Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

June 28 2013

14:32

Radio storytelling: When is a story just a story, and when do listeners expect more?

Jay Allison, who produces The Moth Radio Hour and founded Transom.org, once said, ”In public radio, our signature is story.” 

He entered radio in the 1970s, from the theater. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute — it’s exactly the same, because it’s a medium in time.’ In order to hold attention (radio storytelling) must at least recognize theatrical values like rhythm and pace and climax and scene and character, and story,” he now says. “A lot of radio simply didn’t — it adhered to newspaper values, and as a result, I think not that many people listened. Bit by bit, the understanding was that theatrical values — by which I do not mean fiction — were incredibly important to holding attention, even to conveying information, to creating expectation and then to finally creating a memory. All of those scene-painting skills were the very heart of radio.”

And they still are. With so many storytelling shows on the air — The Moth, Radiolab, This American Life and, rising quickly, Snap Judgment — here’s a question that programs have been dealing with lately in the new “golden age” of public radio: What happens when a story turns out not to be true? Or true-ish? What level of accountability do listeners expect? How is the storyteller’s compact with the listener changing?

Allison remembers a radio story whose teller described passing through Customs at a certain Washington, D.C., airport, when in fact that airport had no Customs unit, as a skeptical listener pointed out. The storyteller “did get it wrong, and that mistake seemed to undermine her veracity in the mind of the listener for the entire story,” Allison says, “even though it was just something that happened in the flurry of extemporaneous storytelling.” An egregious example of listener betrayal is, of course, the This American Life excerpt of Mike Daisey’s stage show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, parts of which proved fabricated. Producer Ira Glass devoted an entire show to a retraction, and to understanding why and how the deception happened.

A lesser known example involves Snap Judgment, the Oakland-based NPR show with a stated mission of presenting “compelling personal stories — mixing tall tales with killer beats to produce cinematic, dramatic and kick-ass radio.” The show has taken off, especially among listeners age 33 to 42. Its founding producer is Glynn Washington, himself a riveting storyteller. He came to public radio with a University of Michigan law degree and a background in nonprofits, and last week The Atlantic wrote:

… Washington, a proud student of (Ira) Glass’s, is the next big thing. In its first three years, Snap Judgment, Washington’s fast-paced, music-heavy, ethnically variegated take on the public-radio story hour, has spread like left-end-of-the-dial kudzu. It is on 250 stations, reaching nine of the top 10 public-radio markets, and its podcast is downloaded more than half a million times a month. And while there has long been minority talent on public radio—a realm that includes National Public Radio and other producers of non-commercial radio, like American Public Media and Public Radio International—Washington is the first African American host to swing a big cultural stick, the first who seems likely to become a public-radio superstar on the order of Glass or Garrison Keillor.

A couple of years ago, Snap Judgment aired a segment by Jeff Greenwald, a San Francisco freelance journalist and travel writer who founded a nonprofit called Ethical Traveler. In “On the Road,” Greenwald told the following story: While hitchhiking once, at age 21, he and his girlfriend accepted a ride with a young couple who turned out to be mental-hospital escapees, and murderers. The story hinged emotionally on Greenwald’s incredulity at being left alive, and on his affection for the couple, whose names he believed to be Tony and Sue but that turned out, he said, to be Bella and Sam. (“We loved them,” he told listeners. “We loved those killers. And they loved us.”) You can hear the story here:

Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 3.32.12 PM

A former Seattle newspaper reporter and blogger named David Quigg heard the story on the radio. As he later wrote in a blog post, the story, to him, did not ring true. Nor did the story feel quite right to another listener a few weeks ago, when a slightly different version aired on a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. show called Definitely Not the Opera. A third version of the story lives in a 2003 Lonely Planet guide called The Kindness of Strangers. After some empty Googling in search of the details, Quigg tweeted at Snap Judgment, asking whether the show could vouch for the piece’s veracity. The show responded: “Vouched.”

“Big, big mistake,” Washington says now. The word ”vouched” implies that the producers had checked out the story and were good with it. They hadn’t. Should they have? When, and to what extent, should storytelling shows verify information, and to what extent do their disclaimers absolve them of such an obligation? Moth Radio Hour airs and stages stories “as remembered and affirmed by the storyteller.” This American Life describes itself as a teller of “mostly true stories of everyday people, though not always. There’s lots more to the show, but it’s sort of hard to describe.”

We chatted with Washington the other day about some of this. He said an intern probably sent the “Vouched” tweet, back when Snap Judgment’s social media controls were looser, and that while the show makes no journalistic claims, the same kind of mistake wouldn’t happen today. Here’s part of the conversation, lightly edited for length:

Washington: The stories on the Snap Judgment show — we’re not reporters; we’re storytellers. We don’t check things the same way. In the course of putting stories together we have our own BS meter and if something doesn’t ring true we’ll put that in the context of the story itself, like, “I don’t know about this.” Our stories are constructed to be true to the person telling them. Like, someone will say their grandmother had magical powers and that she knew that her husband would be flying over her head at a certain time in a field 40 years ago — we’re not gonna fact-check that. We’re not. That’s a tale from that person and we’re gonna accept that as it is. It really is different. For us as a new program, what we don’t wanna do – I think the blogger is correct, because what we don’t want to do is mislead people. If we have dubious content we’ll — I really enjoy, let’s say, a protagonist who has, oh, a precarious relationship with the truth; I have to be sure that in that situation I’m acting as an everyman so that the audience understands to some degree that this is to be taken with a grain of salt. And that was probably the issue with the Jeff Greenwald piece. I think the blogger has a really good point. I mean I think it was a mistake.

Snap Judgment's Glynn Washington

Snap Judgment’s Glynn Washington

How did it happen?

When we were first starting … the controls weren’t in place to stop that sort of thing. And stupid things like this happened. You’re not gonna hear that piece ever again on Snap Judgment in the same context. If we do run that piece we’re gonna put some sort of disclaimer or something on it. I love the piece itself, as a piece of storytelling, but I think the blogger is right. We did not do enough due diligence to present that as straightforwardly as we did.

What would you do differently today?

I think, No. 1, we would ask some more questions. Jeff had been a regular contributor to the program and we probably dropped the ball in not asking the same types of questions as we do to every single person who comes through the door. The same Internet search that the blogger did? I did it too. I did it too late. I did it after the piece had aired. And that’s why we were like, Ugh. We were like, Okay, we’ve got to revise our policies enough to say not just new people but every story, every person, gets the same level of review. That was a change for us. That story was one of the fairly early stories in our program, when we were running around like chickens with our heads cut off. That’s the thing with our show. We want the stories to be true to the person telling them. That’s for sure. Are we gonna fact-check every single thing? No. But if you’re telling me that the killer picked you up on the side of the road, I want to know that the basis of that story happened, or we’ll present it as straight fiction. Whenever we do a story as fiction it’s generally a fantastical story, like, I shot Superman with a God bullet, or something like that.

Greenwald says his brush with killers definitely happened, and that if he had thought he was being held to journalistic standards he might’ve told the story differently, so as to avoid being confronted with listeners’ doubts. “That’s been really thorny,” he says. “And at this point I find myself a bit red-faced. Because I’ve gone through the police records, I’ve looked through the list of hitchhikings and murderers at that time; I have done as much due diligence as I can in my spare time … and I have not come up with a lot of proof for the story.” (On Monday, he began making inquiries to the FBI, for records.)

The hitchhiking happened in 1974, he says, five years before he became a journalist. The killers stole his backpack, which contained his journals recounting the episode, he says; his father, who knew the story, died in the ’80s; Greenwald lost touch with his girlfriend and didn’t track her down before telling the story. “So there’s no documentation,” he says. “People can do with it what they will. I never felt I presented it as a piece of authoritative investigative journalism. I presented it as a story that I remembered.”

