Thursday, December 31, 2009

It is what it is: A columnist takes on idiots

For the 26th year, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Gene Collier awards the Trite Trophy for abuse of the English language, by sports writers, broadcasters, athletes and fans. His short list isn't very short, with many phrases in the discussion, but at the end of the day take a moment to read this absolute monster piece of writing.

As a writer, Collier clearly has a heck of a motor.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Effective use of quote marks

I read this story out loud to Wade last night. It's that funny.

And when I read it, I was sure to alert the listener to the existence of quote marks wherever the writer had them. They made it even more comical, something I hadn't thought possible.

This isn't narrative journalism by any stretch of the imagination, but this is clearly a case of a reporter realizing the hilarity of the story and playing it up.

The lede is pretty straight. The fun starts at paragraph No. 4:

DeWeese had some quirky demands, said Manzo and two other former staffers, Kevin Sidella and Scott Brubaker: His state-paid driver had to show up with the state car recently waxed; aides withdrew his money from ATM machines because he didn't know how to use them; and he'd ask for "a small coffee in a big cup," or "a sandwich cut in four" pieces, they said.

"Bill is obsessive. He has to have everybody around him doing something. He will hand you a cup and say, 'Get me 12 M&M's' — ridiculous requests," Sidella testified in June 2008.

Requests for such things as a "small salad in a big bowl" were part of what Brubaker in December 2008 called the "daily nuttiness that he put his immediate staff through."
There's more (near the end), so click on the story and read it.

A reader on twitter remarks: "This Tribune-Review story makes Bill DeWeese seem like Michael Scott."

Sunday, December 20, 2009

'A story is what makes us real'

Besides being a terrific story, this is a great example of online presentation.

When I am reading this, all I can think about is a cool voice over in an old-timey detective novel. That's a combination of the writing tone and the Web page layout. Oh, and the art is just incredible. There aren't any ads messing up flow either.

The story has a theme that's a favorite for me. It's about a forgotten man. Someone left behind by society. It reminds me of this line from Allen Ginsberg's poem, America: "I say nothing about my prisons nor the millions of underpriviliged who live in my flowerpots under the light of five hundred suns."

(Also, I am in love with the font size, which improves online readibility. I didn't have to print this one out to read it.)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

'This American Life' goes to Penn State

Heard this morning that 'This American Life' has a piece this weekend on the nation's No. 1 party school. I thought, maybe that would be of interest to the 247 Penn State grads in this office.

Anyway ... here's the link. If you don't catch it on the radio it should be available for free download at that site either Saturday or right after. Even if you're not of, by and for Penn State, anyone who's listened to TAL knows the story will be worth the time.

Ken Burns on elements of storytelling

Interesting thoughts from the documentary filmmaker, and there are more here.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Speaking of profiles ... how about Tiger Woods? linked to Charles Pierce's thoughts on Tiger Woods' crash-and-fallout, and that story included a link to a full profile Pierce did on Woods in 1997.

What Pierce reported for that profile led him to say this in his current piece about the crash and everything that's come after:

"I can't say I'm surprised — either by the allegations or by what's ensued since Friday's wreck. Back in 1997, one of the worst-kept secrets on the PGA Tour was that Tiger was something of a hound. Everybody knew. Everybody had a story. Occasionally somebody saw it, but nobody wanted to talk about it, except in bar-room whispers late at night. Tiger's People at the International Management Group visibly got the vapors if you even implied anything about it. However, from that moment on, the marketing cocoon around him became almost impenetrable. The Tiger Woods that was constructed for corporate consumption was spotless and smooth, an edgeless brand easily peddled to sheikhs and shakers. The perfect marriage with the perfect kids slipped so easily into the narrative it seemed he'd been born married."

Given the events of the past week, Pierce's 12-year-old profile of Woods would seem to be timely reading.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

On profiles

Notes from yesterday's video session with Jacqui on profiles:
  • They bring personality into the newspaper; most readers learn about a subject better if it's attached to a person.
  • Profiles demand great interviewing; require journalists to observe (describe people and place, set characters in a place)
  • You have to report well around the person so when you characterize or explain motivation, you have it nailed down
  • Doing profiles teaches responsibility; you have to have it right
Key types of profiles
  • Nano-profiles -- a way to build character into a story even if the story is not all about the person. You bring someone to life in a paragraph or two; tell us about someone's character or values in the moment.
  • Cradle-current profiles -- seldom as necessary as we think they are. negatives are that they take too long to do, take up a lot of space and often read like resumes. Strive to do profiles as internal resumes rather than external ones.
  • Niche profile -- develop who a person is at a key point in time. Pick the defining moments in their life (not their whole life); your profile then gets much more narrow. Many profiles spend too much time on back story; condense the resume stuff to a couple grafs in a story or into a box. Get dialogue, not quotes, to reveal someone's essence.
Tips for interviewing for profiles
  • Props are helpful. Get people to tell you the stories behind things in their office or their home. Look for things they can tell you about, instead of getting them to answer direct questions.
  • Use storyteller questions to put people into the timeline of their own life. Where were you when this huge event happened? Tell me about the day. When did you get up? What did you wear that day? What did you eat for breakfast? And so on. You want to build scenes.
  • When you ask those questions -- say, what did you eat for breakfast -- ask more to get greater detail (what kind of cereal? in what kind of bowl? did you drink the milk out of the bowl after you were done? and so on.)
Timeline reporting technique
  • Build two, maybe three timelines: One, the classic resume of the person; two, the defining moments in that person's life; three, what's going on in culture or society that provides the backdrop to the person you're profiling. Use those to build your story.
A little more later.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Virtual handout on reporting/writing profiles

Hey all, Jacqui sent an edited version of a presentation on profiles that she gave at the Nieman Narrative conference in 2003.

For those who missed our video session with her today, I'll blog on it Tuesday. But the doc she sent along covers a chunk of what she talked about today.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Reading list for Monday's videoconference

Hey all, here is info on Jacqui's session Monday, including stories she'd like us to read.

Monday, 4:30 p.m., big conference room

TOPIC: Profiles

  • definition of profile (character rather than resume)
  • core elements of good profiles
  • some types of approaches to profiles
  • some reporting/interviewing techniques especially useful in profile reporting
  • doing these types of stories on people on the 'fringe.'
  • also: come ready to ask questions/participate. Jacqui has an exercise she wants us to do; no advance work required, she says, but will require us talking to each other, etc.

READING LIST: Jacqui's reading list for this session. Read these before the session if you can because she will be using them as examples:

Terri Schiavo:

For the other links (which for some reason I could not post here), go to this wave:!w%252B2hhd9i8VA

If you're not on Wave yet, please ask someone who is to print out the stories.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Picture book news story

This is super cool.

There's not that much text here, but it's a complete story. I love the use of photos, creative fonts and the poem-like quality of the writing.

I'm not totally sure how this page was built for the Web. I'm not sure if the writing is handwritten (the author is also an illustrator) or if it was done with a program that creates computer fonts using your handwriting.

Regardless, I'm sure this would take some time to create. Kind of like the slow food movement the story tells us about.

Any ideas on how difficult it is to create a page like this online?

I'd say it's worth it because it's a use of the Web to tell stories in a creative, new way. And as a bonus, this was one of the paper's top-viewed pages.

