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July 06 2011

16:58

Lane DeGregory on diving into Florida dreams

Our first Editors’ Roundtable of the month looked at a story from Lane DeGregory of the St. Petersburg Times, in which a young couple arrives in Florida hoping to start a new life. DeGregory won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2009 for “The Girl in the Window” and has received many other awards during her years at the Virginian-Pilot and in St. Petersburg. Even though she insisted that her editor, Mike Wilson, “carves the story from the block of wood I give him,” DeGregory agreed to speak with us by phone last week about her work. In these excerpts from our conversation, she talks about chasing a story all the way into the “ocean,” the value of riding the bus, and the sad aftermath of Dan and Jenna’s tale.

How did you find Dan and Jenna, the couple fleeing Wisconsin to make a life in Florida?

We were actually with one of the girls we’ve been following for this project about drug court. She rides the bus to work at this pizza place every day. She said, “Hey, you should ride the bus sometime with us and see all the people pushing pills.”

So we just hopped on the bus with her one morning. Of course it takes an hour and a half to get 20 minutes down the road. But we were sitting on the bus watching the world go by. This couple was across from us, and they kept kissing and kissing. They were really young and cute and as pale as could be. They each had a little duffel bag and a backpack. She kept asking questions: “What kind of bird is that? Is that a gulper bird? What kind of tree is that? Oh, my god – do oranges grow on trees?” She was so in awe of the world going by.

So John [Pendygraft], the photographer, was sitting next to me, and he snapped a picture of them kissing. They looked up and smiled, and I introduced myself. They told us, “We just got to Florida for the first time. We’ve been on the Greyhound for three days.” They had switched from the Greyhound to the city bus right when we got on.

We left our drug court girl at her pizza place and followed them. They said, “We’re going to go find the ocean today. The first thing we want to do is find the ocean.” Of course, we don’t have the ocean here; we have the gulf. But we looked at each other, and went “Hmmm.” We asked if we could come along. So we spent the rest of the day following them, changing buses – basically doing the journey that’s in the story. We left them after they got into the water about 4:30 or 5 that evening.

So it was one day of contact?

One day of reporting. And we got his aunt’s cell phone and called back and took them out to lunch and ferreted out more of the story. But we didn’t know until after that initial day that he was on probation. That came up after we backgrounded him the next day.

Did you ask him about it?

Yes. That story happened on a Friday, which is also perfect. We backgrounded him Monday and said, “Ay-yi-yi.” I asked my editor, “What do we do with this?”

My editor said, “Ask him about what happened.” Because most of the stuff that he had done was pretty minor. It’s not like he was an ax murderer. So we took him out and talked to him about it, and he said, “Yeah, I did some stupid things when I was young.” He went through the litany of each of the things. The worst thing he had done was steal a car. He told us vignettes about each one of them, which matched up with the police report we’d pulled. He said, “I just need to check in with my probation officer. I should have done that, but he’s not going to come looking for me.”

We said, “Well, do you want us to still do the story?” It was supposed to be a happy story, sort of a Florida fairy tale story. And so many people are running from something. My editor said, “If we’re honest about it, and he’s cool with it, we’ll put a line in there, saying we know he’s on probation, so we don’t get caught looking like we weren’t aware of that.” That’s where we left it. It was totally up to him if he wanted to do the story, and he did. He was excited about it.

In terms of the story itself, you weave in their backstories, but mostly you keep focused on this moment in which they’re suspended between the past and the future – a very narrow slice of time. Did you know from the beginning that you would frame it that way?

Yeah, I did. We have a thing in the Times called “Encounters” that runs on the front page. They’re usually 20 inches, but this one was a little longer. It’s just a moment when something happens, someone is on a precipice, or something is about to change. So from the first time they said, “We’re going to go to the ocean today,” I thought, “That’s a great Encounter.” They’re on a quest. It’s going to end – either they find the “ocean” or they don’t. It can be self-contained on this bus and this journey.

Some people commented and asked if I had ridden with them all the way from Wisconsin. Dang, I would have loved to do that. I had a lot more about their journey before they got here, but my editor thought I should frame it as tightly as possible and start from that moment they arrived in Florida – which I think was the right decision.

You create two levels of experiencing the story. On one level, we’re right there with Dan and Jenna, seeing Florida for the first time. And then there are two sentences tucked into the middle, where you speak directly to the reader, to the Floridians who read the paper. Can you talk a little about that?

I had more of that that got edited out, which in the end was probably a good thing. I had a whole section where I waxed about how Florida has hardly any natives. If they’re native, they’re my mom’s age – they haven’t been here for eight generations or anything. And most everyone has a story about the first time they visited Florida, and they fell in love.

