Last Thursday, contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine Janet Reitman spoke in Kresge Hall to students with aspirations of journalism, writing or just those curious about the business. Her talk was titled “Writing Against the Pack: A Rolling Stone Reporter’s Secret for Finding the Story Inside the Story.”
“Journalists don’t usually give lectures,” Reitman said. “I hope I do this right.”
Reitman was once Professor of Journalism Marilyn Webb’s assistant and also went with her to work at magazines Psychology Today and Women’s Day. The latter, Reitman particularly disliked.
“I struggled with being a young woman and not wanting to write for women’s magazines,” Reitman said.
She has written for Rolling Stone from Iraq, Haiti and has also written about the Church of Scientology and the lacrosse scandal at Duke University. She spoke specifically about how to write a story like the one at Duke, in which it was very difficult to reach the athletes themselves and talk to them because of legal constraints.
“I interviewed their girlfriends,” Reitman said. After talking to the women in the Duke circle, she wrote about the sexual culture of the university, which she described as not only sexual but sexist.
“You have to know yourself a little bit to be a journalist,” she said.
“If the only thing that is leading you somewhere is breaking news, write for a newspaper. But if you really want to do long-form narrative, you have to be creative but you also have to think,” and that this was better for magazines.
Her own version of learning how to break away from breaking news involved her experience the first time she went to Iraq. By looking at where other reporters went, she then went the other way. Instead of writing directly about the situation in Iraq, she wrote about how manufactured the news coming out of the situation had become.
“The story I went to do was about reporters,” she said about when she went overseas in 2004, when “journalists were starting to get harassed. Part of what I did was to write a story about how unbelievably controlled and total bull**** this thing was. The news [the press] was getting was manufactured.”
As far as narrative journalism, she cautioned young writers not to put themselves into the story too much.
“Keep your personal voice separate. Never dwell on yourself too much. Use yourself as a way in,” she said.
While creativity is certainly important to Reitman in her writing, she still says it is “all about reporting.” By writing narrative, she said, you can help someone to understand a story, even if it is not the first time they have heard the story.