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March 29 2013

14:24

Inside “Snow Fall,” the New York Times multimedia storytelling sensation

Snow Fall,” the widely celebrated New York Times multimedia narrative on a deadly avalanche in Washington State, won a Peabody this week for being “a spectacular example of the potential of digital-age storytelling.” The project packaged a six-part story by Pulitzer finalist John Branch, accompanied by interactive graphics, video and character bios of the expert skiers and snowboarders caught in the danger. It also marked the Times’ foray into the e-publishing of long-form singles.

“Snow Fall” opens with an otherworldly video loop of snow blowing across a mountain slope—functioning as a photo that moves—and Branch’s action-oriented lede:

UnknownThe snow burst through the trees with no warning but a last-second whoosh of sound, a two-story wall of white and Chris Rudolph’s piercing cry: “Avalanche! Elyse!”

The very thing the 16 skiers and snowboarders had sought — fresh, soft snow — instantly became the enemy. Somewhere above, a pristine meadow cracked in the shape of a lightning bolt, slicing a slab nearly 200 feet across and 3 feet deep. Gravity did the rest.

Snow shattered and spilled down the slope. Within seconds, the avalanche was the size of more than a thousand cars barreling down the mountain and weighed millions of pounds. Moving about 7o miles per hour, it crashed through the sturdy old-growth trees, snapping their limbs and shredding bark from their trunks.

The avalanche, in Washington’s Cascades in February, slid past some trees and rocks, like ocean swells around a ship’s prow. Others it captured and added to its violent load.

Somewhere inside, it also carried people. How many, no one knew.

This week, Branch walked an audience through the project—conception to clicks—at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. (For the thread, search #SnowFallUGA on Twitter.) Click through for Storyboard’s Storified version of Branch’s talk about the reporting, organization, buildout, intention and editing behind one of the most ambitious storytelling projects in Times history:

Screen shot 2013-03-27 at 12.48.09 PM

August 10 2012

14:56

Viewfinder: Video journalism that works

Whenever I go out on an assignment I get a few of the same questions from onlookers who see me with my tripod and my reasonably large video camera: “What channel are you from?” or “When will this air?” But my favorite, and the one I get most often after I explain that the video won’t be on TV and that I work not for a channel but for a newspaper website is, “How are they going to get a video into my newspaper?” It’s an old joke by now. Video has graced the websites and mobile offerings of traditionally text-based outlets for nearly a decade.

Video or film storytelling is more than a century old, and print storytelling has a couple of millennia under its belt, but the last few years have brought the two together in exciting and evolving ways, particularly for journalism. Outlets like The Atavist and The Daily, and many newspaper and magazines’ mobile applications, make it possible to seamlessly pogo between a print narrative and snippets of video or a short documentary production. The form is in its infancy but loaded with possibility.

As any writer who has had to wait for a video journalist to get some b-roll knows – and as any video journalist who has wished she could avoid wading through a traditional print reporter’s interviewing knows – collaboration is a dance. For this, the first installment of Viewfinder, an occasional column on video journalism, I talked to a few friends and colleagues about the pleasures and pains of building video and print packages. It’s a common conversation, one I’ve had over lunch at work and on long car rides with fellow print reporters. It’s fair to say that most agree the product is a richer audience experience, but how we get there is still being worked out. I hope this column will be a place to parse this and other aspects of the burgeoning craft of web and mobile-based nonfiction video reporting.

Let’s start with what works. I’ve seen terrific packages, many of them big blowouts like the L.A. Times’ series about the effects of the recession, or the Detroit Free Press’ Motown retrospective. The Seattle Times did a laudable job with its in-depth look at the removal of two dams on the Elwha River.