The skinny on breaking news writing for the web

A few days ago I linked to our Harley contract coverage, during which Cathy took some suggestions from Jacqui Banaszynski's webinar on writing breaking news from the web.

Here is a condensed look at what Jacqui talked about (and here is a link to a more thorough handout Amy got when she was at Poynter). Mike H., Jeff, Cathy and Lyzz were in the webinar, so any of you guys are invited to add/comment on what I have here. (And I suggest you check out that document, which will have more detail than I'll go into here).

From Jacqui:

In good web writing, form follows function -- so if the function in breaking news is to let people know exactly what's happening as quickly as possible, there are specific ways to do that. She breaks them down into:
  1. Priority -- be clear about what's most important; avoid dramatic writing; consider gathering key elements into a summary before going into detail
  2. Efficiency -- people online are snapshot readers, scanners, so make key news easily found and digested; use labels and links; consider arranging stories horizontally instead of vertically (that's a web-page-design challenge)
  3. Clarity -- context and significance are crucial; info needs to be literal and explained; don't assume readers know background; be specific, because vague terms subdue meaning
  4. Brevity -- lay out info in scannable bursts; use sentence structures that are easily absorbed (think subject-verb-object, and beware of clauses and a lot of modifying phrases
  5. Audience-think (or, writing with common sense) -- anticipate readers' questions and answer them at/near the top of the story; if you don't know something yet, say you don't know it and (at least imply) that you are trying to find out, instead of writing around it; invite the reader back and let them know when you'll post again (if you know).

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What good editors do, by Stephen King

Like so much of what we discuss in here, King is talking about fiction writing/editing (specifically, editor Gordon Lish and writer Raymond Carver), but what he says certainly applies to our newsroom, or any newsroom:

In King’s opinion, “a good editor should improve the writer’s work by doing a number of useful things: posing questions the writer should have answered and didn’t, suggesting places where thematic concerns can be reinforced to make a more pleasing whole, and pointing out (gently) infelicities of language. What an editor should never do is superimpose his or her own beliefs about style and story on the author’s work. An editor should be an expert midwife, not a surrogate parent.”

Monday, November 23, 2009

Why can't we resist finding out what happens next?

You gotta watch this (scroll a bit down the page to see the video). You can watch the whole 30-minute video, of course, but if you fast forward to the 10:45 mark, you'll see/hear Ira Glass, brilliant storyteller on the radio show This American Life, tell a story about a story.

In between playing snippets of the story, he reveals why TAL stories are so damn compelling -- no matter what they're about -- and even better, he dissects why.

The story he's playing gets to a point of what's going to happen next when Glass turns off the tape and says, "At this point, nobody turns off the radio." And then he asks why. If you think about the facts in the story, he says, "This is actually not that interesting of a story. ... And yet, suspense has been created. Why? How does that happen?"

He breaks it down until about the 20-minute mark. It's gold.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Jacqui/Monday: On profiles

Hey all (and in case you haven't seen the e-mail Amy sent out Saturday),

A quick reminder that Jacqui's next videoconference with us is 4:30 p.m. Monday, for an hour. She will talk about profiles -- how to identify, how to report, how to write short -- and will touch on doing profiles on people some would identify as being on the "fringe" (see this blog post).

If you want to do some reading beforehand, I sent Jacqui some of the links that come up when you click the "profiles" tag on this blog.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A lot accomplished in a minimum of space

I started reading this story because I saw the headline about a fatal shooting at Ferrum College, which is a) near where I used to live outside Roanoke, Va. and b) near Virginia Tech, which has had a string of tragedies in recent years. (And, for baseball fans, c) Ferrum is the alma mater of Billy Wagner, who was pitching there when I was covering sports in Roanoke. Pardon the digression.)

But I'm linking to the story here because I think the writer, Brigid Schulte, did a nice job of taking the two people at the center of the story and starting each in motion, one after the next, with enough background that they are people and not just names, and then bringing them together -- all in five paragraphs.

And in the sixth graf, I think she artfully brings out the questions that everyone is or will be asking, but does it without assigning blame or beginning to create a good guy-bad guy setup. Importantly, I think it attempts to defuse emotional reaction (think: comments section) to what happened by straightforwardly telling you that the story is going to cover that ground.

If she didn't do that intentionally, then what she wrote at least works toward doing that job, and is worth noting.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Writing breaking news for the web

Several of us, including Cathy, watched Jacqui Banaszynski's webinar a couple days ago on writing for the web.

This morning, Cathy has put into practice some of what she learned from that seminar on the Harley contract breaking news story. Check it out.

I'll blog more about Jacqui's webinar and the concepts she laid out, including the ones Cathy is using in organizing the Harley coverage. But briefly, what Cathy is doing now is delivering news to people quickly, in an organized way, with cues like subheads to guide them. The presentation makes it easier to absorb and understand what's going on, for a scanning online reader, than if all of that were being delivered graf-after-graf. More traditional stories may/will evolve as the day goes on.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Covering what some consider the 'fringe' demands our best

This story hit home with me. It's not a great narrative, or even a great feature story. It's The Washington Post's ombudsman explaining why he thinks the paper was doing its job when it did a takeout on one of the most visible leaders of the "Birther" movement.

The Post caught flack for story because many people -- readers (and journalists, too, I'm sure) -- think the "Birther" people are wackos, and giving them ink gives them credibility, and giving them credibility is wrong and could even be dangerous.

We caught the same kind of flack a couple weeks ago when we put a Twitter gadget online to pull in tweets from an anti-health-bill rally in D.C.

"why are you covering this like it's a legitimate story?" AdamBeck5 asked. I responded (on behalf of the YDR account): "There were York County voices in a national debate about a huge issue that might be resolved in a couple of days. Seemed timely."

The Twitter widget is its own animal; it's basically just a ticker of opinions and thoughts on a particular topic. But I think it's critical for us to remember that, when we report on controversial issues, people or organizations, we ask questions that need to be asked and answered, and we tell stories about why people are acting in the way they are. If we do those stories well -- if we have context, if the tone is right, if we aim to shed light on the issue and the actors -- we are doing our job.

In fact, in a way, we are doing the best work we can possibly do. People are doing things, trying to accomplish things -- why? what does it mean? who agrees with them? who opposes them? What does this tell us about our society and culture?

Sometimes we assess a policy stance or a line of thought or a course of action -- e.g., the "Birther" movement -- as being so off the charts that to treat it seriously is to undercut ourselves as serious journalists. My argument here is that we do exactly the opposite; we make ourselves indispensable.

The key is to get it right. And to do that, the reporting has to be deep; the writing must tell a true story, keeping spin and lies out; and the piece must not have, as its goal, to discredit its subjects. And to do all that, we have to shed the idea that we're wasting our time on a fringe element that we shouldn't be "legitimizing." We are, in fact, doing good journalism.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Time-waster ... or maybe something more

Don't know if any of you have fooled around with Scribd, a site where you can upload your own documents, read or download documents from others and do social networking/sharing stuff. But if you're in one of those web-surfing moods where you're just poking around at different sites, check it out.

I put a couple things on there from brown baggers I've done. Apparently a more than a few people have found them. Also, on Scribd, you can subscribe to others so their docs show up in your feed. This morning, I discovered I have a subscriber from Italy and one from Spain. Can't imagine how they found me, or that they're all that interested in the YDR's narrative writing efforts, but anyway, it's cool.

Some people also publish fiction on the site.

