Thursday, June 28, 2007

'Encounters' at the St. Petersburg Times

We've linked to and read several stories from the St. Petersburg Times that have run as part of its regular feature called "Encounters" -- a story about about bugs having sex and one about what would possess someone to kill for a taquito, to name a couple.

These stories, when done well, have great impact. They are sharply focused, short, emotional, evocative and vibrant.

I would love for us to find and do more of these types of stories. So I e-mailed Mike Wilson, the editor who works with "Encounters," and asked him how they're doing it.

I asked what he's looking for in an "Encounters" story:

"I tell reporters that I'm looking for stories with compelling characters whom we get to know in depth -- even though the length limit on these pieces is 20 inches. Leonora LaPeter wrote about a woman who trains Lippizaner stallions. Training horses was her family business; she learned it from her father and grandfather. After they died, she kept it up, but something didn't feel right. Then one day she walked into the barn and the horses started to nicker and whinny and she realized that she had finally made it, that the horses had accepted her. It was a tremendously important moment in her life, and not the kind of thing newspapers usually take notice of. Which in itself is probably a good definition of Encounters: Important moments that newspapers usually miss.

"When reporters come to me with story ideas, I always tell them the same things. Encounters must be original; if TV or another local paper is doing the story, it's not an Encounter. Encounters are not news by any traditional definition. Encounters must be exceptionally well written; other things on the front page can be all about delivering important information, but Encounters are ALL ABOUT THE READING EXPERIENCE. (Forgive me for shouting.) Encounters may also be, and often are, experimental; Thomas Lake told one story that began at the end and ended at the beginning (my idea, and I'm not sure it worked even though he did it brilliantly); Caryn Baird, who collects state quarters, narrated the important details of her life, according to what was happening when each quarter was released."

I asked him what were the common threads in how reporters are finding and doing these types of stories:

"Reporters who are good at finding Encounters have a couple of things in common: They understand the distinction between traditional news and a good story, and they are able to focus closely on single person or a single interaction. Phuong Nguyen wrote a great piece about an abused woman, now in a shelter, who got a makeover. It made the woman feel pretty and dignified for the first time in years. Ben Montgomery wrote about an artist who painted a portrait of an aimless young woman and, by doing so, motivated the young woman to do something with her life. These reporters 1.) realized these were stories even though they were not "news", and 2.) didn't quote university professors or give census numbers to give their stories a patina of legitimacy and authority. "

I asked about how they vetted ideas, how they figured out what might work and what probably wouldn't:

"With regard to the vetting of ideas: Sometimes a reporter will tell me about an interesting situation that's unfolding and I'll say, "What's the satisfying resolution to that story that will make readers glad they read to the end?" If we can't come up with a good answer it's probably not an Encounter.
"Sometimes an idea just isn't completely cooked. The other day a reporter told me she wants to write an Encounter about an adult learning to swim. She didn't have a particular adult in mind; she just thought the situation had the potential for a lot of drama and tension. I agreed. But I told her the key to Encounters is in the details. These stories aren't just about dramatic situations. They're about specific people with specific things at stake. If the reporter finds an adult who is stepping into the water for the first time after dreading it for years because of the drowning death of a sibling, that may be an Encounter. But if the adult just never got around to learning how to swim, it isn't."

Not everyone in the newsroom, he said, is a fan of "Encounters." Some question its mission or purpose; and he acknowledges some of the stories they've tried haven't worked. But readers do respond. Some wonder what the paper was thinking. More, Wilson said, say something like, "I never thought I'd see a story like that in a newspaper. Thanks for making my day."