That’s why I thought this was such a Florida story. Unlike any of the other places I’ve ever lived, there’s something magical about the first time you see a palm tree or the first time you put your toes in the sand. But when you live here for 10 years, and you don’t want to get sunburned, and you have kids’ soccer, and homework, and work, you forget. It becomes part of the background. So I wanted to incorporate some of that, something that would turn the camera away from them a minute and toward the reader and say, “Remember that? Remember what that was like?”

The kids seemed like everyman characters. I got lucky and ran into them on a bus. I couldn’t have gone out and found them, but every day there’s someone like that who lands here. I wanted it to be about the experience of coming to Florida as much as it was about those kids experiencing it.

What happened after the story ran?

It was actually really unsettling, the way things played out. The story ran on Memorial Day, which was a great beachy day for it to run. We had the day off. That morning I was with John, the photographer, at the beach. The kid in the story, Dan, called. He loved the story. It was maybe 10:30 that morning. He was asking if we could get extra copies. Could we bring him some pictures?

That afternoon he called back, and there were like 60 or 70 comments online. All of them were snarky and negative and saying his girlfriend was going to end up dancing on a pole, and they would end up pushing drugs. Readers can be mean sometimes. A lot of it had to do with the fact that since he’s on probation, “Do we want another loser living in Florida?” He got really upset about the story. We tried to talk to him about it, and we got the comments shut down and taken offline, so that wouldn’t be part of the context of it.

Before we published the story, I had called his probation officer. He said, “I know he’s in Florida. His boss called from Wendy’s. He’s not a big deal, he just needs to go register with the Florida probation people down there and let him know he’s there.” That was before the story ran.

They held it for a couple weeks – I don’t know why. They probably wanted it to run on Memorial Day. In any case, Jenna called me like three days after the story ran and said, “Dan’s in jail.” And she was crying.

We couldn’t figure out how that played out. She said, “You all turned him in.” I said, “No, we didn’t.” I was careful not to put his aunt’s last name or where they were staying in the story. I didn’t put where he was working or anything identifiable in there. Come to find out that his aunt actually turned him in. I don’t know whether that had anything to do with the story or not, but she turned him in for violation of probation, and they sent him back to Wisconsin.

You had talked to his probation officer before, but as far you know, it was due to his aunt making some more formal complaint?

As far as I know. And he also had missed a court date. He had up until his court date to register in Florida. You can just change your state, if you’re on probation – at least for some things. But he hadn’t done it. He hadn’t called in. I think that when he missed his court date, there was also some flag that went up – one that wasn’t issued by his probation officer but was issued by a judge.

It felt terrible. John and I were both so upset that this had happened, because it was never our intention.

You’ve done a lot of different stories over the years. Was there anything with this story that would make you approach reporting or writing differently in the future?

I think if I had known from the beginning that he was on probation, I might not have been as enamored with the “happy story” idea. I might not even have done it if he had told us that day on the bus. It doesn’t make me want to do these stories any less, and I’m really glad we backgrounded him. It would have been worse if his aunt had turned him in, and we hadn’t known he was on probation, and then we had to write a follow up.

It was hard not to feel guilty that in some way we had affected this kid, but once I found out it was his aunt and not some random reader or bounty hunter that had tracked him down, that helped a little bit.

These stories are out in our communities all the time. I give this little talk at newspapers and colleges about how to find stories. The first tip is to ride the bus. You can always find stories on the bus. People so often are at some kind of crossroads, and obviously, they’re on a journey if they’re on a bus. You have time to talk with them. It’s a whole different demographic than a lot of the people we write about.

I think it happens a lot to reporters, where you’re out on one story, and you see another story that’s a little bit more intriguing, or it’s something you’ve been thinking about for a while. You have to be able to turn the corner midstream.

Is there anything else you want to say about how the story came together?

One thing that’s hard to do when you’re on a story like that is to not interfere. We kept wanting to help them find the beach. It was really hard to let them take all these wrong turns. It was 100 degrees out and we were all dying to get out to the water.

Also, following the story in the moment is so important. We had other things we were supposed to do that afternoon. I was in a dress. I lost my watch that day. John got his camera wet. We were both in the water up to our chins in our work clothes just following them in for that last moment. It was so much fun. I was thinking, “Oh, yeah. This is how you go find a story in the world instead of sitting through another meeting and trying to pull something out of that.”

I think just being open to stories when they happen around you is probably the most important thing.

You went into the water up to your chin in your work clothes?

Oh, yeah. We wanted to hear what they were saying. John followed them way out – he was soaked. We ended up two hours away from our car. I had to call my husband to come pick us up, and we got the car full of sand and salt water. But it was just really fun. And it was great to see it through their eyes.