The other thing about Scribd is it could be useful as a way to discover sources (or information or leads) for stories. It's searchable, so you can plug in whatever term you're dealing with and see if something useful comes up.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

No fair if police are going to write their own narratives

In the official, official report, the Florida cop wrote this:

"Officer Ashe was driving home in Pasco County when he observed an alligator blocking the roadway. He attempted to use his vehicle to scare it out of the road. The alligator became agitated and bit his bumper causing approximately $500 worth of damage. Report will be routed to City Claims/Risk Management."
But here is a St. Petersburg Times story about the initial report he filed. Maybe he wanted a byline in the paper?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Five-graf narrative

Janeen pointed out this little gem to a couple of us on Friday night. It's Mike Argento's five-paragraph brief on the sneaker theft in York the other day. If you have the material, this brief proves, narrative can show up anywhere in the paper.

In its entirety:

Nate Eric Monry was walking in the first block of South West Street in York at 5:40 a.m. Thursday when three men stopped him.

York City Police said one of the men asked to see his sneakers. Monry, of York, complied, police said, holding out a foot so the man could get a better look at his Nike.

Monry told police the man then grabbed him and pushed him against a wall while one of the other men took his sneakers off his feet.

Monry fled, sneakerless, police said. He was not injured.

The suspects are believed to have small feet. The sneakers were described as size nines.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Why humans need narrative (and other good stuff from ex-Washington Post editor)

Former Washington Post editor Tom Shroder, who's worked with Gene Weingarten and David Finkel among many others, has some instructive, compelling, inspiring and above all realistic thoughts on narrative journalism and its future in a digital age at Nieman Storyboard.

Two I'd point out:

Narrative is the way that human beings are genetically coded to understand the world. From the very beginning of the human ability to communicate, the way we’ve understood each other is through story. You can get a bunch of information together and try to communicate something, but you aren’t going to feel you really grasp an issue until you see it unfold in story form. The most meaningful conversations you have with your friends are you telling them stories of your experiences. People who are good at telling narratives will always be valuable. 


Any really great narrative journalist understands that there are no bad stories, there are only incompletely understood stories. That idea—that everything in life is going to be one hell of a story—is what drives the best. And what makes them deliver so consistently. If you look at somebody like Gene or Finkel, you might ask, “How is it that something perfect always seems to happen to them to make the story great?”

Gene and I call that the god of journalism. But the god of journalism pays off the persistent.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Short goes long

So Twitter is the beacon (in a way) of short writing, yes?


But even on Twitter, long stories are breathing, if just under the surface. I came across @longreads on Twitter, which says it's there to provide "links to long-form journalism and fiction ..." There's stuff on there from The Washington Post, Sports Illustrated, Time magazine, Vanity Fair, and on and on.


Monday, October 26, 2009

On the reaction to NYT's David Rohde & 'Held by the Taliban'

If you haven't had a chance to read David Rohde's five-part narrative about his kidnapping by the Taliban and ultimate escape, it's compelling reading -- probably more so because it's so understated (or minimalist, as Nieman Storyboard wrote). The story itself carries the narrative.

If you have read it -- or after you do -- check out the blog where Rohde and the New York Times' editor have been answering questions about the story.

After the first day, I was both fascinated and, I admit, shocked that some people ripped Rohde for any number of things, from trying to interview the Taliban leader who wound up kidnapping him, to writing a five-part series about his ordeal. For example, one wrote of concern that the NYT was publicizing Rohde's "folly" and said, "Shame on the New York Times." Another asked if the NYT would "pay the full cost. Taxpayers should not be burdened with this nonsense."

To their credit, I think, Rohde and Bill Keller take on the questions even-handedly. Reading the blog, then, becomes a valuable lesson in how reporting is done in dangerous situations, in how stories like this are put together, and, perhaps most importantly, in how people react to them, and what they get out of them (and don't), and what that means to those of us who try to do great storytelling.

I doubt we're sending anyone to Afghanistan anytime soon. But we can certainly learn from this piece, and the discussions that are happening on the blog, and apply them to what we do.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Kicked when down: A short story

E-mail inbox, Oct. 19, 4:21 p.m.

Where do you want to sit?

Hey Scott,

Be there alongside your Boston Red Sox as they chase baseball immortality. Go to StubHub, where you’ll find a fantastic selection of tickets to every playoff game – so you experience the championship chase live and in person. Check it out. Go to StubHub and get the seats you want today.

E-mail inbox, Oct. 19, 7:56 p.m.

Hi Scott,

Earlier today, an email promoting Boston Red Sox postseason tickets was sent to you. This, unfortunately, was a mistake. We regret the error and apologize for any inconvenience or confusion this may have caused.


The StubHub Team

Dark recesses of mind, Oct. 19, 9:36 p.m.

Dear StubHub,

Thank you so very much. May I have your address? I would love to meet you, face-to-face.



Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tom Hallman on print narrative

Tom Hallman, Pulitzer winner at The Oregonian, spoke about print narrative and its future at the recent American Association of Sunday and Features Editors conference.

Nieman Storyboard posted his talk, which included a lot of uplifting thoughts about what storytelling means to people and to newspapers, things like:

The way we can define ourselves is by telling stories.


At every newspaper, storytelling can be the tonic to help us get through these times. For the writers, it means they connect with the readers. For the newspapers, it helps brand a paper in the community.

He also said some provocative things:

But I do worry about the next generation because they are not schooled in the craft of reporting. They’re more interested in writing than they are in reporting. And many of them feel entitled, saying, “I want to be a writer. I don’t want to spend two years covering cops.”


One of the negative things coming out of the golden age of narrative journalism is the whole writing coach, seminar, Nieman conference thing. We still have a little bit of that hanging on

As you can tell just from that stuff, it's a good read.

Follow the burger

Did you read this story yet from last Sunday's NYT?

It's about the E. coli outbreak of 2007 when tons of hamburger was recalled.

I point out this story for a couple reasons.

  • It answered the "why" of the outbreak, rather than just sticking to the story of a 22-year-old woman who lost her ability to walk after eating a tainted burger bought at Sam's Club.
  • The story was told by tracking the origin of that burger. I think this made for a much better story than just following the woman -- which would have been compelling in and of itself -- but would not have answered the "why."
And the tie between the woman and the answering of the question "why" is set nice and high in the story:

Ms. Smith, 22, was found to have a severe form of food-borne illness caused by E. coli, which Minnesota officials traced to the hamburger that her mother had grilled for their Sunday dinner in early fall 2007.

“I ask myself every day, ‘Why me?’ and ‘Why from a hamburger?’ ”Ms. Smith said. In the simplest terms, she ran out of luck in a food-safety game of chance whose rules and risks are not widely known.

(Warning: After reading this story I have sworn off of hamburger. For life. The NYT Picker interviewed the author, asking if that was the conclusion readers should draw from the story.)

Friday, October 2, 2009

Treasure trove of Talese


Last night I was watching the Gay Talese video I posted earlier, and Wade noticed there were more videos -- a lot more -- on the site Big Think.

He talks about everything from interviewing techniques to "getting drunk at the New York Times." Good stuff.

Here's one of him talking about narrative journalism.

Daily narrative? Why, certainly

Got an e-mail from the Neiman Narrative Digest at Harvard U. (maybe some of you got the same one) that said:

"The Nieman Foundation is pleased to announce Nieman Storyboard, a new site providing a daily dose of narrative for readers."

