Saturday, January 26, 2008

Pinpoint characterization in 2 grafs

In 79 words -- the first two paragraphs of today's 1a story -- Doreen Carvajal and Caroline Brothers of the New York Times nailed the guy suspected of causing a $7 billion banking loss in France:

"PARIS — Jérôme Kerviel was too middling to be considered a loser. Until he was charged by Société Générale with perpetrating the biggest fraud of its kind in banking history, there was nothing superlative about him.

He failed in a bid for town council in his 20s; he never rose higher than a green belt, a midlevel rank, after years of judo training — because of his bad knees; and he attended an average college where he earned respectable but unremarkable grades."

Is that great or what? As an exercise, deconstruct those two grafs. You know the reporters backgrounded the guy, and what they have seems to come from basic backgrounding. But they made it sing. How? What decisions do you think they made about what details to use, and how to frame those details, that reflected the unusual (and perhaps even stunning) nature of this story?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Natural storyteller

Folks, I'm blessed with wonderful in-laws, and my father-in-law and I share a love of birds, animals and the natural world, so we often trade stories about what we've seen or experienced. He's not a writer by trade, but is a natural storyteller and a very good writer. Out of the blue today, he sends me this terrific little complication/resolution story (note -- 'the girls' are his other daughter and her kids):

About 11:00 am Sunday while sitting in our chairs waiting for the girls to show up, a goldfinch, being pursued by an unidentified raptor, hit the big doors on the west. It fell to the deck in a pile. We watched it for a while until Lorrie was convinced that it was dead. I went out and picked it up and discovered that it was alive but still not functional.
I moved it to the south side so that it could recover, if it could, in the sun.
The girls arrived around noon and noticed the bird. Before they came into the house they stopped and decided that he was still alive.
About 1:30 I decided that if he sat there much longer in the 20 degree weather he would freeze to death, so it was time for him to fly. As I approached him he got rather agitated and flew. His flight seemed to be a little erratic but still strong. All of the girls saw him fly and were pleased. What they didn't see was that he only made about 50' before the Kestrel that had been waiting all this time picked him neatly out of the air.
I suppose the hawk could see him but didn't feel secure about an attack on the porch.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Out of the ghetto

First of all, if you haven't yet seen Blanchard's York County homicides map, you really should, because it's awesome.

Second, it was neat for me because I got a chance to talk to Scott about a concept that I sometimes have a hard time explaining. And that's getting away from the gut instinct to sort content by type instead of topic. I hope I had a chance to explain a little to him about why giving people information on topic is more helpful online.

(An example: We get about five times more clicks to our sports blog, The Lineup Card, from the sports sections online than we do from the Yorkblog home page or our own home page online. That's not to say we can never promote our blogs from a collective place, but it shows concretely what we knew anecdotally to be true: That readers don't come to the site and say, "I want to read some blogs today..." or "I want to watch some video today...," Youtube being the rare exception. Rather, they come and say "I want to read about..." and browse different types of content from there.)

So today, I came upon this awesome post by one of my heroes, Matt Waite, on data ghettos. That's Matt's term for things like Gannett's Data Universe concept, where databases go to sit with their clique and never hang out with the "real journalism."

I'm not saying we'll never have a "database page" on our Web site. In fact, mostly because it's easy for us, internally, we probably will. But it's not easy for readers, so it's not what we'll promote most heavily. We'll work very hard to tie our data sets into related content - our upcoming deed transfer database, for instance, with the page and our business page, where people know to look for that content now.

Take a look at Matt's thoughts. He says it a lot better than I could. And both in his post and the comments that follow, there are some good tips on how to use interactive features to help tell the story, rather than saying, "I want to use video with a story," then letting the story evolve from there.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Cowboys, video and storytelling

So, I happened upon this video when I was procrastinating on finishing our Sunday section the other day. The Arcade Fire is one of my favorite bands, and I was kind of interested to see how the maker of the video was able to cross the song, "My Body is a Cage" with an old Western ("Once Upon a Time in the West").

How does this end up on the Storytelling blog you ask? Well, for one, I needed a good excuse to be watching YouTube when I was supposed to be finishing the Sunday section ... research seemed to be as good a reason as any. But secondly, it occurred to me as the video finished that I'd just watched a great example of narrative, with no "words" beside the lyrics to the song.

The camera sets up the mood with this really stark scene of two men circling each other. We know something is going to go down, but we don't know what (rising tension/conflict). The camera, rather than words, is being used to create this tension --- with the way it circles the men, zooms out and zooms in. Focuses on the guy taking off his coat, or the dust blowing. The shot of the kid with the harmonica in his mouth slowly zooming out to the larger scene is really gripping, suspenseful and eerie. The scene serves as both exposition and to create more conflict.