He said, “At what point is a story simply allowed to be a story?” A possible answer: When it doesn’t involve real-world events or stakes. A story about a genie popping out of a bottle presumably has zero stakes for the listener, whereas a story about serial killers or a near plane crash does. In the hitchhiker story, a listener might reasonably expect to learn — at the very least — the suspects’ full names and, perhaps also, when the event happened and what became of Tony and Sue.

Greenwald calls this the difference between storytelling and journalism, but not all listeners make the distinction, even when a show signals its intentions:

Washington: There’s definitely a strict line between, say, This American Life and Snap Judgment. Ira Glass is a reporter. He’s the best features reporter in America. And I’m not. I’m not a reporter. Ira uses storytelling tools; I use certain tools of reportage. But we say, “This is not the news; this is storytelling with a beat” for a reason: to set the listener’s expectation of what these are. This is a story. It’s not reportage when you’re having a conversation with your friend or your mother or your spouse or your lover, whatever. It’s a different type of communication, and that’s where we are. But again, where the blogger’s right: We should have done more homework on that piece. Because it’s all about, for me, am I meeting the expectations that the listener has? Generally people get where we’re coming from on this thing, but some of the early episodes we’ve got stuff like genies popping out of things, and people telling that with a straight face. This happened to them; that’s true to them. No one has ever just related in a Vulcan world of straight facts; we relate through narratives, and narratives have beginnings and middles and ends. But like I say: The issue there is expectation. Especially as a newer show, we were in a new kind of dialogue with people as to what to expect from us. In fact it was a big question when we were first starting the show: What do we mean by “truth?” One early idea was to say we didn’t care about truth. But it wasn’t true. We do care about truth. We just think there’s a different way oftentimes at getting at it. That’s the whole basis of the show, is that there’s a different way to get at what happened.

Describe the typical Snap Judgment story.

That’s the whole thing! We can’t be typical! My Snap Judgment stories are generally based upon my own life experiences. Generally every episode or so I’ll tell a story about things that happened to me. It’s interesting, this whole aspect of memoir. I mean Oprah might James Frey me if I sat down on her couch but I’m telling stories of things that happened 30 years ago, and in those stories I’m telling, “She said this, this happened here, that’s the way it went down.” Now, I’m not trying to deceive anybody. Actually it’s kind of funny. I have a close crew of friends. We lived together in Japan — we started there in a program in 1989, so I’ve known these guys for a while. One of them used to say, “I’m gonna catch you in an exaggeration. I’m gonna catch you. I’m gonna do it. Because I know every one of your stories.” And it’s been a long time and he ain’t caught me yet. I mean did so-and-so say things in the order I’m putting them? Probably not. But did the essence of the event happen? Yeah. Absolutely. It’s kind of like an Angela’s Ashes situation, where (Frank) McCourt went in and started putting words in people’s mouths from 50 years ago, back in Ireland. Beautiful piece of work as a type of memoir, but not a piece of reporting.

So, audio memoir.

That’s one way to put it. My pieces are audio memoir. But there are other aspects that go into it. The whole thing about storytelling — this is what we don’t want to do; this is how we actually spend most of our time, as far as fairness is concerned: What I don’t want to do is have a person tell a story that in some way implicates another person in wrongdoing. We have a hard time with this. Fairness ends up being really difficult in storytelling because oftentimes you’re implicating somebody else in your situation. So because of that we will say, like, “the names have been changed,” or “this happened in such and such place.” I’ve started off a story by saying I’ve had to change the details of the story; the basic thing did in fact happen but I don’t want to implicate.

Transparency is often what’s missing in, for example, memoir.

Right, and it ends up being really difficult sometimes. Here’s the thing, too: Journalism 101, for audio journalism, is that you use the sound from the places where you’re doing the story, but you don’t go later on and start adding a bunch of made-up stuff. This is what we do all the time. It ends up being a clue, to some extent, that we’re not gonna be following regular journalistic prohibitions. We soundscape the heck out of pieces, and it’s certainly not sound sound.

Example?

Okay, so there’s a story that I told — I have a goddaughter who was born extremely prematurely. The mother of the baby, her partner was out of the country and she asked me to go to the (neonatal intensive care unit), to see the baby. The hospital had rules that only parents could go into this unit. So I told the hospital that I was the parent. And I went there. And when we were telling this piece we had hospital sounds come in the back. And I say that I saw her and she was hooked to various monitors. And you can hear the monitors. When I picked her up the monitors started going crazy, until they placed … her on my chest, because they said the thing that was good for preemies was skin-to-skin contact. So the whole time there were heartbeat sounds, there were monitor sounds — there was all kind of soundscaping that happened with that piece. It’s the first three minutes of an episode that we did called “Close Knit.” But that’s not reportage. Like, journalism students would be properly aghast if that was passed off as a reporting piece.

What kinds of staff conversations do you have about this kind of thing?

We had them a lot early on because we were defining the show. That sort of Jeff Greenwald issue, I don’t think that would happen today, because a lot of this stuff has been worked out. We ourselves understand our show better than we did when we were starting out. We’re not here to fool anybody. We are setting a different relationship than other NPR programs are setting with their audience. Garrison (Keillor) does the same thing. Not to be too critical, but it seems like there’s a big (David) Sedaris pass that happens. David’s not trying to fool anybody. What did he say — it was something to the effect of somebody asked, “Is this true?” and he said, “True enough.” I mean none of this is hard-and-fast stuff. Look, if David Sedaris were telling me the news on the ground in Baghdad, I’d be upset about it. But if he’s telling me, “This is what happened to me last week,” as a story, I don’t have any problems with that. The closer we get to news, and the closer that things actually matter in a real-world context apart from a personal story, the more careful we have to be. Like recently we were doing a story on a pollution triangle in Louisiana where there’s like a triangle of cancer happening in a certain community, and various chemical companies were suspected of elevating the cancer risks in this area. All of a sudden, yeah, we had to kind of put our reporter hat on and be really damn sure we’re getting our facts right.

Right.

No. 1, I can’t get sued by Dupont.

Yeah, that would be bad.

But in a broader sense, when we’re talking about the news, or newsy topics, we’re talking about something that has relevance beyond a personal story. A lot of our stories are aimed at the heart. A person can find different types of resonance. But when we’re taking a broader look at things we gotta check things out more. This is not the news, but if we’re telling certain stories that have real-world implications, we have to use certain journalistic tools to make sure the integrity of the piece is correct.

NPR, meanwhile, is grappling with these issues on a broader scale.

“All these shows get into a realm of audio storytelling that is fairly new territory for us,” says Eric Nuzum, NPR’s vice president for programming. “…There is no question that there is a rightful expectation of NPR programs that they be truthful. … How do we clearly identify the sourcing of the material, and in a way that doesn’t get in the listener’s way? That’s what these growing pains are addressing. Is Snap Judgment a work of journalism? No. Is it accountable to many NPR standards? Of course.”

In some ways, NPR is navigating its own legacy. “One of the issues is that these things are appearing within the context of public radio, which achieved its stripes in news and journalism,” as Allison puts it, “so that the audience starts to feel that everything they hear on public radio must be journalism. That’s a misapprehension.”

He says, “I mean, my big interest is this: You don’t want to inhibit the great art of storytelling with people just slavishly adhering to facts and details where they don’t matter and where they have no potential to create harm or even a misimpression. If it all becomes about that, then the focus on the remembering and the retelling may become inhibited by people becoming almost frightened that they’re gonna be taken to task. Now that’s different from, obviously, making up a story or changing major details, especially details that potentially affect the lives of others. That’s a whole different phenomenon. Everybody needs to guard against that.”

