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NYT’s Dan Barry COM’s Narrative Conference Keynote Speaker

Pulitzer winner among panelists at annual nonfiction seminar

Boston University BU, Dan Barry, New York Times, college of communication COM’s Narrative Conference

“The trick is finding the balance,” says New York Times columnist Dan Barry, who will give one of five keynote addresses at this weekend’s Narrative Conference. “Just because you can do something graphically now, doesn’t mean you should do it.” Photo courtesy of the College of Communication

For the past seven years, New York Times reporter Dan Barry has traveled to every corner of the country to write about the lives of ordinary Americans for his column “This Land.” His reporting has introduced readers to such disparate subjects as the actor who played the coroner in The Wizard of Oz,  an impoverished Rhode Island city struggling to save its local library, and the way the 2012 presidential election was playing out in one small Midwestern town. In 2010 his column was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, cited for reporting that “movingly captured” the ways the recession changed lives and relationships in America.

While most of his columns run approximately 700 words, Barry occasionally tackles subjects in more depth. Last month, the Times published his 7,500-word investigative narrative about 32 mentally disabled men forced to work for decades in deplorable conditions with little pay at an Iowa turkey processing plant. The story, “The ‘Boys’ in the Bunkhouse,” which took nine months to report, combined long-form narrative with video, audio clips, and photography, to create a heartbreaking story detailing how the town of Atalissa, Iowa, failed for decades to notice the men’s abuse, how their plight finally caught the attention of officials, and how the men live today.

This weekend, along with Mother Jones cofounder Adam Hochschild, Barry will deliver a keynote address on storytelling at the College of Communication annual nonfiction conference. The three-day Power of Narrative event will explore how journalists can stay savvy, skilled, and solvent in journalism’s wired era.

This year’s conference, which still has a few seats available, will bring 35 participating journalists to campus, among them Raney Aronson-Rath, deputy executive producer of the Emmy-winning PBS public affairs series Frontline; Dave Blum, editor of Kindle Singles, an online platform for publishing and selling original, long-form fiction and nonfiction available on Amazon’s Kindle readers; and National Public Radio reporter and blogger Kat Chow, who is a founding member of NPR’s race, ethnicity, and culture team, Code Switch. Also speaking at the conference are five COM faculty: New York Times media columnist and culture reporter David Carr, COM’s first Andrew R. Lack Professor; public radio producer and editor Anne Donohue (COM’88), a COM associate professor; former Boston Globe editor Michelle Johnson, a COM associate professor of the professional practice, who was part of the Globe team that launched boston.com; former Los Angeles Times and Washington Post correspondent Elizabeth Mehren, a COM professor; and Douglas Starr (COM’83), a COM professor and codirector of BU’s graduate program in science journalism.

Barry began his career at the Manchester, Conn., Journal Inquirer before moving to the Providence Journal, where he was part of the investigative team that won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing corruption in the Rhode Island courts. He joined the New York Times in 1995; his “This Land” column has run in the paper since 2007. He has written three books—Pull Me Up: A Memoir; City Lights: Stories about New York; and Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game, which won the 2012 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. Barry has been a Pulitzer finalist on two other occasions and is a recipient of the American Society of News Editors Award for deadline reporting.

BU Today spoke with Barry about his reporting for “The ‘Boys’ in the Bunkhouse,” the challenges in creating multimedia presentations of stories, and his advice for young writers.

BU Today: How did the print story, video, and photography for “The ‘Boys’ in the Bunkhouse” come together?

Barry: It’s an example of incorporating the digital era into the storytelling. The way I found out about it was a news brief about a jury verdict from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for $240 million. I thought I wanted to write about it, so I called the lawyer who had handled the case for the EEOC to do a column, but I said I would only be able to do it if I would be able to talk to the men. I didn’t want to do one of those stories where we talk around people. He said, “Well, no one has ever asked to speak with them.” So there was a lot of negotiation back and forth about how to do that, with all the propriety and compassion and understanding the situation required. So there was a lot of negotiation and we finally did it.

Initially, the people who sort of serve as guardians of these men didn’t want any photography, and certainly no videography. But as they got to know me and the New York Times photographer I worked with, Nicole Bengiveno, and the videographer, Kassie Bracken, they became more at ease with us.

