Sunday, February 22, 2009

Score one for the Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore Sun seems to take a lot of criticism these days, but I thought this story in Sunday's paper, "Distrust, fear limit homicide convictions," was well-reported and written and worth the time it took to read it. (It's not all that long, anyway.)

It has a sharp lead that draws you in. After that, something significant happens in every sentence -- and each sentence is clear, tight and direct. Really, throughout the whole story, it's hard to find a weak sentence or anyplace where the story does not move briskly forward. The tone of the piece is sober, as opposed to being hysterical or sappy, either of which it could have been given the subject material.

The piece also delivers several fascinating bits of information. I don't want to spoil it -- they're better if you come across them in the story -- but they're about things like jury misconduct and one reason why a witness might not come forward right away.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Learning from an attempted narrative

I don't mean to criticize this piece that appeared in the Lancaster New Era, because I don't know the circumstances/deadlines under which it was written and edited.

But it's a good one to look at to see what amounts to a partially formed narrative about a compelling event -- two divers who drifted away from their boat off the Australian coast and waited hours to be rescued.

Basically, the writer got a long interview and connected long quotes with some transitions and some paragraphs that give information you need to know. You can see some of the key parts of narrative here: Beginning with action; an early line announcing the conflict ("And what he saw alarmed him"); the nut grafs that tell you this is going to be a "how this happened" narrative as opposed to a "what happened" narrative.

But there are missed opportunities in the reporting and the writing. The diver is the only source in story. She is not fleshed out as someone we should care about beyond the fact that she was a human being stranded in the ocean; we can't really connect with her. In the writing, there is very little pacing to build up to the resolution, so the resolution, when the helicopter finds them, passes by almost unremarkably (it should be the high point of the story). The writing steps on itself during one of the key tension points -- when they are in the water and see airplanes -- by using the word 'saw' three times in six paragraphs.

So again ... it remains an interesting interview and story the way it's written. I think it helps, though, to think about how much more it could have been, and what it would have taken to really tell this story.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sometimes writing is just basic stuff

A funny line we can learn from, at AP's expense. A friend of mine flagged this in a wire story about the chimpanzee that attacked a woman:

After the initial attack, Travis ran away and started roaming Herold's property until police arrived, setting up security so medics could reach the critically injured woman, Conklin said.

What that says is that the chimp attacked the woman, then set up security. So the chimp first tried to kill the woman, then tried to help save her. It's just a reminder to be careful that unless you make it clear who's doing what, every action in the sentence will be attributed to the subject.

That sentence should have read: "After the initial attack, Travis ran away and started roaming Herold's property until police arrived and set up security so medics could reach the critically injured woman."

Or: "After the initial attack, Travis ran away and started roaming Herold's property until police arrived. They set up security so medics could reach the critically injured woman."

There are probably other options, but you get the idea.

The how behind the what

Last night's Frontline on the banking crisis/bailout was classic storytelling.

In big news stories we usually write about what has happened, and the focus often is on the decisions that were made and then announced or acted upon (as in the case of an arrest, for example).

But if you can approach the story trying to tell how things happened, it opens up a whole new world of reporting and writing possibilities -- and not least, allows you to write a story in a way that can result in a whole new level of understanding of what you're writing about.

That's what Frontline does in its piece on the banking crisis. You follow the story hour by hour, decision by decision, and it's riveting -- and it tells you things you didn't know about what happened.

One way to think about it, in terms we're familiar with, is that there's the hard news story that we write when something breaks; and then there's the enterprise story or Sunday story that tells how it happened. (Check the left rail for "Snared, then saved" for a good example). And watch the Frontline piece online and think about a big story you've worked on that could be told this way.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

How he tells America's stories

(Dan Barry, who writes the "This Land" column for The New York Times, visiting the center of the United States in Butte County, S.D. Ángel Franco/The New York Times)

Dan Barry is another one of my favorite writers.

Barry writes about so-called ordinary people, places and things. He gets to travel around the nation and write tightly-crafted stories like this. He also has a cool multimedia page where you can look up all his travels.

Anyway, back to the point of this blog post. Barry did a Q&A online. It's a joy to read.

Here's a bit from it:
Q. Would you write a bit about your process of reporting: determining the subject, obtaining facts, creating a readable story? I am struck by the respectful nature of your pieces, often about rather mundane matters that I wouldn't ordinarily take the time to read. Do you often start on a project and decide it just isn't interesting enough to finish? Do you always have a “moral’’ to the stories you write?
— Kathleen Minder

A. Dear Ms. Minder: Thanks for your kind note. I’ve chosen to answer yours first because it contains a compliment.

Not really.

But it provides me with a chance to explain a little about how the column works, or doesn’t.

