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June 24 2013

13:42

How’d you find that hijacker story, Brendan Koerner?

Brendan Koerner‘s new book, The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, dropped last week to critical acclaim. It tells the story of a pair of unlikely hijackers (a “troubled Vietnam vet;” a “mischievous party girl”) against the backdrop of American air travel in the 1960s and ’70s, when a hijacking occurred nearly once a week. Koerner writes:

Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 11.29.17 AM

Koerner goes on to hold his readers in thrall. Of the book the New York TimesDwight Garner wrote: “…It’s such pure pop storytelling that reading it is like hearing the best song of summer squirt out of the radio. Both the author and his subjects are so audacious that they frequently made me laugh out loud.” Garner’s engaging synopsis:

The best move that Mr. Koerner makes…is wrapping all his information around one incredible single story, that of a veteran named Roger Holder and an imposingly beautiful would-be hippie named Cathy Kerkow, who in 1972 hijacked Western Airlines Flight 701, on its way from Los Angeles to Seattle, as a vague protest against the Vietnam War.

bookauthorpageThis event started small. It grew big and shaggy, as if a vision concocted by the director Robert Altman. It became the longest-distance skyjacking in American history. The plane ended up in Algiers.

Along the way, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver and Jean-Paul Sartre became involved. Astrology charts were consulted midflight, and a lot of marijuana was smoked while cruising over the American heartland. Mr. Holder and Ms. Kerkow joined the mile-high club. Did I mention that while they were in the air, a second plane was hijacked over American airspace?

The couple became folk heroes of a sort, Bonnie and Clyde at 33,000 feet. Later they would mingle in Paris with movie stars and the social elite…. 

Koerner, who writes for Wired and others, told Longreads how he came across the idea:

On the morning of October 11, 2009, I encountered the 616-word newspaper story that would change my life. It was a New York Times report about a man named Luis Armando Peña Soltren, a former Puerto Rican nationalist who had helped hijack a Pan Am jet to Cuba in 1968. After spending the next 41 years living in Fidel Castro’s socialist ‘paradise,’ he had decided that he could no longer bear to remain apart from the wife and daughter he had left behind. So at the age of 66, Soltren had voluntarily returned to the United States. He had been arrested the moment he stepped off his plane at JFK Airport; he now faced a possible life sentence if convicted of air piracy.

I was first struck by how much Soltren’s longing for his family had slowly swelled as the years flew by; it had taken him over four decades to muster the courage to risk his freedom for a chance to see his wife and daughter again. (I’ve always been drawn to tales of fugitives and exiles, who must often pay a steep psychological price in order to reinvent themselves.) But the more I thought about Soltren’s predicament, the more I was intrigued by its historical element—namely, the fact that he and two comrades had actually managed to hijack a Boeing 707 to Cuba in the first place. The New York Times piece gave the impression that such crimes were run-of-the-mill during the Vietnam Era. Given the airport security gauntlets we’re forced to endure these days, that seemed an almost unfathomable notion.

Read the rest here, on Longreads, along with an excerpt from the book.

Further Koerner reading recommendations:

—Koerner dissects Scott Anderson’s “The Hunger Warriors” for “Why’s this so good?”
—”How’d you find that secret-compartments story, Brendan Koerner?” in which he backstories a Wired piece.
Piano Demon: the globe-trotting, gin-soaked, too-short life of Teddy Weatherford, the Chicago jazzman who conquered Asia, via The Atavist

May 09 2013

16:42

TIMES’ RICK BERKE: Video Will Become as “Central” as Text on the Web and the Printed Paper

The New York Times, long a pioneer in producing feature video for the Web, is readying a significant expansion of its video news programming, says Times veteran editor Rick Berke, who has the new title of  senior editor and director of video content development.

In this interview with Beet.TV, the former assistant managing editor says that video will become “as central” to the Times offering as text on the web and the printed paper.

Berke’s new role as a video editorial czar, along with recent appointment of Rebecca Howard as GM of Times video who came from AOL,  are part of an institutional push to create more video under the paper’s new CEO Mark Thompson,  a former BBC director general.

Last month, the Times lifted its paywall restriction of video views.  Earlier this week, the paper launched a new documentary series.

March 29 2013

14:24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen shot 2013-03-27 at 12.48.09 PM

August 10 2012

14:56

Viewfinder: Video journalism that works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The three areas: planning, execution and assembly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

April 27 2012

14:39

Kevin Sack on kidney transplants, kickers, the myth of the daily/narrative disconnect and “The Little Mermaid”

For our latest Notable Narrative we chose Kevin Sack’s “60 Lives, 30 Kidneys, All Linked,” a New York Times story about an unprecedented chain of kidney transplants. We admired the story as a deft and moving example of explanatory narrative, and because Sack, a two-time Pulitzer winner, chose an unlikely protagonist, with deeply touching consequences. How did he pull it off? Here’s our recent telephone conversation, edited for length and clarity:

You were dealing with a huge amount of complicated information. Could you talk a bit about how you organized it, and how you presented it in such a graceful, moving way?

To report “60 Lives,” the New York Times’ Sean Patrick Ferrell, Kevin Sack and Nicole Bengiveno scrubbed in for six surgeries.

It sounds a little silly to say that a story like this wrote itself, but to some extent the material was so compelling that it made the job a little bit easier. There were certain things that I knew were going to have to be included in the roughly 5,000 words I was allotted. Pretty much from the beginning I felt there was going to be a certain logic to writing it in a roughly chronological way, or at least with an emphasis on the first link in the chain and the last link, and with the rest of the story composed of equal parts explanation of how the chains work – the medicine, and what I witnessed in the operating rooms – and the history of these chains, and the best human stories that I could find from within the chain. Before I started reporting, I assumed that at every link there would be a great narrative tale. By definition there had to be: Somebody’s giving up a part of themselves for a loved one. How uninteresting could it be? The challenge was gonna be to find out about as many of those links as possible in the time allotted, given the other things I was going to have to accomplish, and then picking out the best tales. When you look at the story there’s only a handful of stories in it, out of the 30 transplants. There were a lot of great stories left on the cutting room floor on this one, sort of by necessity.

The biggest decision I had to make in terms of how to structure and write it – I longed to simplify the story by focusing on a smaller number of people. I was concerned all along that even if I minimized the number of characters there would be too many characters. I didn’t want it to get bogged down in a long list of names. People wouldn’t be able to keep it straight. And the stories would start to dilute each other. Ultimately I decided that that was wrongheaded.

What do you mean?

The central character was the chain itself. And by definition the chain consisted not of a handful of people but of 60 people. What made it miraculous was that there were 60 participants and that these kidneys flowed relatively seamlessly from one link to the next. And so I decided that to focus on a central character kind of undercut what the story was all about. Once I wrapped my head around that, I think I got more comfortable with the notion of doing it the way I did, with a number of central characters. I kind of dip in and out of each of their tales rather quickly, mainly because I have to. As I was reporting the story, Amy Harmon’s great piece about the autistic couple in love ran, and I was envious because she was able to tell a story that essentially was about the socialization of autistic people through the eyes of a single couple. I was a little jealous and wanted to find a way to do that, but then quickly decided that the point of the (kidney) story is that there were 60 characters, not that there were two.

Where did this story come from?

I’m certainly not the first person to write about these chains. There was a New England Journal of Medicine article in, I think, ’09 that was about the first of these chains that were structured this way, with a Good Samaritan starting a donation to the waiting list and then non-simultaneous operations. So there was a flurry of stories after that, about these chains. I was covering Obamacare at the time. We were sort of in the thick of legislative battle, and it wasn’t something I was going to be able to get to at that point but I filed it away as being interesting.

I had a change of jobs back in the fall, where I got assigned to this new team of reporters created by Jill Abramson to do enterprise stuff on lifestyles. It was sort of broadly defined, and my part was that I going to continue to write about health-related issues. I had a list of story ideas that I put in front of my new editor, Adam Bryant, and he quickly got interested in the kidney-chain story. So I went out to see sort of what had been written, whether there was any room left to do something interesting, looking for, you know, an angle that would sort of give us a reason to do it, and to do it in a big way. My third or fourth call was to Garet Hil, whom I’d started to hear about and read about. He was in the middle of what was going to be the longest chain ever constructed. So I suddenly had my angle. I took it back to Adam and to others at the paper and there was a lot of enthusiasm about it and resources put into it quickly.

Such as?

A very quick decision to make it a big multimedia project. So: photographers assigned, graphic artists assigned, interactive designers assigned, a video journalist assigned. And sort of involvement from people on the masthead at the paper in terms of getting their attention and early signoff, an assumption that we’d probably do it at two pages long. All those things were in place pretty quickly.

Where in the chain was the transplant process at that point?

They were exactly halfway through. I found out about it in early November, and they were in the middle of this long bridge, as they call it, between donations. This was a point where a recipient had been transplanted – their paired donor had yet to donate, typically for some sort of logistical reason. This was the longest pause in the chain. It was from I think late September to early December, almost two months.

Which people in the chain? Could we look at it that way?

Identify which ones?

Yeah.

I think it was No. 16, Rebecca Clark. Yeah. John Clark, No. 15, had received his transplant, and his wife, Rebecca Clark, did not donate until Dec. 5. He had been transplanted on Sept. 28. My initial concern was, Well I’m not gonna be in on the beginning of this and that’s gonna be awkward, to do a narrative that way, because I’m gonna have some stuff that’s much more vivid than the rest of it. In retrospect, I think it ended up being an advantage. First of all, it cut the time of the project in half. For a project like this it was relatively quick: 3 1/2 months from conception to publication.

Wow.

And also, it made what I did see fresher, I think. It wasn’t that difficult to go back and reconstruct the first half of it. And the timing worked out kind of just right, because once I found out about the chain from Garet it gave me a month to get my ducks in a row before surgeries actually started again. So I was able to spend that time reconstructing the first half. I went to New York and spent a day with him at his office on Long Island. I interviewed a lot of doctors and people in the field, read a lot of journal articles, and also was able to get the rest of our team up and moving. They started collecting names and IDs and photos of people in the first half of the chain. Which was a process. So the timing worked out nicely.