The camera creates parallel images to help tell the story --- the shot of the man in black at the beginning mirrors the shot of the same man in the harmonica scene.

It helps bring us back to the first part of the story and also takes us to the height of the conflict. At this point I'm kind of torn as to what the resolution to this story is. Is it the man in black getting shot? Or the man with the harmonica shoving it in the dying man's mouth?

Thoughts on that?

I could just be over-thinking the whole thing. Aside from the storytelling, I am thoroughly impressed at how well the song was edited with scenes from the movie. And, if nothing else, it's a really cool video. We can definitely borrow ideas from it as we venture into storytelling using our fancy new video cameras.

55 words is awfully close to three lines

This morning, Scott received an e-mail from the Virginian-Pilot's Lon Wagner, always a friend to narrative writing. Lon saw our three-line exercise and sent along 55 WORD stories, taken from the journal Literature and the Arts in Medical Education. These are closer to personal essays but they work as complete stories.

Think Feneon meeting Raymond Carver.

Here's one example:

9th and Carson

Twelve patients in a waiting room small enough for four. A young man whispers his sexual history while a makeshift partition away another man tries hard not to listen. A free medicine cabinet, expired lidocaine, a psychiatry consult in a closet, falling plaster. The United States spends over $1.7 trillion on health care.

Try not to be intimidated.

Looking around online, I found another 55 word story page. I'm pretty sure they are not related. In fact, I think most of these are fiction. But they can still be good.

Here are the rest from Lon:

55 WORD Stories from the journal Literature and the Arts in Medical Education. They were written by fellows at the University of Pittsburgh in a class called "Teaching Care of the Underserved." I guess there is also a book called "The World's Shortest Stories."

I Had No Idea

He said the Zantac helped his heartburn. The house was quiet when she came home. He had no other complaints. The steps to the attic were lowered. His exam was normal. He was on a rocking chair. He thanked me and shook my hand. He put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

i have Saved the world

stars have aligned themselve above in the Cold nigHt. The presIdent knowZ who i i camOuflaged myself by the dumPster. as the conspiracy grows, my mind connects tHem all together. i am the key to a fRagmented ExistenNce. I must hide to sAve the world from its own destruction.


Elderly, frail; thinning gray hair in cornrows; quietly dignified. No diagnosable malady, just old age. Her time had come and we both knew it. They told me to order another test. She just wanted to go home. But, she endured our unwillingness to give up, only to die on the transport stretcher. I wept alone.

Missionary Medicine

Every six months the people come to see El doctor Americano. They share their pains from the prior 6 months and those they fear in the next 6 until el doctor returns. I am el doctor. I heard these complaints six months ago. I hope to make a difference. I fear it's a revolving door.

Fighting the god fight

Struggling less and less and less. Praying none, for fear God would help her. Dreams gone of liberation from her white master she hates, but has elevated. She bows: genuflected-head down-eyes closed-nose open "Sell all you have to follow me," he beckons. "...i...will..." she snorts her all-powdered god.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Three lines

At today's writer's group meeting, we enjoyed free Starbucks coffee (thanks Cathy!) and Jeff introduced us to Felix Feneon, who spent 1906 writing two- or three-sentence stories about daily life and mayhem for a Parisian newspaper.

Stuff like: "On Avenue de la Motte-Piquet, firemen were called in to unblock the wheels of the streetcar that had run over an unknown woman."

And: "A feebleminded woman, B. Nourry, ragpicker in Arcueil and prey to the little neighborhood rascals, has died either of fear or of her wounds."

So, Jeff challenged us to write our own three-line versions of this brief, which recently ran in our paper:

"A man who believed he bore the 'Mark of the Beast' used a circular saw to cut off one hand, then he cooked it in the microwave and called 911, authorities said. The man, in his mid-20s, was calm when Kootenai County sheriff's deputies arrived Saturday in his northern Idaho town. He was in protective custody in the mental health unit of Kootenai Medical Center."

I'm posting the ones I have collected so far in the comments to this post. Feel free to add your own version, as well as your thoughts about the value/challenges with the "three lines" approach.

This is the beginning of a newsroom-wide, three-lines project for 2008 which Jeff will introduce shortly. Stay tuned.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Why we do this

I love this from David Simon, in a story about his TV series "The Wire" in Columbia Journalism review:
“I admire journalism where I actually see a nuanced world with complex human beings captured,” Simon says. Journalism, he thinks, should bring “real life and real issues through the keyhole” in a way that leads to “meaningful thought, if not action.”

Too often, I think, we (as a profession) blow right past the nuance and complexity of life. We do so at our own risk. When we tell true stories, we are opening to door to reporting and writing about that nuance and complexity, and our readers and community will be the better for it.