That’s why I think the unhappy ending made it that much harder. You don’t find a story like this every day.

Do you regret writing the story?

I regret what happened to Dan, but I don’t regret writing the story.

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.

May 05 2011

15:17

Ben Montgomery explores a mystery: “This is a story about grief”

Yesterday our Editors’ Roundtable looked at “When a diver goes missing, a deep cave is scene of a deeper mystery,” by Ben Montgomery. An enterprise reporter at the St. Petersburg Times, Montgomery was a 2010 Pulitzer finalist with the Times’ project “For Their Own Good,” which we featured on this site. He talked with me by phone about his latest story while the editors were in the midst of making their comments on it. As a new part of the Roundtable process, we’ve also invited him to respond to the editors’ comments at a later date.

How did you first hear about Ben McDaniel, and at what point did his disappearance become a story?

In late February. I’m trying to read the papers out of the Panhandle, large and small, because of my work on Dozier [School for Boys] and also because there are places along Florida’s hidden coast that are untapped. There’s very little news coverage, and what’s there often gets overlooked. It’s golden for someone like me who has the freedom to go up there and do work. I caught a small story in, I think, the Jackson County paper.

McDaniel’s family, Patty and Shelby, had announced a $10,000 reward, and the story was about Edd Sorensen, who in fact is in my story. He’s a pretty fantastic recovery diver and cave diver. Sorensen had told the local paper that this was dangerous – basically, “I can understand them wanting to find their son, but they’re going to get someone else killed by putting up this money.”

I immediately recognized that this was a pretty fantastic story, and that if the material held up, it could be really great. You have a mystery, first of all; the guy went in and hasn’t been seen since. Hanging onto that mystery, you have some really interesting human conundrums: the grief of the parents and friends, and the risk for the cave divers.

Pride was involved as well, for the divers who’ve gone in and come out empty-handed. They’re saying, “Look, take our word for it. Trust us. We’re the best of the best, and Ben’s not in there.” They felt like the McDaniels’ insistence that Ben was in there was sort of an insult to them: “They don’t believe us. We’ve told them, and now they’re putting up this reward.” There were strong feelings of hurt and embarrassment as well on the part of the divers.

So it seemed like this whole mess of emotion swirling around this great mystery. I kind of held onto it for a little bit. I think I brought it up at one of our weekly meetings, just to see how people would react to it and whether they would have the same reaction that I did, which was “Wow, this has real potential.” I heard that out of the people in the room, so I took the opportunity to go out and do some real reporting.

How long did you take to report and write the story?

I was working on some other things at the time. I’d say probably I took a trip up there for three days. And then maybe another four or five days on the phone back home, reporting. And maybe four or five days writing. So two weeks, 2 1/2 weeks in all.

When you sat down to write, you had this material – I don’t want to ruin it for any readers – but when you sit down to write, you have a mystery without a simple solution. How did you approach structuring the story?

That was cause for great anxiety in the beginning, because I had the ambition to find Ben McDaniel myself. That was a real desire. I was thinking, “Maybe if I talk to enough people, I can find this guy.” Or at least find some evidence that he met his demise or that he still exists. That was the mindset that I went in with.

Three-quarters of the way through the reporting I was like, “I still don’t have an ending. I don’t know where he is, and people are still going to be disappointed if they read this story and then get to the end and there’s nothing to tie it up. It’s still as much of a mystery as it was in the first section.”

So driving back from the Panhandle, I called a friend, Michael Brick, who is down in Austin. We talk about stories a lot. I kind of called to hear myself tell him the story, to see where it went. We had really bad reception. Because of the spotty reception, I had to be brief. We kept getting disconnected. And so each time I would be like, “Forget all that. Dude’s missing. I don’t have an ending.”

And at some point I started to think of this story in a different way: This is a story about grief and how the dominoes fall when a man goes missing. And that helped, because then it became not a story about Ben specifically, but a story about all the people left behind to try to solve the mystery. Then it was just thinking about the story through that prism. Because there’s no ending with Ben, it gave the rest of us the ending.

You focus on Emily. Did she give you that ending herself?

Gene Weingarten sent me an email yesterday, and I think [Tom] Shroder may have put him up to it. Weingarten loved the ending, and he was wondering if that was mine, or if I just went there.

It came from her, but I felt like quoting her there would have screwed it all up. She is thinking very seriously about diving into that hole to see for herself if Ben is in there. She’s an open-water diver, and it takes a long while to get cave-certified. She’s thinking seriously about saving up the money to get cave certified and to go down in search of him. That came at the end of our talk.

