Saturday, April 30, 2011

'Beautiful story-telling must survive no matter the medium'

From Tim McGuire, journalism professor at Arizona State, in a speech to high school graduates, in which he details what moved him when he read an Arizona Republic story on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her recovery from a gunshot wound:

Great story-telling always has a grand story arc. Sometimes, it’s jealousy. Sometimes it’s hate. For me, there were two grand story arcs in the Giffords and Kelly stories–love and perseverance.
A great tale well-told is like a homily, full of meaning and lessons.
Please notice I have not mentioned the words newspaper, computer, book or magazine in this discussion of what makes great story-telling.
Beautiful story-telling must survive no matter the medium.


Friday, April 29, 2011

Writing about the intersection of one person and a big issue

Excellent interview on Nieman Storyboard with the Washington Post's Eli Saslow, who discusses how he writes about "people who are otherwise not known, but they're intersecting with something at an important moment." For example, his piece on what the federal budget debate meant to a family in Wisconsin.

He also talks about self-editing, working with an editor, story ideas, reporting, and keeping himself out of the story.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Dialogue of the day

The gang is sitting down to dinner, and Andy, swooning over the spread, says something like, "Now Aint Bee, those mashed potatoes are something no artist could paint a picture of."
Aunt Bee: "Oh, flibbertigibbet."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Knowing the way to the end

Freaking cool story by Ben Montgomery of the St. Petersburg Times on a diver who went missing in a deep and dangerous cave, the people who looked for him, and what happened ... and what didn't happen.

The ending knocked my socks off, and it made me think of two things:

One, he didn't suddenly discover that ending as he wrote the last few grafs of the story.

Two, he didn't just tack on the ending when he felt like he was about near the end of the story.

I'm betting he knew where he was going from the start, and wrote with that destination in mind the whole way. And that's why it's such a great ending -- it's a nifty line or three, to be sure, but its power derives from everything that comes before it, everything that he reported, how he prepared/organized the story, and every choice he made as he wrote it.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Stories, direct to you , which allows you to 'bookmark' long-form stories to read later via Instapaper or Read It Later, now has another deal: Send Me a Story. You give them your e-mail, they send you a nonfiction story every Saturday morning (plus one right away when you sign up).

I got "Can You Say ... Hero?/a profile of Mr. Rogers" by Tom Junod from Esquire in 1998.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

For those who like a little long-form storytelling

If you "like" The New Yorker on Facebook this week, you get access to a Jonathan Franzen story that would normally be behind a paywall. (Disclaimer: the mag's FB page won't take you to the story on a secure internet connection and asks you to go there on an unsecure connection. When I click "continue," the page just sits there ... so I haven't actually gotten to the story yet.)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Find stories by paying attention ... then acting

I absolutely love this advice from Walt Bogdanich, investigations editor for biz/finance for the New York Times, who's won three Pulitzers. He told a group at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (this via a blog post from Talking Biz News) that you should be alert for when a source says something unexpected or note when you see something that seems out of place. There might be a story there.

An excerpt from the blog post: "Bogdanich doesn't decide to find a story within a subject, and he doesn't try to find a story in a massive database. He acts when he's inspired, and loves to look into what nobody else is ..."

My thought is, we do our share of "let's do a big story about (topic)" or "let's get this database and do a project on it." Setting out to do a story on a topic can be deadly because there is no true focus. You may be able to have more success extracting a story out of a database. But the best stories rise out of a reporter hearing or seeing something and asking, "Why is it that way?"

More from Bogdanich at the blog post itself.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Conversations with your muse

One Melissa Nann Burke let me know about RadioLab, a fantastic NPR program that takes a look at the human side of science through very "This American Life"-esque kinds of stories. If you don't listen to it already, it's really interesting and not so sciencey that the un-sciencey among us won't appreciate it.

So, I've been catching up with RadioLab podcasts the past couple weeks so that I have some grown-up voices in the house periodically (otherwise it's just cooing, crying, meowing and barking).

One of their recent episodes "Help!" had a segment called "Me, Myself, and Muse" in which two writers, Oliver Sacks and Elizabeth Gilbert of "Eat, Pray, Love" fame talk about the bargains they make with themselves and their muses when they're writing (or not writing).

I loved that one of the producers described taking care of your muse or creative spirit as petting a golden retriever. Such a great image and I think pretty true in some cases. The segment might be a little metaphysical for us practical-minded journalists, but hopefully you can glean something useful or relatable from it.

Photo courtesy of Kymmie_xox on Stock.X.chng

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Spot news as narrative

We've talked a lot about this over time, but it's worth mentioning again: Spot news doesn't always have to be written in traditional news-story format. A narrative can work as well or, in some cases, better.

The key, of course, is thinking about doing narrative before you get to the scene, so you can do the reporting (including both observation and interviews) that will allow you to write a tight narrative. If you only have a few details and a broad or loose chronology, it's probably not going to work.

 I thought of this after reading a piece by Lauren Fitzpatrick, who did work for us as a Medill correspondent several years ago, in the Southtown Star in Chicago, about rescuers pulling a woman from her car that was submerged in a pond. Things to note:
  • The line that cranks up the tension -- "Then the passer-by calling 911 said the words that set him off: The car is underwater."
  • An observed detail about the cop's injury: "The 33-year-old ran to his own car and tore over to the corner where the Rupari Food Services plant sits, he told reporters late Friday afternoon, shivering in a light jacket, his left hand clinging to his bandaged right one."
  • Action verbs: "Frausto ignored the chilly drizzle. He shucked his coat and his shoes. He stripped off his clothes and threw away his gun. Frausto grabbed a baton, and in briefs and an undershirt, he dove into the water."
Ted Czech often writes a narrative out of spot news, including recently about a man who went into a burning home and helped an elderly lady escape. To note from Ted's piece:
  • He uses a question as the engine to push the story forward: "Sipe often wondered what he would do if there ever were a real fire at the home. Would he get scared and run, or would he stay and help, possibly risking his own safety?"
  • Dialogue, reported from his interview with the man, helps capture the feel of what happened: "Ma'am, are you in here?" he called. "You've got to come out of there. You can't stay in there." He heard her say something but couldn't make out the words. Then he saw her. She stood in front of him, motionless. "My pets, my pets," she said. "I got to get my pets."

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Instant story: The plane with a hole in it

Several passengers documented the Southwest Airlines flight's emergency landing after its fuselage ripped open. @BluestMuse on Twitter, in particular, had a series of compelling posts that really help tell the story.

Friday, April 1, 2011

One little sentence that does a good deal of work

On its face, there's little remarkable about this sentence in today's local sidebar, by Frank Bodani and Jim Seip, to the story on allegations involving former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky:

"Mostly, the shocked responses went on and on, interview after interview -- from former players to those in the York community who got to know Sandusky through public appearances here."
But that sentence does a lot of work, even coming fairly late in the story as it does. Perhaps because it comes fairly late in the story. If you've read up to that sentence, you've heard from three people talking about Sandusky.

The reporters want to tell you that those three represent a lot more. They could have simply said that -- 'Those three were among many people who praised Sandusky on Thursday.' But in writing it the way they did, with the double-double of "on and on, interview after interview," they gave readers a sense of the waves of sentiment coming from Sandusky supporters, and also offered readers a bit of an insider's glimpse inside the reporting process -- I'm making all these calls, and everything I'm hearing is supporting Sandusky. 

So in addition to delivering information, they're bringing the reader closer to the process and thus to the story itself. I thought that was cool.