I spent most of December kind of running. We had a sort of interesting decision to make: We had a meeting in New York with all the people involved – we had to make decisions about where we were gonna go in terms of actually being at the hospital and watching procedures and interviewing patients. Part of that was gonna be driven by who we thought was interesting given what I knew at that point about the chain, and part of it was gonna be driven by pure logistics. I knew that I wanted to be present for the end of it because I was going to highlight the last recipient. And there also was this great flurry of procedures on the penultimate day at UCLA. There were six surgeries from dawn to dusk that day. So I figured that would be a great place to be, and then fly with the last kidney to Chicago for transplant. But I was worried that what if the chain breaks before we get there, which definitely was possible.

One of the first things I did the first month was, Garet shared all the emails that he sent and received relative to the first part of the chain, and you could see all these different points where things had broken down for one reason or another, and he had had to repair breaches. So I knew that this chain that’s supposed to be 30 transplants long could end up being 17 transplants long and if I was going to be there for the last three or four I’d have nothing to write about. So we decided to pick a surgery early in December, when the chain first started back up, to go and eyewitness, and to focus on those participants so that if disaster struck we’d have something.

I don’t know if you’ve looked at all the stuff online or not –

It’s killer.

We ended up doing a video piece about Cesare and Josephine Bonventre – he’s from Brooklyn, she’s from Toronto, they’re mentioned briefly in the print story because they’re the only example in the chain of a compatible pair, meaning she could’ve donated to cousins, she could’ve donated directly to him, but by donating down the line instead he was able to get an even better matched kidney. Which is kind of the next wave in these chains: It expands matching potential by including compatible pairs. So the day before the surgery I went with a photographer (Nicole Bengiveno) and videographer (Sean Patrick Ferrell) to his place in Bensonhurst and interviewed the two of them at length, went with him to his final dialysis treatment at a clinic in Brooklyn – again, with cameras in tow – and the next morning we all showed up at the hospital at 4:30 in the morning and watched them from the beginning of the day to the end of the day, including both their surgeries. Then we had something in the can that we could use to construct the story if we had to. They’re sort of highlighted on the interactive graphic.

You guys do interactive so well.

It’s great to work with them. It’s real value added to what we do, particularly for a story like this that’s so graphic in nature.

The permissions on this must have been tricky, getting all 60 to participate – well, 59 – for their names to be used, for their photographs to be used. How did you handle that logistically? And why didn’t that 60th person, the one in silhouette in the grid, want to do it?

HIPAA obviously prohibits hospitals from releasing these names or anything about these folks without their express permission in the form of a signed, written waiver. There are 17 hospitals involved. So I went to each of the hospitals. From Garet, I had sort of a spreadsheet that showed the course of the chain with some detail: the gender of the donor and recipient, the year of their birth, a code name – no real names – and the hospital that they were gonna be at on the day of the surgery. That’s pretty much what I had. So I was then able to go to the hospitals, explain the story to them, get them to go to the patients, get the waivers and then put me in touch with the patients.

Wait a minute, though. It’s a miracle that you got any of these people, much less 60. Anytime you have other people asking permission for you, you know how that goes –

Right. The one advantage that I had in this case was that the people doing the asking had incentive to get people to yes. If they got people to yes it meant that their hospital might be mentioned in the story. And these were the PR people who were usually involved. So most of the hospitals were eager to pursue it. And I obviously did some coaching, to fully explain the story to people and what we were doing and how the information would be used. The other advantage that we had, a lot of people who go through this process become real zealots about it – they want to spread the word. They feel that they’re saving lives and that (Good Samaritan donation is) an underutilized strategy and if more people knew about it more lives could be saved.

The person that said no was one of the first that I pursued, because I was basically going in order. I called this hospital in New Jersey, Saint Barnabas, and they were just sort of stunned that this person had declined. They thought maybe he was just having a bad day. They thought it was uncharacteristic and unexpected that he would say no, so I sort of maintained hope. We continued on and you can imagine what it’s like – it’s sort of clerical. You send out these requests and some come back pretty quickly and others you have to follow up on three and four times and eventually they started to come through. But yeah there are 59 pictures and one blank.

It does speak to some people’s reluctance and fear about this whole thing –

Right. I mean, obviously I have no sense for his reasoning for not wanting to disclose. It could be any of a number of things; I respect all of them. I was surprising that such a high percentage of people were willing to put their names and faces out there. Sometimes people just don’t want others to know that they’ve been ill or – I mean there are all kinds of reasons for them to not join in. They just cherish their privacy and understandably so. But there was a bit of a mission-oriented feeling for this, I think, for a lot of the participants.

Beautiful writing. There’s this one sentence: “On and on the chain extended, with kidneys flying from coast to coast, iced down in cardboard boxes equipped with GPS devices and stowed on commercial aircraft.” That’s a whole procedure that you just managed to collapse as one gorgeous sentence. You’ve collapsed time, you’ve made procedure easy for the reader to follow.

one of Sack's notebooks

One thing I did that I don’t always do, even for long narrative projects like this, is, I outlined. I sort of methodically over a period of days went through my notes, kind of made a list of key points and key scenes and key characters, and then roughly organized them. And pretty much followed that structure. It certainly was deliberate, to try to write it in a restrained manner because the material itself was so strong and emotional and so potentially prone to purple prose. You do enough of those and you come to realize that if your material’s good enough you just don’t need to overwrite it. Not that there’s ever a reason to overwrite anything, but you know what I’m saying. Beyond that, I really do feel like I just sort of followed the outline and constructed these scenes. I had to show discipline in terms of what we included and excluded. The original draft was not that much longer than the final one – I think just a few hundred words, and lots and lots of editors touched it before it got in the paper. I must say, all made really good suggestions and improved the story.

There’s one interesting tale about all this. The last line of editing is (Executive Editor) Jill Abramson. On the Friday before publication – and I think it was the Friday that she was rushing out the door to fly to Beirut to console Anthony Shadid’s widow and children – but before she got on the plane she ordered that I change the kicker on the story.

Oh!

So here we are, it’s been through umpteen levels of editing at this point and everybody’s signed off on it, and the executive editor is ordering up a change at the last minute. The issue was – the initial kicker had to do with this story that the final recipient, Don Terry, tells, that I just found irresistible, about how in late November, before he knows that he’s getting this kidney, he’s out with his cousin and her two young children, and they go to this sporting good store because they know Santa is gonna be there for photographs with kids. And the kids get on Santa’s lap and then as a goof Don and the cousin get on Santa’s lap and Santa says, “So, young man, what do you want for Christmas?” And Don says, “Well, Santa, the only thing that I want is a kidney. That’s all I want.” And Santa sort of plays along, looks him in the eye and says, “I think you’ve been a good boy this year. I think you’re gonna get that kidney.”

Ugh.

And two weeks later he gets the phone call from the transplant surgeon saying: “You’ve got the kidney.” Jill thought it was too much, that it was over the top and melodramatic, even though it happened and was real. Her point was exactly yours. The rest of the story had been written in this restrained sort of underwritten way, to some extent, and this was going to be jarring to the reader. This was all communicated to me through deputies but I think her sense was that I’d just sort of gotten to the end and I just couldn’t help myself.

(laughter)

I just couldn’t get all the way through without letting one rip.

That’s awesome.

So I sort of resisted and kicked the dirt a little bit, but in the end it didn’t matter because she’s the executive editor and I’m not. But in retrospect I think she was probably right.

I think so too.

And we found a decent alternate.

You found a great alternate. It’s forward-looking, whereas a Santa ending would’ve been a dead end.

I hate to say it but sometimes the executive editor of the New York Times can be a smart person.

So, the response to this piece – what has been the impact so far?

Well, they got a nice surge of offers of Good Samaritan donors both at the National Kidney Registry and at transplant centers individually. The National Kidney Registry had 426 donor registrations, Good Samaritan donors, in February, when the story ran. That compares to 120 in January, 81 in December, 79 in November, 70 in October. And then they had 300 patient referrals to member centers. These are patients coming in with paired donors, and that was more than three times the usual number. There was lots of sort of media follow-up. Diane Sawyer did a big piece on ABC. Lots of local TV. BBC did a piece.

And then there was a recent conference involving the debate about whether to create a national registry.

There was this consensus conference near D.C. where a bunch of specialists got together – surgeons, transplant coordinators, nurses, patients, insurers – to discuss the future of the field and look at ways to increase the number who get transplants this way. One of the key things on the table is whether there should be a single national registry, which the mathematicians and to some extent common sense tell us would presumably increase the number of transplants made possible. The bigger your pool the more potential matches you can make. A committee of this group recommended doing exactly that, which for the moment is likely to mean exactly nothing. It’s purely a recommendation. It’s a sense of direction of a committee of this group.

There’s a lot of transplant politics involved. These different registries compete with each other. They have different philosophies. They’re all virtually unregulated by the government at this point and there’s nothing constraining them from operating the way they want to. It’s not my sense that there’s going to be much change anytime soon. Garet Hil, the guy that’s featured in my story, has the most successful of these registries and he doesn’t see much of a reason to change the way his is working. He feels like he’s got a model that’s getting transplants done, and he’s concerned that any sort of merger, particularly a merger that puts him more at the mercy of government regulation and oversight, is going to decrease the number of transplants he can accomplish.

Speaking of Hil, this isn’t a traditional narrative in that we’re not following one or two main characters, we’re not using a ton of dialogue, but you are following, as you said, the arc of the chain itself and then looking at these little narratives along the curve. But there’s this sort of overarching hero in Hil – the former Marine recon ranger with a background in quantitative math, who started the registry after his own kid got sick. Another writer might’ve decided that that guy was the narrative and folded the chain around his story. It was a riskier and much more complicated piece of storytelling, what you did.

I think I was driven by my interests – and they were varied – in this subject. I was completely captivated by him. I think he’s a fascinating guy. But I thought there were other fascinating parts to the chain. And to some extent, because he very much deliberately distances himself for ethical and legal reasons from the participants in the chain, if the story had focused more on him it would’ve been at the cost of the other parts of the process, which were all pretty darn compelling. I mean, until I wrote the piece he didn’t have names for these people, for the most part. So more of a focus on him would’ve meant it would’ve been harder to humanize the chain. It would’ve been more about the math of what he does and his personal story.