We were supposed to talk at 7 on a Wednesday night. We had a hard time getting in touch. Our conversation wrapped up about 11:30. So 4, 4 1/2 hours on the phone. She and Captain Hamilton and Ben’s parents, they all entertain these theories. They’ve entertained some really wild theories: “Could he be in witness protection?” “Could his ex-business partner have followed him to Florida and killed him?” But after they run through the theories, it all circulates, and one theory leads to the next.

Near the end of our conversation, she was going back and forth about whether Ben had the capacity to commit suicide through going through the hole, or whether he had the capacity to leave and put everybody through this incredible grief. She was saying, “If only we could see down in that hole, then we could rule that out as a possibility.” It struck me to ask, because she had mentioned that she was a diver, “Have you ever thought of going down there?”

She said, “Yeah, I sure have. I know it would take a lot of money, and I know it would take some time, but that’s a serious part of my thinking right now.”

When I heard that, it gave me that – I don’t know how to articulate this, but there’s a spot that I hit sometimes in reporting… It’s like I have to stand up. It’s almost a mix of anxiety and happiness and sadness, these things that typically exist on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. But I felt that, and the light came down on me, and I thought “That’s perfect.” If the possibility exists that Ben went through the hole because of his brother, then the possibility exists that she’s going to go through the hole and pursue Ben. It just felt like the right way to end the thing.

So you realized that was an important moment right then?

When she said it, when that came out of her mouth, I thought, “That’s the end of the story.”

I noticed that midway through the story, you start throwing out questions. There are no questions asked in the first half, but the second half has 13. It’s an unusual approach to writing a mystery narrative.

That’s news to me, that there’s such an extreme change. I do know that up to a point, we know exactly where Ben was leading up to his disappearance. We have an unlimited amount of facts about the days and hours leading up to that dive. And after that it’s eight months of questions. So it’s not surprising to me that the story changed in that regard, because the rest of the story can be one giant question mark. It’s just a matter of handing it over to the readers to entertain the same questions that I had and the same questions that Ben’s family and the people trying to find him had.

Did the story change drastically in the process of writing or editing it?

The one big change was really just a matter of adding a line of the section about three-quarters of the way through the story that solidified the idea that if Ben was grieving his brother’s death so much that he abandoned this life, whether purposefully or with disregard for his own safety, if he went through the hole to deal with that grief, then it’s the same kind of grief that might bring Emily into that hole.

I wanted to make that as clear as possible without being ham-fisted. And so I added a line about something his parents had entertained and said, maybe not directly but close: maybe Ben wasn’t running from something; he was running to something. I wanted to put that thought in the readers’ minds before I hit that beautiful monologue that Chuck Cronin delivered about why people go into these crazy caves, and then sort of bring it down with the powerful ending that belongs to Emily. So it was just a matter of adding that line.

I overwrote the thing, which I always do, I think the first draft might have been 6,000 words, and it ran at 3,400. It wasn’t Bill [Duryea, my editor,] who cut a lot out of it. It was just me trimming a lot of stuff and removing the scaffolding – a lot of self-editing. And I had turned it over to some people, which is not uncommon, for general thoughts.

I got some good advice from Jon Jefferson, who’s half of the writing team of Jefferson Bass. He regularly makes appearances on the New York Times bestseller list for a series of books called “The Body Farm.” He writes with the guy who started that body farm at the University of Tennessee, Bill Bass. Jon just has a way of applying fiction techniques to nonfiction that I’ve come to appreciate. He offered some feedback and some good advice.

You mentioned overwriting. There are so many approaches writers take to organizing their stories, from meticulous six-level outlines to just sitting down and starting. How does overwriting fit in with your approach?

I outline, so I had an outline. I knew where I wanted to go. It’s weird, because the overwriting is not the excessive use of adverbs for me. It’s including too much information, stuff that might be unnecessary distraction. For instance, the first draft included the theory that Ben could have gone into witness protection, which is something his parents were leaning toward for a while. I reported that out, and figured out they don’t do that. The federal government doesn’t fake death to protect people. And beyond that, there’s nothing in Ben’s history to suggest that he may have needed to go into witness protection.

That theory was pooh-poohed, but I included it in there, because I thought readers might have the same question themselves. It was just four or five paragraphs going down that rabbit hole, and then shutting that idea down. So going back to trim, it seemed unnecessary. I thought, “I’m not sure people will make that jump, and if they do, that’s OK, I’ll just disregard it in its entirety, not even bring it up. It’s not going to hurt the story.”

There were a couple paragraphs in the first draft about why north Florida has so many underwater caverns. I talked to a geologist at Florida State University to set the scene a little more, including this chunky bit about how these caverns are formed over the years. I was trying to teach people about geology that I was curious about. And then I thought, “There’s not a place for it. I want it to be really tight.” Even if it’s 3,400 words, I want it to read like it’s 20 inches. It’s a lot of cutting and stripping away everything that is unnecessary.

