R.B. Brenner

How Things Changed: The Inside Story of My Texas Two-Step

Things change. If you’re a fan of David Mamet’s writing, as I am, you understand the power of those two simple words. Just when we think we know our future, the phone rings, there’s a knock on the door, an inner voice grows louder … and things change.

It has happened to me a few times, most recently on January 17th. I answered the phone that Friday afternoon and recognized Tracy Dahlby’s baritone. Our initial small talk was forgettable until Tracy said, “I think we should grow old together.” Huh? What the @#*&! is he talking about? Like all of my friends, Tracy knew how happy I’ve been teaching at Stanford University, but that didn’t stop him from making the case for why I should apply to be the next director of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.
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‘Obamacare on the Peninsula’ project showcased range of students’ skills

This fall, I challenged the 18 students in my Public Issues Reporting course to undertake a major project examining the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. In less than six weeks, while juggling other class assignments, they brainstormed idea, formed reporting teams, created a highly customized WordPress site, and produced in-depth articles,  a data visualization, audio slideshows and a four-minute video.

On top of that, they organized, hosted, live blogged and live streamed a panel discussion featuring two Stanford professors and a top public health official.

I’m proud to share the website that houses all their work.


Where do you go to find stories? Start with the 3 P’s — People, Places and ‘Paper’

I show this video on the first day of my Public Issues Reporting course because the city editor’s words to a very young Bob Woodward — “Get your ass out of the chair” — still ring true to today. Fortunately, Woodward took the editor’s advice that day. Otherwise, he might not have stayed on The Washington Post Metro staff long enough to be there when the Watergate break-in happened.

Another reason I like the video is that Woodward explains the three tracks of reporting, which I refer to as the three P’s –shorthand for people, places and paper (in the digital age, sub documents and data for “paper”).

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Before the interview came words spoken to the wind

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Sometimes the best thing a journalist can do is not ask a lot of questions right away. Take the time to look and listen. There can be gold in that period before the interview begins.

In this recent podcast (above), author Dale Maharidge – longtime collaborator with my friend Michael Williamson, the one-of-a-kind Washington Post photographer — describes meeting steelworkers Joe Marshall Sr. and Jr. in Youngstown, Ohio. The words that Dale and Michael heard Joe Sr. say ever-so-quietly “to the wind” became a haunting quote in their first book, Journey to Nowhere. “What Hitler couldn’t do, they did it for him,” Mr. Marshall, a World War II veteran who survived the Normandy invasion, said as he surveyed the ruins of the mill which had sustained his family and generations of others.

The Marshalls are featured prominently in Journey to Nowhere. They appear again in Someplace Like America, a sequel of sorts published this year. Dale’s podcast is a mini master class for young reporters.

Truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it — Flannery O’Connor

Pretty much anyone can be a publisher these days. We wear that hat each time we post a Facebook update or send out a tweet.

What makes someone a journalist, though?

I start with this list (some are principles, others qualities):

Verification: A journalist is obsessed with accuracy, with facts, with the pursuit of “the truth.”

Independence: “A journalist must always be a free agent, responsible to the craft, the value system and the readers (or listeners or viewers),” Columbia University professor Samuel G. Freedman writes in his wise book, Letters to a Young Journalist.

Originality: The concept that the best reporting is based on primary sources and, ideally, observable reality — you go there and see it for yourself. My friend Phil Bennett, the brilliant former Washington Post managing editor now on the faculty at Duke University, calls this “passing the presence test.”

Responsibility: Understanding that there are consequences to the act of publishing. As a young reporter, it didn’t take me long to realize that what I wrote had both the power to help and to harm, and that I should never treat this power cavalierly.

Depth and expertise: All good journalism must have a component of depth.

Empathy: Wanting to know what it’s like to walk in another personʼs shoes.

Courage: “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it,” the novelist Flannery OʼConnor wrote.

Clarity: The skill to cut through the clutter and the babble, to tell your story clearly and with context.

Curiosity: I donʼt think you can be a journalist without being a curious person.

