Pulitzer Winner John Branch Talks Journalism At Alumni Hall
New York Times writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Branch spoke on campus Tuesday night, addressing a crowd of a few hundred students in the HUB Alumni Hall. Branch was one of two speakers to take part in the fall portion of the Foster-Foreman Conference, a speaker series featuring journalists put on by the College of Communications.
Branch, who is most widely recognized as a sports reporter and author, spent most of his hour-long speech and question-and-answer session discussing feature writing and his interest in finding unique and original “fringe stories” that often take months to complete.
Instead of discussing the work he is most popular for, a multimedia-heavy article called “Snow Fall” about an avalanche and a book on late hockey player Derek Boogaard, Branch kicked off his speech by taking the audience on a trip through his archives.
“As I looked through the archives, I realized that a lot of the stories I liked most had to do with death,” he said. “I noticed in my bylines that I like going to cemeteries, I like describing cemeteries, and I like writing how many stoplights there are in a town, so I’m going to have to stop doing that so much.”
One example he cited and read excerpts from was a story about a small-town man who bowled a perfect score and died of a heart attack just minutes later. That story was just one of many that Branch read to the crowd as he discussed his interest in the minutiae and details as opposed to more mainstream, big picture stories.
Branch talked about his drive to avoid writing the same story as thousands of other journalists when covering major sporting events.
“I went to the NCAA tournament a few years ago in San Antonio,” he said. “Instead of writing about the players, I went to a town a few hours away called Bracketville.”
While Branch’s editor at the time didn’t find the play on words in reference to the college basketball tournament’s bracket format, he said that a number of years later an employer mentioned how great the story was when hiring Branch.
With plenty of journalism students on hand to listen to Branch and ask him questions, he mentioned tips of the trade throughout his speech for those aiming to get stories as descriptive and compelling as his own. The first time was to work on describing people.
“When I’m sitting in a chair at the airport, I try to describe people as they walk by,” he said. “You know, grey moustache, plaid shirt, and so on. Other people are reading magazines, but I’m working on practicing how to describe people.”
His second tip was to conduct interviews in the subject’s home or another comfort zone as much as possible to keep them talking. The third and final tip Branch gave the audience was to be honest with any interview subjects from the start about what the story will encompass.
Branch said that he’s always on the hunt for unique stories both because they’re what satisfy him personally and what he thinks people most want to read.
“I want to go places I’ve never been and see things I’ve never seen before, and when I do that I want to bring people along for the ride with me,” he said as the night came to a close. “And to me, that’s a lot more interesting than another story about Derek Jeter.”
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