Anything else you’d like to say about the piece or about narrative journalism more generally?

I find it so incredibly useful, beyond the editors who work at the St. Pete Times, to have a team of people who aren’t going to bullshit you, who don’t mind taking a look at what you’ve written and giving you feedback. I think I sent this [Michael] Kruse, Konrad Marshall, who is in Australia now but is a great feature writer. Wright Thompson read it. Jon Jefferson read it. And each of them had a different thing to say about it, like “in this part, I think you should go here.” “I need you to establish better the dimensions of the cave at the restriction.”

This is before I even turn it over to Bill. At the point that I feel like I have a solid draft, I want feedback from people who aren’t reading it for grammar mistakes or for style and spelling. I just generally want to know “How did this story make you feel? How could it be better?”

Some of it you use, and some of it you disregard. I don’t know if I’ll ever turn in a story that I feel might be important without having distributed it to a few trustworthy friends to offer feedback early. I want to make that a regular part of this process, because I found it to be really useful.

That’s a new part of your process then?

It’s not totally new, but I think I probably sent this to more people than I have before. Normally, it’s one or two. Kruse is my regular go-to guy for feedback; we talk stories all the time. But sending it to five people? At first I thought that everybody would say something different, and it would confuse me. That’s not the way it went at all. Everybody did have some different thing to say, but I found it all useful.

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 08 2011

15:00

Matt Waite: To build a digital future for news, developers must be able to hack at the core of old systems

Editor’s Note: Matt Waite was until recently news technologist at the St. Petersburg Times, where — among many other projects — he was the primary developer behind Politifact, which won a Pulitzer Prize. He’s also been a leader for the movement to combine news and code in new and interesting ways.

Matt is now teaching journalism at the University of Nebraska and working with news orgs under the shingle Hot Type Consulting. Here, he talks about his disappointment with the pace and breadth of the evolution of coding and news apps in contemporary journalism.

Pay attention to the noise, and you start to hear signal. There’s an awakening going on — quiet and slow, but it’s there. There are voices talking about data and apps and journalism becoming more than just writers writing and editors editing. There are labs starting and partnerships forming. There was a whole conference late last month — NICAR in Raleigh — that more than ever was a creative collision of words and nerds.

It’s tempting to say that a real critical mass is afoot, marrying journalists and technologists and finally getting us to this “Future of Journalism” thing we keep hearing about. I’ve recently had a job change that’s given me some time to reflect on this movement of journalism+programming.

In a word, I’m disappointed.

Not in what’s been done. There’s some amazing work going on inside newsrooms and out, work that every news publisher and manager should be looking at with jealous, thieving eyes. Things like the Los Angeles Times crime app. It’s amazing. The Chicago Tribune elections app. ProPublica’s Docs app. The list goes on and on.

I’m disappointed on what hasn’t been done. Where we, from inside news organizations, haven’t gone. Where we haven’t been allowed to go.

To understand my disappointment, you have to understand, at a very low level, how news gets published and the minds of the people who are actually responsible for the newspaper arriving on your doorstep.

Evolution, but only on the edges

To most journalists, once copy gets through the editors, through the copy desk, and onto a page, there comes a point where magic happens and poof — the paper appears on the doorstep. But if you’ve seen it, you know it’s not magic: It’s a byzantine series of steps, through exceedingly expensive software and equipment, run in a sequence every night in a manner that can be timed with a stopwatch. Any glitch, hiccup, delay, or bump in the process is a four-alarm emergency, because at the other end of this dance is an army of trucks waiting for bundles of paper. In short, it’s got to work exactly the same way every night or piles of cash get burned by people standing around waiting.

Experimentation with the process isn’t just uncomfortable — it’s dangerous and expensive and threatens the very production of the product. In other words, it doesn’t happen unless it’s absolutely necessary and can demonstrably cut costs.

Knowing that, it’s entirely understandable why many of the people who manage newspapers — who have gone their whole professional lives with this rhythmic production model consciously and subconsciously in their minds — would view the world through that prism. Most newspapers rely on gigantic, expensive, monolithic content management systems that function very much like the production systems that print the paper every day. Inputs go in, magic happens, a website comes out. It works the same way every day or there’s hell to pay.

And around that rhythmic mode of operation, we’ve created comfortable workflows that feed it. And because it’s comfortable, there’s an amazing amount of inertia around all of it. Change is scary. The consequences down the line could be bad. We should go slow.