Check back soon for Part 2 of our conversation with Washington. Discussed: how growing up in a cult influenced his storytelling, the traits of great storytelling, aiming at the heart, and “seeing your own narrative.”    

 

May 29 2013

14:27

Get Pinterested, Storyboard style

Join Nieman Storyboard on Pinterest! We’re expanding our reach via categories on everything from reporting resources to tip sheets. Among our growing number of boards:

Screen Shot 2013-05-29 at 12.09.08 AMNarrative news: Fresh quick reads, pinned daily. Up now: How Twitter is shaping the future of storytelling, via Fast Company.

Nieman store: Links to details about the great and growing number of works published or sold by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism, including our popular Telling True Stories anthology and The Future of News as We Know It, by Nieman Journalism Lab, one of our sister publications.

Inspired: Storytelling curios in journalism and beyond. Hemingway’s recommended reading list for young writers; the nine stages of story as told by a vase of flowers; a Dorothy Parker telegram proving all writers suffer; Henry Miller’s writing commandments; Harvard professor Stephen Burt on the intersection between poetry and news (from our sister publication Nieman Reports); former Nieman Fellow Megan O’Grady on the beauty of the counter-narrative.

Interviewland: Q-and-A’s on narrative journalism and more. Conversations, so far, featuring Joan Didion, David Finkel, John McPhee, Hunter S. Thompson, Janet Malcolm, Chris Jones, Joshuah Bearman, and Junot Diaz.

Gear: We’re addicted to great pencils and pens and notebooks and gadgets and organizational ideas — and we like to share. So enjoy that.

Best of Storyboard: Good pieces you might’ve missed, including, for instance, a rollicking storytelling talk with ESPN The Magazine‘s Wright Thompson, and seven storytelling tips from Nora Ephron.

Wish list: We’re hoping someone writes a great narrative about … at the moment, cicadas.

Also: Reading lists, class props, miscellany, tattoos, and more to come.

Have fun in there.

May 23 2013

14:58

Writing a tornado narrative, with Esquire’s Luke Dittrich

The news out of Moore, Okla., couldn’t help remind us of the historic tornado in Joplin, Mo., and of one narrative in particular: Luke Dittrich’s National Magazine Award-winning Esquire piece on how a group of strangers survived by crowding into a convenience store cooler. The scenario, which happened two years ago yesterday, was echoed this week at Plaza Towers Elementary, where 70 to 80 children survived by taking cover with their teachers in a bathroom. Dittrich visited the Nieman Foundation last year to talk about his piece, “Heavenly Father!…,” as part of the Nieman Narrative speaker series. Dittrich’s story was so strong partly because he recognized the opportunity for narrative. From a gargantuan topic (tornado), he extracted Story (what happened to a specific set of people caught in a specific shared circumstance). The piece works because it contains the key narrative elements, including:

Arc. The story has a natural beginning, middle, and end. The people went into the cooler, helped each other survive, and then returned to their lives. Dittrich, in his Nieman talk: 

spread_merged11-300x197

courtesy Esquire

I was drawn to the cooler because it’s so tightly focused – it’s a very tight space with a bunch of people crammed inside, in the dark. I liked the idea of simplifying it as much as possible. The thing that made it easier was the fact that there weren’t two dozen disconnected individuals in there; there were maybe six or seven smaller units. My biggest fear was that (readers) were gonna lose track of who’s who. Approaching it as family units or as friend units, or as people who were helping each other, helped me try to keep it as comprehensible as possible.

Characters. Strong narratives usually depend on a strong leading character or characters—someone who faces a challenge and then either surmounts it or fails. Dittrich tracked down every person from the cooler and then:

I first tell them to just give me a little backstory – who are ya and what do you do? How long have you been around here? Where do you come from? In this case I had them start with what happened as best they could remember from the moment they woke up that morning to the end of the day, and to just walk me through every single thing they could remember about that day.

Dittrich

Dittrich

Detail/description. Dittrich went so far as to have the people from the Fastrip cooler sketch out everyone’s places as best they could recollect, to better “see” the scene and to make sure the details lined up:

I got anybody that could to sketch out who was around them. When I got them finally together at the site of the Fastrip I got them to arrange themselves as they were, as they were crouched down and draped over each other, so I could picture it in my head.

To read the whole conversation with Dittrich, about the tornado and other stories, go here.

 

May 10 2013

15:46

How’s it going with The Big Round Table and other narrative ventures, Michael Shapiro?

As if longtime Columbia J-school professor Michael Shapiro didn’t already have enough to do, with Big Round Table launching in September: Yesterday he put 17 of his students’ stories online in a pay-what-you want experiment. Project Wordsworth runs for the next week. The idea intrigues us* and we’re interested to see what will happen. As of this morning Project Wordsworth had seen 5,000 page views and the writers, Shapiro said, had earned more than $1,000. Excerpts from a few of the stories:

W.125th to 99 Madison Avenue: 30 minutes on the 1 and N trains according to Google, which was five minutes off. Apparently, Google doesn’t account for 4 inch heels in their walking and transfer time estimations. Seat: Yes. Ambiance: 4. Time in transit: 35 minutes. The OpenData NYC meet-up was hosted at ThoughtWorks, one of the many Manhattan tech start-ups indistinguishable from each other with their fridges full of beers and vague mission statements. ThoughtWorks was unusual only in that its offices were in Midtown rather than the downtown corridor of the original “Silicon Alley.” (from “The Little Blue Book: The Worlds of Commuting Obsessives,” by Madeline K.B. Ross)

Sitting on a plastic bed in the in-patient/out-patient wing of the Weinberg Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins with an IV connected to a catheter that had been implanted in my chest, things were looking up. It was 2008 and I was 28 years old, and due to a recent battery of high-dose chemotherapy that had left me with maybe one white blood cell, which I’d named Melvin, I had to wear one of those surgeon’s masks at all times to keep the world’s germs out of my face. Here I was, if you can imagine, bald and eyebrowless with a paper mask over my mouth, a tube coming out of my chest, the picture of cancer, and things were looking up. Scans showed that the cancer (along with just about every other cell in my body) was disappearing. (from “Healing Me Harshly,” by Keith Collins)

Kathryn Denning spends a lot of time studying scientists who think about aliens. Denning, an anthropologist at York University in Canada, is fascinated by the idea of The Other in relation to humans. Her recent research has focused on how scientists think about the evolution of intelligence in relation to hypothetical extraterrestrials, ethical difficulties and the future of the human colonization of Space. A big reason we’re so drawn to space, she told me, is “its importance in traditional culture.” We all share the experience of looking up at the stars and trying to make sense of it all. “It tends to get intertwined with the heavens and Heaven and we think of it as a place of revelations and knowledge and dreams,” Denning said. (from “Cosmic Postcards: The Adventures of an Armchair Astronaut,” by Kamakshi Ayyar)

In the days and months that followed I replayed the incident in my head over and over again. It seemed so unreal that I often questioned whether what I saw actually happened or if I dreamed it all up. What always made it real again was not the image of a man jumping but the memory of the jolt the train made as it ran over his body. I needed to know who this man was. I looked in the newspapers but found very little. I learned that his name was Dwight Brown and that he was 27 years old. He lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Then the trail dried up. It was as if this man’s trace of life vanished. I thought if I could find more about this man, meet his family and friends, I would be able to make sense of that morning. (from “The Witness,” by Mary Ann Georgantopoulos)

Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 4.51.05 PMShapiro also gave us a status report on his larger project, The Big Round Table, a Kickstarter-funded web-based publisher of longform narrative that attempts to crowd-curate storytelling by bypassing the “gatekeepers” of publishing and posting what readers say they want to read. Stories get greenlighted by a cooperative of journalists “committed to the future of big narrative ambitious nonfiction” based on the first 1,000 words. Writers earn $1 of every sale. We talked to Shapiro last night by email. Here’s some of the discussion:

Storyboard: You went big with the pitch: “There is a revolution taking place in journalism. With it have come possibilities for writers who despaired of ever finding a way to make a living at their craft. Writers are now freed from the constraints of convention in telling their stories and from the commercial needs of editors and publishers, who determine what tales get told. That, in turn, means a new era of creativity for authors of narrative nonfiction—new writers, new stories, new audiences waiting for a friend to say, Here’s a story you’ll want to read. The Big Roundtable is more than a digital publishing platform; it is a movement, one that we believe can expand the possibilities for writers, and readers.” Where’d this idea come from?