First, I’m a curious guy, and I keep thoughts in my head and on scraps of paper about little things: Where are the Munchkins today? Who gets to be judge at a county fair baking contest, and does the power go to the judges' heads? What are auditions like for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Who are the Odd Fellows?

Sometimes, these thoughts are more serious, and go more along the lines of bearing witness. For example: What is it like to witness an execution? How do you cope when the Mississippi is threatening to flood your town? Who are these boxers who travel the Southern Circuit, getting their brains beat in for a couple of hundred bucks?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Legos and more

Scott thought I should share an exercise we did at our staff meeting this week. I asked each staffer to create simple items out of Legos. The idea was to challenge them to look at things differently and think outside the box.

For example, Sue took small, narrow yellow Legos and sandwich two small, narrow red Legos between them and said it was a hot dog. Erin took two small square red Legos, put them on top of one another and put a smaller square black Lego on top of the two red ones and said it was a Rutter's coffee cup.

We had a lot of fun with this exercise and it was neat to see what others saw. We actually did this because Erin had sent us a link to someone who had done something similar and we decided to hold a Lego contest for our readers. This exercise also provided us with examples for our Lego contest when we kick it off.

Part of the exercise was discussing how to think differently when we report and write stories. Seeing a story from all angles, not just what is directly before us. I then gave the staffers an assignment. I asked them to make five observations at a particular place and try to describe each observation. The examples I gave:

1. I was in the grocery store and noticed a spotted banana in the produce section (made the observation) and I thought about what the spotted banana looked like and I decided a giraffe's neck.
2. Looked up at the night sky and noticed moon was a sliver (observation) and said it looked like the tip of a fingernail.

You could do this exercise and attempt to make an observation using all your senses, one for each sense. For example, I looked out the window this morning and noticed that the pine tree was shaking and thought it looked like it was doing the hula hoop and heard the wind howling and decided it sounded like when I take the vacuum cleaner (just the hose and attachment) over the furniture to clean it. So I used two senses here. Obviously, when we report a story, we should be using all senses. Any exercise that challenges us to do this helps us hone these skills.

The other exercise I told them they could do was to observe someone and their environment and come up with some telling details that might give them insight into that person. For example, if you visit Sam's desk, you will notice an Edward poster, some Simpson decorations and a picture of a bulldog. What does that tell us about Sam? About the type of shows she watches or the type of books she's interested in or the breed of dog she prefers. When you're reporting a story, always pay attention to details. They might or might not end up in your story, but they can be insightful and lead to questions that reveal personality etc.

So there you have it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Good narrative in an unusual form

Kim Strong, who used to be the writing coach here and damn sure knows what she's talking about, noted on her Facebook page how much she liked this Vanity Fair story about the Bush administration, as it's written in short narrative with first-person observations. It amounts to an oral history of the administration, which is, at the very least, an interesting way to approach a story that has been written to death and probably will continue to be.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

How I wrote the story: Jim Seip

If you've ever found yourself trying to write a story with seemingly no way to make it good, and you were about to give up, read on.

I asked Jim Seip to tell me a bit about how he put together this story about a Steelers fan who made a connection with some military guys who were also Steelers fans, and who went through a harrowing ordeal himself.

Turns out that Jim was in that box: He knew he had to write, and it was looking ugly.

But the beautiful thing is, Jim found a way out. How he did it is great inspiration for any writer who is stuck: Keep thinking. Keep turning it over in your mind. Usually, you'll find a sliver of light, a possible way out ... and then go for it. So, here is how a talented journalist pulled that off in this story:

1. I asked Jim how/when he chose to structure the story around a series of moments:
-- Decided late on the story structure. Real late. Stared at my screen, scrapped two or three horrendous ledes and went in another direction. Here was the main problem with this story: I felt like I didn't have a strong enough story to stand on its own. John was a Steelers fan, that's the reason we wrote the story, but he had so much going on in his life I didn't know how to start it or where to go.

My line of thinking went something like this:
* In the original e-mail from Chris I looked at the story and thought I was supposed to write a quick-and-dirty feach. Chris noted the guy sent tapes over to servicemen in the Middle East. First reaction: This story is going to be terrible.
* After talking with John a few minutes, it sounded worse than terrible.
* John had no contact with the airmen since he returned to the States. John didn't even know what service the guy served in during our initial phone conversation. I found out he sent the tapes about two years ago. So I didn't think that was a strong enough theme to carry a story.
* His mother sent us his contact e-mail and, oh by the way, mentioned he had a brain bleed. A BRAIN BLEED?!?!?! I didn't know what that was, so I asked: "Uh John, did you have something called a brain bleed?"
* He had some terrible health problems, but I didn't know what that had to do with the Steelers. He told me some neat little anecdotes about himself and the Steelers, but nothing fit together.
* News Flash: The Steelers didn't nurse him back to health. I really wanted that to happen so I could tie everything together into some nice little run-on sentences. I'm not proud about this fact, but I actually asked his wife if she thought the Steelers playoff run helped him -- at all, er maybe a little. (I had to ask right? And yeah, that was a stupid question. Her reaction let me know, even though she was nice about it.) The Steelers don't perform miracles. Now I know.
* So I'm sitting at my computer. I had nothing. Well I had a bunch of little stories, but nothing really ... WAIT A MINUTE! I had a bunch of little stories, er moments, yeah moments.