How you make all the parts work together is no small challenge. I talked with my New York Times colleague Shayla Harris, who spent a good four months laboring, along with the photographer Marcus Yam and the reporter John Branch, to weave text, video and photos together to tell the story of the life and death of professional hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard. Ten or 15 years ago, the story would have been a terrific package at a paper – exhaustive reporting, stellar photography, maybe some good graphics. A few weeks or months later, a TV station or an independent documentary filmmaker might start in on a video/film project. Harris, who started at NBC News as an assistant/associate producer, confirmed as much: “A lot of our stories would basically be ripped from the pages of the New York Times. So, right now, we’re basically the in-house version of that. Unfortunately, when you’re working alongside a reporter you don’t get the benefit of having a finished story in front of you to work from.”

Harris also didn’t have much footage to work with, but when the team approached the Boogaard family about telling Derek’s story, the “floodgates” as she put it, opened up. The family had handwritten diaries, some from Derek’s earliest bouts, plus scrapbooks of newspaper clippings about Derek, family photo albums and perhaps most valuable, eight DVDs of every fight Derek had been in from his time in the Canadian Junior League until he landed in the NHL.

Though Branch relied on the same fight material to flesh out scenes in his print story (and were included in a pop-up version called a “quick-link” for mobile and web audiences) the videos felt distinct and complementary rather than duplicative. Harris explained that she felt like Branch’s story could handle the contextual aspects of the story and that her job would be to create a visceral experience for the viewer. “The thing that video can do, that words sometimes can’t, is … evoke a mood or feeling on a multisensory level,” she said. “Just hearing the inflection in someone’s voice and the way they say things can convey a lot of information.”

Video can convey emotion with much greater power than a text quote can. You can see this in Harris’s videos, especially in the interviews with Boogaard’s fellow enforcers. They’re big, imposing men whose job is to intimidate and often to bare-knuckle box on the ice, and their recollections of Boogaard are powerful.

That acknowledgment of video’s strengths has also worked well for my friend Erik German and his wife, Solana Pyne. German works for The Daily as a text reporter, but he’s always thinking about ways to make video work. “In our shop, video is just part of the production process, but there are three major areas that are suddenly very different,” he said.

The three areas: planning, execution and assembly.

“Each of those is a lot more complicated if video is involved,” he said. German argues if you’re really going to have video be a part of the story, reporters need to know from the beginning, for the best possible outcome. This entails thinking about everything from the pitch to the questions you ask a source before you leave the office – quite different than if you’re headed out with just a pen and pad. He says, “I find myself now asking TV producer questions like, ‘What does it look like when you do your job? If I followed you around all day, what would I see?’”

Print reporters rarely ask a source they’re going to visit what the inside of someone’s office is like or if it gets good light in the afternoon or if there’s anything noisy going on that might make doing a recorded interview difficult, but those are all concerns for a video journalist. Yet thinking about those challenges as a text-based reporter can help set up a good video collaboration.

One of my favorite pieces by German, with great videos produced by Pyne, is about a new law in Texas that made it legal to hunt feral hogs from helicopters.  They interviewed game officials, farmers upset by the damage the hogs cause to land, and representatives from the two camps of hog eradication. The hunters and the trappers were all convinced their differing methods were superior.

One aspect of the story they hadn’t counted on was a heat wave that sent the hogs deep into the brush, nowhere to be seen. “You could do a print story about a hog infestation even if you don’t see any hogs,” German said, “but for a video you’ve got to see the pigs.” Yet you’d never know about the missing pigs to read German’s story or to watch Pyne’s videos, in part because they artfully used what footage they could shoot, including material from small-action sports cameras mounted on the stocks of rifles. They bought a bit of stock material from a local shooter and had some great material of very clever hogs working their ways out of traps.

The Daily, which is designed from the ground up every day, elegantly meshes video and text and, like the Boogaard series, uses shorter embedded elements to good effect – “like visual and aural snapshots,” as Pyne puts it. “They conveyed things that would have been hard to get across any other way.”

