AvantGuild Member of the Week: Matt Baron

originally published on mediabistro.com

Age:37
Location:Oak Park, Illinois and online

What’s the latest thing you’ve worked on?
Almost all of my freelance writing is for the Chicago Tribune, and lately, in addition to my coverage of three communities and assorted breaking news, I have been reporting on the mysterious murder of an associate professor from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Peter D’Agostino. I covered his memorial service, among other assignments related to the aftermath of his murder.

What has been your most difficult project and how did you deal with its challenges?

Overall, getting and telling stories filled with crisis has been the biggest recurring challenge. Here is a link to my approach.

The most difficult project in recent memory:
Since February 2003, I have covered the town of Cicero for the Chicago Tribune. For the next 26 months, gathering information from the administration was arduous and, sometimes, impossible. In response to stories that revealed various problems with and questionable decisions by his administration, the town president (voted recently out of office) stopped speaking to me. I had to file FOIA requests for basic public information, such as a listing of bills paid.

I dealt with this ongoing challenge by cultivating a variety of sources from inside and outside town hall, and by being persistent with my requests for information. I made it clear that I would not back away, and that if anyone chose not to comment for a given story, then it would not halt the story’s publication. It helped a great deal to have good editors that stood behind me.

What’s the best or most helpful thing that you’ve learned about writing, editing or publishing?
Objectivity is an illusion-we bring our life experiences and biases, subtle or strong, into everything we do. However, it is vital that throughout the process we treat everyone with respect and strive to be “FAT”-fair, accurate and thorough. And it all starts with talking to as many people as possible, with an openness to all perspectives.

What’s the worst writing or editing advice you’ve ever gotten?
One editor once advised me to never offer to go off-the-record with a source. While I don’t go out of my way to look for opportunities to go off-the-record, there are times when it is the only way to gather insight that can help provide context and tone for a story. It also builds trust, which is a long-term must if you want to develop in a given beat. Off-the-record information often leads to on-the-record information that elevates a story’s quality and impact.

How do you plan a training session and figure out what students want to learn and the best way to impart it?
I interview participants by telephone and through e-mail. This process enables me to tailor a session while at the same time helping me and participants identify their needs (which may vary from what they initially think they need). By investing time up front, I develop a solid rapport with participants, who at the same time develop a more vested interest in the session’s success. The wiser clients understand the value of this planning phase, and make some of their employees or members available by phone or e-mail.
My stated goal is always to share information and inspiration that will reap results for participants on their very next deadline. That puts the focus where it ought to be–on their needs.

Since my first training session in February 2001, I have found the best way to impart the information is by emphasizing interaction between the participants and me as well as amongst the participants. (Note: I do not refer to them as students, as I stress to them that we are all students and teachers.)

I develop a clear outline up front, share the road map with participants, and then strive to have as much fun as possible through features such as “Golympics,” a game-show format in which participants assemble into teams, select a team name, and then compete against one another by answering questions based on topics previously covered. This puts their new learning into immediate application and maintains a high level of interest and enthusiasm.
I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that I occasionally nudge folks’ interaction with sugar-packed inducements (candy).