When you described him as “Disney-hero handsome” which Disney character did you have in mind?

The one that I really had in mind – it ends up being the wrong one to have had in mind because as I thought about it more, he’s not a hero, he’s an oaf. In “Beauty and the Beast” I’m thinking Gaston, who is Belle’s pursuer. I’m extremely familiar with the story right now because I’ve just watched three performances of my stepdaughter in a middle-school production. But yeah, he’s got the same sort of cleft chin. Lots of hair. And he’s not heroic at all – he’s an anti-intellectual. Surely there were other heroes. Prince Eric maybe? In “The Little Mermaid?” I don’t know. Don’t you find Hil Disney-hero handsome?

Uh-huh.

He’s happily married.

Good for her, is what I can say about that. I love how you de-glorified Ruzzamenti by mentioning his carousing, and his “unsmiling presence at work,” and his “surliness,” and his inattention to his parents and grandmother. He’s real.

That’s what I loved about him. He’s such a quirky guy and would be the first to tell you so. We had a really good time interviewing him. I talked to him a couple of times by phone and then spoke to him at his home when we flew out to UCLA for the last part of the chain. He lives in Riverside, which is an hour or two away, so it was convenient. He’s just a real character. I’m not sure that I give the reader a real way to understand him because I’m not sure that I completely understand why somebody, who by his own admission may not be the sunniest or most giving person every moment of every day, becomes an incredibly giving person at this one moment.

Maybe it’s redemption. Maybe if you’re an ass your whole life and you get the chance not to be, you take it.

Yeah. I think there’s certainly – he didn’t want me to overemphasize the notion of his Buddhism and its impact on his decision, because I think he feels he had this in him before he discovered Buddhism, but there’s a certain karma for him. I don’t think he felt, “I’m gonna go do a good thing and it’ll pay off in the next life,” but I do think he has a sense that the good things you do in life at some point have an impact.

The play-by-play of Conor Bidelspach’s kidney removal was so descriptively written: “The slush in the blue bowl turned fruit-punch pink.” And you wrote about a plastic bag knotted shut “like a goldfish brought home from the pet store.” Clearly you’re the father of young children.

(laughter)

You were there for that, though, obviously. You scrubbed in?

Yeah, from beginning to end I saw six different procedures at three different hospitals: the nephrectomies, which is the kidney recovery, and then the transplants. In each case I had photographers and video journalists in the O.R. with us. We scrubbed in, we were in scrubs, with masks and hairnets and note pads and cameras. The doctors seemed to be completely unfazed by the fact that we were there. They’ve done the procedure 100 times a year. And I think two of the hospitals required that we have TB tests. One of them required us to sign various waivers in case there was any havoc in the operating room, any trouble that we caused. But it was all fairly smooth. We just sort of took turns stepping up on a little stepstool just behind the surgeons, peering over into the abdomens as they did their work. With the nephrectomies, there were these screens all around the operating room, showing what’s going on, because it’s all done laparoscopically and there’s cameras inside the cavity, showing what’s happening.

Interesting that you wrote that someone “poured” a kidney. Interesting verb.

I’ve got this vague recollection that that wasn’t the first word I used. An editor may have come up with that choice. I may have said “emptied” or something like that.

“Poured,” with reference to a human organ, is odd in a good way. Unexpected in a good way.

It definitely helped to see the procedures multiple times. The first time out you’re just sort of absorbing it and each time you see it you may think a little more in metaphor and imagery.

Getting back to a conversation you and I were having earlier: We were talking about long-form narrative versus daily reporting.

I’ve never seen the disconnect between hard news writing and narrative reporting and writing. I try to use the same skills. If I’m covering a hard-news story I’m looking for the same narrative elements and the same imagery and the same way of describing something metaphorically that I would when I’m reporting a narrative. I mean, I have the same opportunities to use it, depending on the story and how much space I’ve got. It’s always seemed to me that even the hardest news story is helped by narrative elements. Obviously you deal with them in different ways depending on your format. But I’ve just never seen the distinction. Both ways of telling a story are equally credible in terms of getting at the truth, which is ultimately our goal and our mission.

*Photos courtesy of Kevin Sack

April 25 2012

15:43

Worldcrunch wants to be the Internet’s Rosetta Stone for news

As the translation-based news service Worldcrunch approaches the one-year anniversary of their launch, it’s also tweaking its business approach in three key ways that co-founders Jeff Israely and Irène Toporkoff hope will help it thrive.

Worldcrunch’s central goal is to find news that wouldn’t otherwise appear in English-speaking news sources at a time when U.S. news organizations have slashed their budgets for international coverage. You may recognize Israely, a former Time correspondent, from his regular column for Nieman Lab about the process of launching a news startup. A year in, he’s getting a better sense of what it takes to keep one going.

First, Worldcrunch has plans to increase its output. The most straightforward way to do this, as many news organizations have found, is to aggregate from other sources. But Worldcrunch will do so with a twist: Call it translaggregating — translating what you aggregate.

“That’s going to allow us to really be more dynamic, more reactive, and expand the kind of stories we can produce, and how we can produce them, and when we can produce them,” Israely told me from Paris, where Worldcrunch is based.

One way the site aims to bump up the volume of aggregated material is through a crowdsourced initiative it’s calling “Crunch It.” For now, Worldcrunch is calling on volunteers to nominate articles for translation, “English-ize” them, and vote for the best finished pieces. But Israely said the Worldcrunch team is still figuring out exactly how process will work. He calls the initative “in the neighborhood of crowdsourcing,” but he also wants to put certain quality safeguards in place. Making sure a story is right for Worldcrunch isn’t simply about impeccable multilingual skills — it has to be a story that doesn’t already appear in English.

“They think that content is self-generating, and you just need the tools to filter it, to aggregate it, to monetize it. We don’t agree with that.”

“In addition, the original story itself has to stand up,” Israely said. “It has to be a well written story. It has to be a story that has enough background material that allows it to travel. If Le Monde is writing a story about French schools, and if the story has too many references to things that only French people know, we’d have to transform the story and put in all kinds of context — our partners allow us to adapt the story and add in context when necessary — but if the whole process becomes rewriting and adding in context, it’s probably not a good story for us.”

The second key change Worldcrunch is making: it’s putting up “some kind of metered model” paywall “before summer.”

But even as the paywall goes up, Worldcrunch is shifting away from the idea that its website will be the sole hub for its readers. Arguably the most important development to the Worldcrunch business model is that it’s forging partnerships with English-language publications that will pay for translated content. Worldcrunch is already selling content to the Toronto Star, and is in talks with a U.S. publication about a similar deal.

Here’s how it works: A non-English news organization gives Worldcrunch permission to translate its content. Worldcrunch then posts the translated content to its website, and offers to sell it to English-language news organizations. Those organizations pay Worldcrunch an undisclosed amount, and Worldcrunch gives the original content producer a 40 percent cut.

Israely and Toporkoff see this distribution model as a win-win-win: The original publication gets a much wider audience for its stories (plus some extra revenue); English-language publications provide valuable international news to their readers; Worldcrunch can pay its bills and keep the cycle going.

With the slogan “all news is global,” the site operates with three editors and about a dozen freelance translators. Working with media partners across Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Worldcrunch translates about 30 articles per week into English from German, Turkish, French, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish. Worldcrunch aims to do what even the old network of foreign bureaus had trouble doing: providing original, domestically produced coverage for an international audience.

Some examples that stand out for Israely and Torpokoff include diverse viewpoints about the economic situation in Turkey, coverage of tensions in the Middle East, an interview with maligned Italian former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi about his plans to resign, Russian election coverage by and for Russians, and a French-authored article about why French people reacted differently to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal than residents of other countries. (Israely also points out the benefit of getting original French perspective about more lighthearted topics like perfume and food.)

Press freedom as a moving target

Earlier this month, German-language newspaper Die Welt published a column about a controversial poem penned by Nobel Prize winner and former Nazi Günter Grass (the poem was published in another German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung), and Worldcrunch translated it.

While you could have read about the scandal in The New York Times, that story — published three days after the Worldcrunch piece — didn’t provide the same direct cultural perspective (the Times coverage has a joint byline from Israel- and Berlin-based correspondents). The Times reports that Grass’ views “are relatively common among European intellectuals,” though “strung together” in a way that incited outrage. But Henryk Broder’s column for Die Welt actually articulates those views in the context of the Grass imbroglio.

“The fact that [Grass] is accused of being anti-semitic and here you have the German press — this German writer in the German press — saying he is anti-semitic, and it’s not normal — I think that makes it interesting,” Toporkoff said. “Within Germany, there is debate. We have chosen to publish something that we found very interesting that says a lot about what’s happening in Germany, but also what happened in general.”

Then there is the “meta-example” that Israely gives of an article — from China’s Economic Observer — highlighting the global scarcity of press freedom.

“This was the Beijing paper reporting on this almost over-the-top sort of rabid, gossipy Hong Kong press right before the elections there,” Israely said. “Sort of explaining to Chinese readers how this is what a free press looks like with all its warts, and the beauty of being truly free and going after a candidate and sticking cameras into his backyard.”

Along those same lines, working with a (relatively) independent newspaper out of China can be unpredictable. Though there are certain boundaries he says The Economic Observer won’t cross (they won’t write about Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, for instance), he has been surprised by how provocative, lively, and sometimes irreverent the paper can be.

“It’s a moving target, because it’s changing before our eyes,” Israely said. “The Economic Observer in Beijing actually does get shut down now and again. The site does get shut down, and our contact there says they’re in the penalty box essentially.”

Israely says that establishing partnerships in the first place is the hardest part. His job is to convince them of a principle that he says was best summed up in a recent TechCrunch article: Whoever creates the best content at the lowest cost possible will create the most value over time.

