time to do so, I am arranging for David Maraniss to come to our campus on Monday September 22nd, perhaps spilling into the 23rd. His major talk will be late afternoon on the 22nd: exact time and place to be determined with Barbara’s help. His talk comes early in the semester, but not so early, I trust, that at the very least you can offer extra credit to students who attend. He is a big deal: Pulitzer winner, Pulitzer finalist (for his work on 9/11) and has written the first Clinton biography as well as books about Gore, Vince Lombardi, Viet Nam (“They Marched into Sunlight”) and currently, “Rome” about the 1960 Olympics. He is so the real deal.

In an era where long-form is under challenge, Maraniss has a style unequalled in the business. Every time he writes, I read from beginning to end, completely taken in by his writing. As you can see from his Virginia Tech piece, he has the ability to weave a narrative filled with details, facts, emotion. More than 20 reporters and researchers contributed to Maraniss on the Virginia Tech piece — quite an amazing feat.

But, it was his piece on the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks (co-authored by Anne Hull and Paul Schwartzman) that really put Maraniss into another stratosphere for me. The link I just gave you doesn’t have the entire piece, so I’ll paste the entire story here. It’s 8,000 words and you won’t leave your seat until you’re done.



Published on: Sunday, 12/09/2001, A section,
edition, zone, A01

Aftermath For Those Whose Lives Were Changed September 11, the Contrast
Between the Mythology Surrounding That Day and Their Own Reality Keeps
By David Maraniss, Anne Hull and Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writers


At the Fresh Kills wasteland, on a man-made moonscape high above the western
shore of Staten Island, the air smells sweet and rotten. The ground bubbles,
generators hum, cranes creak and roar, their giant claws loosening mangled
loads in earthshaking thuds. Detectives in white Tyvek suits breathe through
gas masks as they move amid squashed firetrucks and piles of steel twisted
into 21st century sculptures of horror.

The word landfill fails to convey this otherworldly place. Fresh Kills is
officially an NYPD crime scene, a fenced encampment of 175 acres guarded at
three checkpoints. More than that, it is an archaeological phenomenon —
most of what’s left of the lost civilization that until September 11 existed
across the bay at the World Trade Center.

Here are the remains of one devastating day, more than 650,000 tons already
and much more on the way, hauled by mud-scarred dump trucks and heaving
barges, all to be disentangled, spread out and examined. Mechanical sifters
and sorters separate detritus large from small, sending humble little bits
hurtling down conveyor belts that roll from dawn to long after nightfall.
The river of debris flows relentlessly and is mesmerizing, chunks of rock
mostly, dark and indistinguishable, but then every few seconds an object
with an unknown story attached: a tube of lipstick, a torn concert ticket, a
Snapple lid, a piece of human bone, a Port Authority badge, a padlock,
moisturizer, a torn hairnet.

Hour after hour, week upon week, the trade center reminders keep coming,
even as the nation has moved on to war and other things.

September 11, nearly three months gone, is now a shared American narrative,
a communal myth, based largely on fact, that tries to make sense of what
seems unexplainable. A cast of everyday heroes. Pure good versus satanic
evil. Common purpose and resolve. The myth comes wrapped in a neat package
and is sold on the street. The coffee table photo books rushed for Christmas
sales, the flag lapel pins, the tourists buying their FDNY caps in Times
Square, these are for the outside consumers of legend. But those on the
inside know harder truths that accompany and at times collide with the myth.
They are real people facing the rawness of what happened and what it did to
them. The debris of September 11 keeps rolling through their lives with the
same ceaseless rhythm as the conveyor belts on Staten Island.