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.

Don't make a commitment or anything

Gangrey.com links to this story about nonfiction narrative writer Lawrence Weschler talking about teaching nonfiction narrative at New York University, and saying:

"...it is less a class about reporting methods than it is about the fictional methods that can be applied to nonfictional writing. It presupposes that the writer will try to be fair, but also acknowledges that there is no such thing as objectivity, and revels in that fact. Then we get down to business and talk about all the stuff that’s interesting: form, freedom, irony, voice, tone, structure."

I would propose he could be a bit more rigorous than "It presupposes that the writer will try to be fair."

I'd suggest: "It demands the writer be fair and tell the truth -- not only report things that actually happened and things that were actually said, but portray them in context to tell a true story."


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Things that matter

This isn't a narrative story, but it's an important one. Gina Smith of The State in Columbia, S.C., writes about how she waited for Gov. Mark Sanford at the Atlanta airport. She was the only reporter present when he stepped off a plane from Argentina, where he'd been for four days, while staff members told the public he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

Hours later, Sanford admitted he was having an affair. As Smith writes, "I always will wonder if the story would have broken if I had failed to catch him in the airport."

Yet another example of why we need professional journalists.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Online-only story creates a stir

The Washington Post published this long murder-mystery story online only. Editors say it was simply too long for the paper in these economic times. The writer seems to accept the fact that some longer stories might be for the web because there is unlimited space.

But some subscribers are angry because they pay for the paper and didn't get this piece, while millions could get it for free online.

What do you think? As we pursue longer narrative and investigative pieces, should we consider online-only publication?

Another issue this story raises: Apparently some papers aren't putting their investigative pieces online until a few days after they've run in the Sunday paper -- as a reward for subscribers. What do you think of that?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cool, unorthodox, crazy and frustrating all at once

Conflict-resolution video narrative? Almost ...

Watch as an adrenaline-fueled tornado chaser drives toward a big tornado. I start thinking:

When is he going to stop?

When is he going to stop?

Is he ever going to stop?

Finally, late in the video, comes his moment of realization.*

The video is not set up to be a narrative, and it's a compelling video, but it left me wondering -- wouldn't a little bit of text storytelling have helped here? What was the building? Was there anyone in it? Anyone hurt? Did anything happen to the chaser or his vehicle? Did the tornado go on to level the town or just peter out?

Maybe I'm asking for too much. But seems to me they had a short narrative opportunity here and missed it.

*This comes a few seconds after, at the 44-second mark, the amazingly timely and helpful electronic advice he receives from whatever Onstar-type device he has in the vehicle. Listen closely. It's great.

'Narrative exhaustion'? Huh?

A screenwriter named Paul Schrader writes at length in The Guardian about a concept he calls "narrative exhaustion" -- people are tired of narrative storylines because they've seen them all before.

He thinks an average 30-year-old has seen 35,000 hours of narrative.

"That's a lot of narrative. It's exhausting.

What does it mean? For a storyteller, it means that's it is increasingly difficult to get out in front of a viewer's expectations. Almost every possible subject has not only been covered but covered exhaustively. How many hours of serial killer plot has the average viewer seen? Fifty? A hundred? He's seen the basic plots, the permutations of those plotlines, the imitations of the permutations of those plotlines and the permutations of the imitations. How does a writer capture the imagination of a viewer seeped in serial killer plot? Make it even gorier? Done that. More perverse? Seen that. Serial killer with humour? Been there. As parody? Yawn. The example of the serial killer subgenre is a bit facile, but what's true for serial killer stories is true of all film subjects. Police families? Gay couples? Corrupt politicians? Charming misfits? Yawn, yawn, yawn.

This becomes painfully clear to any writer who attempts to orally tell his story (screenwriting is closer to the oral tradition than it is to literature). You start to tell a story, try to catch the listener's attention, then watch as Ollie Overwhelmed packages your story and places it in a box. He has seen so much storyline that he has the boxes already prepared."

