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February 28 2012

14:51

“Why’s this so good?” No. 32: Darcy Frey on the brink

It’s been 16 years since I first read Darcy Frey’s piece about the overwhelming, stressful job of being an air traffic controller – 16 years since I first swore never to fly into Newark. Frey’s powerful narrative scarred me for life.

Something’s Got To Give” ran in The New York Times Magazine in 1996, 15 years after President Ronald Reagan broke the PATCO union and fired more than 11,000 controllers. Frey made it clear that things had not recovered. He concentrated on Newark, the busiest air traffic control room in the country, where he found aging, unreliable computers; mandatory overtime to the point of exhaustion; steadily increasing air traffic; and so much stress that controllers sometimes went bonkers. It happened so often that they had a term for it: “going down the pipes.” The driving theme of the piece is staving off disaster.

I re-read the story this week, and even if the facts no longer hold up (I have no idea how much has changed in the industry), the power of the piece certainly does. I got scared all over again and have renewed my vow to stay out of New Jersey.

How did he do it?

It’s all about control. Frey has control over his material, his tone, his voice, his characters and his structure. As you read the piece – which follows a couple of men managing a whole lot of airplanes on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the busiest air travel day of the year – you know instantly that you are in capable hands.

In this piece, as in others of his that I have read (“Does Anyone Here Think This Baby Can Live?” and his book, “The Last Shot”), Frey is a master at what some writers call the pivot and some call the swoop and at least one (Alex Tizon) calls “blobs.” That is, he gets you going down the line of the story until you are so captivated you can’t turn away, and then he turns away, away from the narrative line and into facts and background and information (blobs) that you need to know in order to understand what is going on. And you do not get impatient with him because he tells it so cleanly and engagingly, and because he knows exactly the moment at which you will get annoyed or impatient, and it is right before then that he pivots (or swoops) back into the story.

In this piece, Frey writes in the language of the people he is writing about. He doesn’t lapse into jargon or techno speak, but look at the word choice in the lead:

All the way down the bank of radar scopes, the air traffic controllers have that savage, bug-eyed look, like men on the verge of drowning, as they watch the computer blips proliferate and speak in frantic bursts of techno-chatter to the pilots: “Continental 1528, turn right heading 280 immediately! Traffic at your 12 o’clock!” A tightly wound Tom Zaccheo, one of the control-room veterans, sinks his teeth into his cuticles and turns, glowering, to the controller by his side: “Hey, watch your goddamned planes – you’re in my airspace!” Two scopes away, the normally unflappable Jim Hunter, his right leg pumping like a pneumatic drill, sucks down coffee and squints as blips representing 747’s with 200 passengers on board simply vanish from his radar screen. “If the F.A.A. doesn’t fix this goddamned equipment,” he fumes, retrieving the blips with his key pad, “it’s only a matter of time before there’s a catastrophe.” And Joe Jorge, a new trainee, scrambling to keep his jets safely separated in the crowded sky, is actually panting down at the end as he orders pilots to turn, climb, descend, speed up, slow down and look out the cockpit window, captain!

“Savage, bug-eyed.” “Frantic bursts of techno-chatter.” “Sucks down coffee.” Casual words, carefully chosen to set a particular scene and a particular jittery mood. Throughout the piece, controllers don’t eat; they “take chow.” They aren’t startled or worried or annoyed – the machines “mess with their heads.” These men look like they’re on the verge of drowning. Their legs pump like pneumatic drills. They fume and squint and scramble and pant. It makes me anxious just to read about them.

Frey’s verbs are powerful and carefully chosen: Huge, passenger-packed jumbo jets barrel up the river and streak across the sky, nervous controllers curse and twitch. They don’t just bite their nails; they “sink their teeth” into their cuticles.

Frey is a great observer, and he spends his day well, watching these poor guys intently as they deal not only with the stress of heavy air traffic and long, long hours (one guy has had two days off in a row only seven times over the last year), but also with the frustrations of rickety equipment: ancient computer screens that suddenly go dark when they are guiding a dozen planes, or radios that fritz out. He watches as they perform rituals that they hope will ward off disaster – rituals that I’m willing to bet these traffic controllers don’t even realize they do:

One controller stands and paces in tight circles while issuing commands; one drops to his knee, his nose touching the glass; one taps the scope with a finger; one holds himself together by singing out loud.

Frey’s voice is so calm, so authoritative, that we do not miss direct quotes. He uses them sparingly – this is narrative, but he has a lot to say, and he doesn’t want the piece to get bogged down. The quotes he uses are spice, not the main ingredient, and yet he chooses them so well you get an instant, strong flavor of the person speaking. For example:

Tom Zaccheo: “I’m gonna come over there, and then I’m gonna rip your lungs out!” and later: “They made a rule you can’t threaten another controller on the job,” he says, bringing his fingers to his enormous chest. “Somebody like me, I had to change my operating way.”

That might be all you need to know about Tom Zaccheo.

What drives this piece is pure tension – the tension in the room, the tension that underlies all the jokes and bravado, the tension that infects the reader. We are all waiting for a crash, waiting for a disaster, waiting for the computers to fall dark, the radio to short out, the controllers to go down the pipes and the planes to smash together in midair.

He keeps this tension going by sprinkling the narrative with reminders of how terrible things are. He doesn’t clump it all together in one blob, but every few paragraphs, every few scenes, he rolls out another reminder that everything could fall apart in an instant. A controller named Jughead finishes an “Iron Man” shift and finds himself at home without recalling how he got there. On a busy Sunday afternoon, controllers with “headset wires wrapped around their ankles” pace and scream like “short-order cooks on speed.” Some of the fired controllers are brought back years later, but they are unable to keep up with a pace that has only become more frantic in their absence.