Now, I’m not going to tell you that experimentation is forbidden in the web space, because it’s not. But that experimentation takes place almost entirely outside the main content management system. Story here, news app there. A blog? A separate software stack. Photo galleries? Made elsewhere, embedded into a CMS page (maybe). Graphics? Same. Got something more, like a whole high school sports stats and scores system? Separate site completely, but stories stay in the CMS. You don’t get them.

In short, experiment all you want, so long as you never touch the core product.

And that is the source of my disappointment. All this talk about a digital future, about moving journalism onto the web, about innovation and saving journalism is just talk until developers are allowed to hack at the very core of the whole product. To argue otherwise is to argue that the story form, largely unchanged from print, is perfect and to change it is unnecessary. Hogwash.

The evolution of the story form

Now, I’m not saying “Trash the story form! Down with it all!” The story form has been honed over millennia. We’ve been telling stories since we invented language. A story is a very efficient means to get information from one human to another. But to believe that a story has to be a headline, byline, body copy, a publication date, maybe some tags, and maybe a photo — because that’s what some vendor’s one-size-fits-all content management system tells us is all we get — is ludicrous. It’s a dangerous blind spot just waiting to be exploited by competitors.

I believe that all stories are not the same, and that each type of story we do as journalists has opportunities to augment the work with data, structure, and context. There’s opportunities to alter how a story fits into place, and time. To change the atomic structure of what we do as journalists.

Imagine a crime story that had each location in the crime story stored, providing readers with maps that show not just where the crime happened, but crime rates in those areas over time and recent similar crimes, automatically generated for every crime story that gets written. A crime story that automatically grabs the arrest report or jail record for the accused and pulls it up, automatically following that arrestee and updating the mugshot with their jail status, court status, or adjudication without the reporter having to do anything. Then step back to a page that shows all crime stories and all crime data in your neighborhood or your city. The complete integration of oceans of crime data to the work of journalists, both going on every day without any real connection to each other. Rely on the journalists to tell the story, rely on the data to connect it all together in ways that users will find compelling, interesting, and educational.

Now take that same concept and apply it to politics. Or sports. Or restaurant reviews. Any section of the paper. Obits, wedding announcements, you name it.

Can your CMS do that? Of course it can’t. The amount of customization, the amount of experimentation, the amount of journalism that would have to go on to make that work is impossible for a vendor selling a product to do. But it’s precisely the kind of experimentation we need to be doing.

Building from the ground up

The prevailing notions in newsrooms, whether stated explicitly or just subconsciously believed, is this print-production mindset. Stories, for the most part, function as they do in print — a snapshot in time, alone by itself, unalterable after it’s stamped onto a medium and pushed into the world.

What I’ve never seen is the complete counter-argument to that mindset. The alpha to its omega. Here’s what I think that looks like:

Instead of a single monolithic system, where a baseball game story is the same as a triple murder story, general interest news websites should be a confederation of custom content management systems that handle stories of a specific type. Each system has its own features, pulling data, links, tweets and anything else that can shed light on the topic. Humans + computers. Automated aggregates where they make sense, human judgment where it’s needed. The home page is merely a master aggregation of this confederation.

Each area of the site can evolve on its own, given changes in available data, technology, or staff. It’s the complete destruction and rebuilding of every piece of the workflow. Everyone’s job would change when it came to producing the news.

Crazy, you say? Probably. My developer friends and readers with IT backgrounds are spitting their coffee out right now. But is it any more crazy than continuing to use a print-production approach on the web? I don’t think it is. It is the equal and opposite reaction: little innovation at the core vs. a complete custom rebuilding of it. Frankly, I believe neither is sustainable, but only one continues at mass scale. And I believe it’s the wrong one.

While I was at the St. Petersburg Times, we took this approach of rebuilding the core from scratch with PolitiFact. We built it from the ground up, augmenting the story form with database relationships to people, topics, and rulings (among others). We added transparency by making the listing of sources a required part of an item. We took the atomic parts of a fact-check story and we built a new molecule with them. And with that molecule, we built a national audience for a regional newspaper and won a Pulitzer Prize.

Not bad for a bunch of print journalists experimenting with the story form on the web.

I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t disappointed that PolitiFact’s success didn’t unleash a torrent of programmers and journalists and journalist/programmers hacking away on new story forms. It hasn’t and I am.

But I’m not about to blame programmers in the newsroom. Many that I talk to are excited to experiment in any way they can with journalism and the web. The enemy is what we cling to. And it’s time to let go.

February 15 2011

16:46

What we’re reading: the long arc of reporting on Scientology, a different kind of drug war, and a new narrative collaboration

The long-form buzz this last week has been all about Lawrence Wright’s piece on Scientology for the New Yorker, “The Apostate.” It’s ostensibly a profile, but it’s also investigative journalism and a compelling narrative. Wright’s deft storytelling was recently addressed on this site by Roy Peter Clark, who looked at a passage from “The Looming Tower,” Wright’s account of the run-up to the 9/11 attacks.