Well, who can beat a daily dose of narrative?

The game story, as an art form

I grew up reading Dave Kindred, along with others in The Washington Post -- Ken Denlinger, Thomas Boswell, Bill Gildea, Shirley Povich -- who were sportswriting legends to me, way, way before Kornheiser and Wilbon showed up, good as they may be.

I just came across this piece by Kindred about why sports game stories are important -- when they're well done -- even though for a long time, newspapers have operated on the philosophy that game stories might be expendable or not worth much space because everyone already knows the final score.

Kindred points out what he thinks makes a game story good, and it goes way beyond the final score. He includes some tips that I think are great.

I think you can find examples of well-done game stories in our paper. Read Frank Bodani's Penn State game story from last Sunday, particularly the first several grafs. PSU's loss is immediately given a physical texture and put in the context not only of a season but several seasons.

And Frank does one thing I love -- and tried to do when I was covering Virginia Tech -- and that is, he thinks about how the fans are thinking about the game, and incorporates that into his story. It's not that he is a fan; it's that he can think from that perspective. So you get lines like: "The sold-out, whiteout crowd stood and watched, mostly muttering to themselves, trying against odds to urge their heroes on, barely believing what they were seeing." Great stuff.

Any writer on any beat should read some game stories to see the differences in why some are good and some aren't. After all, as Kindred points out, a game story should be a story, not just a recap of play-by-play. And the game is always part of something bigger than just what happens that day.

That kind of approach to any story is going to make you a better reporter and lift up your writing.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Tape recorders killed the journalism star?

I am going to offer this video with Gay Talese without comment.


Well, I do have one comment: Frank Sinatra Has a Cold is one of my all-time favorite stories.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Coming to York a bittersweet tale

If you haven’t already, be sure and check out Melissa Nann Burke’s narrative from Sunday. See it here.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Storytelling in a headline

I really like this headline/readout, from today's paper (and I'll find out who committed this act of creativity and honor that person here)*:

Police: Driver hit cars for blocks
Then she kicked an officer in the groin.

The word 'then' makes this feel like a two-sentence story by making the action a sequence of events. It answers the unstated (but felt in a reader's mind) question, 'then what happened?' And that makes it pleasing to read -- more so than if, say, the readout had been 'She also kicked an officer in the groin.' That would have made it feel a bit more like a list.

Can we do more of this kind of headline storytelling?

*Jess says it's Matt Negrin, the second-newest addition to the desk. Nice work, Matt.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Nice turns of phrase

This from David von Drehle's profile of Glenn Beck in Time magazine. I like both the food metaphor in the line about bipartisanship, and the financial one about trust & good faith.

Does anyone think it detracts from the picture he's trying to paint by using two metaphors back-to-back that are so different? Just a thought. They still work for me.

Glenn Beck: the pudgy, buzz-cut, weeping phenomenon of radio, TV and books. Our hot summer of political combat is turning toward an autumn of showdowns over some of the biggest public-policy initiatives in decades. The creamy notions of postpartisan cooperation — poured abundantly over Obama's presidential campaign a year ago — have curdled into suspicion and feelings of helplessness. Trust is a toxic asset, sitting valueless on the national books. Good faith is trading at pennies on the dollar. The old American mind-set that Richard Hofstadter famously called "the paranoid style" — the sense that Masons or the railroads or the Pope or the guys in black helicopters are in league to destroy the country — is aflame again, fanned from both right and left. Between the liberal fantasies about Brownshirts at town halls and the conservative concoctions of brainwashed children goose-stepping to school, you'd think the Palm in Washington had been replaced with a Munich beer hall.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Jacqui to study the future of storytelling

News from the U. of Missouri (thanks to Nickie for flagging it) is that Jacqui Banaszynski will study the future of storytelling during her 2009-2010 Donald W. Reynolds Fellowship.

Excerpt from the story linked above:

“One thing getting lost in the combination of cutbacks and Twitter speed is the kind of in-depth storytelling journalists were encouraged to do in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” says Banaszynski, who holds the Knight Chair in Editing at the Missouri School of Journalism. And that impacts the public, not just those who make a living crafting the stories. “Stories define us as human beings. They were written on rocks, and maybe some day they will be written on the stars. Story telling is how people connect,” she says.

Banaszynski wants to figure out how people in 2009 are using journalistic stories in their own lives. “What do they get from them? What’s missing?” she says.

Never give up

This story made me think about all sorts of people who have turned down interviews.

Usually, they fall by the wayside. Forgotten. They said no.

For me, this serves as a reminder to keep trying for those really intriguing stories.

Mick Taylor, the guitarist who quit the Rolling Stones during their heyday, would not talk to reporters. He lives in a run-down house. He has never collected a royalty check. He's never publicly explained why.

Until now.

(Photo of Mick Taylor via

Thursday, September 10, 2009

When it's not your fault

A few years ago, we had interns in Washington, D.C. through a deal with Medill News Service (under the auspices of Northwestern U.'s j-school). We had one each semester, resulting in quite a few different bylines.

Lauren Fitzpatrick was one of the best, if not the best, Medill correspondents we had. I remember her as curious, smart, a good bullshit detector, pretty much fearless, and able to find good storylines in the often grinding, plodding world of the federal government.

She's now at the Southtown Star in Chicago (been there for a while, actually, I believe) and is in the middle of a media controversy of sorts: She wrote a story about a tragic event; a local TV station lifted her story and re-ran it, but made errors in the process; and when the family got mad, they got mad not at the TV station but at Lauren.

The Chicago Reader has now written about this, and I call your attention to it not just because it's an interesting story about journalists and their jobs, but because I love how Lauren is handling the situation and what she says about doing what we all know can be a really tough job sometimes.

Speaking of multimedia, listen here

Anyone listen to Radiolab? Just heard about it this morning. Two guys, Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad (Krulwich being a former national-level science reporter, not sure about Abumrad's resume), talk deeply but informally about science and other things that talking about science leads you to.

I'm going to check it out to see what there is to learn about audio storytelling (and not just because I love freaky nature stuff, like the video that's on the web site right now titled "Zombie cockroach revived by brain shot.")

If you've listened to it, or listen to it after reading this, let me know what you think.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Journalism prof's guide to multimedia journalism

... and, of course, to multimedia storytelling.

Mindy McAdams of the University of Florida blogged
on how journalists can "transform themselves," as she puts it, into multimedia journalists. She collected those 15 posts and put them in a PDF. It's available here, but it's long, so I thought I'd do a quick abstract, based at least in part on Mindy's text, to help. If you want more, see the whole document; it's pretty good stuff.

1. Read blogs and use RSS -- Read blogs, especially ones about online & multimedia, to help you understand changes in media, keep up with the changes, and adapt. Set up an RSS reader (e.g., Google Reader)

2. Start a blog -- Helps, or in some cases makes, you search for new information and connect with other online/multimedia sites & people.

3. Buy an audio recorder and learn to use it -- In our case, see Chris Glass. A number of you have added audio to your reporting/storytelling already. Anyway, audio adds another level to your work.

4. Start editing audio -- Again, some of you have done this here. Great. And you know it can be time consuming. But it's similar to editing your notes or notebook as you turn from reporting to writing ... so you already have some skills. As McAdams notes, this also forces you to broaden your computer skills, a necessity if you're embracing multimedia.