Nervous yet?

I am. I am never flying into Newark, or, maybe anywhere, ever again.

Frey writes about one traffic controller whose amazing skill is also his downfall; they rely on him so heavily he can’t get any time off and can’t get reassigned and so is slowly going nuts. He writes about how hard it is to learn the job (half of the trainees wash out); he writes about another controller who panicked and deleted all the planes from his screen while they were still in the sky:

Then he turned to his supervisor and announced: “No more planes. Time to get off.” He, too, was sent to counseling, and after a couple of months tried to return, but he could never bring himself to work traffic again. A new nickname entered the lexicon: Dr. Freeze.

And then, just when you feel like you can’t take it anymore, the story hits its climax: the pilots stop responding to commands from the controllers, and after a few terrifying minutes they figure out that the radio isn’t working, so they switch to the backup radio – which also isn’t working.

Man, if that last scene doesn’t keep you out of Newark, then the ending of the piece will. These overworked, jittery men have managed to stave off disaster for that whole terrible day, but it’s not over. That’s the thing about their job: It’s never over. And Frey makes sure their jitters rattle you long after you finish reading.

Laurie Hertzel (@stribbooks) is senior editor for books and special projects at the Star Tribune, and the author of “News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist.

For more from this collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, see the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every wee

July 05 2011

17:07

July Editors’ Roundtable No. 1: the St. Petersburg Times’ snapshot between before and after

For the first Roundtable of July, our editors looked at “Diving headlong into a sunny paradise” by Lane DeGregory of the St. Petersburg Times. The story follows a young Wisconsin couple on their first day starting a new life in Florida. Appearing in print on Memorial Day, DeGregory’s piece was edited by Mike Wilson, the St. Petersburg Times’ managing editor for enterprise.

Our editors didn’t see each other’s comments as they wrote and haven’t yet read our interview with DeGregory about her story. Tomorrow we’ll post that interview.

For bios of the Roundtable editors, see our January post.

Kelley Benham
Enterprise editor, St. Petersburg Times

On reporting that nails the story:

[Full disclosure: I work with Lane, and while I’m not her editor, I have edited some of her stories in the past. I was on leave from the paper when she wrote this piece, so I wasn’t involved with it.]

When I was a new reporter, my editor had the good sense to give me the desk next to Lane DeGregory. He knew I’d learn just by eavesdropping over the half-wall of the cubicle.

The first thing I noticed was that I spent a lot more time at my desk than she did. She was always out chatting up convenience store clerks and truckers and God-knew-who. She couldn’t walk three blocks without making a new friend and arranging to follow them home. So when I saw this story in the newspaper, I could picture clearly how it came together.

Lane was on the bus.  Of course she was. She goes where the story is and soaks it in. Lane’s stories always seem to unfold in places suggesting stale odors and crumpled lottery tickets. Lane doesn’t think she’s better than anybody. She genuinely loves people, and especially people who could use a break. That open spirit leads her to stories others overlook. Lane’s people are barflies, carnies, lost souls and anyone who gets nervous walking into a bank office. Her people ride the bus.

She recognized the story in front of her. If I’d been on that bus and noticed the pale people smooching, I would have smiled and tried not to stare. Not Lane. She got their story – they were escaping the frozen north and seeing Florida for the first time – and recognized what it represented. She was witnessing the mythic tug of the Florida dream, of eternal sunshine and oranges you can eat right off the trees. Forcing yourself to identify the larger idea in your narrative early on provides a clear mission for the reporting and writing.

She followed the story where it led. Lane and photojournalist John Pendygraft tagged along as the couple searched for the beach. They were willing to have their day hijacked by the unexpected story. They made room for serendipity. They recognized that their narrative was a quest, and to tell it they would need to report for action and allow it to unfold. Being there allowed Lane to capture moments like:

“What’s a pelican?”

“You know, like on Finding Nemo.”

She filled her notebook with detail and dialog. I like to deconstruct stories like this, to try to figure out what questions the reporter asked, and what she might have written in her notebook. She wasn’t with the couple as they packed and pulled away from Wisconsin, but her smart questions allowed her to maintain the narrative and her characters’ perspective as she weaves the backstory. Some questions Lane probably asked: What did the postcard look like? (A pelican on a piling …) Do you have it? Can I see it? What’s in your pocket? ($141, a half-pack of Marlboro reds) Can I look in your bag? (Jenna slipped a photo of her mom into a sock.)

Back at the office, she nailed down the rest of the story. Lane backgrounded her characters and discovered Dan was on probation. She had to decide whether that changed the nature of the story, and find a way to work it in without disrupting the narrative. (Jenna knows all about Dan’s past …) She researched the town they escaped. (Nine square miles of prairie, with 9,728 people and a prison.) She found the temperature in Wisconsin when they climbed on the bus. (39 degrees.) And every piece of background that she worked into the story helps explain how Dan and Jenna ended up in St. Petersburg.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary:

[Full disclosure: I worked with Lane at The Virginian-Pilot in the early ’90s.]

Lane DeGregory notices characters and events that most other journalists pass by. She pays attention and lets curiosity guide her. She often recognizes a profound story lying just under the surface.

In following Dan and Jenna, Lane explores what draws some people to St. Petersburg. Sometimes, those reasons are random, romantic and irrational.