The effect is, I think, one of the best ways to meld video into a print story. Texan twang and drawl about the difficulty of hog hunting came across in little snippets of video that might not have had a home in the bigger video story, and when transcribed for print might have lost their punch.

Pyne also does a lot of thinking about what makes for good video and print. She’s a senior video producer at GlobalPost, which produces a good deal of video, sometimes as a standalone report. She assigns many of the video journalists; most are freelancers who work on GlobalPost packages, often in tandem with a staff reporter. She often tells video journalists to follow their instincts. “I think it’s important to ensure that the print reporter doesn’t take over the story, because then you get a video that’s just like the print piece,” she said. “It’s useful to have them work together, but I want the videographer to feel comfortable leaving (or staying) to get good video.”

I recommend a deep read and watch on the touching series she helped put together from Japan shortly after the earthquake and the nuclear disaster. Like many of the best collaborations, the text stories anchors the bigger-picture thoughts and the video focuses on characters: everyday Japanese people whose lives were upended.

Sean Patrick Farrell (@spatrickfarrell) is a staff video journalist at the New York Times. He has made videos about tracking wolverines in Montana, dangerous medical radiation and aspiring young opera singers, among many others. He is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied documentary film. Before becoming a journalist, he spent a decade working as a  bicycle mechanic. You can find more of his work at www.seanpatrickfarrell.com. This is his inaugural Viewfinder column for Storyboard.

 

April 19 2012

14:26

Narrative gold: Eli Sanders and his Pulitzer-winning crime saga

“The prosecutor wanted to know about window coverings. He asked: Which windows in the house on South Rose Street, the house where you woke up to him standing over you with a knife that night – which windows had curtains that blocked out the rest of the world and which did not?”

So begins Eli Sanders’ story “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” which this week won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. The category usually offers up an unforgettable narrative and this year gave us a story – and an exciting writer – that we otherwise might have missed.

Sanders’ elegantly tense portrayal of a home invasion, double rape and murder appeared last June in The Stranger, a Seattle weekly, but Sanders’ coverage of suspect Isaiah Kalebu started long before that. In “The Mind of Kalebu,” which ran in the fall of 2009, Sanders examined loopholes in the criminal justice system’s treatment of mentally unstable suspects. His reporting ultimately led us into the courtroom, as murder victim Teresa Butz’s partner testified:

The attacks became more sadistic. Things began to happen that were beyond the worst imagining of Butz’s partner. She felt like she was going to be ripped in half. She thought: “He’s not going to kill me with a knife, but he’s going to kill me this way.”

Then she heard Butz say: “Why are you cutting me? Why are you cutting me?”

The man said to Butz: “Shut up, or I’m going to kill your girlfriend.”

He took the women into another room in the house, where he pulled another knife out of a pair of jeans he’d left on a guest bed.

The story he had been telling them, the story Butz’s partner had been telling her- self, the story that he just wanted sex and was not going to hurt them, now completely shattered. “In that moment I just knew he was going to kill us,” Butz’s partner told the court. “I just knew. There was something different in his gaze. There was this kind of looking. I didn’t feel fear from him, I didn’t feel anger from him, I just felt this nothing.”

We asked four Pulitzer winners, a Pulitzer judge and a legendary contributor to the craft of narrative journalism what they thought made the story special. Here’s what they said:

I’ve never read a court story like “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” – never in 28 years of journalism. I don’t know that anyone has read a trial story containing such painstaking detail and emotion; containing so many elements of the human instinct to survive in the face of the near inevitability of death.

“The Bravest Woman in Seattle” has all the elements of a work of fiction until the reader quickly reaches the chilling realization that this case was real. This was not some made-up crime novel. The people who were the subjects of this story, the heroes of it, too, were human beings, though savagely treated.

