Saturday, March 27, 2010

Vote on this cliche-with-a-twist

If you put a new twist on a cliche, is it still a cliche, or a fresh piece of writing? Here are the first two grafs from a story in today's New York Times:

"They were deaf, but they were not silent. For decades, a group of men who were sexually abused as children by the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy at a school for the deaf in Wisconsin reported to every type of official they could think of that he was a danger, according to the victims and church documents.

"They told other priests. They told three archbishops of Milwaukee. They told two police departments and the district attorney. They used sign language, written affidavits and graphic gestures to show what exactly Father Murphy had done to them. But their reports fell on the deaf ears of hearing people."

Like it? Don't like it? Why/why not?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Mark your calender

Two of my favorite sources of in-depth journalism Frontline and NPR's Planet Money are teaming up to do a documentary on how Haiti's economy has functioned since an earthquake destroyed much of the nation's infrastructure. It airs March 30.

Planet Money, which does two podcasts a week, has done been covering Haiti pretty intensely since the quake. They've done a great job explaining why a number of "solutions" to Haiti's problems before the quake didn't work, and what life's like there now.

After watching the five-minute preview, I expect more of the same.

If you're not familiar with Planet Money, they do an amazing job of explaining complex economic ideas in simple English. NYU's journalism institute included their "Giant Pool of Money" collaboration with This American Life on its list of 80 best works of journalism of the last decade. Done in May 2008, it explained why the housing market was falling apart while Lehman was still a bank.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Back to basics

This from playwright-and-more David Mamet, via Movieline, via a link on Gangrey:

It's Mamet's, let's say, directive a few years back to the writers of the TV show "The Unit," in which he reminds them, not subtly, what they must do as dramatic writers.

As we've discussed here before, fiction techniques work in nonfiction narratives. So there's a lot to take from this. For example (it is, in fact, written in all caps):




I also love the fact that he used the word "typewriter" in this piece.*

*And also the word "dickhead" several times, which I use here in small type because this is, after all, a family blog.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Best of the decade

In case you hadn't seen or weren't aware, the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University has a list of the 80 best works of journalism in the U.S. this decade. They are the nominees that will be culled to a top 10.

There are print stories, books, radio stories, visual stories, and so on. Click on the title and it gives you a description and a link. It's really interesting, especially to go back and see what you may have missed -- like a "60 Minutes" report in 2000 about Pakistan's instability and Islamic militants that ended up being "prophetic," in the judge's words, when applied to Afghanistan.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Capturing history ... all of it

You could make an argument that as historical as the health-care bill itself is, the debate, both in and out of Congress, was just as historical. The Washington Post's Dana Milbank does a great job in this story weaving both scenes together during the final hours before the vote.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Beautiful flowers and hard lives

My father-in-law, Jim Johnson of Verona, Mo., is a great storyteller. Mind you, I would have married his daughter regardless. But knowing Jim -- especially walking in the woods or across a field or up a mountainside with him -- is something I've treasured for more than 25 years.

This essay he wrote is one reason why. He e-mailed it to me this morning with the instructions "use it, don't or giggle and pitch it." Well, I'm using it. Enjoy:

I always have twinges of sadness around this time of year.
Everyone is jubilant about the advent of spring and advocating walks in the woods.
I was an avid turkey hunter for many years until the sport became so oversold that you were taking your life in your hands to attempt it. There are way too many poorly prepared, educated and motivated "hunters" that treat the sport as a contest, not between man and animal but between man and man. But I digress.
The sadness comes from strolling through the woodlands of the Midwest and finding beautiful patches of jonquils, iris and tiger lilies.
Most folks don't stop to think of the origin of these spots of beauty.
They are all the result of some, generally, young woman with high hopes for the future bringing what little beauty she could afford to brighten the area around the homestead that her husband has founded. Many of these dreamers could only take "starts" from her Mother's yard elsewhere. In many case her Mother was many miles away and the dreamer was alone trying to do the best she could in a hostile environment. Not hostile in the form of angry Indians or savage beasts but in the form of day to day, week to week and year to year drudgery in an attempt to carve a home, alongside her husband, for her family.
As seen by the numbers of the failed farms marked with beautiful flowers, most of them were unsuccessful.
I used to stand in the midst of this spring beauty and estimate the distance she would have had to go, probably on foot because horses were a luxury, to simply find the company of another woman. I could seem to feel the desperation of a young woman, forced by circumstance, giving birth in the never ending attempt at producing another farm hand to help the family survive. One such house place had an enclosed area not ten feet square bounded by field rocks that contained seven little flat stones driven into the ground. No names or dates because tools to do such luxuries were uncommon. Seven failed attempts to expand herself and her husband into a family. A family that was doomed to disappear because it could not survive with only one worker outside of the home.
My only consolation is that here are towns, now only minutes away but at the time hours or days away, that grew steadily during that period of time. I hope that many of these young women from the failed homesteads were able to attain some comfort, dignity and stability by moving to such towns. Even if such moves followed years of desperate drudgery.
I have frequently dug some of the flowers and taken them to my home so that the young women's efforts might live on in a place where their beauty could be appreciated.
The next time you are in a wooded or "wilderness" area and see a small grouping of domestic perennials that are in bloom think about the hopes and dreams of a young woman that they represent. If it's in an area where is allowed, take a "start" home in honor of her efforts.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Maybe a new form of narrative ...

... could be the investigative-slideshow-narrative.

Sue J. pointed this out -- it's from's Bill Dedman, who is a major public records/investigative reporting kind of guy, who, instead of writing what would've had to have been a longish narrative, turned it into a slideshow and wrote the story in the form of long cutlines.

In a talk with Poynter, Dedman said he set out to answer the question, "Why are the mansions of one of America's richest women sitting vacant?" William Andrews Clark (pictured at right), amassed a fortune in money and property and left it to his family when he died. The only surviving direct descendant is a daughter -- the woman Dedman refers to in his question above.

I think the slideshow/narrative idea might lose a little in terms of transitions, and thus cohesiveness, but I think what Dedman did works and has a lot going for it as a narrative form. Obviously it would be better suited to some stories rather than others. Anyone have an idea for a story using this form?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Telling the bigger story within the smaller one

Canada's Olympic hockey team won the gold medal in one hell of a game against the U.S. last month.

But there was much more to what happened between the time the first puck dropped and Sidney Crosby's game-winning goal in overtime.

This story, forwarded by a friend of mine, captures that. It shows you what happened in the game itself, but never leaves the bigger story. As a result, your understanding of what happened and what it really meant is much deeper than if the writer hadn't known about the bigger story and hadn't told it as well as he does.

Associated Press photo.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

No 'newsspeak' allowed

A radio station owner recently banned a list 119 of words.

They are mostly jargon, something we all try to avoid in our writing. It can be hard to keep that stuff out. I imagine it's an even harder habit to break for radio hosts.

The news director explained in his memo:

“The real goal here is to avoid using words that make you sound like you’re reading, instead of talking — that shatter the image you’re speaking knowledgeably to one person. By not using ‘newsspeak,’ you enhance your reputation as a communicator.”

In good fun, the folks at NPR put together a sentence using all 119.

I'm not sure that banning words is a good thing, but I see the point attempting to stop using words stuff like "close proximity" and "senseless murder." What's your most-hated phrase or word that you hear in the news?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Esquire's best ever

A while back I'd looked for this but couldn't find it on the Esquire site for some reason. But someone at did, and thanks to them, here it is: The 7 Greatest Stories in the History of Esquire Magazine.


Thursday, March 4, 2010

Do you see what you're writing about?

At first glance this site might seem photography-hostile -- after all, it's called Unphotographable. And each entry begins, "This is a picture I did not take of ..."

But it's produced by a guy who describes himself as a photographer and writer. What he's doing, he says, is recording what he sees when he doesn't have his camera, wishes he'd taken a shot, or "had been brave enough to click the shutter."

And what he comes up with is an exercise in attention to detail and descriptive writing -- something well worth focusing on as you're out in the field. His entries are short, vivid passages on what he's looking at. Like a picture in words. It's pretty cool.

Birthday wish

This blog is three years old today. Kind of cool. Happy birthday, blog. And thanks to all of you who have read stuff, posted stuff and commented on stuff.