There’s no overarching trend in this story. No hard news nugget. No statistics graf. Instead, Lane steps out of the action and uses her narrator’s voice to underscore the universality of Dan and Jenna’s story. This is crucial: Lane helps the reader identify with the couple.

She does so by touching on the broader theme of escape:

Millions of people have done this, decided all their troubles would disappear, all their dreams would come true, if they moved to the land of eternal sunlight.

Dan and Jenna set out for the same reasons folks have flocked to Florida for more than a century: To stop shoveling snow. To escape. To start over.

They weren’t worried about unemployment rates or hurricanes or oil spills. They were young and in love and they had each other. All they needed were a few waves. And a tan.

If you remember what it was like to be young and in love and wanting to escape, then you understand Dan and Jenna’s story.

Lane also reminds us about how, after we’ve lived in a certain place for a long time, we no longer notice the extraordinary things around us. She gently tells her St. Petersburg readers to open their eyes: “After we have been here for a while, it’s easy to forget what a weird, wonderful place we live in, where blue herons wander through gas stations and bushes bloom all year.

We crank up the AC, close our blinds and watch TV. Instead of venturing into the Eden outside.

In the final scene, Lane uses Dan and Jenna’s kiss in the Gulf waters to return to the theme of escape and starting over – water is a symbol for birth and rebirth: “All their lives they had been surrounded by land, the whole country hemming them in. Now, they were at the edge of everything, about to dive in.”

Maria Carrillo
Managing editor, The Virginian-Pilot

Gaining the trust of your subjects:

[Full disclosure: Lane was one of my writers here at The Pilot before she joined The Times, and she remains a close friend.]

Lane DeGregory is an editor’s dream for many reasons, but one in particular is how she manages to get people to share details that they wouldn’t tell their best friends. All narrative writers should strive for that intimacy.

People expect reporters to ask them basic questions, the who, the what, the when. With stories like this one, the reporting is much more involved. Notice that Lane pulled from this couple the details of their trip, what they took, how they left, what they were thinking. She found out what inspired them to go south, what they were hoping for, what they did once they arrived. She drew out emotions and reactions and gestures.

This is a story about a journey, and Lane wasn’t sitting next to them on that bus from Wisconsin, but she needed us to feel like she was. The only way to accomplish that was to get this couple to open up about everything, including their baggage – emotional and otherwise.

I haven’t talked to Lane about this story, so I don’t know exactly what she did to deserve their trust. But I know Lane, and I bet she did a few of the things she always does.

She was drawn to these guys. Lane has no interest in celebrities or politicians. She enjoys reaching out to people on the margins – even oddballs – to those other reporters ignore.

She asked them to share their story. I’m sure Lane treated them with dignity and made them feel important, like their experience was worthy of a headline.

She listened carefully and patiently. Anyone who wants to reach deep into someone else’s experience needs to not only draw out the details with good questions but also be quiet.

She was genuinely curious and compassionate. Lane always is. It’s second nature. She would have made a great bartender, too.

Laurie Hertzel
Senior editor for books and special projects, Star Tribune

Gaining the trust of the reader:

This is an unusual newspaper story – no nut graf, no news peg, no experts. What is it? (I can imagine many editors asking.) It is a brilliant moment in time, skillfully sandwiched between bad moments of the past and bad moments almost certainly yet to come. It is reminiscent in many ways of Joan Didion’s “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.” How did Lane DeGregory do this? How did she pack so much pathos, hope and dread into one short piece? How did she make us believe it?

Sneaky attribution. Readers need grounding. We want to understand how the writer knows what she tells us. DeGregory tells us so sneakily we don’t even notice. Right up top, in the first graf: “He remembers every detail.”  And, later, “Jenna knows all about Dan’s past.”  The attribution is there throughout, just camouflaged.

Just enough context. There’s no nut graf in this story, but it is studded with context and meaning. Every so often DeGregory falls back from the action and reminds us that this story is not just about Dan and Jenna, but about all of us – about America, that great theme of striking out on one’s own and starting over. But each time she does this, she does it swiftly, and then immediately brings us back to our main characters.

Examples:

Millions of people have done this, decided all their troubles would disappear, all their dreams would come true, if they moved to the land of eternal sunlight. Dan and Jenna set out for the same reasons folks have flocked to Florida for more than a century…

and

After we have been here for a while, it’s easy to forget what a weird, wonderful place we live in, where blue herons wander through gas stations and bushes bloom all year. … This young couple had journeyed more than 1,350 miles to find Florida. Now that they were here, things seemed so surreal.

and

All their lives they had been surrounded by land, the whole country hemming them in. Now, they were at the edge of everything, about to dive in.

No trauma, no extremes, no tragedy. Newspapers dwell in the world of extremes: The brave cancer patient, stoic to the end. The brutal murderer who kills someone in cold blood.  This story resonates because these kids are so ordinary. It’s easy to believe the story, because it’s so easy to identify with it. We’ve either done something like this ourselves, or know someone who has.

Details provide credibility. The more you learn about Dan and Jenna, the more you can picture them. The more you see them, the more you believe them. And so the details – Jenna blinking in the too-bright sun; her Hannah Montana purse; her vari-colored fingernails; her hoodie sweatshirt; the way she hid a photograph of her mother in a sock. Dan’s haircut; his inky tattoos; his crooked smile. I wrote that list without referring back to the story because DeGregory had made these people so real I couldn’t forget them.

Check back tomorrow for our interview with Lane DeGregory, in which she discusses how she found Dan and Jenna and the hard-luck epilogue to the story.

