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January 10 2012

14:52

“Why’s this so good?” No. 27: Christopher Goffard tracks love in flight

One drawer of my desk – the largest – contains a mound of stories, the best I’ve found in newspapers and magazines over the last 20 years. In addition, three or four “great writing” folders float around the top of my work space; faux-wood fragments of the desktop are seldom visible.

Then there are a handful of individual stories I value enough to keep beside my keyboard at all times. When I’m struggling, when writing feels like running in mud, I go to one of these stories, start to read a page or two and then end up reading the whole thing. For some reason, it helps. Amazing work is possible, even if it feels beyond my own grasp.

Since I first read it in May 2009, Christopher Goffard’s narrative “Fleeing all but each other” from the L.A. Times has been among the treasured handful. I remember reading it, handing it to my wife and saying something like: You have to read this now.

So why do I reread it every few months, and why does it inspire me each time?

The story, about a young couple who hop trains together, seeking an alternative to an adult life of routine and responsibility, is tightly written – just 2,401 words. Early on, in just a few brush strokes, Goffard makes the two main characters, Adam Kuntz and Ashley Hughes, real:

He was 22, tall and rangy, with a goatee, wild black hair and a disarming smile. She was 18, with blue eyes and dishwater-blond hair. Crudely inked across her fingers was the word “sourpuss,” advertising the side she liked to show people: the rebel and sometime dope fiend who bristled with free-floating anger.

But he saw another side of her too: the frightened runaway who, like him, found a tramp’s dangerous, hand-to-mouth life less terrifying than the adult world.

Goffard jumps right from there into the first of several memorable scenes:

They were curving through the Tehachapi Pass, seriously drunk, when a feeling overcame him. The words were unplanned, like everything else in their life.

Hey, you should be my wife, he said.

OK, she replied.

It takes great discipline and skill to render a vivid moment in so few words.

Goffard ends the opening section of the story with a masterful cliff-hanger. The larger group of kids that includes Adam and Ashley decides to jump from the train while it’s still moving, so they can fill their water jugs at a Wal-Mart. The last line of the section is a great example of foreshadowing:

Naturally, it was Ashley who suggested they try it.

Most of the story maintains this spell, allowing you to forget it’s a newspaper article you’re reading. Only one paragraph departs briefly from the narrative. It’s the kind of nut graph, wide-angle view editors request in order to reassure the audience that a small story has some larger context. I’m not fond of such paragraphs, because they break that spell, but here Goffard slips it in so deftly and with such craftsmanship that none of the narrative momentum is lost:

Trains run right through the heart of the American story, a symbol of industrial prowess and physical vastness and unfettered movement. For the broke and the discontent and the wanted, they are also a place to disappear, a mobile refuge where nobody cares where you’re going or what your real name is.

The story walks a difficult line, explaining the appeal of this nomadic existence without glamorizing it. By quoting Ashley’s MySpace page, Goffard shows us what she liked about this life. He also shows us the letters she wrote that revealed her second thoughts, her regrets about the life she was trading away.

I admire the way Goffard shows in a short space the growth of the relationship between Adam and Ashley – the way he leaves his dog with her when he’s hauled away by the cops, the way she’s waiting with the dog when he’s released a week later, the fact that he gets her off heroin, yet what he loves most about her is her wildness. It isn’t by any means a perfect relationship, but it’s a real, loving relationship. It’s hard to write about love in a way that nods toward the messiness of it.

One final element that makes this story great is an underrated quality in reporting: patience. Patience on the part of both reporter and editors. I asked Goffard how the story came together. Like so many good narratives, it began with a newspaper brief. Another reporter had passed on it. It took months. Adam’s lifestyle made it almost impossible to track him down, Goffard said. He started with a police report that led him to Ashley’s grandmother, who sent Ashley’s diaries.

