Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Costumed crusaders save the day! (Seriously)

Must read: Jeff Frantz's piece on two guys who dress up in superhero costumes, call themselves the Keystone Crusaders and go around Harrisburg -- a city more or less in freefall -- cleaning graffiti and dog crap, giving water to the homeless, helping out people who need help and doing whatever else urban despair-fighters might do.

A snippet:

They begin — as they have at least twice a week since March — in the Market Street tunnel. 
“Good Morning!” they bellow, warming up their superhero voices to the office workers walking west, and the residents heading east. 
How can anyone, Commonwealth asks, feel good about their city if their first sight of it is this cavern of filth? 
The battle is joined, and Commonwealth’s three utility belts/fanny packs, come open. 
A hand-held vacuum for cigarette butts. “L.A.’s Totally Awesome,” the Dollar Store industrial cleaner they don’t bother diluting. Spray paint bought on clearance. Their real superpower is bargain hunting. 
When danger arises, they reach for the original crime fighting tools. Broken glass is no match for Kevlar-lined gloves! No clogged gutter can withstand a steel baton! 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Joplin tornado: Two days in Joplin, and the inspirational work being done there

 One day two weeks ago, I took the exit ramp off I-44 and headed into Joplin, Mo., wondering when I'd see tornado damage on my way to the Joplin Globe's newsroom.

 A couple of minutes later, I was in it. For block after block after block.

 An EF5 tornado churned through the city May 22. It was three-quarters of a mile wide -- wide enough to have an eye, the Globe reported. It gouged a path several miles long. It destroyed one-third of the city, the paper said. It killed more than 150 people.

 It also made that city's newspaper indispensable. Joplin residents are looking to their newspaper/website to tell them more about what happened and how, to read about what's happening next, and to connect them with volunteers and donations that are pouring in to the city. The Globe is covering all of that and more. Metro editor Andy Ostmeyer told me that circulation (normally about 30,500) has gone up by several thousand since the tornado.

  I thought about how hard those journalists would be working now -- a small staff with the added stress, of course, that some lost their homes or cars in the tornado. A former newsroom staffer died. I had read that journalists from around the country had sent care boxes or other signs of support to the staff, and that a few had volunteered to help in the newsroom.

 In early June, I e-mailed editor Carol Stark and told her that my family and I would be visiting relatives in Verona, Mo., about an hour from Joplin, and if she thought I could be of use, I could put in a couple of shifts doing whatever she needed, if just to show support. I told her I felt connected in two ways: our newsroom had worked through stressful times, too (though nothing like what happened there in May); and my wife's family had lived in Pierce City, Mo. when a tornado destroyed pretty much the whole tiny town in 2003.

 She graciously welcomed me two weeks ago Tuesday and introduced me to Andy, who introduced me to Emily Younker, a young reporter who was working on a story about how 16 people in a skilled nursing home died, and whether anything could have been done to prevent it. Here is a mind-boggling before/after picture of the nursing home and the church and school across the street. (I took several photos there; see below.)

Emily, who had interviews set up with people who had been in the home and with other key sources, needed someone to call industry experts/other experts to get their take. She also had several PDFs' worth of state nursing home inspection reports that she hadn't had time to mine for anything that could be related to the building, staff training, emergency planning and so on.

 So that's what I did (along with offering a few editing thoughts at the back end). She took a lot of info and distilled it into a fine story.

 In my two days in the newsroom, I was struck by the vibe. As an outsider, I couldn't have guessed what they'd just been through and are still going through. That's what I love about committed journalists: They understand what their community needs, and they simply put their heads down and do their jobs.

 I heard Emily patiently working to get sourcing, as well as giving a veteran editor his assignments. I heard Andy making calls to help push the reporting. I heard reporter Josh Letner interviewing for a fascinating story about a homeless camp that sprung up after the tornado. At lunch I met Wally Kennedy, introduced by Andy as someone who's done pretty much everything at the paper, and learned how he's diving into tornado history in the region.

 I heard and saw a newsroom at work at a most critical time. What a privilege to be part of it for just a little while.

                                          Scrap metal seekers are out.
                                          St. Mary's Church.
                                      View looking west from the hill leading to St. Mary's.
                                          Lampost in front of St. Mary's Parish Center.
            The empty, cleaned-up lot is where Greenbriar nursing home used to be.
                           Books and part of a classroom from St. Mary's Elementary.
Looking northeast from W. 25th St., in front of St. Mary's Church.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Verbs do ... pretty much everything

 Thanks to the 10-12 people in the room today for Jacqui Banaszynski's webinar on verbs, via newsu.org. She covered so much ground about what verbs can do in your writing that she buzzed through some of her 10 verb tools too fast for us to take notes. Fortunately, the webinar replay is already up at the link above.

The 75-minute webinar was full of great stuff; if you don't have time to watch the whole thing, scroll to the part where Jacqui starts going through the 10 tools. She ends with a way you can vet your own copy for verb use -- print it out and highlight each verb/verb form in your story; see the patterns; revise as necessary. (There's much more to it -- scroll to about the one hour, 10-minute mark of the webinar and hit 'play.')

The group talked a bit after the webinar. Couple thoughts from me (and anyone who was there, please add your thoughts in comments):

  •  I was really interested in Jacqui saying that verbs can "bend time" -- you can change tense and tone to accomplish time changes in a story without losing clarity, as she put it. I need to go back into the webinar to focus on this part. I suspect some of you/us do that without realizing it, but if you don't realize you're doing it, you're probably not using it to its maximum advantage. 
  • I was struck by several examples she used that showed a paragraph crammed with action verbs -- so that, physically, there is a lot of activity in the graf -- followed by, or ended by, a line with a more "quiet" verb or verb form. The effect was almost physical for me -- a flurry of action and then a soft settling down of the language, of the story. Again, that is something worth learning how to do, learning to master.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Killer lines (Philip Roth)

"At dinner -- outdoors, on the back terrace, with darkness coming on so gradually that the evening seemed to the Swede stalled, stopped, suspended, provoking in him a distressing sense of nothing more to follow, or nothing ever to happen again, of having entered a coffin carved out of time from which he would never be extricated -- there were also the Umanoffs, Marcia and Barry, and the Salzmans, Sheila and Shelly. Only a few hours had passed since the Swede learned that it was Sheila Salzman, the speech therapist, who had hidden Merry after the bombing. The Salzmans had not told him. And if they only had -- called when she showed up there, done their duty to him then ... He could not complete the thought. If he were to contemplate head-on all that would not have happened had Merry never been permitted to become a fugitive from justice ... Couldn't complete that thought either. He sat at dinner, eternally inert -- immobilized, ineffectual, inert, estranged from those expansive blessings of openness and vigor conferred on him by his hyperoptimism. A lifetime's agility as a businessman, as an athlete, as a U.S. Marine, had in no way conditioned him for being a captive confined to a futureless box where he was not to think about what had become of his daughter, was not to think about how the Salzmans had assisted her, was not to think about ... about what had become of his wife. He was supposed to get through dinner not thinking about the only things he could think about. He was supposed to do this forever. However much he might crave to get out, he was to remain stopped dead in the moment in that box. Otherwise the world would explode."
--Philip Roth, "American Pastoral"

Monday, July 4, 2011

Joplin, Mo. tornado: First the video, then the narrative

Two storm chasers shot incredible video of the tornado that destroyed a chunk of Joplin, Mo. in May.

Then the Joplin Globe's Carole Liston reported the story behind that video and produced this compelling piece about how the storm chasers helped alert officials about what was happening, documented the tornado, and then helped people after the devastation.

The story published less than two weeks after the tornado.

Saturday, July 2, 2011