June 15 2011

15:01

June Editors’ Roundtable No. 2: The Seattle Times, a first pitch, and the Queen of Samoas

We’re fine-tuning our Editors’ Roundtable, moving toward more frequent postings and smaller groups of editors looking at each story. As part of those changes, today we highlight our second June Roundtable (if you missed the first, you can see it here).

One classic daily newspaper narrative is the story of the very sick child. A member of the Roundtable suggested this Seattle Times column about a Girl Scout named Kaila Cove as an example of how to handle the topic without resorting to melodrama. After establishing her cookie-selling credentials by outdoing every other Girl Scout in Western Washington, Cove was invited to throw out the first pitch for the Seattle Mariners last month. Here, without knowing any of the details of how he did the story, three editors address various aspects of columnist Jerry Brewer’s work. Check back tomorrow for our interview with Brewer.

Laurie Hertzel
Senior editor for books and special projects, Star Tribune

It is hard to write a column about a sick child without becoming maudlin or sentimental. These stories are journalists’ stock in trade, and, sadly, have become almost a cliché. It’s so easy to stray into the tear-drenched world of adjectives and heroism. Jerry Brewer is careful to write about a sick child overcoming obstacles without descending into mawkishness. He does this in a number of ways:

He uses humor. Not belly-laugh humor, which would be inappropriate for such a topic, but gentle humor that makes you smile slightly. Such as: “There are many ways to illustrate Cove’s will to live, but let’s hurry up and get to the part about the Girl Scout cookies.”  The juxtaposition of “will to live” and “Girl Scout cookies” made me smile. It tells me that the story will be grounded in the realities of a child, not bathed in emotion.

He lists the facts of her situation without opining. No loaded words like “tragic” and “heartbreaking.”  Just concrete, straightforward statements: “Getting the flu could kill her … she can’t go to school because of the germs … she’s so small for an 11-year-old that other kids regularly and annoyingly think she’s much younger.”

He finds a story, and he tells it. It’s a small story, about how she got to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a baseball game because she had been such a powerhouse at selling cookies. He puts her in motion: watching clips; practicing her windup with her dad and brother. The more concrete he keeps the story, the more Kaila becomes a real person, and the more you care about her. This is the best way to tell an emotional story: Don’t tell the reader how to feel (as Brewer doesn’t). Let the reader get to know the subject as a real person (as he does).

If the column allowed for more length, there are other things I’d like to have seen. I’d like to have seen her throw out that first pitch. I’d like to see her making her impassioned plea for people to buy cookies. I’d like to hear her talk a little more. But given the constraints of time and length that a column operates under, Brewer did a nice job.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

As a writer, I’ve often found it challenging to describe people. I can resort to adjectives and physical details. But how do you get beyond the surface details to reveal character? Jerry Brewer uses several techniques to capture Kaila Cove’s personality in quick strokes.

Quotes. Brewer doesn’t just use quotes to convey information. He selects quotes that allow us to hear a person’s voice. For example, you hear Kaila’s spunkiness – and the fact that she’s very much a young girl who’s concerned about what most young girls are concerned about – as she interjects herself into this passage: “Sometimes, if a lot of kids are sick, she must wear a mask. ‘Which I don’t like,’ says Kaila, who is from Bellingham. ‘It looks dorky.’ ”

Dialogue. Brewer uses a snatch of dialogue to give us a glimpse of Kaila’s relationship with her mother, who by now must be used to Kaila’s ambitions and strong-headed ways. Brewer writes: “Kaila sold about 2,900 boxes of cookies last year. She climbed to 3,503 this year. Her goal for next year is 4,000. ‘Or, actually, 4,200,’ she says. ‘Oh, geez,’ her mother replies.”

Anecdotes. Notice that Brewer doesn’t come out and say that Kaila has a fire in her belly. He shows it through an anecdote: “She knew throwing out the first pitch was a big deal. There are YouTube videos to prove it. She watched clips of everyone from President Obama to Justin Bieber perform the ritual with varying results. She decided she needed to do two things: Throw the ball straight and keep it from bouncing. She practiced so much with her father, Willie Cove, and younger brother, Jaiden, that she made her arm sore.”

I would have loved to read a description of Kaila’s pitch on that Saturday night – to hear more about her movements and mannerisms. How did she interact with her parents before and after the pitch? How did she walk out to the pitcher’s mound and steel herself? How was the pitch? How did she interact with the pitcher after the pitch? How did she react to the ballpark crowd? Brewer could have added just a touch more to describe this powerful moment.

Jacqui Banaszynski
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism

(Full disclosure: I was still a senior editor at The Seattle Times when Jerry Brewer joined the staff. I did not work with him directly except for occasional coaching sessions, and to consult on his series, “A Prayer for Gloria,” which turned into a book, “Gloria’s Miracle.”)

This is an enchanting and disciplined piece. In barely 800 words, Jerry Brewer captures a newsy event, the context of that event, the special character and hard history of a little girl, and even a glimpse into a mother-daughter relationship.

Key to Brewer’s approach:

Focus: Brewer doesn’t try to tell everything about Kaila Cove. He zooms in on one moment, and writes only what is necessary to inform that moment. For example, he draws a straight line from the first-pitch ritual to Kaila’s story: “It’s a significant, century-old sports tradition that celebrates fame, achievement and inspiration.” (Take note that he ends that sentence with “inspiration,” which sets up the return to Kaila more effectively than if he had switched the order. He appropriately puts “fame” the furthest from her.) If you examine this piece for use of details and compressed background, you will find all of it in service of his primary focus.

