19 Spotlight on: Ted Conover

Learning to immerse

Journalism education teaches a formal way of learning things, which when it comes to living people, involves the interview, hopefully in person.

A formal Q&A is really important for lots of kinds of journalism. For other kinds, you can get somewhere by thinking of this encounter, not as a news-gathering expedition but a personal experience — something you are going to appreciate at multiple levels.

It’s not just asking questions and writing down the answer. It’s making yourself fully present.

This is immersion writing.

In an interview, you can notice a football player seems stiff or tired. You can notice a fast-food worker is wary. But putting yourself in the article as a participant or as using a fly-on-the-wall perspective can bring writing to life in a way that makes the reader feel and live the experience with you.

Ted Conover
Ted Conover

Ted Conover is one of the world’s best-know participatory journalist and has written books on riding the rails as a “hobo” in “Rolling Nowhere” (1984), living and working among Mexican migrants in “Coyotes” (1987), chronicling Aspen’s celebrity culture as a local cab driver and reporter at the Aspen Times in “Whiteout” (1991), and documenting what it’s like to be a guard at Sing Sing prison in “Newjack”(2000).

In his book, Immersion: A Writer’s Guide to Going Deep, he talks about gaining access, turning the experience into a story, undercover reporting, and the ethical issues around this type of long-form nonfiction.

Nicole Kraft sat down with Conover, a legend in immersive writing experience to get his take on the practice and how journalism students can make it part of their writing repertoire.

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My idea with immersion writing is to try and move beyond the formal roles of being either a questioner or an answerer. Get into a place where you are getting to know somebody.

Ask “Can we go back to X,” and this time I’m going to go back to what they are telling me. It takes more time.

To get to know somebody is a different thing than asking them questions. The product also can be different. If you are simply asking questions, you are preparing for a news story. Having a conversation, paying attention to the room, and opening up all your senses. Now you are preparing to write a feature.

More and more features are first-person. Describing a place or a situation, sharing with a person you are writing about. Be with a policewoman at the doughnut shop on her five-minute break. That scene is interesting to write about. It’s more than a quote. Be with a person at a moment of their life. It’s a more nuanced and humankind of reporting than classical just-the-facts interviewing.

Trying to make a connection with someone, capturing them in higher definition. There is more to people than the fact that they are a quarterback, or a record holder, or a felon.

I got involved in immersion because I wanted to write about the experiences I’ve had — whether it be crossing the country on my bicycle or working in a factory in Spain. I liked writing and I liked the idea that some of those skills could be used to write about my own experiences. Historically, our own experiences have not qualified as journalism. They have been memoirs or personal essays. In articles and books I’ve written, I thought about how I could use my personal experience as journalism. If I could only find an experience that matters as news.

So I got a job as a corrections officer at Sing Sing. Prisons were in the news and they were hard to learn about from the perspective of a staff member.”

Quotes

A good exercise in capturing dialogue is to record some of it and transcribe that and see what it looks like on the page. Often it does not resemble the kind we read in fiction or nonfiction books. With all speech, we tend to clean it up even when we are reporting it. In a press conference, a police chief will be saying something ungrammatical and we fix it. This is not always a literal exercise.

There are decisions that have to be made when you are putting speech on the page.

The journalistic standard is, if I have a quotation in an article, I can also find it in my notes or playback part of the recording. If I am rendering a conversation between me and a prisoner, as part of my work on the job, I may not be able to take notes about it.

That said, 95 percent of what a conversation might be is not something you want to take notes on anyway. It’s mundane, normal or boring. Taking notes in that situation, depending on what was being discussed, may not be useful.

If I thought there was something, I’d record the quote in my mind. Then I’d get out of sight as quickly as possible to write it down. Often exchanges were very brief, so I could do that.

I was in the visiting room at Sing Sing, and I remember being moved by the sight of tough prisoners who tried to scare me all day being hugged by little kids and kissed by their wives, being revealed to be a different person.

I said to a guard with me, “Doesn’t it get to you seeing guys with their families.” And he said, “It’s a regular hallmark card.” I liked that because it was funny. He’s not sentimental. He was saving that for somebody else.

It was super easy to remember — “It’s a regular hallmark card.” If you work at it you can remember longer things. Be absolutely the best recorder you can be.

Journalism is changing fast. Be open to the possibilities. There are situations where immersion can be about getting out of your comfort zone.

A lot of students are not very confident in talking with strangers. This is a whole profession around talking to strangers. You have to be willing to ask a question of someone you don’t know and act like you have every right to ask a question and you deserve the answer.

Act like it’s the most natural thing. People are looking for cues when a stranger approaches. If you are confident and expect answers, it increases the chance you will get one. Walk into a room with your tail wagging.

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