“It’s a very simple formula, but I think a lot of energy has been spent over the past few years where people — particularly on the tech side, thinking about the news business — they think that content isn’t an issue,” Israely said. “They think that there’s no shortage of content. They think that content is self-generating, and you just need the tools to filter it, to aggregate it, to monetize it. We don’t agree with that. We don’t think that news content just produces itself. It has to be produces and I don’t care about the labels — whether it’s journalists producing it, or in our case translators. But there needs to be a layer of journalism, or layers of journalism, to make it quality content.”

Photo of Earth by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center used under a Creative Commons license.

April 19 2012

14:26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

“Maybe he could use that love against them.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow it survived an explosion the soldier may not.

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

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

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

It says the soldier’s name is Eddie Ward.

It says he is 19 years old.

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

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

And, suddenly, Boogaard started to win fights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 12 2012

19:30

Arthur Sulzberger’s hiking buddy has leadership advice that news executives should hear

New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is indeed set to go hiking in the Himalayas with Michael Useem, the director of Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, next month.

Useem is the man one Times reporter suggested was Sulzberger’s “new management guru,” a characterization the Times disputes. Sulzberger and Useem have gone on this kind of excursion in the past (to Antarctica, New York Times spokesman Bob Christie told me). This time around, Christie says, Sulzberger will present a case study to a group of Wharton MBA students about the decision behind publishing material from WikiLeaks and the implications of that decision: “the legal jeopardy, the PR fallout, reader reactions, advertising reactions, and the decisions you have to make as the head of a company with these kinds of controversies.” He’ll also present a case study about the launch of the newspaper’s paywall.

But guru or no guru, change management is a field of research that’s of particular interest to the news business these days. News executives need to figure out how to get large organizations to abandon old habits, build new products, and create new cultures in the newsroom and on the business side. There’s plenty of evidence from other industries on how to manage that kind of a process. What kind of leadership advice might Useem have that Sulzberger — or anyone else in the news industry — should heed?

I wasn’t able to get in touch with Useem, but I did download his latest book: The Leader’s Checklist: 15 Mission-Critical Principles, published by Wharton Digital Press last year. The price, thanks to the market-disrupting powers of ebooks, is just $2.99 at Amazon, which means for the cost of a latte you can have a taste of what Sulzberger may find interesting in Useem’s work.

The top five principles on his list go something like this:

1. Articulate a vision
2. Think and act strategically
3. Express confidence in those who work with and for you
4. Take charge
5. Make good and timely decisions, and make sure they’re executed

Useem also advises leaders to communicate persuasively, to know when to delegate authority, to stay close to those directly engaged with the company’s work, and to help individuals see how a larger vision/strategy will affect them personally. So far so good — these are all easily applicable to a news environment.

He cautions leaders to dampen “over-optimism,” which may not seem necessary in the doom-and-gloom corners of the traditional news industry. But the idea is also about fighting the hubris that accompanies success. Keeping optimism in check also means preparing the organization for “unlikely but extremely consequential events.” Sounds newsy to me.

Throughout the book, Useem uses leadership examples from major corporations, the military, and government agencies. He publishes the transcript from a conversation about leadership that he had with Laurence Golborne, the Chilean Minister of Mines who helped manage the dramatic rescue operation in that country two years ago, and a transcript of an interview with New York Fire Chief Joseph Pfeifer about 9/11 and the lack of information sharing between officials that day.

The upcoming hike location is a fitting choice for Useem: One of the recent books he co-authored is The India Way: How India’s Top Business Leaders Are Revolutionizing Management. He summed up some of the ideas from that book in a 2010 article for The Wall Street Journal:

Indian executives see their most important goal as serving a social mission, not maximizing shareholder value, as in the U.S. They take pride in enterprise success — but also in family prosperity, regional advancement, and national renaissance. When asked about their priorities, Indian executives ranked investor interests below strategy, culture, or employees, much the inverse of what we usually hear from Western executives.

In The Leader’s Checklist, Useem writes that the critical quality that leaders most often lack is remembering to “honor the room.” Here’s a piece of advice for news executives to remember:

In a discussion with one person, a team, a class, an off-site meeting, before you get off-stage, take a moment to tell the people you are with — those who may be ready to follow you — that you know who they are, that you respect what they’re doing, and that you’re extremely grateful for their hard work, upon which you’re going to get your job done.

March 30 2012

14:59

Documentary photographer Lori Waselchuk’s “Grace Before Dying” and the ethics of narrative activism

Lori Waselchuk describes herself as a “documentary photographer and arts activist.” We’ve wanted to talk with her for a while about her latest project, “Grace Before Dying,” which focuses on a prison hospice program in Louisiana. In light of the recent discussions around visual documentary and accountability spurred by “Kony 2012,” we also thought she might address the ethical quagmire that documentary activists can fall into when creating stories in communities outside their own.

Waselchuk has worked as a freelance photojournalist for many major U.S. newspapers and magazines. In addition to “Grace Before Dying,” her long-term personal projects include years of gathering images in Africa and tracking the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We talked with her earlier this month by phone about how she approaches her work, and about simplicity vs. complexity in storytelling. What follows are excerpts from our conversation and images from “Grace Before Dying.”

You’ve done freelance photojournalism for Newsweek, Time, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times – and other Times that I’m probably not remembering. And then you have these portfolios of extended projects, like your work documenting a prison hospice program or a hurricane. How do you think of the short-term assignments vs. the long-term projects?

Usually, the short-term assignments are how I get out into the world and I get to learn more about what’s going on. I learn best when I’m face to face with things. And it affects me more deeply than reading about it. So usually my long-term projects come from assignments that I’ve done.

Hurricane Katrina was not just an assignment, it was my experience. So that work is coming from an entirely new place. Even though I did a lot of work for newspapers and magazines while I was working on longer-term projects about New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf, usually the assignments are where I can enrich what I know, and it provides access and introduction. And they also help me earn a living.

I’m particularly interested in “Grace Before Dying.” How did that project get started? Did it come from a photojournalism assignment? How long did you spend on it?

Yes, that started as an assignment. I was commissioned by Louisiana Magazine to do a story, which was unusual. They wanted a photo essay about this hospice program, and so that was my introduction. It took a while to get in, about three months. And then the deadline for the magazine was pushed back as far as they could push it back, but it still came up very shortly after I started working.

I realized after the magazine had published the project that I really wanted to do more work on this, so I asked for permission to come back, not with any publication waiting for work, but on my own to try to see how deeply I could tell this story that was incredibly beautiful and moving to experience and witness.

You did the short-term project, and then when you came back in a more free-form situation. Did you approach the people differently? Did you shift gears?

I didn’t come back as a different person or with a different attitude. I always had the same sort of goal, which was to try to say in photographs how important the work that the hospice volunteers were doing was, and to somehow show the complicated journey that these men were on, and the complicated space in which these men were doing this work.

So photographically, I went from a traditional 35 millimeter digital camera to using the panoramic camera as my main tool. I wanted to see if it could do close-up work. I think this camera is more traditionally thought of as a landscape camera, but I wanted to see how it would describe what I was trying to describe. I thought it worked very well, and so I changed completely how I was approaching the project photographically. I went to black and white film and pursued my personal vision of what the work could be.

Can you talk about exactly who you were photographing at Angola, and what Angola is?

Angola is the nickname given to the Louisiana State Penitentiary. It was given that name when the land that the prison was built on was a plantation, for a century and a half. It was nicknamed after the people who were brought in as slaves. Most of the slaves came from the Angola slave port. And it kept that name, but it’s really the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Louisiana’s maximum security prison.

The program I was photographing was the hospice program, where both the patients and the volunteers are incarcerated. The volunteers are incarcerated serving either life sentences or very long-term sentences, as are the patients. I was really interested in how you get to that place of incredible humanity and love and selflessness in an environment that’s designed to punish and isolate. And also coming from a history that was most likely filled with violence or hurt, they are extraordinary examples of what we are capable of as human beings.

I don’t mean to put them on a pedestal, because they definitely have their problems. They’ve got their difficult days. And they’ve got a terrible history, most of them. In spite of all of that, what mattered at that moment was someone else.

You work the humanitarian side with your projects, and the journalism side of things, too. Do you see yourself as a storyteller, an advocate or something else entirely? What are you trying to do with your work?

This is a very crucial moment for me, because I’m in the middle of what’s possible, and what’s survivable. Right now, I consider myself a storyteller, and I feel like that’s my primary mission, but I’m interested in placing my work in community.

When I’m shooting, I’m in storyteller mode, and that to me is creatively wonderful and challenging. With the “Grace Before Dying” project, I think about how important it is to have the conversation around the work.

So through that I’ve built this traveling exhibit that was designed for prisons, initially, and it continues to tour the country in all kinds of venues. It moves around through grass-roots efforts. So small organizations can bring it to their community, and they move it around their community, and they then take charge of how this body of work inspires the conversation they’re interested in maintaining and putting in front of the public.

It’s been a powerful example to me in how I can really direct thoughtful and engaging conversations based on my own work. It’s also let me research how other photographers are trying to do this kind of work and getting their work out in the world.

I guess I’m both. The storytelling comes in the gathering of images, and the advocate comes in asking, “How do we then put this in community and encourage an intellectual or an emotional conversation, or both?” You want people to be smart, and also to feel.

When you think of a print story that’s a narrative, something in the story usually changes over time. Do you think of your work as having a narrative component? How do you think of visual storytelling?

In the book, the sequence had sort of a narrative structure. It’s not about the same people, but I had different ideas and aspects of the program that I wanted to show. So I brought people through the care part, and I also wanted to describe the prison and then (go) into the final days. It felt very sequential.

I think it was important for it not to be cryptic. It’s such an emotional story, I needed to ease people through it. I approached care, the final days, and then the dignified funeral. In the book, that’s the way it went.

It went almost the same way in the exhibition. The exhibition came first and broke down the different aspects of the program. I built it for other correctional facilities to host, because I really thought people could use the information to trigger conversations on “How can we incorporate some of these things in our end-of-life care program?” or “Can we start an end-of-life care for our prison population?” So I really broke it down into the different programs and how they helped the families of the prisoners, and how they did their own caregiving, the different aspects of it. The exhibition started out as an emotional but informational project.