Shapiro: It came from, how best to put it, 35 years of writing for a living—in newspapers, magazines, and books, and seeing how the publishing world felt as it were shrinking, while all around it, the world was expanding. Believe me, I felt the pinch. There was ever more pressure, especially when it came to books, to come up with ideas that were sure to sell. Well, how is anyone supposed to know what will sell, other than genre fiction? At the same time, magazines were feeling ever more predictable, and had been for years. For several years I was a judge at the National Magazine Awards, and found ever more that while the stories I was reading while not bad, seldom lifted off the page. The writing had become so formulaic, so safe—anecdotal lede, nut graf, quote from eminent sociologist. It was ever harder to find a story that you sensed a writer needed to tell. And we all know the difference. We know what it is like writing a story that burns inside of us, and a story that is, well, interesting. The result was a landscape of predictability. Why were journalists, smart and eager journalists, constrained, when writers of creative fiction were freer to experiment and push? What happened to the New Journalism revolution? I cannot believe it peaked a generation ago. Where was the surprise?

You had a $5,000 Kickstarter goal and took in nearly $19,219, from 220 backers. Who gave, and why?

People we know—God bless them. And a lot of people we’d never heard of who contributed generously and who sometimes wrote to say, Hey, cool idea. I have a story. Can I send it along? The answer was, and is, always yes. (Pitches should go to TheBRTable@gmail.com.)

“Now everyone can be a writer and a publisher,” you said in your campaign. Please explain. 

I suspect every writer falls asleep and dreams that come the dawn they will become the next Amanda Hocking, that from the acorn of a few sales via Amazon to friends will spring the mighty oak of best-sellerism. Pretty to think so, no? The problem isn’t one of production or dissemination; no one needs a publisher to print and sell. The problem is audience. How do you find one, and make people feel as if their lives will be lessened if they don’t read your work?

But hold on: There’s still a gatekeeper aspect, because BRT ultimately decides which stories move forward. No?

Shapiro

Shapiro

Yes. But. The gatekeeper is not me. Lord knows if it were me there would be a surfeit of baseball stories. Who is to say that my taste, or any other individual’s tastes, is superior? I may be skilled at seeing where a story slips and can be improved. But I enjoy no monopoly on taste, and nor does anyone else. And so, we’re experimenting, yes experimenting because in a venture like the BRT we are in a permanent state of beta, with the idea that if you ask a small group of readers what they think about a story, you improve the chances of achieving that rarest and most sought after quality in a story: surprise. In an early—call it alpha—version of the experiment, we asked people to read full drafts. Huge mistake. Because presented with a story, writers cannot help but take out their red pens and try to fix things. So, we wondered what would happen if we asked those same people to read, say, the first 1,000 words. Takes five minutes. You can do it on your phone waiting for your tall soy latte. All we asked was: Do you want to read more, or no thanks? Quick response, and much more useful. It told us whether the story had an audience. Why 1,000 words? Because—and here, I am drawing more on experience than data—if you can nail the first 1,000 words of a story, the odds are good that you’re on your way.

Curation is the thing right now—Longreads, Longform.org, etc. You describe the project as a platform “through which writers of nonfiction stories too long for most magazines, and too short for most publishers, can find their readers,” but that also describes, sort of, platforms like Byliner and, to some extent, Kindle Singles, which publishes stories too long for a magazine and too short for a book. How does BRT differ from those?

All our content is original. Byliner does some original work, but mostly curated; they’ve been very kind about curating my stuff. I know David Blum, who edits Kindle Singles, and think he is a very smart editor. But in the end, David, talented as he is, is the gatekeeper. We’re trying something different.

The idea is that a happy reader will (and can) share the story with three friends, which is encouraged through the BRT model. The sharing aspect seems central to this concept. Why the sharing? 

Think about it: When you choose what you read for pleasure is on the basis of a) a review, b) something you heard or read about, or c) because a friend, not a Facebook friend but a living breathing want-to-get-dinner-this-week friend, said, You Have to Read This! I’ve asked this question many times to many different groups of people over the past year and the answer always comes up C. It is all about sharing. The question is, How do you replicate that moment at scale? That, in the end, is what this is all about. Again, it is all about increasing the chances of finding under your nose a story that is surprising.

Writers will make $1 per sale. How will you handle the operational transparency aspect with writers? How will writers know precisely how well their work is doing and whether they’re getting their fair share? 

We will do so contractually—no writer should ever for a moment think, Jeez, these guys aren’t being straight with me. That would be bad on so many levels.

You use the term “nonfiction novella,” the kind of language that makes a lot of people nervous. What does that term mean, from BRT’s perspective?

It means too long for most magazines and too short for a conventional book. Say, 5,000 to 30,000 words. Loosely. There are so many times I wished I had more space—and I have written 17,000-word magazine stories. I also can look at my books and think, you know, I think this would have been perfect at 40,000. If my publisher reads this they will not be pleased. Sorry fellas.

Where does this project live? Looks like you’ve got Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter covered.

It lives on the Internet because we live in a world where it is ever clearer that the Internet—and by this I mean the great amorphous amalgam of feeds and inboxes—decides what shall thrive. There is a terrific book by the sociologist Duncan Watts called Six Degrees—as in, yes, six degrees of separation—that captures as well as anything I’ve read the science of social networks. Watts is a pal of Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed and HuffPost fame, and they take different views of network creation. Peretti, a born optimist, believes that it is possible to tweak a budding network into something larger. Duncan takes a less sunny view. I fall someplace in between but veer toward Jonah. The Internet feels to me like a lava lamp, bubbling around, waiting for someone or something to tip it and get all that action flowing a certain way. Does this analogy make me sound like a Dead Head?

Yes. In a good way. The first story runs in August. What’s in the lineup? Can you give us some idea of the first few pieces?

Some great ones, and I will do so as cryptically as I can, so that people might think, “cool:” Inside the Albanian Mob; My Weekend at Adolf’s; How Disco Never Died; The Mother of Creedmoor; Of Inmates, Fire, and Death; The Miracle on Molokai. And those are but a few.

Generally speaking, are BRT stories those that got rejected elsewhere?

Maybe. We look at the stories as stories. We don’t ask them to come with a CV.

It can be hard enough getting phone calls returned when you’re on staff, but when you’re working without an institution attached to your project, how do you represent yourself? How would you advise a prospective BRT author to identify herself?

I am a writer with a story to tell. Here it is. Our promise is that people will read the first 1,000 words.

Will the authors report/write the whole piece on spec and then hope the thing flies with readers? So much of great storytelling depends on the reporting. You need to report enough to write a great top, since readers will green light the piece (or not) based on the first 1,000 words, but that puts writers working without a net. Say you spend three months reporting enough just to get a great opening, but then nobody bites. That’s three months you just spent, for nothing. Or no?