Compression and selection: This proves the truth of “less is more” in the hands of a confident writer. Brewer is highly selective about the details that “show” the story, and delivers less important background in summary “tell.” For example, we know Kaila is homeschooled, but the detail is saved for her need to wear a mask around other kids. We know she likes to swim and play kickball, but the detail is saved for how hard she studied and practiced pitching. Brewer gives the briefest of litanies of Kaila’s illnesses, surgeries, treatments and limitations, yet drops in “congenital panhypopituitarism.”

He is equally selective with quotes. Many writers will turn a story like this over to quotes in the belief that they add more of the subject’s personality. But sparing use of the right quotes actually amplifies a subject’s voice and character. Kaila about her mask: “It looks dorky.” The mother about Kaila’s plan to sell 4,200 cookies: “Oh, geez.”

Brewer, who is a columnist, lets himself brush up against colloquialisms that could be considered clichés, most notably his use of “Never mind…” as a device in the third paragraph. But it fits with his conversational voice, and doesn’t tip over into maudlin. His reference to “blessing” and “miracle” at the end are drawn directly from the mother’s quote.

Check back tomorrow for our interview with Brewer, in which he talks about the constraints under which he wrote this story, the best way to ruin a column, and his advice for writing about people with illnesses.

May 04 2011

15:02

May Editors’ Roundtable: St. Petersburg Times dives into missing man mystery

This month, the Editors’ Roundtable looks at “When a diver goes missing, a deep cave is scene of a deeper mystery” by Ben Montgomery of the St. Petersburg Times. The story, our first newspaper narrative for the Roundtable, tells the tale of Ben McDaniel, who disappeared at Vortex Spring in August of last year.

Each month, we talk to the reporter who wrote the story while the editors pass around their comment sheet. The editors write about the piece without hearing from the reporter; the reporter talks about the piece without knowing what the editors will say. Tomorrow, we’ll post our interview with Montgomery, but here, we offer our editors’ take. Comments appear in the order in which they were made. For full bios on our editors, see our January post announcing the Roundtable.

Maria Carrillo
Managing editor, The Virginian-Pilot

There are so many things to like about this story. For starters, it’s nice to see a piece that is essentially straight chronology, from beginning to end. You watch it play out as it happened, and you know what the people in the story knew at the time, so you’re trying to figure out the mystery as they did.

I love how patient Montgomery was with this story. (Full disclosure: I’m a fan of Montgomery’s, and he works with a close friend of mine.) He introduces the situation, you meet all the important characters, and he keeps probing. Montgomery never rushes. He helps the reader to understand what the divers are looking for and what they see or don’t see (strong reporting there), and he builds up the frustration – for the parents and the sheriff and the girlfriend. He walks through every possibility – accident, foul play, escape, suicide. You start to want answers as much as the people who are looking for the diver.

I do think there are a few places where Montgomery reaches and didn’t need to. For instance, he says that at 6-feet-2 and 220 pounds, the diver was hard to miss. That doesn’t sound like a particularly large man to me. And boy, he went too deep – no pun intended – when he waxed about what exists at the end of the line.

Maybe it narrows to nothing, or maybe it opens to another chamber, another world, a far away place that few believe Ben could go.

Narnia?

Laurie Hertzel
Senior editor for books and special projects, Star Tribune

About two-thirds of the way through this piece, I thought, “Uh oh  he’s not going to tell me what happened.” And while this is brilliantly reported, and beautifully written, I wonder if a slightly different focus would have helped the reader feel less dismayed when they realized the answer to the mystery was not forthcoming.

Montgomery is very strong at building tension and momentum. He is great with details – the chat board messages, the crisp list of dangers of cave diving (“the silt can blind”), the 10-inch hole (though that should have been mentioned only once, not twice). He can turn lovely phrases. (Such as, maybe Ben “ascended into a new life” And the strong last line.) And he has the mechanics of pacing, and pivoting, down very well, ending each section with drama and at a point where I absolutely must read on.

But since the mystery remains a mystery, it seems to me that it would have helped to have a stronger driving question than “what happened?,” since that question is not answered. One suggestion: Perhaps focusing on Emily Greer would have worked – since she ends the piece, and she sort of represents hope and the future and the possibility of eventual resolution, she might have been cast as a stronger character throughout the piece, which could document her journey from happy girlfriend to bereft girlfriend to determined girlfriend.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

Ben Montgomery is a top-notch writer because he is a top-notch reporter. His precision with details brings authority to his storytelling. To see that, read the first section closely. You learn about the temperature and weak breeze the day Ben McDaniel disappeared; the temperature of the spring; what McDaniel was wearing; the fact that he was testing his equipment and jotting in his dive log before he went for the dive; the words on the warning signs at the mouth of the cave.

I also admired the reporting Montgomery must have done to understand the history and dangers of cave-diving – and to be able to describe the mouth of the cave, the narrowing tunnel, the gate and the tight spots.

I agree with Laurie: Montgomery’s challenge here is that the diver’s disappearance remains unsolved. I’m not saying we should avoid telling stories with unsolved mysteries. But, in order to approach a satisfying end, the storyteller needs to discover some other resolution, large or small. Maybe Montgomery’s point is that, when we lose loved ones (especially those who disappear without a trace), we’re left with holes that we can’t fill.

I would have encouraged Montgomery to frame the story even more so from McDaniel’s parents’ or girlfriend’s vantage point, and then figure out what epiphany they might have experienced. Perhaps it’s enough to say that, living with that terrible loss, they committed themselves to making sure the diver would not be forgotten.

