Thursday, September 29, 2011

'Encounters' in the St. Petersburg Times

Today after Jan Winburn's webinar on profiles via, Leigh asked if profiles might be found in everyday things that strike a reporter's interest -- such as a man she's met a couple times who was passing out fliers to local events.

Yes, was the consensus, as long as there's a story there -- something that has a promise, as Jan put it, or a reason for someone to keep reading.

That made me think that the St. Petersburg Times has an occasional feature that various writers produce, but I couldn't think of the name. Well, it's called 'Encounters' and described like this:

Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of it. To comment or suggest an idea for a story, contact editor Mike Wilson ...

Here's a recent example of one. And you can find several more here. Happy reading. Let me know what you think. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Two great stories. One's a little better. Why?

I had this Twitter conversation yesterday and thought I'd share because in just three tweets, Andrea Pitzer of Harvard University's Nieman Foundation really got me thinking about the differences between these two fantastic stories by Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post.

One is "The Peekaboo Paradox," about a children's entertainer with a secret. Pitzer called it the best story he's written. And, she wrote, Weingarten agreed it was his best. That immediately made me think of "Fatal Distraction," Weingarten's haunting story about parents who forget their children in the backseat of locked cars on hot days. I wondered why Pitzer and Weingarten thought Zucchini was better than 'Distraction,' and she broke it down. Here's the conversation (and the point of this post is mostly in our mutual agreement at the end -- if you have not read each of these stories, you must).

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Thoughts on 'Carrying Darisabel,' an Emmy award and a journalist's choice

We got news last night that YDR visual journalist Jason Plotkin won a regional Emmy award for his documentary "Carrying Darisabel." A 2-year-old girl had been viciously beaten, and Jason told the story of the people who tried to save her life, and how Darisabel's death haunted them.

It's a huge moment for Jason and for the YDR: As his editor, Brad Jennings, noted, it's the first time a newspaper organization has won a mid-Atlantic Emmy, as the competition is made up mainly of television news organizations. Historically, newspapers take still shots and TV gives you video. Not anymore.

The Emmy award is fantastic news. I was privileged to see Jason at work on this film from beginning to end, to see the daily devotion. He believed in the story so strongly he practically willed it into existence. His focus never faded or frayed, and yet, where some journalists by their nature would have resisted too many voices offering their best advice, Jason invited people in. He listened, and, through a combination of skill and personality, took the best of what others had to offer and still kept the film true to his vision.

I've been a reporter and editor for 25 years. I've never seen anything like it.

But it is odd to celebrate a "victory" in the Emmys because -- and I know Jason believes this too -- this film should never have existed. Darisabel should still be here. There should have been nothing to make a film about.

And that is where a journalist stands at a crossroads.

Do you turn away from something so painful to a family and to a community, so fraught with damage, so incomprehensible to so many? Do you decide we're all better off if we don't look for too long at what happened here? Do you pull up short because, to do the story, you will be seen as taking advantage of a tragedy?

Or do you tell the story and draw your community in? Insist that they look? Embrace others' pain as part of the storytelling? Understand that some will see you as an opportunist, and do it anyway?

 For a journalist like Jason, there really is no choice. You tell the story. You tell it because you know it's real. Darisabel died. Her family was devastated. The people who tried to save her life have holes inside. Yet they go on. When they tell their story, we come closer to knowing how -- and maybe we walk away a little bit better equipped to make our way in this world, to understand what's going on around us, and to decide what, if anything, we would like to do about it.

Watch and listen. It will hurt. But you will see both darkness and light.

Friday, September 16, 2011

YDR writing challenge: Write trite (for a reason); win a gift card

Buffy's post on her blog about getting rid of trite expressions in your writing got me thinking: What if we challenged YDR staffers to see who could write the most cliche-filled passage, with the winner being the "worst" of the bunch?

So, yeah, we're doing it. A friend of mine, a creative writer and career journalist whom none of you know, will judge it. (Thus I won't be entering). 

Your assignment: Write the first three paragraphs (150-word limit) of a main day-after-flooding news story, using the photo below as your inspiration/reference. Although this is a real picture, your entries do not need to be completely nonfiction. However, do write something that could be printed in the next day's paper as the main news story; in other words, don't write opinion or something silly, and be courteous to the gentleman in the photo.

 For example, if I was allowed to enter, you know how I love ad-campaign-based newswriting, so my entry might be something like, "Waders: $75. Waste-deep water: Free, from Mother Nature. Beer and dog food to ride out the flood: Priceless." And so on.

How to enter: E-mail me your submissions. One entry per person, please.

Deadline: 5 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23

Open to: Anyone in the YDR newsroom. (If any YDR alums or anyone else reading this want to participate, leave your passages in the comments, but only YDR staffers are eligible to win the gift card).

Prize: $25 Rutter's gift card.

Why are we doing this? Because by intentionally writing cliche-filled passages, we can become better self-editors by recognizing when those cliches are creeping in to our own stories ... and we can rub them out and replace them with fresh phrasing.

For your reading (and perhaps research) pleasure, here is more from this blog on cliches. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

When fiction isn't fiction

If writers stopped writing about what happened to them, then there would be a lot of empty pages." -- Elaine Liner

I wanted to share this post from my writing blog (Buffy's Write Zone) because many of you know the true story from which this was taken. In my novel, Tom works in the ER. 