Out there, as I write, I know, just know, that there are all these wonderful writers with stories burning in their notebooks who are thinking, “There is more to this story than 700 words.” Maybe the New Yorker? The Times magazine? Maybe. But the odds aren’t good. I know this because I have been that writer and I wanted to tell that story and yes, I wanted to be paid for it. But I needed to tell it. And to put my money where my mouth is, I’m working on one now for the BRT. I really need to tell this one. No advance.

Who is your envisioned audience?

Ah, that is the $64,000 question. We have an incredible story in which a woman recounts her banker father slowly drinking himself to death. (Trust me, you cannot put this one down.) Is that only for an audience of children of alcoholics? Or will others, for whom this bears no direct connection to their lives, nonetheless see in the story a quality that speaks to them, that surprises them?

Who will edit the stories? Will there be fact checkers? Copyeditors? How will the actual editorial process work?

We have my all time favorite editor working with us, Mike Hoyt, the longtime editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Best hands, as they say, in the business. If we don’t have terrific stories, and yes fact-checked stories, we are nowhere. But it is not Mike’s job to choose. It is his job to lift those stories, with the author.

You have a stated goal of studying “how people find, read, fall in love with a share stories” and becoming “the research lab of the longform revival” by gathering data that “will at long last illuminate what happens when one friend feels compelled to share a story with another.” There’s a longform revival?

Don’t you think so? Look at all these ventures—Atavist, Longform, Longreads, to say nothing of these heretofore impossible to imagine stories in the Times and elsewhere.

We like “longform” without the hyphen. Looks like you do too.

Cleaner, no?

You’ve said a paid staff will produce BRT. Paid how? Who’s on the masthead?

We have some money from Kickstarter and hope to start getting more—grants, we hope. We have a small staff: Mike, me; our product manager is a journalism school grad, Anna Hiatt. We’re being assisted by Rashmi Raman, who is our engineer, Anna Codrea-Rado, who manages the audiences and our designer, Eleonore Hamelin.

You’ll sell directly from the BRT website rather than through a distributor like Amazon. Why?

Because Amazon does not share all its data. And we want, need, to be able to see and test and iterate.

Whom do you envision as your typical writer?

The writer with a story he or she is burning to tell. Really, it is that simple.

The goal is to understand how readers find, read and fall in love with work, and share it. Assuming you figure that out, what next?

Heaven knows. We’re making this up as we go along. I am learning what it means to be involved in a startup.

 

(*having had some experience with it ourselves) 

May 09 2013

15:05

Why Charles Ramsey’s interview is great (and it’s okay* to think so)

Everybody loved the Charles Ramsey interviews on freeing Amanda Berry, one of three young women abducted in Cleveland a decade ago and apparently held captive all this time. Then of course, people hated it. Or some did, anyway, raising questions about the meme of the “hilarious black neighbor.” Until details about the story had time to emerge—what went on in that house, and how such secrets went undetected for so long—all the attention was on Ramsey, and his unfiltered recounting of the excitement on Seymour Street. You’ve seen the video and heard the audio, but here it is in text form:

“Yeah, hey bro,” Ramsey told the dispatcher. “I’m at 2207 Seymour. West 25th. Check this out—I just came from McDonald’s, right? So I’m on my porch eating my little food, right? This broad is trying to break out the fucking house next door to me, so there’s a bunch of people on the street right now and shit. So we’re like, ‘What’s wrong? What’s the problem?’ She’s like, ‘This motherfucker done kidnapped me and my daughter…’ She say her name is Linda Berry or some shit. I don’t know who the fuck that is, I just moved over here, bro.”

“Sir, sir,” said the male dispatcher. “…You have to calm down and slow down. Is she still in the street?”

“Seymour Avenue,” Ramsey said.

“Is she still in the street or where did she go?”

“Yeah I’m looking at her right now. She’s calling y’all! She’s on the other phone.”

They went on for a bit, with Ramsey getting frustrated and the dramatic tension (hello, narrative) rising. A short while later the TV news crews arrived, and Ramsey’s story got longer and more detailed, with discrepancies:

I went to McDonald’s and I’m at home and I hear this, ‘Help, let me out!’ This girl screaming. Now we don’t have that on our street because everybody on this street knows each other, so when you hear something like that you come running to see what’s going on. I thought it was a kid got attacked by a pit bull. And I looked at that girl and I said, ‘You look familiar!’ And I’m prying the door open and she’s trying to get out, and she climbed through the bottom of it and soon as she got out she said, ‘My name is Amanda Berry, call the police.’

You heard screaming? the reporter asked.

I heard screaming. I’m eating my McDonald’s. I come outside and I see this girl going nuts, trying to get out of her house, so I go on the porch and she says, ‘Help me get out, I’ve been in here a long time,’ so I figured it was a domestic violence dispute so I opened the door and we can’t get in that way because…a body can’t fit through, only your hand. So we kicked the bottom and she comes out with a little girl and she says, ‘Call 911. My name is Amanda Berry.’ When she told me, it didn’t register until I got to calling 911… I thought this girl was dead, you know what I mean? And she got on the phone and she said, ‘Yes, this is me…’

And when did you see Gina?

About five minutes after the police got here. See, that girl Amanda told the police, ‘I ain’t just the only one, it’s some more girls up in that house.’ So they went up there 30, 40 deep, and when they came out it was just astonishing because I thought they were gonna come up with nothing.

How long you lived here?

I been here a year! I barbecue with this dude. We eat ribs and whatnot, and listen to salsa music.

And you had no indication?

Not a clue that that girl was in that house, or that anybody else was in there against their will. Because how he is, he just comes out to his back yard, plays with the dogs, tinkering with his cars and motorcycles, goes back in the house. He’s somebody that you look at and look away because he’s not doing nothing but the average stuff. There’s nothing exciting about him. Well, until today.

What was the reaction on the girls’ faces? I can’t imagine…

Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway. Either she’s homeless or she got problems. That’s the only reason she’s running to a black man.

[The interview over, Ramsey flashed the thumbs-up.]

Why this is great and people love it: First, true originals mesmerize. Unfiltered, unmanaged, Ramsey was authentically who he is. Second, he told a story. His account of the escape is straight up narrative. The elements are there: a compelling character with an original voice (“Yeah, hey, bro…check this out;” “so they went up there 30, 40 deep;” “We eat ribs and whatnot”); there’s a clear structure (chronological), dialogue (which is key), and the aforementioned dramatic tension; it’s got what Tom Wolfe calls status details—food from McDonald’s, assumptions about a pit bull attack and a domestic violence dispute. And then the underdog hero utters a Hemingway’s-iceberg line of dialogue:

“Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms.”

So the story becomes transcendent.

If you’re writing the long-ball narrative you wouldn’t want to omit what happened next, which was that Ramsey, inevitably, went viral. Why? Did the public love him for his storytelling skills? His authenticity? His gutsy instincts? Yep. And was that okay? Absolutely. There was nothing, on Day 1, not to love. This was “a wonderfully vibrant interview with a man who helped kick down a door and rescue three women and a child,” said Neely Tucker, a veteran Washington Post reporter and author of Love in the Driest Season, when we informally polled a few journalists on the topic. “It was precise, exciting, emotional, visually telling, and told with great pacing and narrative detail. All in two minutes, live, on camera. Anybody who’s bothered that the narrator is black and probably not rich is saying more about themselves than him.”