5. Listen to podcasts -- You need to hear good audio stories to have something to model yours on, to have something to shoot for.

6. Post an interview (or podcast) on your blog -- So you're saying, Blanchard, why haven't you posted an interview or podcast on your blog? Guilty. But this is another area where doing this forces you to broaden your journalistic skills.

7. Learn how to shoot decent photos -- Because, as McAdams says simply, every journalist ought to be able to get a basic spot news photo. You might be the only one there.

8. Learn how to crop, tone and optimize photos -- Check in with Chris or Brad on this one if you want to learn. Again, McAdams is approaching this from the standpoint of, if you're going to be a fully-developed multimedia journalist, you've got to know how to work with your own photos.

9. Add photos to your blog -- This is quite easy in Blogger, but Movable Type drives me up a wall. Maybe I'm doing something wrong ... but in any case, if you have a blog, try to get art on it the same as you would try to get art with a story in print.

10. Learn to use soundslides -- This is a different, and usually very cool, way of storytelling, and something that our photographers do very well. Making your own might even be fun.

11. Tell a good story with images and sound -- If you have a story that's worth telling this way, you ought to be able to pull it off.

12. Learn to shoot video -- The natural extension of No. 11.

13. Edit your video -- The natural extension of No. 12. Again, many of you have done this. Chris and Brad and probably others can coach you.

14. Publish your video on your blog -- Tom Joyce seems to have taken to this nicely. Blogs are better when they have more than just headlines and text. (I need to find a picture to go with this post).

15. Maintain/udpate your skills -- To crib from McAdams: Get over your fear, learn to fail, find good tutorials. From me: Keep pushing yourself. You're not going to master any or all of these things in a couple of weeks, or after one coaching session or a three-day seminar. But by making time to work at them, you'll first learn, then get better. That's the point.

Friday, September 4, 2009

It's late, so what the heck, I'll do an edit on the NYT

I called up the New York Times story Nickie flagged in her post below to get started. I read the first sentence, then the first graf, then returned to the first sentence:

"The smell of death was overpowering the moment a relief worker cracked open one of the hospital chapel’s wooden doors. Inside, more than a dozen bodies lay motionless on low cots and on the ground, shrouded in white sheets. Here, a wisp of gray hair peeked out. There, a knee was flung akimbo. A pallid hand reached across a blue gown."

I thought, couldn't the first sentence have been smoother, active, tighter with an edit such as:

"The smell of death overpowered the relief worker who cracked open one of the hospital chapel's wooden doors."

Agree? Or is there something about the words "the moment" that make that sentence hum, and I'm out of tune here? Let me know what you think. (And I would add ... the rest of the graf is pretty darn good ... )

On short writing

Poynter's Roy Peter Clark on telegraphs, poetry, writing short, and, yes, Twitter. As usual, he has a great take on this, linking the art and utility of short writing through various forms and over decades.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The $400,000 story

I haven't finished reading this story yet, but so far it is amazing.

The story details what went down at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans after Katrina hit. Since I haven't finished it, I can't really talk about the storytelling. But here's a conversation starter: It cost an estimated $400,000 to do this story. Part of it was funded by ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom. Part of the deal is that anyone can publish it after Sept. 29 for free. (Including us!)

The reporter starting doing the story on her own time, got a fellowship and then continued her work on it after taking a job with ProPublica.

What do you think about the price tag and the story? Looking forward, do you think non-profits are going to be the only entities capable of producing this kind of work?

Here's a video of the author talking about the importance of this story and why she reported it.

P.S. If anyone prefers to read hard copies rather than online, let me know. I can lend you my copy of the NYT Sunday magazine after I finish reading it. (But be warned if you haven't picked up a copy lately: The mag is tiny now. I actually have a hard time finding it in the Sunday paper. Another sign of the times.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

'They kept pushing themselves'

Davis Guggenheim has directed a documentary called "It Might Get Loud," (trailer below) about rock & roll and specifically guitarists Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White.

At the end of an interview on The Bob Edwards Show, Guggenheim (who also directed "An Inconvenient Truth") and Edwards start talking about the next movie, the next thing to do, and they note that a lot of rock groups were one-hit or one-album wonders. I love Guggenheim's quote in response:

"The amazing thing is Led Zeppelin came back time and time and time again with music that was completely different. They kept pushing themselves. If I can do that, if I can just try to do that, just keep making interesting films, keep pushing myself, trying to do different things, even if I fall on my face, that's the thing that I live for."

So well-said.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Word sounds

Got on a kick recently listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Born on the Bayou" after seeing the "live at Woodstock" video. I'd heard on the radio someone who'd worked at Woodstock talk about how the opening notes of this song, at 3 a.m., kicked the festival into overdrive. (Thank God for anniversary stories.)

Anyway, the more I listened the more I realized something about how the lyrics (see below) use the repetition of a particular sound to tie the piece together.

I doubt I have a chance of interviewing John Fogerty about this, so don't know how intentional this was, but check out the video below and listen for the repetition of the "oo" sound -- in words like "do" and "July" -- that reinforce that sound, which of course is in the title of the song. And when he sings, Fogerty really exploits the sound -- pushing it hard and low at least a couple of times so it really punctuates the rhythm of the song.

(He also, importantly, gives the sound some room to breathe -- in the 3rd line of the song, he sings "don't let the man getcha and do what he done to me." It'd be different, and probably not as good, had he sung "don't let them man get you and do what he done to me.")

Fogerty's emphasis on that sound ends up unifying the song. And you can use the same type of technique to help unify a story. Pay attention to the sounds of the words. If you can deftly repeat key sounds at points in the story -- being careful not to overdo it and turn it into a gimmick -- your piece will feel that much more cohesive, that much more like a whole thing as opposed to a collection of paragraphs. The reader might notice only subliminally, but that's even more cool.

Born on the bayou
(by John Fogerty)

Now, when I was just a little boy,
Standin' to my daddy's knee,
My poppa said, son, don't let the man get you
Do what he done to me.
'cause he'll get you,
'cause he'll get you now, now.

And I can remember the fourth of july,
Runnin' through the backwood, bare.
And I can still hear my old hound dog barkin',
Chasin' down a hoodoo there.
Chasin' down a hoodoo there.

Born on the bayou;
Born on the bayou;
Born on the bayou.

Wish I was back on the bayou.
Rollin' with some cajun queen.
Wishin' I were a fast freight train,
Just a chooglin' on down to New Orleans.


Thursday, August 20, 2009

See a 'broken narrative' structure unfold

Watch this Frontline video and see what Jacqui called a "broken narrative" structure as it works in a video documentary.

The first few minutes put you in the middle of the most important part of the narrative, the moment when something big is going to happen. Then the story shifts from narrative to exposition -- of characters, of the conflict, of the how-we-got-here background -- and back to narrative. It's fascinating to watch how well-constructed it is.

And what I always think about when I watch this is: Through deep reporting and excellent visual storytelling skills, Frontline has turned a story about pieces of paper and computer screens and people in meetings into an edge-of-your-seat drama. And it's all true.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


I swear I'm not making any money off this. It's the trailer for a movie that I hadn't heard about until I was on the web site of GOOD magazine (which does really cool info graphics) and saw an ad at the top of the page that read:

"Kick-ass narrative, surprising twists, heroes you root for and bad guys you despise ... the best caper flick of the year is a documentary. -- New York Magazine."

