Writing With a Purpose
Tristram Korten ’87 uses his Jan Plan course to make a case for exceptional magazine writing
Journalist Tristram Korten ’87 helped exonerate a Florida man who had been wrongfully convicted for murder by writing about the case for GQ magazine. This Jan Plan, he’s teaching a course about the importance and impact of long-form narrative nonfiction in hopes of inspiring young people to become discerning magazine readers, if not writers.
“A lot of kids today haven’t read magazines before, so I feel like it’s my purpose to show them that there is some really great journalism being done out there that they should be aware of,” said Korten, an English major at Colby with a concentration in creative writing.
“I am a long-form narrative writer, and I just feel there’s not that many of us left. It’s not a growing field. I want to be able to pass along what I know and what I’ve experienced.”
A magazine, newspaper, and radio journalist, he writes about extreme weather and climate change, overfishing, and criminal justice reform. He has reported on injustices in the United States, drug gangs in Guyana, and pirate fishing vessels on the high seas. In 2018 Ballantine published Into the Storm: Two Ships, A Deadly Hurricane, And An Epic Battle for Survival, his book about a dramatic and dangerous Coast Guard search-and-rescue mission during a storm.
Smithsonian, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, and other print and online outlets have published his writing, and NPR’s Here and Now and PRI’s The World have aired his radio narratives. He is the former editor of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and a 2013 University of Michigan Knight-Wallace Fellow.
His Jan Plan course is Story Sense and Structure: The Art of Narrative Non-Fiction. Students analyze examples of exceptional magazine stories to understand organizational principles, structure, narrative flow, and character. They also learn about the rigorous fact-checking process that stories undergo—or sometimes don’t—at major media outlets and the ethics of responsible journalism.
Because of the abbreviated nature of the January session, students do not do a lot of writing. “It takes me months to write some of my pieces, so what I do is get them inside the head of a long-form story writer,” Korten said. “What’s involved in these stories? What makes a magazine story different from other kinds of stories? What makes a good magazine story stand out? And what is the value in these kinds of stories?”
Long-form magazine stories generally run 3,000 to 10,000 words, compared to newspaper stories that typically range from a few hundred to 1,500 words. Magazine stories offer deeper layers of reporting, storytelling, and context, and more opportunity for creative and purposeful writing.
Korten hopes to change the world for the better when he embarks on a story by exposing injustices, corruption, and environmental degradation and change. “I’m here for a short amount of time on this planet, and I want to do my part to help,” he said.
He spent a year investigating the case of a Florida man named Thomas James, who in 1991 was convicted of murder, robbery, and assault and sentenced to 25 years to life. Korten’s reporting revealed the case against James was based on mistaken identity by a witness and poor legal defense. He found an additional witness, who helped prove the wrongful conviction.
His story appeared in the August 2021 issue of GQ, and soon after the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office opened a review of the case. A judge vacated the conviction in March 2022, and James was exonerated after 31 years, three months, and 17 days in prison.
In his Jan Plan course, Korten employs a range of stories as examples of impactful magazine writing. Last week, he introduced Jon Krakauer’s piece “Into Thin Air” that appeared in the September 1996 issue of Outside, detailing the writer’s attempt to climb Mount Everest when a brutal storm killed eight climbers and left others stranded. Krakauer based his best-selling book on the magazine piece. The story also became a movie.
There’s a piece in The Atlantic by Hannah Rosin called “Murder by Craigslist” and another from The New York Times Magazine by Patrick Radden Keefe about Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel with the headline “Cocaine Incorporated.”
Seán Gilmore ’20 took the class as a senior, the first year Korten offered it. He enjoyed being exposed to a range of stories, as well as the friendship he established with his teacher. “He periodically reaches out to check in and see how things are going, and I always appreciate getting a note from him,” said Gilmore, an English major at Colby who works as a tech consultant in San Francisco. “Tristram was not aiming to make us read more magazine stories, rather he tried to get us to understand a more holistic approach to telling and writing a good story. We discussed journalistic integrity, the challenges of being onsite and investigating while remembering to stay safe, and why accuracy matters when you put your name on the byline.”
As a student at Colby, Korten immersed himself in poetry. He spent one of his Jan Plan experiences at home on Block Island, R.I., where he created a poetry chapbook with an artist friend. Korten, who now lives in North Stonington, Conn., left Colby committed to poetry.
He was ready to apply to graduate school but changed his mind after reading a Spotlight Team investigation in the Boston Globe in 1990 about judges who routinely skipped out of work. The Globe caught the judges leaving early on hidden camera. Korten was enthralled by the Globe’s dogged reporting.
Instead of graduate school, he applied to newspapers and became a daily newspaper reporter. He ended up in Miami in 1998 to write for the Miami New Times and left the paper in 2005. He’s been freelancing since.He gave up the idea of being a poet long ago, but the poetry he learned at Colby informs every aspect of his long-form writing today. “My immersion in poetry certainly helps the long-form work I do by looking for original ways to describe things and never falling for clichés. I’m always pushing for more evocative words to describe whatever I’m trying to describe.”
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