*Things got tricky when the inevitable autotune opportunists and meme-weavers bundled Ramsey with the viral videos of other crime-scene witnesses, all of whom happened to be black. The personal you-go-dude! feelings for Ramsey, conflated with images of expressive stylists like Antoine Dodson, morphed into something else. Not ugly, exactly, but ugly adjacent, if you took the view that the meme-drivers were laughing at, not with. Ramsey moved “from bystander and guy on the scene into ‘Internet object of affection,’” as Justin Ellis, an assistant editor of Nieman Journalism Lab, one of Storyboard’s sister publications, puts it. “I don’t know if that’s just the Internet chugging along or if there’s something else to blame. People want to celebrate him, which is great, but it’s hard to ignore the familiar trappings/scenario of ‘black person achieves Internet fame through local TV,’ which can feel exploitive at times and condescending or even casually racist at others.”

A narrative that already contained those trace elements of race/class (“pretty white girl;” “black man’s arms”) now had an overlay of social media influence, triggering confusion (was it not okay to like this guy’s interview?) and raising coverage questions: How will—or should—this aspect of the story be presented in the long view, or even in the short one? We asked other colleagues and here’s what they said:

Unknown

Greg Moore

I have not watched a lot of the Internet stuff having fun with Charles Ramsey’s manner and I don’t plan to. I am from Cleveland and I know lots of people like Ramsey. On the street, he is likely being lauded for “keeping it real.” And part of the fascination with him is his originality and lack of self-consciousness. That’s partly why he could do what he did in saving those three women. He was on ABC’s Good Morning America this morning talking about the case, grappling for the right word here and there and sometimes clearly not understanding the question. But there was no mistaking his meaning and his grit when he did. Lamenting that he had shared ribs with the alleged perpetrator and even tried to salsa dance to some of his music, he ruefully noted something like this: If I had known what was going on in that house, don’t you think we’d be having a different interview right now? With Ramsey, you darn tootin’. Sometime people have to laugh to keep from crying. That’s a little bit of what is going on. This stuff is so bad and we are so relieved. But we all need to be listening to what this brave man is saying and not how he says it. I don’t think the reaction is so much racist as it reflects the lack of real familiarity with the strata of America. There are lots of people who talk like Ramsey and are damn funny, too. And there are many I grew up with who don’t play; who do the right thing and are fearless. Simple applause for Ramsey should be enough. He is a genuine hero, quirks and all. McDonald’s needs to put him in a commercial and one of those public-minded dental clinics should give him some new choppers for free. That’s the best way to show gratitude for such courage and community mindedness. And it is okay to chuckle at the unvarnished way he puts things? (Because it is really nervous laughter about how little we know about real people living real lives in communities across America). If we really understood his world, we’d know he is just keeping it real. And we are damn lucky he is. — Greg Moore, editor of the Denver Post, and Pulitzer Prize board member

CC

Callie Crossley

First, of course, so glad he did what he did. Having said that, I wondered why a lot of the response to him has been all about the “funny” delivery. Have to say I’ve seen it before in portrayals of black men who happen into the middle of a breaking story—Antoine Dodson a prime example. For a while he was all the rage in pop culture, even garnering a record contract. But in his case and in Charles’ the serious substance of what they were saying got subsumed by their mannerisms and affect. I’m fascinated—not in a good way—by the fact that Charles’ commentary about race in Cleveland has stopped being reported as part of the story. “I knew something was wrong when a little pretty ran into a black man’s arms”—that’s pretty deep, and I think should have inspired journalists to ask him to explain what he meant. I’ve only heard one report focusing on this piece of the story, and I can’t remember if it was a TV or radio story. The piece picked up on his statement and went on to talk about the deep racial divide in Cleveland. But, that is the ONLY report I’ve seen dealing with it. As I see it, this is another example of journalists who are reluctant to pursue a legitimate racial angle to a story, even if it is a part of the main character’s story. And of course there is a class angle here. Reporters are also not so comfortable dealing with that issue. By the way, in the black blogosphere, a lot of folks are referencing In Living Color‘s satirical sketch: Reporters arrive on the scene of a breaking story and there are two witnesses, one a black professional in a suit and tie and another a black woman in what we used to call a housecoat, with curlers in her hair, and not in great command of the King’s English. Of course all of the reporters rushed past the guy and went to her for a “colorful” recitation of the events that had transpired. This is not exactly the same scenario in Charles Ramsey’s case—he was the only witness—but you get my drift. — Callie Crossley, host of the WGBH Radio show “Under the Radar.” Friday night at 7:30, Crossley will lead a Basic Black discussion called “What Can We Learn from Charles Ramsey?” It airs on WGBH-TV, Channel 2 in the Boston area.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland narrative unfolded. When Anderson Cooper spoke to Ramsey about all this, Ramsey said, “It’s about cojones. It’s about cojones, on this planet.” Cooper then asked whether he hoped to receive the FBI reward for helping free the women. “I tell you what you do,” Ramsey said instantly. “Give it to them.”

April 04 2013

14:20

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

14:43

The best magazine features of 2011: an ASME sampler

National Magazine Award judges have a tough job this year as they choose a winner in the features category. There’s the sobering story about a corporate attorney’s mysterious death in Guatemala; the bizarre tale of a pair of young international arms dealers; the moving account of two dozen strangers braving a massive tornado; a fable-like piece about a man who rode out the Japanese tsunami on the roof of his house; and a high-larious (pardon us) story about a darker side of Disney World.

The American Society of Magazine Editors will announce the winner on May 3, but until then here’s a sampling from those five fine finalists, written by some of the top names in narrative:

Luke Dittrich* of Esquire. From “Heavenly Father!…”:

Tinkerbell is squirming and twisting in Michaela’s arms, trying to look up at the widening holes in the roof. The tornado, unlike the storm clouds that shrouded it and concealed its approach, is not entirely dense and black. Dim, green, aquatic light, like the light scuba divers see, brightens the cooler a bit even as the cooler is being torn apart.

The tornado stretches twenty thousand feet into the sky. It is three quarters of a mile wide. It is not empty.

It is carrying two-by-fours and drywall and automobiles.

It is carrying baseball cards, laptop computers, family photo albums.

It is carrying people, as naked as newborns, their clothes stripped away like tissue paper.

It is carrying fragments of the Walmart where Carl and Jennifer met, of the church where Donna worships, of three of the nursing homes where Lacey works.

It has traveled six miles through the city, and now it is carrying a great deal of the city within itself.

Michaela pushes Tinkerbell’s head down, but she can feel her squirrelly little neck straining against her hand, wanting to look up, wanting to see.

David Grann of The New Yorker. From “A Murder Foretold”:

Initially, Rosenberg spoke slowly and stiffly, but then his hands began to rise and fall, along with his eyebrows, the power of his voice growing—a voice from the grave. “I don’t have a hero complex,” he said. “I don’t have any desire to die. I have four divine children, the best brother life could have given me, marvellous friends.” He continued, “The last thing I wanted was to deliver this message…But I hope my death helps get the country started down a new path.” He urged Vice-President Espada whom he described as “not a thief or an assassin” − to assume the Presidency and insure that the guilty parties wound up in jail. “This is not about seeking revenge, which only makes us like them,” Rosenberg said. “It is about justice.” He predicted that the Guatemalan government would try to cover up the truth, by smearing the Musas and inventing plots. “But the only reality that counts is this: if you saw and heard this message, it is because I was killed by Álvaro Colom and Sandra de Colom, with the help of Gustavo Alejos.” He concluded, “Guatemalans, the time has come. Please it is time. Good afternoon.”

Guy Lawson of Rolling Stone. From “Arms and the Dudes”:

To get into the game, Diveroli knew he would have to deal with some of the world’s shadiest operators – the war criminals, soldiers of fortune, crooked diplomats and small-time thugs who keep militaries and mercenaries loaded with arms. The vast aftermarket in arms had grown exponentially after the end of the Cold War. For decades, weapons had been stockpiled in warehouses throughout the Balkans and Eastern Europe for the threat of war against the West, but now arms dealers were selling them off to the highest bidder. The Pentagon needed access to this new aftermarket to arm the militias it was creating in Iraq and Afghanistan. The trouble was, it couldn’t go into such a murky underworld on its own. It needed proxies to do its dirty work – companies like AEY. The result was a new era of lawlessness. According to a report by Amnesty International, “Tens of millions of rounds of ammunition from the Balkans were reportedly shipped – clandestinely and without public oversight – to Iraq by a chain of private brokers and transport contractors under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense.”