Goffard probably could have written a version of the story at that point, but it would have been missing so much. He needed to talk to Adam, but when he phoned Adam’s parents, month after month, the news was always the same: Adam was on the road, and they didn’t know when he’d be back. Goffard and his editors obviously made a decision that this story was worth waiting for. It was more important to tell the story right than to get it into the paper quickly. This is a lesson worth remembering whether you work at a small paper or a large paper, whether you’re a reporter, an editor or a photographer.

Goffard said he went through many drafts and changed the ending in a significant way. I won’t give away what happens, but when you read it, the saddest moment is the one Goffard originally intended to end with. I think where he chose to end was much better.

Mark Johnson is a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting as part of a five-person team telling the story of a boy with a rare genetic defect.

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.

May 27 2011

16:27

#Newsrw: ‘It’s about creating a party and making it rock’

Connecting with the readership and being the centre of things is key to social media strategy, the news:rewired audience heard.

“You have to acknowledge that audience is far larger than editorial team, and they’ll outperform you,” said Jack Riley, head of digital audience and content development at the Independent.

Riley presented some impressive stats – a combined total of 100,000 Likes across all the Independent’s Facebook pages, but said recognising audience needs was far more important than sheer numbers.

@_JackRiley speaking at #newsrw by JosephStash

This was something that Mark Johnson of the Economist agreed with, pointing to the organisation’s total of 1.2 Twitter followers across various accounts but saying that a more important metric is to look at the number of people who come to the main site from social web sources.

A popular feature called Ask The Economist deals with specialist topics for readers to take part in live question and answer sessions with experts.

“The long and short of it is to work out what’s special about your brand and rather than change that, work out how it can work in a social environment,” he said.

Riley looked at the importance of the social graph, and harnessing the engagement that publications can get from existing communities like Facebook and Twitter.

He mentioned Trove, a project by the Washington Post that aims to create a personalised news feed based on readers social activities along with content from the newspaper.

Further on in the discussion were some interesting ideas by Suw Charman-Anderson and Stefan Stern.

Charman-Anderson mentioned the 1/9/90 rule – for every one user that heavily engages with content there are nine who moderately engage and 90 who simply view content and don’t engage at all.

Stern also said that it was “a big ask for journalists to open up,” and that traditionally there are many journalists and columnists who don’t want to engage with the public at all.

As Mark Jones of Reuters said: “It’s not about being the centre of attention any more, it’s about creating a party and making it rock,” – publications need to enter into open collaboration with other organisations (like Reuters have with Tweetminster) as well as making themselves an essential part of the social web.

11:53

LIVE: Session 2B – Social media strategy

We have Matthew Caines and Ben Whitelaw from Wannabe Hacks liveblogging for us at news:rewired all day. You can follow session 2B ‘Social media strategy’, below.

Session 2B features: With: Jack Riley, head of digital audience and content development, the Independent; Stefan Stern, director of strategy, Edelman; Mark Jones, global communities editor, Reuters News; Mark Johnson, community editor, the Economist. Moderated by Suw Charman-Anderson, social technologist.

January 07 2011

16:50

Kathleen Gallagher and Mark Johnson on medical reporting, the future of genetics, and how to keep your story going in the event you get hit by a beer truck

We talked this week with Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters Kathleen Gallagher and Mark Johnson about their recent project “One in a Billion,” our latest Notable Narrative. The three-day serial tells the story of Nicholas Volker, a 4-year-old boy whose baffling illness and life-threatening symptoms defied diagnosis month after month. The role of technology in trying to help him, as well as the answers it can’t yet provide, make for gripping reading. Johnson and Gallagher talked with us separately by phone about the story. Their responses have been excerpted and combined in the Q&A that follows.

Tell me how you first heard about Nicholas Volker.

Gallagher: I was talking to someone about technologies going on in Wisconsin, and this person just happened to mention that they had sequenced all the genes of a child at Children’s Hospital. I actually didn’t say anything when that little tidbit came out, because I could tell the person felt funny about saying it. So I let it go, and as soon as I got off the phone, I found Mark, and I said, “We better check into this.” Mark had done big stories involving Children’s Hospital in the past, and so he started asking them about it, and the PR people didn’t know what we were talking about.