Wright once again delivers the narrative goods with a 25,000-word story that takes a long time to read, making you miss a meeting or two and maybe skip lunch. The kicker alone is worth the time investment, but there are lots of other elegant moments along the way.

Like many big pieces, the story didn’t happen overnight. Listen to Wright’s podcast about the story and see a sample of disputed documentation from the piece for more clues about the back-and-forth with Scientologists.

Wright himself mentions some of the prior reporting that helped pave the way. The St. Petersburg Times’ three decades of investigating Scientology began in 1979 with coverage that won the paper a Pulitzer the following year. Those efforts continue today, most recently in an ongoing project from reporters Joe Childs and Thomas Tobin. This tireless stretch of reporting laid a paper trail and provided an opportunity to use the church’s earlier responses to dig deeper.

Just how much synthesis and narrative work Wright and the St. Pete staff have done becomes apparent upon reading this impressive but jargon-heavy account from a woman named Bea, who says she spent decades serving Scientology before leaving the church. It clocks in at almost exactly the same length as Wright’s New Yorker piece, and must be invaluable for those investigating the church. At the same time, it shows just how much translation and anthropological work anyone trying to write a general audience piece about Scientology has to do.

For those looking for non-Scientology material to read, we were impressed with the clean, insightful writing of Jennifer Senior in her recent New York magazine piece, “The Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Wellbutrin, Celexa, Effexor, Valium, Klonopin, Ativan, Restoril, Xanax, Adderall, Ritalin, Haldol, Risperdal, Seroquel, Ambien, Lunesta, Elavil, Trazodone War.”

We discovered Senior’s story because of a new collaboration between Longreads and Mother Jones magazine. Each week, Mother Jones will feature a top 5 Longreads list for narrative nonfiction junkies everywhere. The partnership has just begun, but we’re already impressed with many of the choices. Check out the lists for Week 1 and Week 2.

Photo of Scientology leader David Miscavige by Robin Donina Serne of the St. Petersburg Times.

October 28 2010

16:00

Engagement: Where does revenue fit in the equation?

Our post earlier this week about philly.com’s seven-part equation to measure user engagement has sparked a lively debate in the comments. The central question: Should a news site’s engagement equation factor in revenue? If so, how?

To recap, Philly.com’s equation puts a numerical value on user engagement by calculating what percentage of the site’s users fulfill certain criteria, including viewing multiple pages, spending more than six minutes on the site, leaving comments, sharing content through social media, or returning regularly. The equation allows philly.com to track how the site is doing in terms of these individual categories of engagement, as well as averaging them out to obtain an overall engagement percentage.

But several people, starting with Sonia Meisenheimer of the St. Petersburg Times in the post itself, questioned the usefulness of an equation that doesn’t take into account how user behavior affects the news organization’s bottom line. Ravi Pathak propsed adding revenue as a coefficient, and Ophir Prusak suggested that factoring in banner-ad clickthrough rates might be a good way to do this. Jim Novo put a different spin on the question, asking:

Another way to say this: does it matter more to you what kind of content engaged visitors in the past, or what kind of content attracts visitors who are likely to remain engaged in the future?

He suggested focusing exclusively on “recency,” or the likelihood that a user will visit the site again, as an engagement metric that speaks more directly to revenue.

But Eric T. Peterson, the author of the white paper upon which philly.com’s engagement equation was based, jumped in to defend the idea of keeping revenue calculations separate from engagement:

Even in the media and publishing model, engagement and revenue are different aspects of consumer behavior. A consumer can be very engaged with your site but not be tremendously profitable…but you still want a way to measure their engagement independent of profit. Same for satisfaction and engagement — they are different aspects of the consumer experience…Work to understand what my (or any) engagement metric can tell you about your audience first, then go looking for the relationship between engagement and money.

More than a dozen people have chimed in on the issue, and the debate is still going on. You can read the full thread here.

October 26 2010

14:00

Getting beyond just pageviews: Philly.com’s seven-part equation for measuring online engagement

As web analytics reports become a mainstay of news meetings, there’s a lot of nervousness about how attention to clicks will affect news coverage, and about the perceived incentives to produce high-trafficking junk news. Earlier this week, a web research company released a good-news study arguing that stories about substantive issues like unemployment and mortgage rates can actually bring in more revenue per pageview than celebrity crotch shots.