Tom Shroder
Founding editor, www.storysurgeons.com

What I like most about this piece is the simplicity, the almost “Dragnet” accumulation of short, clear sentences that patiently lay out the forking maze of a conundrum, pursuing one possible line of explanation after the next, only to reach a blank wall every time. I disagree that the failure to come up with a solution, to answer the mystery, is a failing. In fact, I think it is the whole point of this piece, and I think Montgomery realized that and then set out to write precisely about that – the lack of a reasonable explanation, no matter which way you turn; the way there are things in the world that defy logic and refuse explanation.

There were a few times when he got too enamored with the poetry of his writing. He pulls off a great moment and gets at something real:

Every time you challenge yourself, every time you overcome your fear of the dark and tight spaces and death, you resurface more alive, born into a new world. The air smells cleaner. Food tastes better. Sex is sweeter.

Then he follows it with a line that’s pure pose:

Who knows what exists at the end of the line? Maybe it narrows to nothing, or maybe it opens to another chamber, another world, a far away place that few believe Ben could go.

Unfortunately, he steps off a cliff at the end when he says of the girlfriend:

She’s been thinking lately about what it might look like down there in the dark. She may never get over this without knowing what’s past the last restriction. She dives, not in caves, not yet. But she could. She’s much smaller than Ben. She could fit.

This is either really her thought, that she wants to go past the last obstacle, in which case he erred badly by not saying so explicitly. Or, she has no intention of doing that, in which case he was being dishonest.

Chris Hunt
Assistant managing editor, Sports Illustrated

My own full disclosure: I once participated in a three-day writers’ conference in the wilds of southeast Georgia with Ben, who’s a mensch and a fine musician in addition to being a fine writer. Like Maria, I’m a fan of his.

The story is deeply reported and beautifully written, but I agree with Laurie and Tom that it didn’t overcome the problem posed by the unresolved mystery. Ben might have attacked the problem head-on, foreshadowing it early and then writing more about the agonies of unexplained disappearances, perhaps in place of the purple passage Maria cited. As it is, the what-happened-next approach builds our anticipation and can’t help but leave us disappointed when we realize we won’t find out what ultimately happened.

Couple of quibbles: The chronology in Memphis was a little fuzzy to me – when did Ben’s business and marriage go kablooey, and when did he reconnect with Emily? – and I missed a general description of Vortex Spring, which I couldn’t quite picture: What does it all look like, where is the dive shop, etc.? Still, the story grabbed me. The writing is spare and vivid, the pacing just right, and I cared about the characters. Great work.

Jacqui Banaszynski
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism

Montgomery weaves a tale that lures you ever forward to learn what happened next? That is craft, not trickery. Pay special attention to foreshadowing and cliffhangers.  Montgomery plots this as a movie, setting up the core character and suspense, then hopscotching from scene to scene, leaving bread crumbs along the trail: warning signs at the cave, jimmied gate lock, abandoned air tanks.

Study the reporting for depth (broad cast of characters), detail (dollars in the wallet, name of the dog), precision (size and shape of the cave and the bodies worming through it) and creativity (gin-clear water). Great writing is born of great reporting. Montgomery reports.

Flaws:

The story is unduly long. Basic redundancies could have been excised with a squeegee edit.

Too many confusions. What triggered call to cops? Did Ben go through the keyed gate when the other divers saw him disappear? When did the girlfriend enter his life?

Ending. Casts story in a new light with a late-appearing and underdeveloped character.

This is a good yarn about an unsolved local mystery and the people caught up in it. That should be enough (though, alas, that might be a hard sell to editors these days).  But it overreaches, forcing the mystery into a morality tale. Dial back the gothic (especially a lot of the soul-searching lines, which tip from show over to tell) and let it be what it is: a mosaic of people connected by and unable to shake this mystery.

Paige Williams
Narrative writing instructor, Nieman Foundation

Love the topic and the possibilities the writer had with this piece. It contained some nice reporting and writing. I think it could’ve been stronger with, as Laurie said, a recasting. The writer takes the expected path by focusing on Ben; had I been his editor I might’ve drawn him out on Emily’s story in hopes of locating the piece, and Ben’s life, around her. Because as it is, I come away feeling like I never knew Ben at all. By focusing on Emily (assuming she agreed to it) you’d have opportunity for actual action – and you’d know the end of the story, even when you didn’t know the end of the story.

As I read the piece the second time, I wanted to get my editing claws on it, which is a weird sort of compliment. So I did a line edit, which I’m offering to the writer. But to summarize: I admire the idea and the attempt and love the writer’s clear dedication to reporting and to the storytelling craft. I look forward to seeing what else he’ll do.

Check back tomorrow to read our Q-and-A with Ben Montgomery, who talks about how and why he chose his ending and the importance of having a group of readers you trust. And if there’s a particular piece you’d like to see dissected by the Roundtable, send a link for the story to contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org. Stories must be already published, available online and strong enough to stand some tough love.

March 03 2011

20:25

March Editors’ Roundtable: Mother Jones looks at rape in Haiti

The narrative for discussion in the second installment of our Editors’  Roundtable is “Welcome to Haiti’s Reconstruction Hell” by Mac McClelland. Appearing in Mother Jones earlier this year, the story was written after a visit in 2010 to survey the island’s post-quake recovery efforts. Clara Jeffery, one of two editors-in-chief at Mother Jones, edited the piece.