The power of this story is in the incredible writing, which made me care deeply for two women who were strangers to me, who were living normal lives before a knife-wielding man sexually assaulted and tormented them. “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” leaves readers clinging to hope that all ends well. The readers pray for the victims’ survival and that the bad guy gets caught. It is a challenge of human will to stay with this story. There is the temptation to leave for fear it will rip at your own emotions. Once the mind wraps itself around the facts in the case (although it is impossible to comprehend how one human could be so cruel to another), the reader is left to draw her own conclusions about whether the convicted man got what he deserved.

Ronnie Agnew is a four-time Pulitzer Prize judge and sat on this year’s feature writing jury. He is the executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting and the former executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger, in Jackson, Miss. He has worked as a reporter and editor in Ohio, Alabama and Mississippi.

***

As the Pulitzer board noted this week, Eli Sanders’ “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” is “a haunting story of a woman who survived a brutal attack that took the life of her partner.” It is also the story of the woman telling that story: The citation commends Sanders’ use of her courtroom testimony to “construct a moving narrative.”

But it is also the story of Sanders, a reporter, responding to the woman’s telling of that haunting story. And that extra level of narrative, I think, is the source of the story’s riveting power.

Sanders calls the survivor “the bravest woman in Seattle.’’ Maybe that is true. But what matters is that we feel the rawness of his admiration for her courage, and of his rage on her behalf. It takes journalistic bravery to expose yourself, as well as your subject, to the reader. And it takes a rare skill to do it, as Sanders does, almost entirely with telling details, structure and intensity of tone. Seeking to transport us into the head of the woman whose story he is telling, Sanders places us at the same time into his own. He quotes her as well as her thoughts, channeling her with an authority born of his observation, of his participation as a reporter covering the emotionally charged event: “I am not scared,’’ he imagines her thinking. “I have nothing to hide here. Not anymore. Not for something as important as this, the opportunity to put him away.’’

You risk credibility when you do this, even in a story where no one can fault you for sympathizing with the woman on the stand. Maybe especially in a story like this, reporters bend over backward to be fair, to maintain a safe distance. But Sanders’ understated honesty makes us trust him. The reporter next to him cried, he says. “I cried.’’

How much of the graphic information about the rapes and murder, we hear Sanders wondering, about his role in this drama, is right to include? “Some of her testimony from this day is not going to be recounted in this story,’’ he decides.

One of my favorite passages comes when Sanders observes the mother of Teresa Butz, the partner who was murdered:

She is a small woman, just like her daughter. If this woman can absorb, at the level of detail required for proof before a jury, the particulars of what happened to her daughter – can view the bloody crime scene photographs, can listen to the 911 call from a neighbor leaning over her blood-soaked daughter and screaming, “Ma’am, please wake up! Please wake up!” (while, to the 911 operator pleading, “Please hurry, please hurry”), can hear the testimony about DNA evidence and what orifices it was recovered from – then no one else in this courtroom can dare turn away.

Here, Sanders transports us to all three levels of the story at once. We are in the moment of the attack, we are listening to the horrifying details unfold in the courtroom, and we are in Sanders’ own head, flinching from those details yet increasingly convinced that there is a moral imperative in relaying them.

Amy Harmon is a two-time Pulitzer winner and a New York Times national correspondent who covers the impact of science and technology on American life. Her series “The DNA Age” won the 2008 Pulitzer for explanatory reporting, and in 2001 she shared the prize for national reporting, for the series “How Race Is Lived in America.”

***

“Maybe he could use that love against them.”

In Eli Sanders’ searing narrative about the rapes of two women and the murder of one of them, that single sentence reveals the writer’s mastery of his subject. In the midst of all the horror, we are reminded of the victims’ love for one another and experience an excruciating clash of emotions.

With his command of pace, rhythm, vivid description and multiple perspectives, Sanders switches between courtroom and crime, and from the victims’ point of view to the narrator’s, always taking care to be honest without being sensational.