It's called The Cove. Anyone heard of it? Based on the description and the trailer, I gotta check it out -- for narrative techniques at least, if not the subject matter. I tried to put the trailer here, but it blew out the rest of the blog. So just click the link above.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

I probably shouldn't say this, but ...

I really like this post about anniversary stories by John McIntyre, former head of the Baltimore Sun's copy desk. It's from his blog called "You Don't Say." I'm not against all anniversary stories, it's just that sometimes I'd like us to think harder about how we do them -- to push ourselves to not do what McIntyre talks about -- and also to be open to the idea that we don't ALWAYS need an anniversary story on the anniversary of something.

Anyway, his post:

I wasn't at Woodstock: "Few things in journalism bear as strong a sense of inevitability as the anniversary story. Point a writer to an event, ten, twenty, twenty-five, thirty, forty, or fifty years in the past, and you can lay out the page before the text is in hand — none of those messy contingencies with stories that don’t pan out.

No doubt such articles appeal to a “Hey, I remember that” nostalgia among readers, especially my fellows in the boomer generation, our waistlines expanding as our hairlines recede, as we struggle to see through our trifocals to the golden haze of youth.

But the real reason for the proliferation of anniversary stories is that they are easy.

Very little real reporting is involved; much of the information can be retrieved readily from the archive — rather like the partially masticated rodent tissue that owls deposit in the beaks of their young. Beyond that it is only necessary to round up a few people with a peripheral connection to the event and record their incisive comments: “Like, it was heavy, man.” And because our visual age demands images with stories, the photo archive is just sitting there to be exploited. Nothing could be easier.

I was at The Cincinnati Enquirer for the fifth-anniversary commemoration of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire.*

Click here to keep reading. Trust me, the story he tells is worth it.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Dissecting a blueprint

One of the story structures Jacqui talked about in Wednesday's video session was the "news totem," or a structure that resembles an inverted pyramid, but with "sub-items that can't be easily prioritized in a descending hierarchy."

A benefit, Jacqui said, is that it acknowledges that those "sub-items" can "have equal primacy to different audiences."

That rings true when you think of today's readers, particularly, say, on an issue like the health care debate. Different people are already bringing different takes on the news to a story; they're looking for specific topics or information, and if they don't get it, you're the target for leaving it out.

A risk, though, is that by assigning each "topic" its own & equal section, we allow someone with a point of view to scan to only the parts of the story they agree with or want to see covered, and we lose our chance to educate, to enlighten, to strengthen the tone of the discussion -- all the good things that really good journalism can do.

Then again ... maybe people already scan our stories for the stuff they want to read.

What do you think? How can this "news totem" form be used effectively? What kinds of stories would not lend themselves to this form?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Thinking about story structure (and story, period)

To emphasize a point Jacqui made early in her session on Wednesday:

A lot of you have her handout on story structures (and those who don't, I still have some, so grab one off my desk or just ask me for one).

You could certainly look through that and find it formulaic and less than inspiring, toss it aside and decide to wing it with story structure. But as Jacqui noted when she was talking to Ted (who used to work for Gannett) about a rigid story structure Gannett used to use, "the value is not so much the rigid box but what it is they're trying to get us to think about."

Take a few minutes to look over the structures in Jacqui's handout. Then back it up -- begin to connect them with how you'd report; how you'd think about questions to ask before you went out to report; how you'd think about possible angles for a story and sources/questions that might inform your reporting; and how you think about story ideas.

When you start to look at it that way, it starts to fit together, and you start to see how having a "blueprint," as Jacqui calls these structures, can really help you get the most out of your reporting and writing.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Lots of stuff to blog about from Jacqui Banaszynski's video session today, but for the moment I just wanted to get down one of the last things we talked about, and that is: If you're comfortable with, and good at, a particular story form, why try anything different?

I asked Jacqui that because I know that one of the toughest things to do is step outside your comfort zone as a writer. If you know you do a certain thing well, you want to keep on doing that, because you're pretty sure you won't suddenly fail; you're likely to keep doing it well.

Trying something new is risky and can be uncomfortable, because if you're not sure of the outcome, you're putting yourself and your reputation on the line. You might feel like you failed, and you might have to hear someone whose opinion you value tell you that what you tried didn't work.

But here, according to Jacqui, are some reasons to stretch out, gamble, do something different:

  • The only way to learn is to try something new.
  • When you do something over and over, you can start to bore yourself. If you're bored, it's going to show, and your reader will be bored, too.
  • Not every story wants to be told in the same way. Stories tell us how they want to be told. So, listen.

Cut yourself off from everything and ... read

Bob Edwards (of "The Bob Edwards Show" on satellite radio) excerpted the following quote from this story in the L.A. Times about whether, in a world of instant and brief communications, we are losing the ability to immerse ourselves in a book and just read.

"Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being. We possess the books we read, animating the waiting stillness of their language, but they possess us also, filling us with thoughts and observations, asking us to make them part of ourselves. This is what Conroy was hinting at in his account of adolescence, the way books enlarge us by giving direct access to experiences not our own. In order for this to work, however, we need a certain type of silence, an ability to filter out the noise. Such a state is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture, in which every rumor and mundanity is blogged and tweeted. Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know. Why? Because of the illusion that illumination is based on speed, that it is more important to react than to think, that we live in a culture in which something is attached to every bit of time."

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Narrative/writing connections

I was fooling around on the bookmarking site Delicious this morning and wondered if anyone else in here uses it, and if so, do you use its 'subscription' feature? You can enter tags you're interested in, so whenever anyone uses that tag, it'll show up in your 'subscriptions' bookmarks.

For example, I have 'public records' and 'narrative_nonfiction' tags. They provide a stream of (sometimes) interesting things that other people are bookmarking. Just thought I'd toss the idea out there.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Daniel Ellsburg on Hiroshima Day

Daniel Ellsburg, of Pentagon papers notoriety, writes in "The Nation" about Hiroshima, the bomb and what has happened in the 60-some years since then.

He's on a mission, he says: "To understand the urgency of radical changes in our nuclear policies that may truly move the world toward abolition of nuclear weapons, we need a new understanding of the real history of the nuclear age. I plan over the next year, before the 65th anniversary of Hiroshima, to do my part in unveiling this hidden history."

This would seem to qualify as advocacy journalism (see previous post), but Ellsburg is clearly an important voice on this topic, and his piece is a compelling read.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Is narrative always the right answer?

"Those of us who love narrative might be tempted to say that it conquers all. But are there some experiences which are perceived as being so subjective—or about which readers may be so committed to an opinion—that writing a piece as a pure narrative might work against the story?"

Andrea Pitzer of the Nieman Narrative Digest poses that question in an essay about a narrative on a woman's struggle to leave an abuser.

Pitzer notes that narrative has techniques to address the shortcomings that might come with telling a story from, for example, one person's perspective. And she says the author "makes sure we don’t dismiss her article as more advocacy than journalism by anticipating the moments when context, facts, and quotes from lawyers or policemen will make her story stronger."

I must say I can't immediately see why a narrative writer wouldn't try to do everything he/she could to ensure a piece doesn't come off as advocacy, because advocacy journalism lacks the credibility and force of well-done independent journalism.

But the question Pitzer asks is a good one, and reminds us that we should always be asking how best to tell a particular story, and vetting our decisions to make sure the story is told as well, and accurately and independently, as it can be.