That’s always a good sign.

Gallagher: So it took a while. I think I got the tip sometime around the holidays, and I don’t think we met the family until at least late February.

Was the family or the hospital resistant?

Gallagher: The mother actually told us just a little while ago that she had been trying to get some publicity for Nicholas and had actually pitched the story to another reporter.

At your paper?

Gallagher: At a different publication. I don’t know what she pitched. I don’t know if she pitched the gene thing, or if it was just that she had a sick kid. So I don’t want to pass judgment on the other reporter.

It sounds like you knew right away you had a big story.

Gallagher: The source said, “All the genes.” Because I cover biotech, I knew that that was something different.

Johnson: I think the tip that she had was that they had already sequenced a child’s genes and used it for a diagnosis. I think she knew that they’d found a mutation, and it was something never seen before. Any one of those things would have been fascinating. Venturing into this new area, there were a lot of firsts about it.

Having a story that’s new or different, there’s a part of it that’s very exciting, but there’s also another part. Editors always feel a little more comfortable if something like it has been published before. “Oh, we’ve seen a story like that in The New York Times, the L.A. Times, The Wall Street Journal.” You start to question it if you haven’t seen it before…

You wonder if there’s a reason you haven’t seen it?

Johnson: Yes, for good reasons, it makes editors fairly cautious, and questioning.

Did you have much of that kind of response to negotiate with this story?

Johnson: No. We started meeting with editors even before we knew if the family would agree to talk to us. I didn’t think about it much at the time, but now it strikes me that we were starting this before we or the doctors or the family knew how the story was going to end. That was kind of a tricky thing.

It’s so much easier to get people’s permission, to get people to go along and talk with you afterward, if there’s a good outcome. But at the beginning, anything could have happened. They could have discovered a mistake in the science. The treatment they prescribed could have turned out badly, and maybe not even because there was a mistake – maybe just because it was inherently risky. All of those things would have made it a dicey proposition for both the doctors and the family.

How did reporting work?

Gallagher: Mark and I were the primary reporters on the project. We met the family together the first time, and then we started saying we were going to divide things, but most of the time, certainly the initial three or four times with the family, we both went. And it just worked really well, especially early on. We did a lot of stuff together, because it was such a hard topic to tackle. I remember walking out of an early interview with one of the geneticists, thinking, “I’m not sure I know what that guy was talking about.” It was such a complicated topic.

We found that we had a good rhythm doing interviews together. You had to ask a question, and when they answered, you really had to think about it. It helped to have two people asking the questions. We’d go in with prepared questions. I knew what a genome was, but I didn’t understand a lot about how you would sequence DNA. I had a vague recollection of Mendelian genetics, but this was a lot more complicated than just knowing that your brown eyes come from your mother.

Johnson: We had done some stories together during the previous year on swine flu. It wasn’t my beat, but another reporter who had been covering that was heavily into our paper’s BPA investigation, and that became a full-time job. So I ended up picking up swine flu. Kathleen covers biosciences, and she knew a lot about vaccine makers, so we collaborated on a couple of stories to do with that.

We had maybe one or two things that we disagreed on early on, but essentially, we both trusted each other.

Gallagher: I learned a lot from Mark. When we were writing Day One, he just kept piling information into the story. I was pretty freaked out at first: “We have so much we’re putting in. We’ve got to make sense of this.” But we just kept piling it in, and then just whittling and whittling and whittling. I wouldn’t have put that much in without whittling along the way.

He has a way of making sure that each section in a story is a story in and of itself, with a beginning and an end. That was immensely helpful. Still, everybody in the newsroom was betting we were going to have a fight – that it would be because of me. They think I have a volatile personality, but we never had one fight.