The narrative for the prior Roundtable was one in which several reporters fed material to the writer, who had to synthesize it at a distance. This time, we thought it would be interesting to give our editors a piece in which the writer doing her own reporting was an intergral part of the story.

We’ve also done a Q-and-A with McClelland about how the article came together, but here, we offer our editors’ responses to the story. Comments appear in the order in which they were made. We asked judges to note what they thought did and didn’t work in the piece, and to explain why. At the end are some of their suggestions for additional reading. (For full bios on the editors, see our January post announcing the Roundtable.)

Maria Carrillo
Managing editor, The Virginian-Pilot

What works for me:

The descriptions – of rapes, of tent cities, of snatches of conversation. The details inspire a visceral reaction. At times, it’s hard to keep reading, and yet, it should be, given the subject matter. I can conjure up sights and sounds and smells. It feels foreign, like much of the Third World, but also familiar, like the Gulf Coast after Katrina. What a horrible combination.

The writer’s voice – I’m not always a fan of a writer becoming a character in her own story, but here, it’s quite effective. I can relate better to her personal experiences than to what’s happening in Port-au-Prince. She is the outsider looking in, feeling fear and revulsion, as most Americans would. As a woman, too, she is particularly vulnerable, and that draws you closer to what life is like for Haitian girls.

What I would have approached differently:

Story needs a stronger narrative thread. Essentially, the author is the central character, and we follow her from place to place. She introduces us to individuals along the way who are surviving in hell. But the story feels patched together, not woven. A scene here, an anecdote there, some personal moments. It should have felt more like a journey, obviously to underscore the despair in Haiti, but also to build toward a call to action. The story should compel the reader to want to keep that 10-year-old from being raped.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

What worked for me:

The power of McClelland’s piece lies in the detailed, ground-level interactions she has with people in Haiti. We come face to face with the hell of reconstruction not through abstract policy arguments, but through action and dialogue. McClelland describes this scene: One woman “gets frustrated at some point while I’m asking questions and says, ‘We meet white people, and white people, and white people.’ She starts raising her voice, and two of the other four put their hands out to calm her, literally holding her back, but smiling knowingly. White people make promises but nothing ever ever happens, she says.”

As I read this piece, I couldn’t help but think of the sexual assault of CBS News correspondent Lara Logan, and the ensuing media coverage. It takes courage to venture into dangerous territory and write from first-hand experience. So I admire McClelland for that. And I admire her instinct to put herself in the story – to show not only her vulnerability and fear, but her realization that while she can escape the chaos, many of the women she writes about cannot.

What I would have approached differently:

I agree with Maria that the story needs a stronger narrative thread. I think what would help in this area is a stronger set-up – a stronger first section. I’m led to believe that the story is going to be focused on rape in the Haiti camps – and I want to learn more about that. But the story begins to lose its focus, moving away from the rapes, toward other reconstruction problems.

Jacqui Banaszynski
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism

Three strengths to learn from:

Effective use of first-person. McClelland didn’t make the story about her but used herself to force me – the safe American who can’t really grasp the enormity of horror in Haiti – to experience a sliver of it by sharing her own: puking in her mouth, spitting out the taste and smell of shit, getting blind drunk at night, being too afraid to open her hotel window despite the heat. First-person can be incredibly powerful when it doesn’t turn the light on the reporter, but uses the reporter as a brighter light with which to see.

End-of-section gut-punch lines after long, dense passages. How people sleep standing up so they won’t “wake up drowning.” That “there are no trees” in Cesselesse and “when it rains, the gravel floods.” That the 10-year-old would not be the youngest rape victim – by eight years.

Authority that allows compression and depth. McClelland’s knowledge is obvious and lets her dense-pack backstory and context so readers get an immersion into the issue rather than just into description and emotion.

Editor’s tweak:

Even stronger and more varied pacing. The overall style of long, dense, multi-clause sentences made for a harder-than-necessary read. More important, it allowed some essential information to get lost in the thicket.

A less-abrupt ending. It was powerful as hell as a metaphor, but came on too suddenly.

Tom Shroder
Founding editor, www.storysurgeons.com

The best thing about this piece: the raw, shocking, powerful honesty of this phrase in the opening: “they kept her on the ground and forced themselves inside her until she felt something tear, as they saw that she was bleeding and decided to go on, and on, and on.” Note that it is made up of 32 words, 26 of which are one syllable, five of two syllables and just one of three syllables. That such horror can come from such simplicity just about says it all.

(The lead isn’t perfect. The gang rape is prompted because she “tried to intervene” in another attack, but the writer fails to give any detail about what had to be a very dramatic moment that revealed an enormous amount – the nature of the attempted intervention itself.)

Unfortunately, the spare power and drive of the narrative begins to waver, and then the writer falls into a trap that has snared many a young foreign correspondent: getting caught up in the drama of her own reportage. There are multiple instances of this, but the most egregious is when she says of a man she meets, “he’s not the kind of rich Haitian man who … tells me at the bar I should have sex with him because he’s the nice sort of guy who loses an erection when a woman starts to fight him off.”

She means it as a reference to general attitudes about rape, but I doubt the writer’s encounters in hotel bars have much to do with the barbarism of rape in the refugee camps.

Paige Williams
Narrative writing instructor, Nieman Foundation

Yes:

1. McClelland reveals a problem I didn’t even know existed on such a horrific scale.

2. Reporting the reality of desensitization adds an important contextual layer: “…I really can’t imagine someone not getting raped under those circumstances, no.”