Building instructions

Pretty good story here in The Washington Post. It's about government spending and the Army and documents and contracts ... but it's a human story. It's a good one to look at for several reasons:

  • It has a solid, logical, clean structure that works -- and that we can use (and have used) here with investigative or other enterprise pieces: It starts, essentially, with a four-graf anecdote. Importantly, the anecdote sets the tone for the rest of the story, it isn't just a neat little scene that doesn't do any heavy lifting for the story.
  • Graf 5 introduces the characters, then hits you with the 'why this matters' sentence.
  • Grafs 6-8 are the nut grafs; they deliver the core news of the story and link it to the broader subject (government corruption).
  • Grafs 9-12 develop the nut graf and set up the main character's position.
  • Graf 13 loops back to start the forward motion of the human story: "They met in the spring of 2004 ...."
That's a fairly standard formula for how to structure a piece like this. But it's well worth using, because when done right, it really works. This writer used it to make this a human story about corruption, not a story about corruption that happened to have some human beings in it.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

For real this time: Jacqui/videoconference/Aug. 12/4:30 p.m.

Note this is a change from what I posted a week or so ago. (Jacqui's international flight got changed and it turned out she would have been in mid-air at the time of the schedule videoconference this week.


Aug. 12, 4:30 p.m. Story structure on deadline. Jacqui plans to have some handouts about story diagrams and such; bring your questions and let's make it a back-and-forth.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Reminder: Jacqui/Aug. 5/4:30

Just a quick reminder to those who check in here that Jacqui Banaszynski's next videconference with us is 4:30 p.m. next Wednesday, Aug. 5.

In response to what some of you have asked for, she plans to talk about structuring stories on deadline, quick focusing devices, etc.

I'll post more as I know it.

Meanwhile, if you can be thinking of questions to bring in to the session, that would help. It's neat that we can do the videoconference thing, but by its nature it doesn't encourage the type of interaction you'd normally get face-to-face. So if some of us can come ready to engage in discussion, I know that will help Jacqui, who loves nothing more than to go back-and-forth with people and finds it tougher to do on videoconferences.

Monday, July 27, 2009

For the love of revising ... circa 1776

Thomas Jefferson labored over a declaration of independence in July 1776, then brought it before a Congressional committee, which tweaked the language -- including, for example, changing "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable" to "We hold these truths to be self-evident."

Then Jefferson and the committee brought it to the full Congress, where
"change after change was called for and approximately a quarter of what he had written was cut entirely," writes David McCullough in "John Adams."

Jefferson was not comfortable, McCullough wrote, but nobody recorded that he protested (out loud, anyway).

They took out some big stuff -- Jefferson had assigned the blame for slavery to King George, and he had written that Americans must forever break their relationship with the British people, whom he held partially responsible for the King's actions. And they made some minor changes -- instead of the King inflicting "unremitting" injuries on the colonies, the document would say he inflicted "repeated" injuries.

At one point, McCullough writes, Ben Franklin "leaned over to tell [Jefferson] a story ... that he had once known a hatter who wished to have a sign made saying, 'John Thompson, Hatter, Makes and Sells Hats for Ready Money,' this to be accompanied by a picture of a hat. But the man had chosen first to ask the opinion of friends, with the result that one word after another was removed as superfluous or redundant, until at last the sign was reduced to Thompson's name and the picture of the hat."

In the end, though, as McCullough points out, the "eloquent lines of the second paragraph" -- which were, "when all was said and done, [Jefferson's] lines" -- survived and still glow today:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

I think the revising stage of a great piece of writing -- the stage where you really get down to examining sentences and words and such -- can be the most fun and the most rewarding part of writing (if also among the hardest, particularly, perhaps, for the writer). I think there are a few of you out there who would second that thought.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Making use of minor characters

At the end of Laura Blumenfeld's story in this week's Washington Post mag taking readers through Secret Service training, there's a note:

"Although a few subjects asked not to be identified, in most cases the Magazine chose to omit the names of minor subjects to make it easier for readers to follow the story."

This is a long story, a couple thousand words. Blumenfeld follows three trainees -- Krista, the 4-foot-11 former social worker, Dan, the new father, and Scott, the Iraq veteran who lost three fingers in combat. She also introduces us to their teachers, who have protected past presidents.

The trainees we don't spend much time with are only identified by their background: The Home Depot manager, a sky diver, the Tulsa cop.

I think it worked. Had the Tulsa cop been David Johnson, I probably would have forgotten who he was until I saw "the Tulsa cop" offset by commas. For a story with so much going on, I think it was cleaner. I think it makes better use of the characters. Of course, some would argue you're keeping something from the reader.

It's a damn good story. Give it a read, and let's hear what you think of the device.

How do you create a great narrative?

Jan Winburn, a great, great narrative editor who worked with Ken Fuson at the Baltimore Sun and later worked for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, won an award from the Dart Society, a group of journalists that work toward sensitive coverage of victims of violence. The awared recognizes exceptional work by an editor.

According to the Dart Society's Web site, some of the people she's worked with -- including Lisa Pollak, who won a Pulitzer for feature writing while at the Sun -- nominated her, saying in part:

“We learned from Jan about the indelible link between reporting and writing: that successful narratives are not just the stuff of pretty writing (as some editors believe). Instead the power lies in intensive yet delicate reporting that yields intimate anecdotes and details that allow Jan’s reporters to write with authority from another person’s view."

That's about as strong a definition of what goes into making great narrative as you'll find, I think.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A plug (of sorts) for bad writing

This is either gratuitously mean and arrogant, or pretty funny/possibly educational, or maybe a little of both. But apparently it's a regular feature of Mediaite, the site created by former MSNBC reporter/anchor Dan Abrams. It's interesting, if nothing else.

Worst News Ledes | Online | Mediaite

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

You know you're an editor when...

Lets have some fun here folks. Join in.

You know you're an editor when:

-- You edit the handouts your child's teacher sends home from school.

-- You follow AP style no matter what you're writing.

Can we come up with ones for reporter?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Good warnings

I like this post from John McIntyre, former chief of the Baltimore Sun's copy desk, for a couple of reasons:

One, it's good for a couple of chuckles.

And two, it's always good to be reminded of the writing minefields that sometimes are only a step or two away. Knowing what territory to avoid can sometimes be just as helpful as knowing where you want to go.

You can see it coming

This story wants to set off your radar. How does Lane DeGregory do it? What does she give you, and what does she hold back? How does she set you up for what is to come?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Staffers win AASFE awards

Congratulations to Sue Haller, Mike Argento and Jen Vogelsong, winners in this year's American Association of Sunday and Features Editors' Excellence-in-Feature-Writing Contest. Writers and copy editors from across the country compete in this national competition.

Sue won third place in headline writing. The submission:
1. Tradition kneaded: Jewish faithful re-connect with heritage with sweet bread (Oct. 1)
2. Indiana Clones: Latest 'Indiana Jones' attracts new generation of fans (May 23)
3. Cater tots: Kids learn their way around kitchen (Nov. 19)

Mike won first place in general commentary. The submission:
1. Myers' story shows us how far we've come (Nov. 14, Living page)
2. Cancer victim camps out at county prison (Oct. 24, Living page)
3. Sweepstakes hobbyist wins artistic immortality (Sept. 26, Living page)

Jen won honorable mention for Three sisters (Feb. 24). This was the fire girls story.