The film “Kony 2012” has been in the news a lot this month.

I’ve been watching it.

It’s spurred a lot of discussions about voice and who gets to document stories. As someone who has gone many times to Africa, how do you weigh the question of telling someone else’s story in pictures?

It’s been a fundamental question I have continued to ask myself. I was based in Africa for 10 years. I have been asking myself that since the beginning, and it continues to push me. And I think that, more than anything, pushes my personal projects. I feel like my personal work – I don’t make it for anybody but myself. I can control how it moves in the world and how it’s seen.

The “Grace Before Dying” project has been transformative in a way, in that I have been able to do what I do, which is make photographs that focus on human connection and empathy and have an understanding of the way I am inspired by our best – the best in us.  I’ve been able to jump outside of the working world and create something that has its own life, has its own distribution qualities. It continues to resonate with audiences.

I feel like even the traveling exhibits are collaborative. The quilts that travel with the exhibit are made by the hospice volunteers. So their hands, their work, their own visual art are part of the photographic story. That collaboration will influence my future projects. And as I think about future work, collaboration with community is going to be part of how I work in the future. How the work is placed is fundamental to an ongoing conversation that I have with myself about telling other people’s stories.

Who does it benefit? What is the value of the information of the issue versus the empowerment of the actual community being affected by the story? All of these issues continue to be part of how I work.

I think when I’m working on my own projects, when I turn the story about the hospice program into a personal project, with nobody needing this work from me, I’m able to pursue a more honest line of thinking and produce work where I can slow down and have conversations with people, like the guys at the prison.

For people just coming up, who maybe haven’t had as much time to ponder these issues, one clear suggestion that rises out of what you just said is to think about what kind of role your work will have in the community and collaborate with the community. Do you have other tips for how people can approach something like a “Grace Before Dying” project?

Look outside the traditional field of journalism for inspirations on how to get your work out. Right now I’d say the Internet can be considered traditional. To me in journalism, your feet have to be on the ground. You have to be interacting with people. You can’t report without coming face to face with people and feeling as well as hearing as well as seeing. How can you honestly translate that in different ways?

Think of a way to get your project out in different directions. You can publish in a magazine. You can publish online. You can put prints up somewhere. You can have a conversation with your subjects about how they might want to see it.

Certainly “Grace before Dying” has been published around the world by magazines and newspapers, but nothing can compare to the way an exhibit creates conversation out in the community. It gathers people around a topic in different ways and inspires different kinds of conversations. But always the conversations are intense and, I think, enlightening.

Can you talk more about “Kony 2012”?

The great thing about it is that it’s an in-your-face example of so many things. I can list like 10 things off the top of my head.

Do you want to talk about some of those things?

I was alerted to this by my 13-year-old daughter, as it seems like many people out in the field were. She came to me and talked about it. Ten years ago I (had done) a story on the reintegration camps up in northern Uganda, so I told her about my experience.

Then the emails (about “Kony 2012”) started coming in, with all kinds of different conversations: “This is good,” because now everyone knows about him, or “This is bad,” because it doesn’t really represent the situation. It got very interesting. There were people who tried to look at it broadly.

Very few people talk about who’s funding the Invisible Children, besides all the people who want wristbands to demonstrate their concern for another continent’s conflict. The source of funding is always something that needs to be gone to first, but it still hasn’t reached that point. The self-serving documentary where the subject is not the actual issue, but the person who made the documentary is the issue – you can’t get a clearer example of having a documentarian incorporate himself in a story. That was to me truly bizarre.

I struggle with the viral video a lot. I don’t see a lot that’s helpful, except for how it helps this organization. And a lot of people disagree with me, but I think that part of the thing that I like to do with my work is to introduce complexity in a way that people can absorb it and maybe start to think about it and not decry a situation by making it simple, with a good guy and a bad guy.

I hope that’s what “Grace Before Dying” does, because these are the last guys on earth that we would consider to be heroes. They’re serving life sentences in Louisiana’s maximum security prison. So I think that trips people when they see this story – and angers some, but I really believe that we are more than our worst act. We have to be.

Here I’m coming into the advocacy thing – I think our prison system is unwieldy and overarching. We need to find a way to reduce sentences to make them more in line with international standards, reduce our incarceration rate and find a way to reintegrate felons and people who have served prison time, so our prison system gets reduced rather than continuing to grow.

What do you say to those people who argue that to convey a story to a big audience, you have to take off the rough edges of the complexity? That you have to tell the truth but not get lost in the complexity?

I do think you can take off some of the rough edges, but I also really think you can draw people in with a universal. We are connected to each other in really fundamental ways, and in order to tell stories that will connect with others you have to use those tools and look for common ground.

You can start with that, but you have to deepen the conversation, and you have to be honest about who this is serving, and what your goals are. If the goal is to inform people about the ongoing war and terror that the Lord’s Resistance Army is wielding against people in East Africa, you can certainly boil it down to a few facts, but you probably need to be more specific about what’s going on and clearer about those facts. One of the things that upsets me is that I don’t believe that their goal of capturing Joseph Kony is really their goal. I’m suspicious of it. The movie was just too self-serving. I think they themselves were surprised, but I think their goal was to continue to raise funds for their organization.

I’m kind of cynical, but I just can’t imagine creating a documentary without having the research and understanding the depth of the issue. It was built for the Internet, it wasn’t built for broadcast. It was built to be something they could put up without having any sort of scrutiny before it went out in the world. There was nobody it needed to pass by before it was published; they just put it online. It just makes me wonder what their real intentions were.

All images appear courtesy of Lori Waselchuk.

January 17 2012

15:14

“Why’s this so good?” No. 28: Vanessa Grigoriadis on Britney Spears

There’s a video of Britney Spears shot in 2007, not long after Valentine’s Day. She’s pacing around a tattoo parlor, where she’s just gotten a pair of bright red lips inked on her wrist and a cross etched onto her hip. She’s bookended by men so large their silhouettes rival refrigerators, but enough of her is visible to see that her hair is freshly shorn, by her own hand as it turns out.

Britney turns and faces the camera. There is a loopy, crooked grin on her face, and her eyes, when they skip across the lens of the camera, have a feral glint to them. That expression, in combination with her buzzed skull, gives off the distinct impression of someone unhinged, someone teetering on the verge of an unknown abyss. It’s unsettling how satisfied she seems.

After that scene, in the days and weeks to come, any time Britney Spears’ name came up in conversation, whether you were a fan from the start of her meteoric fame or just someone who tuned in toward the end to watch with amusement as she married a dopey backup dancer nicknamed “meat pole,” flashed her bare derrière to the paparazzi and toddled in and out of public bathrooms barefoot, the same question arose again and again: What in the hell happened to Britney Spears? And what did it mean?

Today, in an era of Kardashians and Winehouses and “Toddlers and Tiaras,” this is the norm. But back then, it wasn’t. Britney turned her private life inside out. She put every terrible piece of it on display for us to dissect.

And in “The Tragedy of Britney Spears,” Vanessa Grigoriadis tries to understand what her demise, set against a backdrop of an unhappy country, knee-deep in an overseas war and an uncertain future, all meant.

The challenge of any journalist tasked with writing a celebrity profile is to tell readers something they don’t already know, and I’m not talking about revealing the little-known fact that your subject is actually a devout vegetarian who wanted to figure out a way to test pharmaceuticals without harming animals when she grew up, but got discovered in a shopping mall in Wyoming and things took off from there, and boy, wowee, isn’t life a strange and bizarro ride. No. I’m talking about getting an accurate portrayal of what celebrities’ worlds are like and satisfying our insatiable appetite to know what it is truly like to be famous, what life is like when all of your wildest dreams come true.

The opening graph paints a grim picture of that reality.

Grigoriadis writes,

Only a few kids are in the store, a young girl with her brother and two blondes checking out fake-gold charm bracelets. Britney rifles the racks as the Cure’s “Pictures of You” blasts into the airless pink boutique, grabbing a pink lace dress, a few tight black numbers and a frilly red crop top, the kind of shirt that Britney used to wear all the time at seventeen but isn’t really appropriate for anyone over that age. Then she ducks into the dressing room with Ghalib. He emerges with her black Am Ex.

The card won’t go through, but they keep trying it.

“Please,” begs Ghalib, “get this done quickly.”

One of the girls runs to Britney’s dressing room, explaining the situation through a pink gauze curtain.

A wail emerges from the cubby — guttural, vile, the kind of base animalistic shriek only heard at a family member’s deathbed. “Fuck these bitches,” screams Britney, each word ringing out between sobs. “These idiots can’t do anything right!”

Grigoriadis did not seem to get extensive access to Britney for the piece, which she deftly discloses to the reader by weaving in descriptions of the shrewd attempts of Britney’s handlers to elicit $2 million in exchange for the interview. In doing so, she gives the reader a sense of the exploitative nature of everyone, absolutely everyone, in Britney’s life. And yet, even without candid access, she is able to paint a portrait of Britney’s life through thorough and numerous interviews and accounts of the exes, friends, lawyers, handlers and the people who orbit around her, and piece together how Britney fell so spectacularly from her perch as a pop princess into an inky pool of isolation, paranoia and madness.

Grigoriadis is not in love with her subject; she is not seduced by Britney’s celebrity. She is blunt and unforgiving: 700 words in, she shockingly describes Britney as an “inbred swamp thing.”

She goes on to say,

She is someone who, when she has had her one- and two-year-old sons taken completely out of her care, with zero visitation rights, appeared at Los Angeles’ Superior Court to convince the judge to give her kids back, but then decided not to go inside, and she’s someone who did this twice. She’s the perfect celebrity for America in decline: Like President Bush, she just doesn’t give a fuck, but at least we won’t have to clean up after her mess for the rest of our lives.

The brilliance of this piece, what makes it so good, is the way Grigoriadis turns Britney’s breakdown into an examination of popular culture and in doing so, delivers an unflattering glimpse into the undercarriage of the entertainment industry, the price of fame and the way that celebrity can warp your perception of reality, so much so that even as it is ruining your life, you still crave more and more attention, you are still giving a performance, the only way you know how.

