First Time at Bat

By Nancy Wright Beasley

David Halberstam
David Halberstam
I entered the president’s ballroom on this, my introductory visit to the Nieman Narrative Conference, not sure what to expect. David Halberstam, one of my best friend’s idols, was to give the opening keynote address. “You lucky dog,” my friend, a baseball fanatic, had said. “I’d give anything to go with you. Just remember everything he says, especially about baseball,” she added.

I was early, but Halberstam was already in place, sitting just a few feet from the podium with Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. I sat down a few feet from the two men still hearing my friend’s admonition ringing in my ears.

Several minutes passed while I struggled with whether I could, or whether I dared, approach him. My mother always said, “Nothing beats a failure but a try, so I decided to try. I slipped from my seat and knelt on one knee beside Halberstam. He leaned his left ear slightly toward me.

“My best friend so admires your work,” I began, “especially about baseball. I just had to tell you hello for her. She won’t believe I’ve had the chance to meet you.”

“Well,” he said, “let’s write something for her. Do you have any paper?”

Surprised at his request, I held up two empty hands.

Halberstam quickly rifled through the manila folder on his lap and found a half-size sheet of Nieman Foundation stationery with a message that began, “Dear David Halberstam. Welcome to Cambridge and to the Nieman Conference…”

“This is my schedule for while I’m here,” he said. “What’s your friend’s name?”

“Barbara Irby,” I replied.

With a swift few strokes, he wrote, “Dear Barbara. Wish you were here. Best, David Halberstam.”

The conference hadn’t even begun, and I had already scored a home run.

Nancy Wright Beasley is a freelance writer and adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Mass Communications.

Posted in sessions.Keynote: The Pleasures of What We Do, speakers.David Halberstam, working with editors & reporters on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Keep in Touch

By John Currie

David Halberstam has been there, writing from the heart, the words his editor cut forty years back still intact.

Stay in touch with your sources, he said. I’m going to do that when I get back to B.C. I’m gonna call up the ex-street girl I profiled last year; see what’s new. Four men staying in touch, knowing each other sixty years, knowing the moment will never happen again — that was the seed Halberstam grew into his baseball book. Make your editor say, Damn, why didn’t I have that idea? he said. Get that time you need from your editor.

It’s not just dogging it, it’s thinking of ideas and asking the best question any reporter can ask a source: Who else can I see? The more views, anecdotes, perceptions, the better. Get too much and use your best stuff.

  • Read, read, read. A book a week. Everything.
  • Love talking to people. Don’t bullshit people. Don’t try to be more on their side than you are. It doesn’t work and it’s just not nice.
  • Good reporters know nuance and set up the interview ground rules. Make interviews congenial.

The more you do it, Halberstam said, the more you’ll have a sense of human nature, and there’s always a pattern there.

Good writing comes from tons of legwork. The keys, again: the perception of the story and legwork. “As you get older you waste less time.”

John Currie is completing his Master’s of Journalism at the University of British Columbia.

Posted in reporting, sessions.Welcome, speakers.David Halberstam on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Do the Leg Work

By Robin Sloan

David Halberstam doesn’t put much stock in great writing. Solid journalism isn’t about fancy verbiage, he says; rather, "it’s about ideas, about narration, about setting things out, about telling the story."

And what really comes first is legwork, "The more the better." The more interviews you do, the better. The more anecdotes you get, the better. Because when you’ve got a hundred different angles on a story, Halberstam says, you can write with authority. When you’ve got a hundred different anecdotes, you can leave the lame ones out.

Do both, and your writing will have -- and this is a key characteristic, Halberstam says -- it will have density.

"I can always tell when a writer is cheating," Halberstam says. "I can tell when it’s a two phone-call story."

It’s not surprising, then, that he says you have to actually enjoy talking to people to be a good journalist. The legwork has to be fun. You have to look forward to asking Halberstam’s Best Question That Any Reporter Can Ask a Source, which is: "Who else should I see?"

Robin Sloan works at The Poynter Institute.

Posted in reporting, sessions.Keynote: The Pleasures of What We Do, speakers.David Halberstam on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Best Beat for Narrative Journalism?

By Bill Mitchell

David Halberstam says it’s cops -- the beat with “maximum human collision…the place where the best stuff happens.”

Halberstam acknowledged the burden of daily stories that falls to police reporters. But he said cops and court slots yield the best shot to uncover stories that, given some digging and some time, can blossom into compelling narratives.

When told by young journalists that they're starting out on cops, he says he has a stock answer: “Best beat on the paper.”

If you can’t cover cops or courts, Halberstam recommended general assignment as fertile ground for narrative journalism.

“The most interesting stuff falls outside the bureaucratic beats that newspapers tend to create,” he said.

Bill Mitchell works for Poynter.

Posted in crime & law, sessions.Keynote: The Pleasures of What We Do, speakers.David Halberstam on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink