WJI Mid-Career Course 2012
Oct 22, 2012 - Oct 26, 2012
This second annual mid-career course held in Asheville, North Carolina features instruction by Marvin and Susan Olasky.
Limited to 14 aspiring journalists, this course is intensive and demanding. Tuition is free, but students are responsible for their own travel, lodging, breakfast and dinner expenses.
Dean, World Journalism Institute
Marvin Olasky is editor in chief of the World News Group, dean of the World Journalism Institute, and holder of the Distinguished Chair in Journalism and Public Policy at Patrick Henry College. He worked at The Boston Globe, taught at the University of Texas at Austin from 1983 through 2007, a... more >
Susan Olasky is a senior writer for WORLD, with particular responsibility for book reviews and lifestyle features. A graduate of the University of Michigan with a master's degree in public policy, she founded the Austin Crisis Pregnancy Center in 1984 and has co-authored articles opposing ... more >
Second annual WORLD mid-career course
Becoming a Christian citizen journalist: The basics of feature writing
Meets October 22-26 at World News Group headquarters, 12 All Souls Crescent, Asheville, NC (on M-T-Th-F) and at the home of Marvin and Susan Olasky (on Wednesday), which is 1.8 miles from the office. Class runs 9-5 the first four days, 9 to noon on Friday.
Intensive training in reporting and writing magazine and website stories from a Christian worldview. Course does not include instruction on writing devotionals, exegetical essays, memoirs, or fiction, and it does not include training in writing for radio or television.
This course will also examine the history and theology of Christian journalism. It provides basic training for WORLD subscribers who desire to improve their writing and have the possibility of becoming World News Group correspondents.
- Macro-stories: Public relations, biblical objectivity, oppression
- Up and down the ladder of abstraction: Streets, not suites
- Story telling with protagonists, missions, antagonists, and obstacles
- Journalistic humility and the rapids method of applying Scripture
- Writing with active verbs and concrete nouns
- Fixing broken houses and windows: Ladder, structural, line-by-line editing
Student learning objectives
- Learn to write for a popular audience
- Learn to apply Scripture to current cultural and public policy issues
- See how events reflect God’s glory
- Deepen understanding of God’s holiness, love, and justice
- Write without using jargon foreign to most readers
- Become capable of writing a story for WORLDpublication
Students must have a laptop that’s enabled for wi-fi. We’ll all be looking at student writing on Google Docs, so every student should have a free gmail account and know how Google Docs works.
World News Group will provide lunches Monday through Thursday. Students pay for everything else. Last fall the most-used hotel by students was Country Inn & Suites on Tunnel Road, which is about 2.5 miles from the office. Others stayed at Baymont Inn, Guest House Inn, or Doubletree, all on Hendersonville Rd.
Background and World News Group objective
In 1681 a general meeting of Massachusetts ministers resolved that each should be a correspondent, with the responsibility to “enquire diligently into, and Record such Illustrious Providences as have happened” in their towns, including “Tempests, Floods, Earth-quakes, Thunders as are unusual… Remarkable Judgments upon noted Sinners; eminent Deliverances, and Answers of Prayer.”
Over the next 150 years volunteer correspondents worked alongside editors. In 1830, according to observers, three-fourths of American newspapers and magazines were explicitly Christian. That changed over the next few decades as editors often embraced Transcendentalism and “freethought.” In the 20th century, theological and political liberalism came to dominate the press.
Today, the World News Group (magazine, websites, radio) reports God’s illustrious providences for the benefit of probably a half-million readers and listeners. World is largely staff-written, with fulltime reporters in New York, Washington, Charlotte, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Atlanta, and part-timers elsewhere, but we sometimes makes use of correspondents. Our goal in this course is to find and begin to train a new group.
Pre-course required reading and writing
Required reading: (1) WORLD Policyguide 2012, emailed to those accepted to class; (2) Strunk and White, The Elements of Style (available in paperback); (3) Materials in “Lessons” folder.
Optional reading: Two Olasky books, Prodigal Press and Telling the Truth, online at http://www.worldmag.com/world/olasky/Prodigal/index.html and http://www.worldmag.com/world/olasky/truth1.html.
Required writing: (1) one profile, (2) two journalistic haikus, as described at the end of this document
Worldmag.com is beginning a series of profiles of couples married for at least 35 years. Our goal is to show how they overcame obstacles to preserve and grow their marriages. Your mission is to write a 500-word profile of such a couple and email it (in MS-Word attached to the email) to June McGraw (firstname.lastname@example.org) by the date assigned.
Writing such a profile is not as easy at it may sound. Lots of people don’t want to reveal any problems they had. You need to find a couple willing to talk about obstacles and maybe even antagonists. Read the discussion of story telling that follows for hints about what will make for an article that we hope, with editing, is publishable on worldmag.com.
Let’s look at what’s essential to gain reader interest: good story-telling. We’ll start with a story you may know: “Jack and Jill went up the hill/To fetch a pail of water./Jack fell down and broke his crown,/And Jill came tumbling after.”
That little poem has the four elements of what makes a good story. It has a protagonist, a mission, the barriers to successful completion of the mission, and an antagonist. Jack and Jill are the protagonists. The mission is to fetch a pail of water. The barrier is the hill. But what about the antagonist? There’s some mysterious Jack-attacker at the crest of the hill
That mystery allows us to interpret the story in different ways, according to our worldviews. The standard view might be, “Jack is clumsy and Jill is co-dependent.” A person with biblical values might think of Jack and Jill as married to each other with pledges of “in sickness and in health” – so it’s wonderful that Jill deliberately tumbled down to help her mate. That’s what husbands and wives do for each other. In feminist hands, though, this story could be a cautionary tale: Why should Jill abandon her career just because Jack is incompetent?
Here’s one other example, the story of the three little pigs. Here we have three protagonists, three piglets. Their mission is building houses – one of straw, one of sticks, one of bricks. The barrier to success for two of them is laziness – they don’t want to spend the time to build a strong house. They have an antagonist – the big bad wolf.
It’s important to have a strong, vigorous antagonist. If the wolf’s problem was just big teeth and a pointy nose, Congress could pass a bill giving him free orthodontist visits and free plastic surgery. (Wait – Congress may already have done that.) But what makes for a compelling story is the wolf’s murderous disposition.
Even the simplest spot news story has a protagonist, mission, antagonist, and barriers. Here’s one: “Firefighters (protagonist) last night battled a blaze (antagonist). Because of high winds and low water pressure (barriers) it took two hours to extinguish the flames (mission).” Or another: “Police (protagonist) yesterday took a bite out of crime (mission) by arresting the East Side cat burglar (antagonist). He surrendered only after he fired two shots (barrier) and yelled, ‘You’ll never take me alive.’”
The Bible has a more complicated structure, but essentially it is a story of creation, fall, and redemption. God’s mission is to rescue his people and save them from sin. Christ is the protagonist and Satan as the antagonist who seems to win in the Garden, seems to win at many times throughout the history of Israel, and seems to win on Good Friday -- but loses in the end. Each book of the Bible, sometimes each chapter, has its own drama.
In chapter three of Genesis, for example, Adam and Eve are the protagonists with the mission of continuing to be able to walk with God in the Garden of Eden. Satan in serpent form is the antagonist, tempting the first couple to sin. The fruit of the two trees are the obstacles to mission fulfillment, which occurs through obedience. When Adam and Eve disobey they are cast out, and the next chapter begins: How will they and their children fare in wilderness?
Further chapters in Genesis and other historical books of the Old Testament could all be charted in this way. The difference between the Bible and the Quran is striking: News and features make up most of the Bible, but the Quran is almost all editorial, telling rather than showing. The Bible tells stories, the Quran gives orders – so one way that Christian journalists reflects biblical teaching is by emphasizing story-telling.
Even when the Bible moves away from story form, story frameworks are still evident. For example, the “watchers on the wall” in Ezekiel 33 have a calling like that of journalists: In that chapter he protagonist is the watchman and the antagonist is a literal enemy bringing a sword to the land, or a metaphorical enemy -- sin. The watchman’s goal is to warn the people when a threat appears. Barriers to successful fulfillment of the mission include laziness (the watchman sleeping at his post), blindness (not seeing the threat), cowardice (fear that warning the wicked will bring retribution from them), or wickedness (siding with evil).
Now, let’s apply this to some stories in WORLD. Here’s one: Several years I visited China and saw the growth of house churches of China. I interviewed Chinese leaders, including CEOs who had become Christians, and then wrote, “With house churches multiplying in cities and influential executives coming to faith, Christianity is growing so fast in China that Communist officials are having a hard time keeping up.”