I thought using the moments in a quick-hit style might tie everything together. All I needed was a sentence or two at the top to let readers know where we were going.

2. I asked Jim what he wanted to accomplish by adding "for now" to "the story ends" near the end of the piece. The point being that he could have simply written, "the story ends" and moved on.
For now -- When I hung up the phone after interviewing John the first time I knew the story would end with the Super Bowl. It's current. It helps tie everything together. It explains about his improving health and it revolves around the Steelers.

I added "for now" because there was so much more I didn't add. I didn't talk about his first day back on the job. I didn't talk about how he's buying his wife tickets to go to the Hall of Fame ceremonies in Canton, Ohio, because her favorite Steeler is being inducted. It's a thank-you gift for her. I also thought I needed to add "for now" because he's relatively early in the recovery process. He's only completing half days at work. So I was sure there was going to be a lot more going on in his life in the coming weeks. But the big reason I added "for now" is because in the lede I talked about small moments. I sort of went over the top in explaining how the little stuff adds up to a big thing -- your life -- and how that's important. So I can't say the story ends, and the moments end, and the dude ends -- unless the guy dies. The article ends because it catches us up to date with John ... for now.

3. When I read the last line -- He returned to work the next day at FES Systems in Manchester, just another happy Steelers fan happy to survive a close call. -- I thought, that's a really cool way, almost a sideways way, to tie the subject's major health problem to the danger the military Steelers fans face every day. Turns out Jim was going for something else -- and probably better, more directly tied to the events in the story -- but he came up with something that works on several levels.

Close call -- Ha, ha! Totally didn't see that connection. But it does work that way. Wow.
I wanted the phrase to have more than one meaning, but not in terms of soldiers surviving the war. I wanted it to sound like he survived his health concerns. And he -- like other Steelers fans -- "survived" a close game. Over-the-top fans are the type of people who say "we" when talking about Steelers, and I just wanted to illustrate how John was up sweating with the rest of Pittsburgh when the Steelers -- I mean, "we" -- came back and won the game in the final minute.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"Generation Kill"

Under my little brother's direction, I read "Generation Kill," a 2004 book written by Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright, about the 1st Recon Marines who were at the tip of the spear in the 2003 Iraq invasion.

Steve, who enlisted in the Marines last year and is now training in the Marines Special Operations Command, said that the guys in his unit who have served in Iraq thought the book and the HBO miniseries are fairly accurate depictions of their mission.
Wright, who was embedded with the battalion for two months at the start of the war, tells of the confusion and misdirection that came to define their mission and the whole war.
I knew that the book would be disturbing, if for no other reason then I would get a peek into what my brother could be faced with in the coming months. I knew it would only make me angrier about Bush's war, and the complete quagmire it has put us and the Iraqi people in over the past six years. But I'm glad I read it.

Wright doesn't spare us any details about the civilian casualties he witnessed or the adolescent glee at which the Marines ripped apart buildings like they were playing "Grand Theft Auto". But he's careful not to paint them as one-dimensional, souless characters out to play with guns. He spent two months getting to know the unit and the command structure, and developed respect for the individuals and the sacrifices they were making as part of their call to duty. It's heartwarming to get a peak into the brotherhood the men share, and it's a relief to find that they don't follow their commanders blindly and that they question their actions and mourn for the loss of life on both sides.

This is definitely a good read for journalists covering the war and the toll it takes on the men fighting it. Anyone here is welcome to borrow my copy.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Simple writing, complex subject

A body frozen in a block of ice. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)

I might be partial to this story because I have family ties to Detroit, so I'd like to know what you think of it.

I'm a fan of The Detroit News reporter Charlie LeDuff, who left a gig at the NYT. He explained it this way: "I can't write the things I want to say. I want to talk about race, I want to talk about class. I want to talk about the things we should be talking about."

Anyway, back to the story, which is about a human being who was discovered frozen in a block of ice. Usually, I hate when a reporter includes himself in a story. LeDuff pulls it off.

It's a short story, but it sums up what is going on in that city right now on so many levels.

I can't quit thinking about the guy in the ice. Someone mentioned to me that they'd like to see a follow-up on who the dead guy is. I don't think we should know. That's part of why this story is so powerful. I think the point is to make you wonder -- and then feel guilty and sad -- that this guy was left that way.

But if you want to know, there was a follow-up story. And it, too, broke my heart.