[To Johnson] Did you know that there was a newsroom bet that you two would fight?

Johnson: When Kathleen said she had a bet with somebody in the business section, I thought it might have been half because of me. I’ve worked in teams and done stuff by myself. I always feel like if it’s a longer story, I need to forewarn people, “I get really hyper later on. I might do stuff that drives you nuts. I’ll try to keep it in check.”

One of my other characteristics is that I’m not neat. My desk is a disaster. During the time we were actually doing the writing or going through interview transcripts, Kathleen would sit at my desk. In between sections of doing something, she’d just start straightening. I’m used to living with my mess, but other people aren’t.

Gallagher: One thing that worked really well was an idea we got from one of the other reporters here. John Diedrich has done a lot of projects – really neat projects, a lot of them having to do with crime and the criminal justice system. He observed from sitting in court so much that a lot of lawyers organize themselves with binders. So he uses binders to organize his projects. Mark and I learned that he was doing this, and so we decided to do it, too. All the transcribed interviews with doctors went in one binder, and then all our transcribed interviews with the family went into another, and all the academic papers we read went into another, and so on.

There were two really great things about that: One was that as we edited the story, when the editors were asking questions, we could find anything in a minute. The other great thing was when it came to putting together the video and looking for quotes to embed in the story, we could just go to those binders, and we had all the transcripts there.

So the project wasn’t dependent on the person who did the interview digging through something to get it to other people.

Gallagher: If we both got hit by a beer truck, they would have found everything in the binders. Everyone on the project knew how we were doing it, so they could go read things themselves.

Did you learn anything on this project that you hadn’t figured out before?

Johnson: Yeah. One of the lessons that I would come away from this with is sometimes that it’s really worth interviewing not just the big, meaty characters, but for lack of a better word, the smaller players in the story. Sometimes they have a perspective no one else has.

We were able to interview Gwen Shadley, who was basically a lab technologist. But the main focus of her work is that is that she is able to take blood samples and get DNA from them. She was so excited about her work. When I talked with her, unfortunately, she had been laid off. But when I listened to her talk about her work, she talked about it in a way that brought out this beauty in the science. It was kind of a reminder to me.

I’ve had that happen before. On medical stories, I’m always reminded how good an idea it is to make sure you interview not just one but several nurses, because nurses see patients on a day-to-day basis. They see patients at rawer moments than doctors do sometimes. And they’re not always so worried about how elements of a story fit with the institution’s image. It’s very hard for doctors sometimes to talk about everything that goes on in their work, because there are things that happen, even at the best hospitals, that aren’t always good or don’t always sound good, but they’re part of that reality. Nurses are a little bit more willing to go there.

Gallagher: We knew from the beginning it was a big story. What we told each other was our challenge was to rise to this story. That was our attitude from day one. If this didn’t work, it wasn’t because of the story, it was because of us.

Johnson: Who’s doing what is less important, but it really helped having two people. One of the sections I really liked is in the second story. That second one is a really heavy science story, yet it’s got this nice emotional moment when Nicholas has gotten sick again. One of the most horrible things about his illness is that he can’t eat real food for long periods of time. In the midst of all these scientists trying to figure out the mechanics of his illness at the molecular level, he gets to the point where he says, “Give me my food. I’d rather be sick.”

I read the mom’s journal first and then after I finished, Kathleen read it. It turned out it was something I had highlighted and somehow had never put it in the story, but she came across it again and wrote a whole section around it. I would have missed it.

We were very lucky, because Nicholas was a terrific character. He was a great little kid. He wasn’t perfect, the sick kid who’s beatific, or some sad, passive, wounded person stuck in victimhood. He’s a very active little boy who’s got his good days and his bad days. He was going to become an interesting character because he wasn’t one-dimensional.

There were other elements, too. We didn’t find this out until we got deeper into the story, but it turned out to have an interesting theme of this borderline between research and medicine. When it is appropriate for research to give way to something that’s treatment? In this case, it’s something the doctors themselves had to navigate very carefully.