One, the story is an example of patience, but two, it’s recognition by the Times that there needed to be a multimedia experience in telling this story. It wasn’t just text, and it wasn’t just photography. If you read the story online, there was a 32-minute documentary and all sorts of ways to experience the story, neat videos and images that moved. These helped to enhance the storytelling online. The trick is finding the balance. Just because you can do something graphically now, doesn’t mean you should do it. There’s this tension between telling the story and not getting in the way of that story.

How did you go about gaining the men’s trust?

I went out several times. The first time I went to Iowa was to meet with one of the supervisors and explain who I was, what I hoped to do, and dispel the notion that I was the devil incarnate. A reporter from the New York Times is a scary proposition for anyone. So I wanted to dispel the notion that I was a bad guy, and also assure them that I understood the situation—that these are men with intellectual disabilities—and there was no intention on my part to take advantage of the men in any way.

The first visit, I didn’t even meet the men. The second visit, I met with the men at a lake, where they were having a picnic. We just chatted—nothing on the record—it was them getting to know me. I think the photographer was there as well, but she didn’t take any photographs. So it was a gradual process. Maybe by the third visit they were comfortable to sit with us and talk and tell us their stories. On the fourth visit, we began filming and putting a microphone on them and asking, “Who are you? Where did you come from? What happened?” It wasn’t as though we flew into Iowa, mic’ed up these men, and left. We were there on and off over the course of several months.

“The scope of the piece is epic—it begins in Texas in the 1960s and concludes in present-day Iowa. Were you ever unsure it would come together?

I didn’t know how I would be able to tell the story in a newspaper, quite frankly. The first draft I wrote was twice the length that appeared in the Times. The final story that ran in the paper was 7,500 words, and the initial draft was easily twice that. I didn’t have any expectations that all 15,000 words would be published in the newspaper. It was more a question of showing my editors that this is what I know, and I wanted to have a conversation about what to include and what not to. The difficult part was whittling it down to 7,500 words, and I had many anecdotes and nuances that didn’t make the piece because of space. That was the hard part of the storytelling—how to contain it, and what to leave out. We knew so much about these men and their experiences. It had to span 40-odd years.

Was this a conversation you had with your multimedia team—which parts to include in the text and which to include in video?

Yes. For example, in video there are elements that aren’t included in the print story. A challenge for newspapers in the digital age is that the documentary was never really meant to retell the text story. I think the text story strongly complemented the documentary.

Your eye for detail is exceptional. In “The ‘Boys’ in the Bunkhouse,” for instance, you describe how to slaughter a turkey and what bystanders were wearing. Is including small details something you had to learn or did it come naturally?

I think it grew organically as I got older. When I was a young reporter, I would cover a story, go back to the newsroom, and struggle to write the story. I would waste time struggling to write the story, writing around what I didn’t know, and the story and the reader suffered as a result. I had to train myself to look for things, like he has a red shirt on, what his name tag said specifically, what he has in his backpack for lunch. I would say that 90 percent of what is in my notebook doesn’t appear in a finished story, but there’s a feeling of authority or command when I sit down to write. It may be delusional, but I know that I know these things. When you report well, and then when you sit down and write, you’re not shackled by a lack of information.

And more recently, it’s become second nature to always have my iPhone with me. Not only do I write down what I see, but I also take quick pictures on my iPhone for backup to go back to later.

What advice would you give to students who want to write long-form journalism or their own column someday?

For people who want to participate in long-form journalism, read the best. Read some of the works of David Finkel or any of the other participants in the conference. I’m reading Adam Hochschild’s book on World War I, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, about how the war drew in everyone. Last night I found myself shaking. It’s history, it happened almost 100 years ago, but he was able to create a mood as if you were there.

I’m not being an old curmudgeon, but you have to bang around a little bit, get some experience. Even more than that, you have to get experience as a reporter and learn how to tell stories and learn how to convey a mood, or a sense of place, with just a few words or images. When I want to put someone on a bus in Iowa, for instance, there are little things I do to make that mood. That comes from experience. We’re not stenographers; there are choices we make all the time.

The COM conference the Power of Narrative: Staying Savvy, Skilled and Solvent in Journalism’s Wired Era is being held April 4 to 6 at the School of Management, 595 Commonwealth Ave. A full schedule of events can be found here. Registration closes April 1; register here.

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Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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