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May 04 2011

15:02

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

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

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

Maria Carrillo
Managing editor, The Virginian-Pilot

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

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

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

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

Narnia?

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

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

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

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

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

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

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

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

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

Tom Shroder
Founding editor, www.storysurgeons.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Hunt
Assistant managing editor, Sports Illustrated

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

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

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

Jacqui Banaszynski
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism

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

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

Flaws:

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

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

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

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

Paige Williams
Narrative writing instructor, Nieman Foundation

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

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

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

March 03 2011

20:25

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

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

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

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

Maria Carrillo
Managing editor, The Virginian-Pilot

What works for me:

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

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

What I would have approached differently:

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

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

What worked for me:

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

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

What I would have approached differently:

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

Jacqui Banaszynski
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism

Three strengths to learn from:

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

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

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

Editor’s tweak:

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

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

Tom Shroder
Founding editor, www.storysurgeons.com

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

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

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

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

Paige Williams
Narrative writing instructor, Nieman Foundation

Yes:

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

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

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

Hmm:

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

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

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

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

Chris Hunt
Assistant managing editor, Sports Illustrated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kelley Benham
Enterprise editor, St. Petersburg Times

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

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

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

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

Additional reading suggestions from the group:

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

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

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

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