In that story Chinese Christians are the protagonists, with a mission of spreading the Gospel, and Communist officials are the antagonists. The protagonists face barriers: harassment and sometimes persecution, their own fear and desires. I did not write that the success of their mission is assured nor that we can derive easy lessons from their experience.
Another example: Near the end of a story with the literal headline, “Dead Ends in Darfur,” Mindy Belz concluded that “More than three years after fierce militia known as janjaweed (“armed horsemen”) began raiding villages, raping women, killing children, and torching property, the world is little closer to a lasting solution to what many call the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” The protagonists are innocent people, their mission is to raise crops and children, and their biggest obstacle is the lack of any obstacles in the way of their antagonists, the janjaweed.
Other stories aren’t as clear-cut. When WORLD described the soaring price of food and the effect that had on the poor, managing editor Tim Lamer concluded that, “Many forces are at work in bringing about higher food prices. One of these forces – the diversion of land and crops to biofuel production at the expense of food production – is unlike the others: Congress has the power to change it.”
Here the protagonists are poor people with the mission of obtaining less expensive food, the antagonist is biofuel production that raises prices, and the obstacle is a Congress that’s providing biofuel incentives and thus indirectly raising the price of food. But look carefully: It’s possible to take the same set of facts and arrive at a very different plot. A supporter of biofuel production could say the producers are the protagonists and their mission is to reduce America’s dependence on Saudi Arabia. He could say that the antagonists are people demanding lower food prices, and one of their obstacles is a magazine like WORLD that tends to emphasize the needs of the poor.
It’s vital to recognize that stories have protagonists and antagonists, missions and obstacles. They don’t write themselves. Some journalists say, “I just report the facts” – but it’s important to understand that facts by themselves sit like lumps of coal. Those lumps provide warmth only when placed in a furnace, and facts heat our minds only when placed within stories.
In short, good journalistic accounts are stories, so they share with fictional short stories certain elements. They have protagonists with a certain mission or goal. In trying to accomplish their goal or goals they run into barriers and often antagonists, whose presence thickens the plot.
Virtually every experienced reporter has some idea about a story line before reporting begins. Honest reporters change story lines when facts on the ground confound expectations.
The traditional newspaper news story gives the most important information up front. Magazine writing is different: The goal is to keep the reader reading past the first sentence, with a consequent delay of gratification – but not so delayed that he becomes frustrated. It’s important for the stories in a publication not to be thoroughly predictable: If the reader knows exactly what’s coming, why bother to read further?
Here’s an exercise in thinking in surprising ways: Write the news equivalent of a haiku, the Japanese poem that creates a certain visual image in the first two lines and then offers a surprise twist in line three.
Here are three examples of haikus:
A1) Poverty's child.
A2) He starts to grind the rice.
A3) He gazes at the moon.
B1) Night, and the moon!
B2) My neighbor, playing on his flute.
B3) It’s out of tune.
C1) The morning paper.
C2) Harbinger of good and ill.
C3) I step over it
Each of these shows something surprising in line three: we're suddenly taken from rice-grinding to moon-gazing, from an idyllic picture of moon and flute music to out-of-tune notes, from the expectation of eager news consumption to ignoring the morning paper.
Here are two examples of the journalistic equivalent of haikus. Each has two sentences reporting the news and a third bringing in a little twist:
A1) Thirteen-year-old X killed four students and his English teacher at their Arkansas school. A2) Because of a since-closed loophole in state law, Johnson will walk free tomorrow on his 21st birthday. A3) The murdered teacher's son, now 9, says, 'I don't think it's right he gets to go home to his momma and I only get to see my momma on videos.'"
B1) Fighting “the influence of the West,” traditional Muslim women in Turkey are sporting an Islamic version of the swimsuit. B2) The getup includes a full bodysuit, bonnet, hood and a long vest, available in material that supposedly allows for a tan. B3) But never mind: "Wherever there are women, there is eroticism,” fashion photographer Zeynel Abidin Aggul said: “A bit of ankle … a pair of eyes is all it takes."
Now you make up two journalistic haikus like A and B. They should be based on real news stories. Email them to June McGraw by the date assigned, along with your 500-word profile. Have fun.