3. Lovely nuggets (“The tarps are being torn from their tethers by the gusts” and the entire graf that begins “But ‘tent’ isn’t accurate either.”) plus smart authorial restraint. “At 10, she wouldn’t be the youngest reported rape victim from the camps. Not by eight years.” is powerful for the way she backed into the information, for the inclusion of the word “reported,” and for punctuation after “camps.” The “Not by eight years” made me shut my eyes in sickness.

Hmm:

1. Technically, this piece isn’t a narrative; it’s a news feature. I’d be interested to know whether the writer envisioned a narrative. Because to write narrative one must report for narrative. A bit of planning, even mid-reporting, could have generated the focus the piece needed.

2. Closer line editing could’ve moved the language closer to precision. “It only rains for 10 minutes” should be “It rains for only 10 minutes.” Cliché radar could’ve helped too. I flinch at a “sea of” anything (in this case tarps) but also “reduced to rubble,” etc. Small edits can charge even the simplest sentence, such as the one ending the amputees section:

As written: “Yeah, that’s a problem,” he says.

Arguably more powerful, for the beat it contains: “Yeah,” he says, “that’s a problem.”

Chris Hunt
Assistant managing editor, Sports Illustrated

I agree with the comments about the story’s many powerful scenes – the gang rape, the squalor of the camps, the skinny guy frantically searching for a cop to help him fend off thugs – and about the courage of the author in going to Haiti to report under such trying and dangerous circumstances. Much of the piece is vivid and shocking and will stay with me for a long time.

I also agree that the story needs a stronger narrative structure. I was never quite sure where the author was leading me; the article has an unfocused, anecdotal quality. Beyond that, I felt that the author’s intrusions in the narrative sometimes undercut its strength. Speculating about Alina’s motives for trying to stop the rape (“Maybe it was because she has three daughters of her own; maybe it was some altruistic instinct”) interrupts a scene of harrowing power; the comment “easy as pie” is jarring after “gangs of rapists slice through the sides of tents all over the city to steal a woman”; and the joke about “My Heart Will Go On” undermines the paragraph on water-related health problems.

In general, I think the first person should be used sparingly in journalism. There are compelling reasons to use it in this story, but some of the author’s experiences are digressive – the opening to the cocktails scene with Mike (“He likes me because … I like him because …”) serves no discernible purpose – and occasionally they give the impression that the article is less about conditions in Haiti than about the author’s reactions to them and about her adventures in the country. I think a stronger hand in editing could have helped her avoid that.

The ending is very effective: the mud oozing between the tiles, the distressing “not by eight years,” people shaking like the earth during the earthquake. Strong stuff.

Laurie Hertzel
Senior editor for books and special projects, Star Tribune

I like:  The way she writes with great confidence and authority. Her almost novelistic approach to the lede, especially the way she gets inside Alina’s head. (“Too many to count.” “Until she felt something tear.”) Her lovely way of tucking facts into sentences, deftly, and explaining acronyms without bogging things down. First person and present tense, which make the story unfold for me in real time; I feel like I’m learning things at the same time the writer is. I love some of her tidy, wise sentences. (“Tension is the only thing being built.”)

I’m going to disagree with those who say the story needs a stronger narrative thread. I thought it worked well, leading me, confused, increasingly more and more horrified, from place to place, seeing Haiti through McClelland’s eyes, smelling it and tasting it. The story was about what is going on in Haiti, but it also has the secondary theme of the cluelessness of America, even the do-gooders (like Sean Penn) who send money and think they’re helping. And so McClelland’s reactions stood, for me, as the reaction of America.

I also love the tight passion that fills this story. (“And if you, white girl, think you’re going to be useful…”)

Tweaks: I admit to getting a little lost in the Mike section, not clearly understanding who he was, exactly, and I think the ending could have been stitched in more deftly. It has a great closing quote, and I was glad to bring the story back to Alina and the rapes, but it felt tacked on in haste. With massaging, she would have gotten there.

Kelley Benham
Enterprise editor, St. Petersburg Times

The strength of this piece lies in the scenes. In its strongest moments, there is a precision to the placement of elements, a logic to the order of things. The opening draws power as it follows one character along a clear simple line, chronologically, never crossing into hyperbole.

As a whole, the story loses that precision. There is a narrative thread – the writer’s journey – but that thread feels circumstantial. In a narrative, keeping the reader focused takes planning. The reporting here led to multiple cities, multiple characters, and multiple issues. The writer has to think hard about how to introduce those elements, how to move smoothly from one to the next, and which to leave out.

In a grueling grad school narrative class, Jon Franklin drilled us on the 5 orienting threads that keep readers from getting lost. I failed the class, but I remember the threads, sometimes in the panic of a flashback. Time. Place. Character. Subject. Mood. The more frequently you shift these elements, and the more of them you shift at one time, the more confusion you create. This story loses its way when it jumps from character to character, place to place, acronym to acronym too abruptly or without reason. It becomes particularly jarring when it loops through time, instead of sticking to the simple chronology that tells us where we came from and where we are going.

Like many long narratives, this one does it right in the tight spaces, but loses control as the frame expands.

Additional reading suggestions from the group:

Tom Huang recommends Tracy Kidder’s book on Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti, “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” as well as Kelly McBride’s Poynter column about the Logan story and the media’s coverage of sexual assault.

Tom Shroder recommends David Finkel’s “Exodus: One Woman’s Choice.”

Stay tuned for the next installment in early April. In the meantime, if you have a piece you’d like to see our editors dissect, please send it along to contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org. The story has to be already published, available online and strong enough to stand up to tough love.

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