Well, um, yeah. But wouldn't this be better labeled as "originality exhaustion," or maybe "lack of originality exhaustion"? People are wise to cliche stories and are more likely to disengage.

But if the story is original in its characters, action, suspense, conflict, surprises, resolution and/or other elements, the reader (or viewer or listener) goes with you on the trip, even if the basic storyline is recognizable. That's the point. You may not be able to report on a storyline that's never been done before, but that story has things that make it unique. If you can find those things and write about them, you've got something.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Truth beats fiction

You can't make this stuff up. Well, you could, but this actually happened.

Not incidentally, the story benefits from a great cutline (as we know, many people read cutlines first):

In television newscasts, a photo of Kermen Basangova, the supposed murder victim, was juxtaposed with images of the State Polar Academy in St. Petersburg where she worked. There was confusion the next morning when she came to work.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Numbers in a story

During a training session in Baltimore last week, I got the chance to sit in on a few classes with Sarah Cohen, of the Washington Post.

She was fantastic. A key point: It's not cute when reporters say they "don't do" numbers, she said. It would be like saying you "don't do" telephone interviews or e-mail. Reading and understanding numbers is part of a reporter's job, she said.

I will share with you some writing tips she shared on writing with numbers. I bought a book she wrote on the topic. If you are interested in taking a look, please stop by my desk.

Anyway, here's a tip from Cohen:
  • We need to understand the numbers we are using in stories. That means being able to picture them.
Here's an exercise she took us through to help you understand what she means.
Try to picture this: 0.0081
It's the proportion of people who die each year. But that number is hard to picture. Let's make it something useful to readers.
"One out of 120 people die each year."

During her talk, Cohen also stressed the importance of graphics in telling stories with numbers. That's something we've been talking about doing more of at the Daily Record. If you are interested, here's a PDF of my notes from Cohen's training session.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Further thoughts on the redesign, narrative, and data-heavy stories

Brad sent out a thorough, helpful note about our upcoming redesign and what it's intended to accomplish. Some of the language of his note -- particularly about narrative and data-heavy stories -- may have been a little confusing. He and I just talked about this, and we're on the same page, and I wanted to add some (hopefully) clarifying thoughts here.

This line -- 'The problem is that many stories fail when they try to deliver too many numbers, dates or facts in narrative form.' -- is not talking about true narrative; it's referring to more traditional news and feature stories. Narrative, as we know from our work here, is its own thing, with its own set of reporting and writing requirements and skills. It's not something we do a lot of, because it takes time and effort to do it right.

That's not to say that we shouldn't consider even true narrative in alternate forms. (We've pointed out some on this blog over the past couple years -- here, here and here to pick a few). But the focus on alt-story forms is more to re-think our approach to some of the more routine daily stories that we do, the quick turnaround types that are common and thus can be overlooked or passed off as boring by readers.

My second thought also grows out of the same sentence noted above, regarding 'numbers, dates or facts.' We're not talking about banning investigative pieces, or declaring that no one can ever write a budget story again because budget stories have to be in alt-story form.

What Brad is trying to get across is: Let's approach those types of stories to see how they can best be told. If a budget story is better told visually than in 18 inches of text with a breakout, let's do it. If the enterprise piece can benefit from a large graphic that can deliver some of the newsy stuff -- thus potentially giving the reporter a bit of elbow room to write his or her investigative discovery with the needed context and depth -- let's pursue that.

And, actually, this is all stuff that we're already doing. The redesign is an opportunity to reach some new levels of planning, thinking, focusing and executing stories and story elements.

If you want a great example, look at this past Sunday's paper and Teresa's earthquake story.

As Brad noted (in an e-mail to me earlier today), Teresa reported the hell out of that story to provide the content for the graphic as well as the elements (2 short stories -- including one alt-form -- and a breakout). Teresa, Carrie and Brad took what could have been a traditional 60-inch enterprise piece and created an informative work of art on the front page. That was the approach to the story from the beginning.

In that case, that approach really worked. In another, the choice might be different. The key is to keep applying this kind of thinking into our work -- what's the best way to tell this story? -- as we go forward.