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.