Drugs! Pirates! Murder!

By Jason Kornwitz

In November, The Atavist, a dig­ital plat­form for long-​​form mul­ti­media sto­ry­telling, pub­lished a 12,000-word inves­tiga­tive report on the Mekong River mas­sacre, in which more than a dozen Chi­nese sailors were killed.

“The weird­ness of the case was fas­ci­nating,” said Jeff Howe, the article’s author and an assis­tant pro­fessor of jour­nalism in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity. “It was an obvious who­dunit where nothing was as it seemed.”

Howe dis­cussed Murder on the Mekong and the future of long-​​form jour­nalism in an hour­long lec­ture on Tuesday after­noon at Snell Library. Titled “Drugs, Pirates, Murder,” his talk flitted between his love for mag­a­zine writing and the future of the craft.

“I’d always wanted to be a mag­a­zine writer,” said Howe, who has written for Mother JonesThe Wash­ington Post, and U.S. News & World Report. “I wasn’t good at any­thing else.”

His latest work in The Atavist began almost two years ago. In July of 2012, he trav­eled to the Golden Tri­angle, a for­bid­ding stretch of ter­rain over­lap­ping the moun­tains of three coun­tries in South­east Asia: Laos, Thai­land, and Myanmar. His objec­tive was to inves­ti­gate the mas­sacre on the Mekong, which flows through the Golden Tri­angle, the pri­mary source of amphet­a­mines in East and South­east Asia.

“I went in as a vacuum cleaner and sucked up every­thing I could so I could get home as fast as I could,” Howe recalled. “I did every­thing I could to inter­view people who were doing every­thing they could to [keep away].”

The facts of the murder itself were undis­puted: On Oct. 5, 2011, two Chi­nese cargo ships were attacked and all 13 crewmem­bers were exe­cuted. The bodies of the sailors were found bob­bing along the Mekong and an army task force seized a cache of nearly 1 mil­lion tablets of an illegal drug known as ya ba, a blend of metham­phet­a­mine and caffeine.

The alleged cul­prit, how­ever, Naw Kham, whom Howe described as the “fresh­water pirate of the Mekong River,” may not have existed. As Howe joked, “That makes him hard to interview.”

There were other prob­lems in reporting the story, including the use of three dif­ferent inter­preters. “It makes a dif­fi­cult story all the more dif­fi­cult when you’re won­dering what your sources are really saying,” Howe explained.

After reading a few selec­tions from the piece, Howe turned his atten­tion to the future of long-​​form jour­nalism. He focused on par­allax scrolling, a new tech­nique used by online pub­li­ca­tions in which back­ground images move slower than fore­ground images, cre­ating the illu­sion of depth and immersion.

“It’s the killer app of dig­ital long-​​form,” said Howe, as he showed the audi­ence how The New York Times had incor­po­rated par­allax scrolling into a 15,000-word fea­ture. It’s the ‘Big Bang’ in journalism.”

In the Q-​​and-​​A ses­sion, one stu­dent asked Howe for advice on improving his mul­ti­media sto­ry­telling skills in short order. “Learn how to use iMovie,” he answered. “You can do a lot of great stuff with it.”

Later on, a reporter asked Howe to describe his writing process. “I sit down, I’m depressed, I play videogames, and then I tell my wife I worked really hard,” he said. “When I’m painted into a corner and my career is in danger of ending, I catch on fire and it starts pouring out.”

Photo by Mariah Tauger

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