The tension in the story comes as much from what is not said as what is. Instead of detailing every grim act, we get the reactions to the survivor’s descriptions of those acts – from the bailiff, the court reporter, the prosecutor, even another reporter. By the end, we are reminded that violence is not ordinary, nor are the victims of violence.

If ever a story was three-dimensional, “The Bravest Woman in Seattle” is it. The story lives not only in time and space, but in consciousness. A testament to its power and truthfulness is that the survivor, who asked not to be named by Sanders, was moved to identify herself after the story’s publication.

Amy Ellis Nutt won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2011 for “The Wreck of the Lady Mary,” and was a finalist in 2008 for “The Accidental Artist.” A reporter at the Newark Star-Ledger, she’s also an adjunct professor in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

***

The writing is rhythmic, concise. Every sentence does what it should in narrative: reveals more about character or moves the action forward. And while the details are beyond grisly, Sanders frames them in a way that forces – obligates – readers to withstand them.

Raquel Rutledge won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in 2010 for her Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series “Cashing in on Kids.” An investigative reporter on the Watchdog Team, she is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

***

Sometimes details are nitroglycerin. As a kid, I knew about nitroglycerin only from Road Runner cartoons – this stuff is incredibly explosive yet there was always plenty of it, and the characters always seemed destined to drop it. Back then, I didn’t know that in tiny doses, in heart medication, it can save a life. As reporters entrusted with powerful details, we sometimes wind up like the coyote trying desperately to cradle them before the ground falls away.

Not here. I was continually impressed with the way Sanders blended the horrific details with a strong instinct for story and, most importantly, care. It’s a crucial combination, as I think he sets this up as more of a campfire story than a courtroom story. He starts off with a scene, then tells us that he’s going to tell us a story. He actually allows us a chance to smile. He lets Teresa Butz’s partner lay the foundation for how honest this story is going to be. He foreshadows some of it, knowing that won’t make it easier when we get there, but at least we know to prepare. Then he tells us we’ve seen enough. Then he immerses us again.

The scenes in this story will join so many others in the feature writing category that haunt and teach through searing detail and restraint, among them one particular child in a car in Gene Weingarten’s “Fatal Distraction,” a little girl’s room/closet in Lane DeGregory’s “The Girl in the Window,” and the description of the dead boy in the snow in Barry Siegel’s “A Father’s Pain….”

In “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” Sanders also finds that balance between the explicit and delicate, guaranteeing that though readers may pause, brace themselves or close their eyes they’ll keep going. We have to continue, because Sanders has allowed Butz’s partner to take us by the hand and show us why we must. By building elements of the story’s framework on the details that make us cringe, Sanders demands that we read until the last word – actually the last nine words – so that by the time we reach that scream, it has been transformed into pure strength.

Jim Sheeler won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2006, for a Rocky Mountain News story that chronicled nearly a year in the life of a U.S. Marine casualty notification officer and the families he touched. His subsequent book, “Final Salute,” was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award.  He holds the Shirley Wormser Professorship in Journalism and Media Writing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

***

The story is admirable in a similar (though of course less profound and courageous) way as its subject is admirable. Throughout, Sanders stresses the survivor’s reasons for going through the ordeal of testifying, writing early on:

This happened to me. You must listen. This happened to us. You must hear who was lost. You must hear what he did. You must hear how Teresa fought him. You must hear what I loved about her. You must know what he took from us. This happened.

Later, he says that the mother of the murder victim, Teresa Butz, was in court and observes: “If a woman can absorb, at the level of detail required for proof before jury, the particulars of what happened to her daughter…. then no one else in this courtroom can dare turn away.”

The accumulation of such comments begins to suggest, in a subtle way, that Sanders and we (the readers) are also participating in the very painful but also brave and important act of taking in this testimony. Later in the story he writes that in the aftermath of the crime, “civilization, which did not stop this from happening, which did not even know this was happening, slowly returned.” The persuasive suggestion is that this article is a part of that slow return: listening to the woman bear witness, without turning away, is the least we can do.