There’s that point in the story where it’s being presented at the hospital that this was being done for Nicholas, and then in another setting it was represented that the genome work was being done because it would further the science. There was this moment where you don’t feel like they’re being dishonest, you get the idea that it’s really complicated.

Johnson: That came very organically. It wasn’t something we’d anticipated, but as we asked about the process more, we knew that they’d at least have to have asked the institutional review board at the medical college about whether or not guidelines would have to be set up to govern Nicholas’ treatment. It was just in going through that process and checking it that we realized they had to do this very careful little dance.

In this multimedia era, what relationship did you have working with or without the photographer and videographer?

Gallagher: The photographer, Gary Porter, was with us early on. He went to the family’s house once without us and gave us some information from that visit. He went to Las Vegas when they went on a Make-a-Wish trip, which neither Mark nor I went on. So he was really critical in documenting it and helping to establish rapport with the family. There were many times when we would all go to visit together.

The videographer, Alison [Sherwood], got more involved toward the end. In the beginning, Gary did a lot of the videos. Part of that was we weren’t sure where the story was going in the beginning, so Allison came in later when we knew what the story was and when she was starting to put it together.

Lou Saldivar, the graphic artist, he probably got involved about halfway through. He went off and did his own research for the graphics, and it was difficult at first to integrate what he knew with what we knew and have all of us agree on the graphic. But in the end, I think it produced really fabulous graphics. We got a lot of comments from people about that graphic on the first day. It really added to the story, I think partly because he did his own research. He actually met with the surgeon, Dr. [Marjorie] Arca, to pin down what exactly happened in these surgeries on Nicholas.

Anything else?

Johnson: Two small things, both sort of related to the science. I thought some readers might have wondered why we went into such detail about how the machinery worked.

One part of that is just a personal feeling. I wanted to demystify the process, or at least try to. This is a difficult era for science in general. I think there’s a lot of suspicion. Some of that is because people don’t understand entirely how something works. My own mom is a good example of this, because she’s an extremely intelligent woman, a historian. We had a discussion about evolution some time ago. I was surprised to find that she had kind of shifted and was on the fence toward creative, intelligent design. I was shocked, but the main thing I remember is that she felt like scientists were asking us to take a lot on faith, with things we can’t picture. That’s something I think that journalists can do to help. If we can get people to picture how a process works, then it’s not so much taking it on faith. It makes sense that it works.

The other thing is that this is a story that uses some really fancy fabulous machinery – the machines that go “ping!” from Monty Python. I wanted to make it clear in the story that it’s not a matter of pushing liquid or blood into a machine, and it spits out an answer. There’s this beautiful human element.

Where they go from 16,000-and-something down to one mutation?

Johnson: Yes, when the scientists describe that process. Early on, we didn’t totally get what they were doing, but it was great. I kind of pictured some kind of CSI kind of thing, or a cop show, where they lay out 32 mug shot photos, and somehow the detective weeds out people, and they get down to one.

But this was on such a huge scale. That’s one of the things that isn’t always appreciated about scientists. They can create the most fabulous equipment and technology. We have amazing high-speed computing power now; that’s one of the major drivers. Yet it won’t lead us to the answers by itself. At the end of the day, it’s still human beings taking the computer printout and using their experience to pull the most from the information.

October 15 2010

15:03

#followjourn: @majohns – Mark Johnson/community editor

Who? Mark Johnson, community editor at the Economist, managing and developing social features on economist.com. Previously ran authonomy.com and bookarmy.com at HarperCollins.

Where? The Economist

Twitter? @majohns

Just as we like to supply you with fresh and innovative tips every day, we’re recommending journalists to follow online too. They might be from any sector of the industry: please send suggestions (you can nominate yourself) to laura at journalism.co.uk; or to @journalismnews.Similar Posts:



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