But two months ago, philly.com, home of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, began analyzing their web traffic with an “engagement index” — an equation that goes beyond pageviews and into the factors that differentiate a loyal, dedicated reader from a fly-by. It sums up seven different ways that users can show “engagement” with the site, and it looks like this: Σ(Ci + Di + Ri + Li + Bi + Ii + Pi)

I spoke with Chris Meares, senior data analyst at Philly.com, about how the equation works, and what it’s revealed so far about the newspaper’s users on the web. The first step in measuring engagement, Meares explained, is identifying which web behaviors show that users are “engaged.”

Working off a white paper called “Measuring the Unmeasurable: Visitor Engagement” by Eric T. Peterson and Joseph Carrabis, Meares sat down with Ryan Davis, the president of Philly.com, and Wendy Warren, the vice president for content, to hash out the meaning of engagement.

One possibility they considered was measuring engagement simply through how many visitors left comments or shared philly.com content on a social media platform. But that method “would lose a lot of people,” Meares said. “A lot of our users don’t comment or share stories, but we have people — 45 percent — [who] come back more than once a day, and those people are very engaged.”

They ultimately decided on seven categories, each with a particular cutoff:

Ci — Click Index: visits must have at least 6 pageviews, not counting photo galleries

Di — Duration Index: visits must have spend a minimum of 5 minutes on the site

Ri — Recency Index: visits that return daily

Li — Loyalty Index: visits that either are registered at the site or visit it at least three times a week

Bi — Brand Index: visits that come directly to the site by either bookmark or directly typing www.philly.com or come through search engines with keywords like “philly.com” or “inquirer”

Ii — Interaction Index: visits that interact with the site via commenting, forums, etc.

Pi — Participation Index: visits that participate on the site via sharing, uploading pics, stories, videos, etc.

Those are largely the same as in the Peterson/Carrabis white paper, although they use a Feedback Index (“captures qualitative information including propensity to solicit additional information or supply direct feedback”) in place of Philly.com’s Participation Index.

The next step was to track the percentage of overall visits that satisfy each of these categories. What percent of visits to the site lasted at least five minutes? What percent included a comment or other interaction? For instance, in a recent measure of the Click Index, out of 3.9 million total visits, 698,000 were visits where a user clicked through at least six pages — which comes out to a 17.9 percent engagement rate.

As well as paying attention to the engagement rates for each category, Meares also averages the seven individual percentages to create an overall engagement score — the average percent of visits to the site that broadly qualify as “engaged.”

Because the engagement percentage typically goes down as total site pageviews go up (new visitors are, by definition, not loyal ones), Meares multiples the overall engagement percentage by the total number of pageviews to get a estimate of the total number of engaged visits.

Last week, the overall engagement was 31 percent, which translates into an estimated 1.221 million engaged visits.

Month to month, the overall engagement score for philly.com has hovered around 35 percent, Meares said. He also tracks the levels of engagement for different areas of the site, including news, sports, and living. While he said the sports score isn’t actually as high as the 73-percent figure a Philly.com exec gave us last week, it is higher than the average engagement level across the site. In September, sports page visits were 46.6 percent engaged, while news page visits were only 34.4 percent engaged.

Tracking site visits with this level of specificity is time-consuming — Meares says he devotes about a third of his full-time job to analysis of the engagement equation — but it has produced some interesting information. For instance: “We’re definitely seeing the impact of social media and how it provides engaged visitors.” While Google and Yahoo provide a lot of traffic, the visits that they send to Philly.com don’t tend to be engaged. Only 20.34 percent of visits that come through Google are engaged visits. In comparison, 33.64 percent of visits that come via Facebook are engaged.

More broadly, Meares said, tracking engagement allows Philly.com to put traffic data in perspective. If overall traffic for the site is down, but the number of engaged users are up, that still means the site is doing well, Meares said.

Newspapers in other markets have come to Philly.com for advice about measuring engagement on news sites. “It’s a really big challenge,” said Sonia Meisenheimer, digital marketing strategist for the St. Petersburg Times’ tampabay.com. “There’s not an expressed moment of loyalty. You have to basically be a diviner with a divining rod and go around and tap on all these different things.”

Meisenheimer said she found philly.com’s engagement equation “fascinating” but impractical for her requirements. “They can do this because they have a web analytics person full time looking at ‘how do we measure success?’” she said. “We could never sustain the reporting and tracking.”

While the equation might provide interesting feedback to editors, Meisenheimer said she thought the results it produced were too complicated. In a competitive market, businesses want to compare different web outlets on apples-to-apples factors like total audience and local audiences. She said tampabay.com would measure engagement in a much simpler way, focusing on registration numbers and their brand index, or how many people come to the site through a bookmark or by searching for terms like “St. Pete Times” or “tampabay.com.”

Internally, she said the most important number for tampabay.com is simply revenue per unique visitor. “My question to philly.com is: how does this help you make more money? Because I don’t see that in the equation.”

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