While it may be true that Britney suffers from the adult onset of a genetic mental disease (or a disease created by fame, yet to be named); or that she is a “habitual, frequent and continuous” drug user, as the judge declared; or that she is a cipher with boundless depths, make no mistake — she is enjoying the chaos she is creating. The look on her face when she’s goofing around with paparazzi — one of whom, don’t forget, she is dating — is often one of pure excitement.

And then in this paragraph, she neatly ties together the theme of celebrity culture with our disposal notion of entertainment and entertainers, so much so that even the fascination that compels us to read this article, to know what really caused her meltdown, is all part of a big putrid cycle:

If Britney was really who we believed her to be — a puppet, a grinning blonde without a cool thought in her head, a teasing coquette clueless to her own sexual power — none of this would have happened. She is not book-smart, granted. But she is intelligent enough to understand what the world wanted of her: that she was created as a virgin to be deflowered before us, for our amusement and titillation. She is not ashamed of her new persona — she wants us to know what we did to her.

Britney’s transformation from a carefully manicured sexpot into something more grotesque, something undesirable, calls into question the kind of culture and news infrastructure that we are building:

There is one group of people who love Britney unconditionally, and whose love she accepts: Every day in L.A., at least a hundred paparazzi, reporters and celebrity-magazine editors dash after her, this braless chick padding around town on hilariously mundane errands — the gas station, the pet store, Starbucks, Rite Aid. The multibillion-dollar new-media economy rests on her slumped shoulders, with paparazzi agencies estimating that she has comprised up to twenty percent of their coverage for the past year. It’ not only bottom feeders running after Britney — a recent memo leaked from the Associated Press, which plans to add twenty-two entertainment reporters to its staff, announces that everything that happens to Britney is news (they have already begun preparing her obit).

The piece conveys that no matter what happens next to Britney, this was the performance we all tuned in for, and would always remember her for.

Toward the end of the piece, Grigoriadis writes:

We want her to survive and thrive, to evolve into someone who can make us proud again. Or maybe, we just don’t want the show to end.

It is a stunningly articulate conclusion. Grigoriadis makes it clear that if this spectacle is about Britney, it is also about us.

I can remember waiting for this piece to come out online, then checking local magazine shops in San Francisco to buy a hard copy (retro, right?) and reading it again. This story made me want to be a journalist and uncover the things that give us pause, all of the triumphs and casualties that reflect who we are as a culture, and put them on display, no matter how discomfiting they may be.

Jenna Wortham (@jennydeluxe) is a technology reporter at The New York Times. In her spare time she makes zines and stalks former “America’s Next Top Model” contestants in Brooklyn.

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 week.

December 21 2011

15:00

Dan Kennedy: 2012 will bring “the great retrenchment” among newspaper publishers

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Next up is Boston-based media commenter Dan Kennedy, an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University, a regular panelist on WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press,” and the author of the Media Nation blog.

Following years of retreat in the face of shrinking readership, mounting financial losses, and a rising chorus of digital visionaries telling them they’re doing it all wrong, 2012 will be a year of retrenchment for newspaper publishers.

Still standing some three years after the near-implosion of the newspaper industry in 2008 and 2009, executives will point to their continued existence as proof that their situation was never as bad as it seemed, and that a few tweaks here and there will restore them to pink-cheeked, if downsized, health.

Their rallying cry will be Dean Starkman’s essay in the November/December 2011 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, “Confidence Game.” In the course of nearly 8,000 words, Starkman dismisses those he calls the “news gurus” (principally Clay Shirky and Jeff Jarvis), arguing they are more interested in promoting their own the-sky-is-falling agenda than in the fate of public-interest journalism. Starkman calls for the preservation of traditional journalistic institutions, which brought a memorable retort from Shirky:

Saying newspapers will provide a stable home for reporters, just as soon as we figure out how to make newspapers stable, is like saying that if we had some ham, we could have a ham sandwich, if we had some bread.

Starkman’s essay is actually a nuanced, deeply intelligent meditation on the future of journalism, but it’s the caricature — newspapers good, news gurus bad — that traditionalists will embrace. That is especially true with respect to the notion that online readers have been getting a free ride, and that it’s time to insist that they start paying.

At the Boston Globe, for instance, several staff members have taken to tweeting “This is why we pay for journalism” whenever their paper has published something particularly noteworthy — a reference to the Globe’s newly instituted paywall. Never mind that we have always paid for journalism — until recently, primarily through advertising. Never mind that NPR, some commercial broadcast outlets and a rising tide of non-profit news organizations are producing excellent journalism every day that is paid for by someone other than the end user. The unspoken message is, We hard-working journalists have been giving away our work for 15 years, and we’re finally putting a stop to it.

In fact, there are reasons to hope the traditional newspaper industry might have a bit more life left in it than we thought a few years ago. The Globe and The New York Times, both owned by The New York Times Company, are pioneering the use of flexible paywalls that keep much of their content open to social networks and blogs while imposing a fee on regular readers. The Times, at least, has had some success; the Globe has not yet released any numbers. Publishers everywhere are hoping to emulate them.

The forces that have been undermining newspapers since the rise of the commercial web in the mid-1990s will come back to the fore.

Since advertising comprises an ever-shrinking share of revenues, publishers have to persuade readers to pay in the form of higher prices for print and something — anything — for online access. The alternative is to continue sliding toward oblivion. And despite some promising experiments here and there, it’s still not at all clear what would replace newspapers, especially at the local level. For every community that has a high-quality non-profit news site like Voice of San Diego (currently experiencing its own problems) and the New Haven Independent, or a for-profit like The Batavian or Baristanet, there are hundreds without anything but their shrinking, debt-ridden, chain-owned local newspaper.

The great newspaper retrenchment may prove to be more than a dead-cat bounce. As the economy slowly improves, the newspaper business may well enjoy a semi-revival. But before long, the forces that have been undermining newspapers since the rise of the commercial web in the mid-1990s will come back to the fore. Some progressive newspaper executives, like John Paton of Digital First Media, are trying to figure out how to combine the best of the new and the old before it’s too late. For the most part, though, you can be reasonably sure that newspaper companies will continue to cut costs, maximize profits (or minimize losses), and do their best ostrich imitations until they find themselves under siege once again.

After all, they’re standing up for traditional values — and what could be more traditional than failing to plan for the future?

Wall image via Mark Heard used under a Creative Commons license.

December 08 2011

21:14

New York Times presidential election 2012 iPhone app launches

Niemanlab :: Big, rapid change can be hard to implement at any organization the size of The New York Times, so I appreciate how the talented journalists, designers, and coders within the Times use offshoot or ancillary projects to try out new features or ways of approaching the news. Its new Election 2012 iPhone app, which launched this morning, features some fresh design elements — most notably, story clusters that tie a Times story to a number of other stories around the web.

Continue to read Joshua Benton, www.niemanlab.org

October 07 2011

03:44

October 06 2011

14:33

“Why’s this so good?” No. 14: Sandra Cate on DIY Cooking in a County Jail

Freed from the captivity of home cookery and the rarefied practice of restaurant criticism, food is now a legitimate lens for thoughtful cultural journalism. It’s also a massive revenue generator in mainstream media, as many commentators pointed out recently, when news hit that a cooking show called “The Chew” would oust the famed soap opera “All My Children” after a 40-year run. New York Times reporter Julia Moskin observed, “Americans’ growing interest in food is generating a seemingly indigestible glut of culinary programming in just about every time slot.”

Amid the rushing current – in print, online and on TV – certain pieces of food media have staying power. I often find them in Gastronomica, a publication that has held its own while its categories (paper as a medium and food as a topic) have evolved. Gastronomica manages to straddle the border between consumer magazine and scholarly journal. Many of the contributors are academics, and the articles often emerge from obscure research finds. But the best among them leave you with the lasting flavor of a textured, human story.

The Gastronomica article that has remained most vividly in my mind was written by a professor of cultural anthropology, Sandra Cate, at San Jose State University. “ ‘Breaking Bread with a Spread’ in a San Francisco County Jail”* was published in the journal’s Summer 2008 issue, and I hadn’t reread it since. What I recalled about the piece was how the author had described a cultural phenomenon among male inmates in a prison, but despite the complex social implications of her topic and her status as an outsider, she kept the focus tightly on the subjects, delivering a cleanly crafted account that lets the reader uncover the meta narrative.

Cate’s piece digs into a culinary phenomenon born inside the jail known as “spread” (both a noun and a verb), which was originally documented in photos and interviews by San Francisco photojournalist Robert Gumpert. Spread is a meal the inmates make for themselves outside of institutional mealtimes, assembling packaged foods pocketed from their canteen trays or ordered through the prison’s commissary program (a weekly delivery of personal items). Ingredients like Top Ramen, Cheetos, hot chocolate powder, peanut butter and jelly packets, pork rinds, and instant oatmeal are combined and cooked using one of two available heat sources – a microwave or boiling water. The resulting concoctions become a nighttime meal designed for sharing.

Writing from the outside about marginalized populations is a charged and challenging pursuit, and it strikes me as especially so in this case, as Cate sets out to describe how the creativity and community-building power of cooking manifest in the stark and relatively grim context of a jail. How to avoid romanticizing, exoticizing or patronizing a group of men whose extraordinary lack of comfort has led them to develop a full cookbook’s worth of comfort foods?

Toward the beginning of the article, she lets the inmates themselves set the stage by splicing together quotes from four sources in an almost Zagat-style patchwork:

Inmate Brennan Owens describes “spreading” as “putting something together to eat, too much of nothing, couple of Top Ramens, couple of bags of chips, couple of beef sticks. I pretty much crush everything together, throw it in one bag, a few cups of hot water, and blam. I got my Top Ramen special.” But other inmates assign spread a loftier status. Vanteak Alexander calls spread “the best thing going in the county—the things we buy off the canteen to satisfy the belly.” Trent “Mohammed” Prader claims that “not only is [spread] filling, but it’s like this is the premier meal of the day. It’s a top-of-the-line meal, like a filet mignon.” Patrick McConnell agrees, describing spread as “a delicacy. It’s like steak and lobster to the people.”