This was the “gray market” that Diveroli wanted to penetrate. Still a teenager, he rented a room in a house owned by a Hispanic family in Miami and went to work on his laptop.

Michael Paterniti of GQ. From “The Man Who Sailed His House”:

This force is greater than the force of memory, or regret, or fear. It’s the force of an impersonal death, delivered by thousands of pounds of freezing water that slam you into a dark underworld, the one in which you now find yourself hooded, beaten, pinned deeper. The sensation is one of having been lowered into a spinning, womblike grave. If you could see anything in the grip of this monster, fifteen feet down, you’d see your neighbors tumbling by, as if part of the same circus. You’d see huge pieces of house – chimneys and doors, stairs and walls – crashing into each other, fusing, becoming part of one solid, deadly wave. You’d see shards of glass and splintered swords of wood. Or a car moving like a submarine. You’d see your thirty pigeons revolving in their cage. Or your wife within an arm’s reach, then vacuumed away like a small fish. You frantically flail. Is this up or down? Something is burning inside now, not desperation but blood depleted of oxygen. What you illogically desire more than anything is to open your mouth wide and gulp. You scissor your legs. In some eternity, the water turns from black to gray, and gray to dirty green, as you reach up over your head one last time and whip your arms down, shooting for the light.

John Jeremiah Sullivan of the New York Times magazine. From “You Blow My Mind. Hey, Mickey!”:

“I always figured you were doing brownies,” I said.

“I do do brownies,” he said. “I have brownies. But, you know. . . .”

I did. Edibles are good, and wise heads move toward them over time, to save their lungs, but there’s something about the combination of oxygen-deprivation and intense THC-flush that comes with smoking and in particular from smoking joints. There’s no real substitute, for the abuser. A brownie can alter your mood over hours, but a joint swings a psychic broom around you – it clears an instant space.

“I actually saw this thing on the Internet,” Trevor said, “where people were talking about getting high in the park.”

“At Disney World!” I said, as if I hadn’t been listening.

He led me back inside and quietly cracked open his laptop on the kitchen counter. “Check this out,” he whispered. Only the two of us were awake.

I dropped into one of the swivel stools in front of the bright screen. I was reading before I knew what I was reading, but it was like a chat room. Or a forum. “Forum” is the better term. A motif of cannabis leaves and naked women holding glittery buds ran down the left margin: a pothead forum. Trevor scrolled it down to a posting, the subject of which read, “Re: Hello from Disney World.”

An anonymous person, evidently the veteran of a staggering number of weed-smoking experiences in the park, had done a solid for the community and laid out his or her knowledge in a systematic way. It was nothing less than a fiend’s guide to Disney World. It pinpointed the safest places for burning the proverbial rope, telling what in particular to watch for at each spot. Isolated footpaths that didn’t see much traffic, conventional smoking areas with good hedge cover, places where you could hide under a bridge by a little artificial river – those were its points of interest. The number of views suggested that the list had helped a lot of desperate people.

In other finalist categories you’ll find equally terrific pieces, including Mark Bowden’s “Echoes from a Distant Battlefield” (Vanity Fair), Natasha Gardner’s “Direct Fail” (5280) and Mike Kessler’s “What Happened to Mitrice Richardson?” (Los Angeles).

Enjoy!


*Coming Friday: Dittrich recently visited the Nieman Narrative Writing class, where he took us behind the scenes of reporting and writing the Joplin, Mo.,
tornado story. Check back tomorrow for that conversation.

March 29 2012

14:47

Keeping you up to date on Storyboard

You might notice editors switching seats in the days ahead. In the interest of keeping readers in the loop, we want to let you know that Storyboard editor Andrea Pitzer is working on a narrative nonfiction project about Vladimir Nabokov and will be taking a few months to concentrate solely on her book.

In the meantime, Paige Williams will be acting editor of Storyboard beginning April 1. A National Magazine Award winner, Williams also teaches narrative nonfiction writing to the fellows and affiliates of the Nieman Foundation. She has been a Storyboard contributor since 2010 and served on the Editors’ Roundtable in 2011.

We’ll continue to look at nonfiction storytelling in every medium and explore the future of narrative journalism. And you can still reach us at contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org with information on narrative projects or events you’d like to see covered on Storyboard.

December 30 2011

16:11

Nieman Storyboard’s top 10 posts for 2011

During the last days of December, we’ve been tweeting down Storyboard’s top 10 posts for the year. In case you haven’t been following along, here they are, all in one place (in reverse order):

10. Internet phenom Maud Newton’s “Why’s this so good?”:

Raymond Chandler sticks it to Hollywood.”

9. Chris Jones, Esquire writer at large, talks with Nieman narrative instructor Paige Williams:

On reporting for detail, the case against outlining and the power of donuts.”

8. Storyboard editor Andrea Pitzer’s “Why’s this so good?”:

Gene Weingarten peels the Great Zucchini.”

7. Peter Ginna, publisher and editorial director of Bloomsbury Press, with

When journalists become authors: a few cautionary tips.”

6. Science and culture writer David Dobbs’ “Why’s this so good?”:

Michael Lewis’ Greek odyssey.”

5. Atlantic senior editor Alexis Madrigal’s “Why’s this so good?”:

Truman Capote keeps time with Marlon Brando.”

4. Science writer Carl Zimmer’s “Why’s this so good?”:

McPhee takes on the Mississippi.”

3. Two celebrated Esquire writers visit Harvard:

Gay Talese has a Coke: reflections of a narrative legend in conversation with Chris Jones.”

2. Nieman Lab assistant editor Megan Garber’s “Why’s this so good?”:

David Foster Wallace on the vagaries of cruising.”

1. Pedro Monteiro’s look at storytelling in the tablet and app future:

Story, interrupted: why we need new approaches to digital narrative.”

Thanks for your support in 2011. We’ve had a banner year here, with a lot of new contributors and record numbers of visitors. We look forward to bringing you even better coverage of new narrative projects and ideas in 2012. Happy New Year!

May 18 2011

12:57

Dorothy Parvaz freed by Iran

We’re thrilled to hear this morning that Iran has freed detained journalist (and 2009 Nieman fellow) Dorothy Parvaz. Alan Cowell and J. David Goodman reported in The New York Times that, without advance notice, Dorothy called her fiancé, Todd Barker, from customs as she arrived back in Doha, Qatar. A wonderful surprise for him, no doubt, and we’re happy to read the good news again and again in accounts on Al Jazeera Englishthe Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times websites.

Thank you to those Storyboard readers who helped raise awareness of Dorothy’s detention worldwide.

May 10 2011

16:50

Life in the cave: highlights from Boston University’s “The Rebirth of Storytelling” conference

What does it take to make a great story? Boston University’s “The Power of Narrative” conference, held on campus April 29-30, aimed to offer some insights. The event included the kind of writing techniques and “show don’t tell” advice you’d expect (and hope for) at such a gathering. But beyond hearing about the mechanics of narrative nonfiction, the 200-plus attendees also got ideas and advice on other parts of living the storytelling life. How do you sift through topics and dig into a massive undertaking? How do you carve out time to see a project through? What does it take to get published?