Congrats to our winners! Great work gang.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Congrats, AASFE winners

From a Buffy e-mail: "hey gang, just got the winner of aasfe national contest. this is a major contest and very difficult to place in. we had three winners this year: Sue won third in the headline category (this is a first for YDR that I'm aware of), jen won honorable mention in narrative writing category and mike won first in column category. i have attached the complete list.

and for those of you who didn't know, melissa burke placed second in the religion news association's national Cassel's competition. this is the second consecutive year she has won this coveted award.

congratulations to everyone."

And from me: That would be the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors. I second Buffy's congratulations, and recommend that you check out the winning entries here. Jen won for "Three sisters, five angels," about the aftermath of a fire in which several members of a family were killed.

I need help from Buffy or Mike about which Argento columns were entered. And from Buffy or Sue about which of Sue's headline(s) was/were entered. I'll post them here as soon as I can.

Fan of narrative

In a reckless ramble through social networking sites*, I saw a tweet roll by in my Twitterfall that said, 'Become a fan of The Narrative.'

OK, I like narrative. I'm in.

Clicked the link. It's a Facebook page for an indie band in New York called, 'The Narrative.'

OK, what the hell. I like narrative, so I'll 'friend' The Narrative. (Bio: We like music.)

One day, these impetuous decisions to reach out to people I don't know will make me sorry, I'm sure. But for now, I skate.

If you're reading this, and have a tab up for your Facebook page, and really, literally have nothing else to do, but are looking for a reason to go on Facebook and lose a little more time from your day, click here and become a fan of The Narrative, capital N.

*Productivity disclaimer: This post created in the 2 minutes between posting an online story and going to grab dinner.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

It's great to be edited (and I mean, I'M being edited)

If I've ever worked with you on a story through revision after revision, and you were like, 'Dang, I thought I was done!,' I just want you to know that right now, I'm in your shoes.

I've been working with my wife on what would be a picture book for young grade-school kids about a matter of great import: What would happen if the Tooth Fairy ever met the Easter Bunny while they were making their rounds.* (This is fiction. I have not been staking out little kids' houses the night before Easter to do research.)

Both Betsy, my wife, and Buffy have been my editors on this. I wrote it a while back and sent it to them for a read. I figured I was done. Great sense of accomplishment; I'd taken an idea and actually created a beginning-to-end conflict/resolution story that, by God, wasn't half bad.

And then Betsy and Buffy weighed in. And I revised it. And they suggested things. And I revised. And so on ... and this morning I finished probably the 10th revision of the story. (And it still needs work.)

It is now so different, and so much better, than it was the first time I put it down, I can hardly imagine why I thought I was done. But that, I realized, is what a writer/editor relationship is all about -- the writer creates and the editor helps see around the corners the writer can't see around when he/she is writing.

It's a great learning experience for me to be on the other side of that equation. In the last edit, for example, Buffy even flagged me on using 'ing' verbs instead of 'ed' verbs ... which is something I am attuned to as an editor but something I missed in my own work as a writer.

Betsy, who used to be an early childhood teacher and can tune in to the frequencies used by little kids, has helped me with the tone of the story -- that is, making it more silly. Once during revisions, I had to think long and hard about the weighty issue of what, exactly, a rabbitt would exclaim upon bashing into a fairy; and what a fairy would say at the same moment.

I know all this work will make me a better writer; I'm hoping it makes me a better editor too.

*You're welcome to read it if you want.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Using your senses

We've talked a lot about sensory writing giving life and detail to your stories. I came across this song, by Jesse Winchester, that I thought was cool because it's written to be nothing but a sensory story about what you'd experience walking down a road or across a field in rural Mississippi. Just shows how evocative this kind of writing can be. Check it out:

Mississippi you're on my mind

I think I see a wagon rutted road
With the weeds growing tall between the tracks,
And along one side runs a rusty barbed wire fence
And beyond that sits an old tar paper shack.


Mississippi, you're on my mind,
Mississippi, you're on my mind,
Oh, oh, Mississippi you're on my mind.

I think I hear a noisy old John Deere
In a field specked with dirty cotton lint
And below the field runs a little shady creek,
and there you'll find the cool green leaves of mint.


I think I smell the honeysuckle vine,
The heavy sweetness like to make me sick.
And the dogs, my God, they're hungry all the time
And the snakes are sleeping where the weeds are thick.


I think I feel an angry oven heat,
The southern sun just blazes in the sky.
And in the dusty weeds, an old fat grasshopper jumps.
I wanna make it to that creek before I fry.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Telling a great story

In the next couple days I am going to post a Q&A with the writer of the Washington Post's metro crash story.

Eli Saslow, a graduate of Syracuse University, is a fantastic writer and reporter. I met him this year though a mutual friend, but was a fan of his writing before that.

One of my favorites is "In Flag City USA, False Obama Rumors are Flying." His story about the son of a Redskins coach was chosen for inclusion in the 2008 edition of The Best American Sports Writing.

If you have some questions for Saslow, please leave a comment or send me an e-mail. I am going to try to send them to him by the end of the week.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Little things add up to big things

Here's a Washington Post narrative piece on the Metro train that crashed, focusing on a handful of passengers and built around a last-one-on, last-one-off structure.

There are a lot of things to take from this story, but here's one that struck me: The detail of the guy walking from the front of the car to the back. It happens early in the story. The writer notes that this guy was all about protecting his personal time, and being in the back of the car put him closer to where he wanted to go when he left the train. "That seemed important," the story says. And it was, as you'll find out.

But the reporting tool to take from this is: Clearly, the reporter asked the guy to recreate everything he did on the train. When the guy said he walked from the front to back, the reporter had to have asked, "Why did you do that?" And the guy must have answered, to save time. How much time? the reporter might have asked? A few seconds, the guy may have answered.

But the reporter didn't stop there. He/she must gone on to a Metro train and paced it off -- allowing him/her to give you the info that, basically, nine seconds made the difference for this guy.

For a narrative, no question is too small, no answer insignificant. You need everything you can get, because only when you have that can you truly take someone through the crucial scenes in your story (or, in this case, the entire story).

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Alert: quote abuse

Quotes in stories are good, right? Sure, but we all know it can get out of hand. Here's an example.

Part of sports writing culture places high value on quoting the athletes and coaches so fans can "hear" them in stories.* But read the following quote (Red Sox manager Terry Francona talking about his hitting coach, Dave Magadan, getting ejected the other night and then suspended) and tell me how many times you get the information that when a coach leaves the dugout, it's an automatic suspension:

“You can’t leave the dugout,’’ Francona said. “That’s like an automatic. I knew it was going to happen. I was surprised he got thrown out. As soon as you leave the dugout it’s an automatic suspension. If you’re a coach and you leave the dugout, you get an automatic one-game suspension. It doesn’t matter what you say. I thought [umpire] Bob [Davidson] put Mags in a horrible position. Screaming over there, cursing at him on a pitch that he admittedly [screwed] up.’’

Did you count three times? This quote would have been much better had the writer paraphrased the fact that if a coach leaves the dugout, it's an automatic suspension, and quote Francona saying he thought the umpire put the coach in a horrible position, etc. That's clearly the strongest part of the quote, and the only part that should have been used.

*Full disclosure: When I was a sports writer, I was guilty of what I'm speaking against here.

**Photo courtesy of Sons of Sam Horn web site.