There’s nothing terribly unique about allowing a subject to do some of the heavy lifting by running a quote, but the way the author chops up and reassembles the various descriptions of spread also functions as a verbal reflection of the thing itself. She maintains her role as a scholar, using the subjects’ voices and a few spare personal impressions to create a much stickier and more dynamic cultural illustration than your average anthropological report.

I was particularly struck by how well Cate uses technical and completely objective details of spread preparation to convey some of its most significant functions in the life of the inmates. She zeroes in on two men who have figured out how to reverse-engineer their processed food rations in order to glean cooking oil.

Hackett … does an Asian ‘stir fry’ in the microwave by heating peanut oil he has extracted from his lunchtime peanut butter and then adding cooked ramen noodles, leftover vegetables, meat, and hot sauce.

After sixteen years in and out of jail, one Chinese inmate … has perfected his own Asian-style spread-making technique. … To make a sauce he heats mayonnaise to break the emulsion, and then mixes the oil with the soup base from the noodle package.

The ingenuity of these prison food hackers makes a great anecdote in and of itself, but more importantly, it demonstrates the significance of spread beyond its utility as a late-night snack. This is cooking. And it matters enough to these guys that the process feel like cooking, that they’ve found a way to provide themselves with the primary ingredient for making a hot meal from scratch: oil.

But Cate is never so explicit as to spell it out for the reader. And that is probably why, three years later, my memory of the story is more visual than analytical (aided, of course, by Gumpert’s photos): the familiar texture of ramen noodles, the unnatural color of Red Hot Cheetos, and the orange hue that is common to squeezy cheese and standard-issue prison uniforms.

It’s a great example of modern food writing. If you’re looking for an investigation of community in an institutionalized setting, a study of humans’ adaptability and self-reliance in dire circumstances, or an exposé on the relationship between government-contracted food distributors and prison administrators, Cate delivers all that using food as her vehicle. And if you just want a few ideas for turning a junk food medley into a feast, you could read the same eight pages as a series of highly inventive recipes. Nutritional content not included.

*To access this article, visit this JSTOR page and click the “PDF” link beneath the article title.

Sarah Rich (@sarahrich) is a writer, editor and new media entrepreneur. She is a co-founder of Longshot Magazine and the Foodprint Project, a former senior editor at Dwell, and co-author of “Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century.” Later this month, Rich will hit the road with Alexis Madrigal to explore Southern tech startups from Richmond to New Orleans.

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

October 05 2011

22:04
22:00

September 13 2011

21:19

How CNN, WaPo, msnbc, NYT and Gawker use Most Popular features

Poynter :: Mallary Jean Tenore talked with editors at CNN Digital, The Washington Post, msnbc.com, The New York Times and Gawker about the way they’ve designed "Most Popular" features, the information they share on them, and what they have (and in some cases haven’t) done to help readers understand the information.

She published her findings and the key ways news sites are using Most Popular features, along with editors’ thoughts on what works well in this article.

Continue to read Mallary Jean Tenore, www.poynter.org

July 21 2011

16:57

July Editors’ Roundtable No. 2: The New York Times probes a murder in South Africa

For the second Roundtable of July, our editors looked at “Watching the Murder of an Innocent Man” by Barry Bearak of the New York Times. Bearak has spent the last three years as co-bureau chief of the Times’ Johannesburg bureau, and his June 5 story investigates the death of a young man at the hands of a mob in the beleaguered settlement of Diepsloot.

Our editors didn’t read each other’s comments as they wrote or see the email conversation between Storyboard and Bearak about his narrative. (We’ll publish that Q&A tomorrow.)

For full bios of the Roundtable editors, see our introductory post.

Paige Williams
Narrative writing instructor, Nieman Foundation

On using the first person:

Journalists tend to have strong opinions about whether we should put ourselves in stories. Some support first-person reportage depending on the circumstances; others suggest they’d rather dine on dung than appear anywhere in a piece of work, despite the fact that first-person presence has a solid history and an important place within the craft. Whenever I give a little quiz asking students to match short first-person passages to the author, even practiced journalists are surprised to find the writers are Dickens, Orwell, Gellhorn, Didion…

In the right situation, readers connect powerfully to story via the personal pronoun “I.” A writer should deploy the “I” as carefully as a surgeon chooses a scalpel. The device itself lends nothing without legitimate intent. To me, first person works in Barry’s piece for three reasons:

It isn’t gratuitous. The narrative/personal quest depends upon use of the first person and especially upon the author’s relationship with Golden, a trusted source and keeper of the pivotal crime-scene video.

It allows for authoritative class contrast. By revealing details about his own lifestyle Bearak puts less fortunate residents’ economic circumstances – and the larger societal issues of law and order/mob justice – into a more intimate context than readers would’ve read in a depersonalized account.

He keeps the spotlight on others by remaining a minor character and keeping a respectful distance. While the author’s journalistic quest clearly drives the narrative, being present in the story allows him to bear witness in a quiet but powerful way and to authenticate what otherwise would have been a secondhand account of a horrific event.

Jacqui Banaszynski
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism

On structure:

Structure is one of the peskiest challenges facing writers. Once you move past the basic (and backwards) logic of the inverted pyramid, questions of order and placement plague rookie and veteran alike. What stays in? What comes out? What goes where? Constructing a complex story can be like building a jigsaw puzzle of multiple dimensions, with images on all sides, ill-fitting tabs, no edge pieces and no box cover picture to follow.

In “Watching the Murder of an Innocent Man,” Barry Bearak does the most sophisticated thing a writer can do when confronted with that complex puzzle: He gets simple. Not that his story is simple. Far from it. Bearak leads us through more than 7,500 words, takes us deep into several distinct and difficult subcultures, introduces us to more than a dozen characters, weaves between present and past, and includes both intimately detailed narrative and sweeping social context.

It would be instructive (and fun, in a word-nerdy way) to diagram Bearak’s entire piece.  Lacking time and space for that, I’ll note these points:

Chronology is the core. That’s what I mean when I say Bearak gets simple. He starts in a searing moment that puts us in the scene and sets the stage for everything to come. After two paragraphs of narrative he pulls out into some establishing context. Then he quickly returns to the narrative through the first long scene, ending with a cliffhanger. But after that, the piece builds along a fairly straight chronology. We are pulled into the story in the same way Bearak was ­– through the video of the murder – and then follow him step by step as he tries to untangle the thicket of questions and characters he confronts. Pay attention to the places where Bearak uses a fairly direct time stamp to hold the story together: “… each day, widening the arc of our meander.“ “Within a week, Golden and I had become a marked pair.” “One recent Sunday afternoon…”

A quest drives the story forward. That’s true of any gripping narrative: The writer sets up a core question, then spends the rest of the story answering that question. (This is different than a story’s core meaning, or theme.) What makes Bearak’s story a bit different is that the quest is his. We are taken along on his search for answers. (A literary friend once told me there are only two storylines in all of human history: A stranger comes to town, and a man takes a journey. Bearak’s story encompasses both, and he is both the stranger and the man on the journey.)

Narrative is woven rather than broken. In complex pieces such as this, one successful approach can be a “broken narrative”– a structure that goes back and forth between narrative or action scenes and contextual or expository scenes. Bearak takes that foundation and makes it more elegant by weaving context directly into the narrative.  He slips a line or two of geography or history into the running story. As I read, I imagined a French braid with strands constantly being worked over, under and through. If you re-read the piece just to see how characters and their backstories are introduced, you’ll see that braid. Bearak is able to pull off that intricate weave because the core chronology is straightfoward and strong.

Characters are clearly identified. It’s tough for readers to follow this many characters in a piece. Yet we never lose track here because Bearak remembers to provide some brief reminder of who each person is. That’s just one of the ways Bearak answers the readers’ question when the reader needs the answer.

The story comes full circle. The chronology drives relentlessly forward, following Bearak’s quest. It ties together – is made whole – by ending where it began, with the boy who fingered the murder victim. This is also a tried-and-true structural device. But what makes Bearak’s use of it so stunning is that he comes back to Siphiwe not where the story started, but where the story took Sipihwe – to a place of defiant and inevitable despair. As such, Siphiwe was able to speak for the much larger defiance and despair of a country and a culture.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

On a sense of place:

Barry Bearak knows that evoking a sense of place isn’t just a matter of presenting a background landscape. He uses carefully selected sensory details – sights, sounds, smells – and movement to transport readers to South Africa.

“Put me there,” is a simple way an editor can encourage writers to think about the sense of place. The writer can provide context to the story by showing, rather than telling. She can also create a mood that permeates the story – anger, joy, sadness.

Bearak does this sparingly in his murder story. That’s important, because, at least in this story, we don’t want the plot to slow down and linger too long. Let’s pay attention to Bearak’s sketch of the South African township. We hear music; we watch women pinning laundry and storekeepers brushing away flies; we smell garbage and sewage; we learn that some of these areas have bureaucratic names like Extension 1 and Extension 2.

The road abounded with township life: good music playing over bad radios, women pinning laundry to droopy clotheslines, storekeepers brushing aside plump flies in the butchery. People were curious about the mob’s intentions, and some followed along as if dutifully joining a militia. In a few blocks, the pavement of Thubelihle gave way to hard-packed dirt and stones. A busted pipe had gone unrepaired for months, and the escaping water cut a trough in the ground that now carried a stream of garbage and sewage. The odor was bracing, but there was open air ahead, a large, marshy field that separated Extension 1 from the squatter camp in Extension 2…

What we see is that life goes on under some outrageous conditions. And we get a hint about why these conditions are a factor in the violence. People are curious. They don’t see things getting any better. They start to follow a mob. Who knows how ordinary people will act as the mob grows violent?

Bearak uses a second sketch to show the economic disparity in South Africa, the wide gap between the townships and the gated communities with beautiful names.

