Nonfiction Writers Discuss Media Trends

Though they now make up the news world’s elite, Penn’s journalistic alumni could once only dream of Pulitzer Prizes and editorial positions.

“We were the outlaw students who weren’t going to grad school,” said Stephen Fried, now an author and columnist.

Fried and four other writers of nonfiction visited the Kelly Writers House on Saturday to participate in a panel on the problems they see in the changing face of the media.

The event was organized by Fried and Writers House Director Jennifer Snead as a method of encouraging aspiring nonfiction writers at Penn and deepening ties between the Writers House and the school’s nonfiction alumni.

Fried, a 1979 College graduate, led the panel.

Accompanying Fried were Friday Night Lights author and 1976 College graduate Buzz Bissinger, Wall Street Journal sports columnist and 1985 College graduate Stefan Fatsis, New York Times White House correspondent and 1981 College graduate Richard Stevenson and NBC producer and 1982 College graduate Lisa Green.

Panelists discussed the erosion of journalists’ assumed protections, newspaper staffing cutbacks and readers’ desire to have their beliefs affirmed by their media sources.

The writers referred to the aftermath of the Judith Miller case, in which the New York Times reporter eventually testified about her anonymous source on a controversial story.

When a journalist gets scared, “it’s one less good story that gets published,” Fried said.

Preceding the discussion was a question-and-answer session with the audience in which the panelists went back and forth on such issues as sensationalism in the media, breaking into the writing industry and print compared to Internet platforms.

“It’s all about buzz, it’s all about how to create a stir,” Bissinger said about what makes headlines today. “Truth is not cool; it’s edge, it’s affirmation.”

A large focus of the ceremony was the promotion of the Nora Magid Mentorship Prize. Magid taught nonfiction at Penn from the 1970s until her death in 1991. She is regarded as having fostered a community of nonfiction writers that later went on to receive many of the top positions and awards in journalism.

As part of the award, students participate in apprenticeships, which are designed to keep Magid’s spirit of mentorship alive.

The event, which Snead deemed “very successful,” is slated to become an annual fall tradition at the Writers House.