Here's a scene from WIP that came from "real" life:

Joe told me that the paramedics brought a toddler into the ER who had been bludgeoned to death by her mother’s boyfriend. He had whipped her repeatedly with a video game controller and she had so many bruises on her tiny body that the doctors couldn’t find a patch of white skin anywhere. He beat her because she had a dirty diaper. She was two.

The neighbors heard the toddler screaming for her mother. She was in the next room stuffing her face with potato chips and watching the soaps. The screamin' got so bad that the neighbors called the cops. But it was too late. Katie was dead.

Great take on an unusual folo story

Don't know if any of you read the Washington Post's story about a rookie F-16 pilot who was one of a couple pilots scrambled on Sept. 11, 2001 with orders to crash their unarmed fighter planes into Flight 93.

Turns out that she didn't mention one huge part of the story to the reporter: That her father was a United Airlines pilot who flew 757s from the East Coast -- meaning he could have been the pilot on Flight 93. I thought the Post handled that "holy cow" folo story with just the right touch.

Reporters reading this, you have to click on the story to see how the Post found out that piece of information. Tell me you haven't been there in one way, shape or form.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Upcoming NewsU webinar: Writing successful profiles

Those of you who know me well probably know that I look at Jan Winburn, the presenter in the next NewsU writing webinar (2 p.m. Sept. 29 in the newsroom conference room), as one of the all-time great editors. What you might not know is that Jan was, in part, the inspiration behind the YDR's "Year of Storytelling" in 2007, which gave life to this blog, among many other efforts in our newsroom.

In late 2006, I went to an Investigative Editors & Reporters seminar in Atlanta. I remembered that Jan,  formerly of the Baltimore Sun, was then at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Wouldn't it be awesome to talk writing with Jan Winburn? I thought. So I e-mailed her and asked if she had any time. Sure, she responded. And we set up lunch.

At lunch we talked about a lot of stuff: narrative, character, ethics, the post-Katrina series "Through Hell and High Water" about two New Orleans hospitals in the days after the storm. Needless to say, it was a blast.

I didn't have a notebook with me, but after lunch, I got in my car and wrote down things we talked about or tips that I remembered. Among them:

  • character (development) is most important in narrative. people disliked a woman dying of cancer in one story, Jan said, and so the series did not go over well.
  • what she reads -- New Yorker, New York Times (for economical storytelling), writers on their craft
  • Jan said she prefers immersion narratives over reconstructive, but advised that in reconstructive narratives she would italicize quotes the way the person said they remembered them.
  • she wanted to broaden the definition of investigative reporting to be more inclusive -- she was/is shooting for investigative narrative
  • and, when I asked her how to keep up the momentum, she said, "Writers just want to succeed."

I don't know if I was specifically looking for a way to kick-start some writing energy in the newsroom (and in myself). But on the drive back from Atlanta, I started thinking about what we could do to really focus on narrative writing.

By the time I returned to the office, I had some ideas. I went to lunch with Buffy and bounced them off her, and she was all for it. We got started planning and pitched the idea around the newsroom. In January, we brought in Lon Wagner and Diane Tennant from the Virginian-Pilot, and that kicked off the "Year of Storytelling."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A personal Sept. 11, 2011 story

I was driving on I-81 today, the young lad and I headed to Hawk Mountain, and I had MSNBC's anniversary coverage on satellite radio.

They cut to the New York ceremony and a man's deep voice said he was Jimmy Smith, the husband of Moira Smith, a New York police officer. Wow, I thought; I had just edited Bill Landauer's story of three York County people whose lives had changed after 9/11 -- and one of them was Moira Smith's cousin.

Jimmy finished talking. Then a young girl's voice: "Mom, I will always be proud to be your daughter ..." Oh my God, I thought, here is Moira Smith's daughter, who, by the sound of her voice, couldn't have been more than a toddler 10 years ago.

She stopped talking. There was a brief pause. And then I heard the first few notes of a forlorn but ultimately hopeful song, a child's lullaby that doubles as a farewell song: James Taylor's "You Can Close Your Eyes."

So close your eyes
You can close your eyes, it's all right
 I don't know no love songs, and I can't sing the blues anymore
 But I can sing this song
 And you can sing this song when I'm gone 

I've internalized that song over decades, and at that moment it hit me square. I drove the next couple miles with welling tears. Not for America or its institutions or our way of life, but for the people in the towers, the people in the planes, the people in the Pentagon, and the people who loved them. It is, to me, less a national day of mourning than a personal one.

Friday, September 2, 2011

If you read just one thing about Sept. 11 as the 10th anniversary approaches ...

 I just sent this link to a writer who hadn't read it, and, with the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 coming up, I figured I would post it here.

 It's Tom Junod's story in Esquire, "The Falling Man," in which Junod reports to find out who the man is in an iconic picture from Sept. 11 -- a man who jumped, or is falling, from one of the World Trade Center towers.

 The story, as you'll see, ends up being about so much more than identifying the man in the picture.

 I wouldn't be so bold as to say it is the only thing you ought to read as the anniversary approaches, but if it is the only thing you read, it will stand for everything else about that day.