Strong pitches, back-out schedules & outlines = thesis publishing success

We require our graduate journalism students to produce a master’s thesis project to cap the year. It’s their chance to flex the reporting, writing and multimedia muscles they’ve built up over 10 months.

One of my goals is to help as many of them as possible get their thesis — or at least a trimmed-down version — published by a professional newspaper, magazine or digital-only publication. In service of that goal, this year I taught a workshop titled “Projects for Publication,” in which the students  prepared back-out schedules (time management!), crafted compelling story pitches and heard me speak endlessly about the value of a good outline.

The students’ hard work paid off, as a majority of the thesis projects ended up appearing in professional publications, including these:

Alexei Koseff, whose article about the forces of gentrification in East Palo Alto was bannered atop the homepage of KQED, Northern California’s public media network.

Xandra Clark, who enlightened Poynter.org readers about an emerging field known as “performed journalism.”

Ryan Eshoff, who journeyed to Iowa to report the story of the “Field of Dreams” site and its changing future, a piece picked up by MLB.com.

Anna Li, who took advantage of a breaking news peg to publish a condensed version of her thesis in the San Francisco Chronicle’s print and online editions.

Riva Gold, who made a big splash with her look at newsroom diversity in The Atlantic.com.

Rachel Estabrook, who followed her investigative instincts to bring an important and timely immigrant worker story to the attention of California Report listeners.

Below is a copy of a brief memo I distributed in one of the Projects for Publication classes, stressing my belief in the importance of outlining:

“All good stories have a structure, a backbone, which unifies even seemingly disparate elements. … Once a structure is established, the problem that bedevils every writer at one time or another – ‘where do I go next?’ – is largely solved.”

Sound familiar? James B. Stewart, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor, included those words in his book “Follow the Story,” which we read during Autumn Quarter.

I remind you of them now because, even among veteran journalists, there’s a tendency to underestimate the importance of structure. It’s only natural, I guess. For a project like your thesis, you’ve spent weeks and weeks reporting, gathering mountains of material, and now you’re antsy to write a first draft. And once you begin writing, it’s easy to become preoccupied by word choice, syntax and everything else involved in polishing your prose.

Those things are vital, but not before you’ve obsessed over how to structure your story. “Perhaps because polish is so visible, many people erroneously believe it to be the most important part of writing,” Jon Franklin, a legendary features writer, once said. “Polish is merely the plaster on the walls of structure.”

This is why a detailed outline — ahead of a first draft — can be your best friend.

The look and feel of an outline, I believe, is a personal choice. Some writers outline in a methodical “1, 2, 3 …” or “A, B, C …” kind of fashion. Others draw diagrams that offer a more visual guide. Use whatever format makes the most sense to you. What’s really important at this stage is that you create a blueprint for your story, logically organizing the right things in the right place.

Your structure depends, in large part, on the type of story you intend to tell. A pure narrative is organized differently than a magazine-length feature that includes some narrative sections and techniques. And, of course, a hard-news piece or a news analysis generally is best served by an architecture that prioritizes what’s new and most newsworthy.

If you are striving for a true narrative, keep in mind that such stories unfold through character, scene and action along a “narrative arc.” As they move from beginning to middle to end, narratives are propelled by a sequence of events that take the reader along for the ride. The narrative writer refrains from non-essential exposition and often withholds how the story turns out.

“When is a narrative appropriate? If the question underlying a story is ‘what happened’?” Stewart wrote in “Follow the Story.”

Many thesis stories, on the other hand, are what I consider hybrids: While benefitting mightily from narrative elements, they more closely resemble magazine-style news features — often starting with an anecdote or scene, moving to a “nut graph” (or several nut graphs) that tell the reader where the piece is going, and then proceeding to cover that terrain through a combination of expository and narrative storytelling.

I’ll close with this: The thought of writing a long-form piece can be daunting, particularly if you are more accustomed to stories in the 800- to 1,500-word range. Another reason why an outline serves you well is that it helps you think of the writing process in sections.  A 2,500-word story organized into four sections is, metaphorically, like climbing a series of peaks en route to the mountaintop.