I’ll add, in passing, something I might have asked Sanders if I had been his editor. It strikes me that the bravest woman in Seattle, maybe the bravest woman in the history of Seattle, may have been Teresa Butz, whose actions, as described in the story, ultimately saved her partner’s life even as she was losing her own. Do you think it might make sense to put a little more emphasis on Butz? Just asking.

Ben Yagoda has written about language, writing and other topics for Slate, the New York Times Book Review, the New York Times magazine, The American Scholar, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and many others. He’s a professor of English at the University of Delaware and the author of, among other books, “About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made” and “The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing.” His “The Art of Fact,” coauthored with Kevin Kerrane, is a staple of narrative journalism classrooms. His forthcoming book is “How to Not Write Bad.”

 ***

This year’s two features finalists were also rivetingly memorable, and each ran with compelling multimedia components. In “A Chance in Hell,” Corinne Reilly of the Virginian-Pilot told the story of two weeks in a NATO hospital in Afghanistan. A glimpse:

A few minutes later the soldier is in the operating room. He’s writhing now more than shaking. Through the moans, he’s mumbling three words over and over.

“This is bad. This is bad. This is bad.”

He keeps lifting his head, trying to get a look.

On the end of the bed, the last right boot he ever put on is lying at an angle that’s all wrong, a sweaty foot still inside. The calf above it is a shredded mess of uniform, flesh, dirt and grass. Nothing about it looks real.

Above that there is no discernible knee, just a thin stretch of filthy skin barely hanging onto what’s left of a thigh, which looks a lot like the mangled calf, except for one thing: Among the blood and mud, there is a little white inchworm, scrunching and straightening, slowly making its way across a bit of dying muscle.

Somehow it survived an explosion the soldier may not.

Around him, a dozen people are preparing for surgery. The room smells like damp earth, rubbing alcohol and blood.

“Hang in there one more minute, bud,” the anesthesiologist says, trying uselessly to soothe his patient. “Everything’s gonna be OK in just a minute.”

A nurse walks in. Next to the boot, she sets down a medical form.

It says the soldier’s name is Eddie Ward.

It says he is 19 years old.

And in “Punched Out,” John Branch of The New York Times told the story of the life and death of hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard:

Boogaard, with a backlog of frustrations, wanted to quit during training camp in 2000. He was 18. He called his father to tell him. He told his teammates he had a plane ticket home. Tobin ultimately persuaded him to stay.

And, suddenly, Boogaard started to win fights.

“His first year in the W.H.L., I think, it was mostly adjusting to his frame, not knowing how to use his reach,” Ryan Boogaard said. “I think he felt more comfortable with that frame in his second year in the W.H.L., and he did a lot better.”

He quickly  avenged his broken-jaw loss to Mike Lee.  He beat Mat Sommerfeld, a rival who had torn Boogaard’s name from the back of his uniform and  held it over his head after an earlier conquest. One Web site put Boogaard’s record at 18-4-4 in fights that season. One poll named him the toughest player in the W.H.L.’s Western Conference.

When Boogaard took the ice, a buzz rippled through Prince George’s arena, which routinely had capacity crowds of 5,995. One side of the arena would shout “Boo!” and the other would shout “Gaard!”

He scored only once in 61 games for Prince George in 2000-1. He recorded 245 penalty minutes, ranking eighth in the W.H.L. He was, finally, an enforcer, appreciated by one team, feared by all others.

This continues Pulitzer Week on Storyboard. On Tuesday, Anna Griffin looked at Walt Harrington’s story about Pulitzer-winning poet Rita Dove’s writing process in our “Why’s this so good?” series. On Friday, we’ll post a video, transcript and interactive index of Pulitzer-winning novelist Paul Harding’s recent standing-room-only appearance at the Nieman Foundation.

In the meantime, you’ll find the citations, works and biographies for all of this year’s Pulitzer winners here.

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