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.