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Drugs! Pirates! Murder!

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 Jones, The 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.”

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