I live in much different circumstances, renting a house in the Dainfern Golf and Residential Estate, one of dozens of gated communities built in a city overwrought about crime. The perimeter is fortified with high walls topped by electrified wire; guards patrol the landscaped roadways and roundabouts. Houses are large, and many front entranceways are ornamented with waterfalls and fish ponds…

He’s also showing us this place because he wants to be honest about his comparatively (and understandably) sheltered life in South Africa. He may not be able to fully understand what life is like in the townships, and he’s being straight with us about that. He uses a sense of place not just to set a scene but to help define and explain the dynamics of his story.

Tom Shroder
Founding editor, www.storysurgeons.com

On keeping the reader engaged in a depressing story:

Everything about the subject of this piece – a mob in a crime-ridden squatter’s village randomly settling on an innocent man to vent their rage – screamed “Don’t go there,” and yet, go I did. Why?

Or to rephrase the question: When a writer wants to explore unremittingly depressing material, how can he keep the reader’s attention and deliver something that feels like enlightenment rather than a fist to the face?

Bearak accomplishes that here, through what I would call “elevation.”

I mean this almost literally. The reader is raised to a great, almost godlike height and allowed to view these hideous events as if from a mountaintop. Every piece can be seen in its relation to other pieces. What seems nasty and brutish on ground level is still nasty and brutish, but from the mountaintop it plays out on a scale so grand that the meaningless becomes meaningful, and the horrific becomes tragic. It’s the difference between watching a slasher film and Macbeth.

A word of caution for those of you who may want to try this at home: It is impossible to make a reader feel as if she is getting the Big Picture unless the writer has gotten there first, with full focus and resolution. It requires a mastery of the subject so complete that every detail, every factoid and quote, snaps into place.

But even that’s not enough. The writer has to find the right voice, the voice that communicates a buffering distance without sacrificing any of the intense reality. This is what Bearak does superbly here.

From the very start, he speaks in sweeping statements that never stray into overgeneralization. The central antagonist is “a bad boy wanting to become a worse boy,” and “an unlikely guide to lead [the growing mob] into their dark work.” These sentences are simultaneously simple and mythic, like those in a fable.

That same calm certainty continues throughout the piece, making the tale unfolding seem like the most natural course of events in the world, instead of a living nightmare. That works because, seen from the mountaintop, evil IS a natural part of our world; it has prime causes and immediate causes, and it flows downhill like a creek becoming a river. Consider this introducing paragraph that stays focused on the flow, even as it elevates to get the longer view:

A few men lifted him onto their shoulders so that the crowd, already in the hundreds, could see him better. Then an older man, wiser about these things, said to put the boy down. More than likely, they were about to kill someone. No one in the mob ought to be too conspicuous.

Elevation is again expressed by the impressionist dabs of paint with which the context is painted:

The road abounded with township life: good music playing over bad radios, women pinning laundry to droopy clotheslines, storekeepers brushing aside plump flies in the butchery. People were curious about the mob’s intentions, and some followed along as if dutifully joining a militia.

“Good music playing over bad radios” is classic, an observation wrapped in a description, and like any precise yet poetic observation, it becomes a metaphor for the larger reality. The elevated distance in the perspective is expressed time and again in word choice. When the mob emerges into a field with a busted sewer pipe, the odor is described as “bracing,” an obvious understatement that communicates the idea that living with filth is simply something to be endured.

Bearak is constantly choosing precise understatement over hyperbole. Notice the low temperature of the language when he places the immediate in the context of the general:

Mob justice is not uncommon in Diepsloot, and most often it involves the swift capture of a supposed criminal, the villain there to beat up, to stone, perhaps even to wrap in a petrol-soaked shroud. But this undertaking was something entirely different. The vigilantes had walked a long distance on a hot day in the uncertain pursuit of unspecified thugs — all on the word of this talkative boy.

The elevated view allows us to watch these horrors unfold and see for ourselves how a quest for vengeance and some kind of justice so effortlessly turns into simple thuggery. Note how Bearak refrains from labeling this transition point, but lets our Olympian ability to see inside the perspective of the participants do the work. Pay attention especially to his use of the word “despicable” in the following:

Siphiwe led the way, back along the dusty paths between the shacks to the edge of the marshy field. The spaza shop was locked, and though empty of people, it was actually well supplied with soft drinks, biscuits, beer, toiletries and paraffin. The mob nevertheless busted through the walls, and Siphiwe rooted around in a back room, collecting for himself two pairs of sneakers, a Nike track suit and a nylon jacket. The shop was set ablaze, again to the noisy approval of the crowd, though this, too, seemed scant retaliation against murderous thugs. Where were those despicable people?

“Elevation” does not mean glossing anything over. To the contrary, it means being able to look at things with the unflinching, unblinking acuity of an eagle’s eye. Note the calm tone, the accumulation of simple words and sentences that seduce us into watching, instead of turning away, as a very uncomfortable truth about the nature of human beings plays out before our eyes:

The video shows Farai already on the ground, using his left leg to try to block the blows of a man swinging a heavy piece of wood. Others are pelting him with rocks from behind and hitting him with sticks. At this point, it is still possible to imagine the young man’s escape. He can speak; his movements are spry; there is barely a smudge on the lilac of the shirt. But by the next scene, he is sapped of strength and badly injured. His frantic efforts to get away have failed, and he has landed in a filthy, water-filled ditch. As he crawls out, his hands groping at the dirt, a man in blue pants kicks him in the chest, and Farai flops backward with a splash. Some in the crowd, including children, scoot around to get a better look.

The video then jumps ahead. Farai is again on dry ground, lying on his back, seemingly near death but still breathing. Blood is leaking from his head. He barely raises his left hand, and this trivial movement somehow becomes a cue for the beating to resume. A man wearing a white cap wallops him seven times in the face and neck with a plank, the assailant’s arms reaching high to amplify the force of his swing.

—-

Check back tomorrow to read our interview with Barry Bearak. Or take a look at some of our previous Editors’ Roundtables.

Is there a story you’d like the Roundtable to tackle? If so, you can send a link to us at contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org.

July 07 2011

18:11

“Why’s this so good?” No. 2: McPhee takes on the Mississippi

When the Mississippi River recently surged down through the middle of the country, a lot of people I follow on Twitter took the opportunity to point to John McPhee’s marvelous 1987 article “Atchafalaya.”I took their advice and revisited the piece.

After 24 years, the story is still valuable simply as a guide to the risks faced by people who live along the Mississippi. But it would be ridiculous to think of McPhee’s articles as nothing more than service journalism. Over the past four decades, McPhee has plunged into a series of obsessions – with plate tectonics, athletes, shad fishing, the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, the entire state of Alaska. At its best, McPhee’s work feels like a journalistic version of an Iron Man competition. He pushes long-form journalism to the extremes, to encompass the world in staggering detail. And “Atchafalaya” is particularly staggering, because its subject is nothing less than the endless, spectacular, and sometimes absurd struggle of modern civilization to control the natural world.

As I reread “Atchafalaya,” I tried to reverse engineer it to figure out why it’s so good. At its core is a journey McPhee took down the Mississippi in a towboat, accompanying some of the members of the Army Corps of Engineers. For most journalists, that would be more than enough material enough for an excellent article. For McPhee, it is only the start. The river, after all, was not just what he could see in 1987. It was also the product of history – the geological history of the region, and then the human history overlaid on it – history that includes politics, warfare and centuries of engineering. McPhee mastered this vast backstory, but he was not yet done. He also became intimately acquainted with the colossal system of levees and weirs that line the Mississippi: a grand construction that is both longer and wider than the Great Wall of China.

I get the sense that McPhee spends every waking hour gathering observations, stories and plain facts that he stores away for articles he may not write for decades to come. In “Atchafalaya” he smoothly slips away from his journey down the Mississippi to recall earlier experiences – flying over the river, running lines with a Cajun crawfisherman.

Once McPhee assembled this mountain range of raw material, he mined it to build a 28,000-word article. McPhee builds articles like few other journalists can. He scrupulously avoids all stock tricks. His paragraphs encompass worlds. He writes from a dictionary full of strange words: revetments, whaleback, distributaries. They’re not obscure words McPhee chose to make the reader feel undereducated, but the precise language required to describe something most people know little about. It takes time to submerge into this language – this is not a story to shave away one iPhone screen at a time.

If there’s any weakness in “Atchafalaya,” it’s McPhee’s portraits of people. We meet engineers and pilots along the river. McPhee records plenty of exquisite details about their backgrounds. And yet I couldn’t recall any of them as individuals later on. They all talked about the great river, but interchangeably. McPhee knows how to write a great profile (I’m thinking of “Levels of the Game,” a book-length account of a U.S. Open tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner). So I can only assume that he has made a strategic choice in “Atchafalaya” to let the people in the story blur into a wall of humanity massed against the river.

Still, this remains a great piece of writing. By that I don’t mean that it’s an exemplar of what all journalism should be. It is McPhee excelling at being McPhee. It’s impossible to steal tricks from a piece like “Atchafalaya,” because you just end up sounding like a bad imitation of someone else. Instead, it sends me flying back to my own work, re-energized to dig as deeply as I can into the subject at hand, and to craft out of it something distinctively my own.

Carl Zimmer’s science writing has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic, Time and Scientific American, among other publications. He lectures at Yale University and has 10 books to his name, the latest of which is “A Planet of Viruses.” He is on Twitter at @carlzimmer.

[For more from this new collaboration with Longreads, check out the first post in the series, written by Alexis Madrigal. And stay tuned for more inspiration and insight from fabulous writers in the coming weeks.]

July 06 2011

20:02

‘Page One’ Excerpt - How The New York Times learned to stop worrying and love the blog

Poynter :: To coincide with the release of “Page One: Inside The New York Times,” NPR’s David Folkenflik edited a book by leading thinkers about where media is headed. In this essay, former New York Times reporter Jennifer Lee describes how the Times has adjusted to the seismic changes in media.

[Jennifer Lee:] For years, the third-floor waiting area of the old New York Times building at 229 West 43rd featured a massive replica of the first page of the first edition of the newspaper. I must have walked by that replica thousands of times before I finally paused for a closer look. But what struck me most that day, as I studied that front page, was a single thought. - This looks like a blog. It reminded me that newspapers have evolved —and evolved again.

Continue to read Jennifer 8. Lee, www.poynter.org

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