Margaret Talbot talks about literary journalism

    Print journalism involves a “cinematic quality” that online writing does not — like getting info from the crabby old man with keys to crucial files instead of clicking on a search button, said Margaret Talbot, contributing writer for The New Yorker and former editor at Lingua Franca and The New Republic.

    Talbot spoke about “Reporting on Tomorrow,” today at noon in Fisk 211, and touched upon online and literary journalism.

    “I’m an admirer of Slate and,” Talbot said. “I have to because my brother started it.”

    Talbot praised online journalism for enabling journalists to report things first-hand or, in the case of citizen journalists, use cell phones to provide pictures of important incidents such as the July 7th bombing blasts in London in 2005 and tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2004.

    Also, a majority of popular online journalistic sites are opinion-oriented, said Talbot. She said this is great but feels that these sites are usually not analytical enough and do not always give the entire context of a story they are commenting on. And despite the prominence and demand for online storytelling, long-form journalism remains a flourishing genre, Talbot said.

    Long-form stories allow journalists to spend months, if not years, with a subject to delve beneath the surface. Originally used for profiling marginal members of society, long-form pieces also can be good for profiling people in power to “get beyond the press conferences,” Talbot said.

    However, long-form journalism takes time and effort to research and write and has been criticized for not being “analytical” enough. Some critics have labeled literary journalism as “sob-sister stories” — the kind of stories that invoke emotion for no reason.

    Despite the criticism, Talbot believes that as long as long-form satiates the audience’s basic emotional and ascetic need, it will always have a place in journalism.

    She ended her talk with advice:

    - As a writer, be the most alert observer, as if you were going to a foreign county. Without interesting details, you can’t have a story.

    And for college students interested in honing their literary journalism skills, Talbot said:

    -The best way to learn how to write, in any case, is to write.

    -Read what you admire and try to emulate the style — without plagiarizing.

    “That’s how I learned to write,” said Talbot. “I read works that I admired.”

    - Don’t know what to write about? Go out to a neighborhood in Chicago (a safe one or at least with proper guidance and protection) and write about a topic in the style of writing you admire.

    - While it may be hard to do long-form writing in college, it is not impossible.

    Talbot has also written for The New York Times Magazine, Salon and The Atlantic Monthly. As a New America Senior Fellow, Talbot was awarded a Whiting Writer’s Award in 1999.


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