The weekend intensive offered thoughts from an array of magazine and book veterans, from Susan Orlean to Gay Talese, with a side of Hampton Sides and Ken Auletta. Dayton Duncan, who worked on Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” and “Baseball,” spoke for visual storytelling, while New York Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson represented daily news. Harvard’s own John Stauffer, who has written several narrative histories, bridged the worlds of academia and popular nonfiction. Isabel Wilkerson spearheaded the event in her role as director of BU’s narrative nonfiction program.

Gay Talese discussed his December New Yorker piece, in which the (then) 78-year-old reported on opera singer Marina Poplavskaya from three continents – a 21st-century global recasting of his legendary feature on Frank Sinatra.

He also shared his reservations about a particular kind of narrative reporting. As an example, he brought up the work of Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone contributing editor whose narrative on Gen. Stanley McChrystal contributed to McChrystal resigning his leadership position in Afghanistan. While accepting the piece as accurate, Talese differentiated Hastings’ style from his own. Suggesting that Hastings may have caught McChrystal’s team off-guard, Talese described how, in a similar situation, he would return to his subjects before filing a story and ask exactly what they meant. “I want to reflect what people mean, not what they say,” he explained. “That kind of journalism isn’t worth it.”

For those hoping to follow in these veterans’ footsteps or to blaze new trails, here are some tips culled from the weekend’s presenters:

Date before you marry. Talking about the importance of finding a project that both moves you and offers enough material, Susan Orlean described committing to stories that she later regretted choosing, and admitted to switching book topics mid-stream more than once. (She advised that taking this tack with publishers might not be conducive to a writing career.)

Isabel Wilkerson, discussing her book “The Warmth of Other Suns,” described interviewing more than 1,200 people before choosing the three central characters for her narrative. (For more on Wilkerson’s book, read our March interview with her.)

Give voice to the invisible and the dead. Dayton Duncan, who has written nine books in addition to his work with Ken Burns, addressed the creation of suspense and forward motion in “Out West: A Journey Through Lewis & Clark’s America.” Describing Lewis and Clark’s first loss and burial of an expedition member, Duncan noted that the first man they lost would also be the last. But to recreate how the trip felt to those on it, he let his readers agonize along with the characters in the book over whether and when the explorers might meet up with death again.

While Duncan focused on bringing the dead to life, Talese described the idea he had early in his career of reporting on the private lives of ordinary people. Aiming to treat these invisible characters with the complexity and significance that fiction accords everyday people, he became a self-described “master of the minor character.”

Rock the intro and the finale. When it comes to a book manuscript, Kate Medina, executive editorial director at Random House, described what she wants to see: “Go for something big, and write it the best you can. Write it in your natural voice.” Writers should strive for clear writing, clear thinking and a big, bold statement that’s backed up – a story that makes readers think or feel something they haven’t thought or felt before. Start with something riveting to draw readers in, she suggested, and pay attention to the very end. When readers finish the last page and put the book down, Medina wants them to think, “That’s the best book I’ve ever read.”

Live dangerously. Wilkerson talked about re-enacting the long drive one of her characters made from the deep South to California. Her subject’s trip had taken place during an era when finding a motel or hotel willing to let African-Americans stay was difficult. Wilkerson’s parents rode with her in the car. As the trip dragged on, Wilkerson became exhausted, and her parents grew more and more fearful. At one point, her parents said they would be more than happy to tell her what those years were like, but as far as re-enacting the trip with her, they wanted her to let them drive or let them out: “You must stop the car.”

Get a cave of some kind. Wilkerson talked about how she “went into the cave” on starting her book, entering the world of people who had lived the migration. Hampton Sides, author of “Hellhound on His Trail,” invoked the “pain cave” that he descends into when he begins writing. (This cave is apparently metaphorical, as he does his work at a local eatery that lets him run a tab.)

Talese, it turns out, had a real-world cave dug underneath his Manhattan brownstone to create a place to write where he would not be disturbed. This hideout has apparently been finished and polished in the years since it was first excavated (he recently wrote a tale for New York magazine on how he came by the rest of his digs), but having a bunker mentality about creating the space and time to work seems to be a requirement.

January 20 2011

16:53

Robert Caro, Stacy Schiff, Diane Ackerman and more: narrative conferences and workshops in 2011

Was one of your resolutions in 2011 to become a better storyteller? If so, here are a few conferences and workshops slated for the coming months that can probably teach you a thing or two. These sessions range from one-day conferences to week-long writing intensives, and none of them are free (they range from less than $100 to $1,100). But if you can pony up the pennies (or the big bills), you can hone your mad scribbling skillz with some of the best nonfiction writers working today.

Boston University Narrative Conference – April 29-30 at the Photonics Center in Boston. Speakers TBA. Last year’s group included New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, Gay Talese and Adam Hochschild, among other notables.

The Muse and the Marketplace – April 30-May 1 at the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston. Grub Street, Inc., offers up New York Times contributor Pauline Chen, nonfiction writer Alexandra Johnson and “Hiroshima in the Morning” author Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, among many others. (Actor and short story writer James Franco will be there, too, so we’re half expecting him to announce the start of his new career as a narrative journalist.)

Biographers International Organization Conference – May 21 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. For writers limning the lives of the famous and infamous, Robert Caro (“The Power Broker”) and Stacy Schiff  (“Cleopatra”) headline the speakers at BIO’s one-day affair.

Great Storytelling Every Day – July 17-22 in St. Petersburg, Fla. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tom French leads this Poynter Institute week-long workshop on conceiving and framing deadline narratives for print and online. Some scholarships available.

Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference – July 22-24 in Grapevine, Texas (outside Dallas). The Mayborn 2011 roster includes poet and essayist Diane Ackerman, two-time Pulitzer winner Gene Weingarten, “The Good Soldiers” author David Finkel, and NPR commentator Frank Deford, among many others.

We’ll post information on other upcoming conferences and workshops as we get details on them. If there’s an event you think Storyboard readers should know about, please don’t hesitate to e-mail us at contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org.

January 10 2011

16:11

Narrative on deadline: stories on the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords

Doing narrative stories on the heels of breaking news generally precludes the kind of lyricism often associated with the best examples of the form. Yet it can be a good way to get a framework established on a confusing story – such as the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords over the weekend.

Building a story from social media, NPR senior strategist Andy Carvin started a Storify timeline just two hours after the shooting began. Early on, NPR and several other outlets mistakenly posted that Giffords had been killed, which is reflected and then corrected in Carvin’s Storify account. (There has been a lot of discussion of the error since, including criticism of NPR and the station’s apology.)

The next day, The New York Times and The Washington Post sites posted text narratives of that deceptively sunny morning outside a Safeway in Tucson. In “Tucson shootings: How Gabrielle Giffords’s event for constituents turned to tragedy,” the Post’s Philip Rucker and Marc Fisher give readers some background on Giffords and her normal schedule, recapturing the feel of what started as a mundane event. When the shooting begins, readers feel the shock and horror of the moment. “A Single, Terrifying Moment: Shots Fired, a Scuffle and Some Luck,” Adam Nagourney’s piece in The New York Times, focuses more tightly on the chaos and violence, opening with a dramatic struggle between bystanders and the gunman as he attempted to reload.

And hours before the Post and the Times had posted their narratives, The Arizona Republic’s Jaimee Rose and Mary Jo Pitzl had turned on a dime to get their own angle by following Daniel Hernandez, Giffords’ brand-new intern, who may have saved her life. “Daniel Hernandez, intern, stays by Gabrielle Giffords’ side,” the brief story of events from Hernandez’s view, added a new perspective on not only the shooting but our understanding of Giffords’ condition in the moments just afterward.

We’ll continue to compile storytelling approaches to the tragic events of this weekend. Please send us links to any related narratives you see.

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl