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July 06 2011

16:58

Lane DeGregory on diving into Florida dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

So it was one day of contact?

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

Did you ask him about it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happened after the story ran?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you regret writing the story?

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

July 05 2011

17:07

July Editors’ Roundtable No. 1: the St. Petersburg Times’ snapshot between before and after

For the first Roundtable of July, our editors looked at “Diving headlong into a sunny paradise” by Lane DeGregory of the St. Petersburg Times. The story follows a young Wisconsin couple on their first day starting a new life in Florida. Appearing in print on Memorial Day, DeGregory’s piece was edited by Mike Wilson, the St. Petersburg Times’ managing editor for enterprise.

Our editors didn’t see each other’s comments as they wrote and haven’t yet read our interview with DeGregory about her story. Tomorrow we’ll post that interview.

For bios of the Roundtable editors, see our January post.

Kelley Benham
Enterprise editor, St. Petersburg Times

On reporting that nails the story:

[Full disclosure: I work with Lane, and while I’m not her editor, I have edited some of her stories in the past. I was on leave from the paper when she wrote this piece, so I wasn’t involved with it.]

When I was a new reporter, my editor had the good sense to give me the desk next to Lane DeGregory. He knew I’d learn just by eavesdropping over the half-wall of the cubicle.

The first thing I noticed was that I spent a lot more time at my desk than she did. She was always out chatting up convenience store clerks and truckers and God-knew-who. She couldn’t walk three blocks without making a new friend and arranging to follow them home. So when I saw this story in the newspaper, I could picture clearly how it came together.

Lane was on the bus.  Of course she was. She goes where the story is and soaks it in. Lane’s stories always seem to unfold in places suggesting stale odors and crumpled lottery tickets. Lane doesn’t think she’s better than anybody. She genuinely loves people, and especially people who could use a break. That open spirit leads her to stories others overlook. Lane’s people are barflies, carnies, lost souls and anyone who gets nervous walking into a bank office. Her people ride the bus.

She recognized the story in front of her. If I’d been on that bus and noticed the pale people smooching, I would have smiled and tried not to stare. Not Lane. She got their story – they were escaping the frozen north and seeing Florida for the first time – and recognized what it represented. She was witnessing the mythic tug of the Florida dream, of eternal sunshine and oranges you can eat right off the trees. Forcing yourself to identify the larger idea in your narrative early on provides a clear mission for the reporting and writing.

She followed the story where it led. Lane and photojournalist John Pendygraft tagged along as the couple searched for the beach. They were willing to have their day hijacked by the unexpected story. They made room for serendipity. They recognized that their narrative was a quest, and to tell it they would need to report for action and allow it to unfold. Being there allowed Lane to capture moments like:

“What’s a pelican?”

“You know, like on Finding Nemo.”

She filled her notebook with detail and dialog. I like to deconstruct stories like this, to try to figure out what questions the reporter asked, and what she might have written in her notebook. She wasn’t with the couple as they packed and pulled away from Wisconsin, but her smart questions allowed her to maintain the narrative and her characters’ perspective as she weaves the backstory. Some questions Lane probably asked: What did the postcard look like? (A pelican on a piling …) Do you have it? Can I see it? What’s in your pocket? ($141, a half-pack of Marlboro reds) Can I look in your bag? (Jenna slipped a photo of her mom into a sock.)

Back at the office, she nailed down the rest of the story. Lane backgrounded her characters and discovered Dan was on probation. She had to decide whether that changed the nature of the story, and find a way to work it in without disrupting the narrative. (Jenna knows all about Dan’s past …) She researched the town they escaped. (Nine square miles of prairie, with 9,728 people and a prison.) She found the temperature in Wisconsin when they climbed on the bus. (39 degrees.) And every piece of background that she worked into the story helps explain how Dan and Jenna ended up in St. Petersburg.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary:

[Full disclosure: I worked with Lane at The Virginian-Pilot in the early ’90s.]

Lane DeGregory notices characters and events that most other journalists pass by. She pays attention and lets curiosity guide her. She often recognizes a profound story lying just under the surface.

In following Dan and Jenna, Lane explores what draws some people to St. Petersburg. Sometimes, those reasons are random, romantic and irrational.

There’s no overarching trend in this story. No hard news nugget. No statistics graf. Instead, Lane steps out of the action and uses her narrator’s voice to underscore the universality of Dan and Jenna’s story. This is crucial: Lane helps the reader identify with the couple.

She does so by touching on the broader theme of escape:

Millions of people have done this, decided all their troubles would disappear, all their dreams would come true, if they moved to the land of eternal sunlight.

Dan and Jenna set out for the same reasons folks have flocked to Florida for more than a century: To stop shoveling snow. To escape. To start over.

They weren’t worried about unemployment rates or hurricanes or oil spills. They were young and in love and they had each other. All they needed were a few waves. And a tan.

If you remember what it was like to be young and in love and wanting to escape, then you understand Dan and Jenna’s story.

Lane also reminds us about how, after we’ve lived in a certain place for a long time, we no longer notice the extraordinary things around us. She gently tells her St. Petersburg readers to open their eyes: “After we have been here for a while, it’s easy to forget what a weird, wonderful place we live in, where blue herons wander through gas stations and bushes bloom all year.

We crank up the AC, close our blinds and watch TV. Instead of venturing into the Eden outside.

In the final scene, Lane uses Dan and Jenna’s kiss in the Gulf waters to return to the theme of escape and starting over – water is a symbol for birth and rebirth: “All their lives they had been surrounded by land, the whole country hemming them in. Now, they were at the edge of everything, about to dive in.”

Maria Carrillo
Managing editor, The Virginian-Pilot

Gaining the trust of your subjects:

[Full disclosure: Lane was one of my writers here at The Pilot before she joined The Times, and she remains a close friend.]

Lane DeGregory is an editor’s dream for many reasons, but one in particular is how she manages to get people to share details that they wouldn’t tell their best friends. All narrative writers should strive for that intimacy.

People expect reporters to ask them basic questions, the who, the what, the when. With stories like this one, the reporting is much more involved. Notice that Lane pulled from this couple the details of their trip, what they took, how they left, what they were thinking. She found out what inspired them to go south, what they were hoping for, what they did once they arrived. She drew out emotions and reactions and gestures.

This is a story about a journey, and Lane wasn’t sitting next to them on that bus from Wisconsin, but she needed us to feel like she was. The only way to accomplish that was to get this couple to open up about everything, including their baggage – emotional and otherwise.

I haven’t talked to Lane about this story, so I don’t know exactly what she did to deserve their trust. But I know Lane, and I bet she did a few of the things she always does.

She was drawn to these guys. Lane has no interest in celebrities or politicians. She enjoys reaching out to people on the margins – even oddballs – to those other reporters ignore.

She asked them to share their story. I’m sure Lane treated them with dignity and made them feel important, like their experience was worthy of a headline.

She listened carefully and patiently. Anyone who wants to reach deep into someone else’s experience needs to not only draw out the details with good questions but also be quiet.

She was genuinely curious and compassionate. Lane always is. It’s second nature. She would have made a great bartender, too.

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

Gaining the trust of the reader:

This is an unusual newspaper story – no nut graf, no news peg, no experts. What is it? (I can imagine many editors asking.) It is a brilliant moment in time, skillfully sandwiched between bad moments of the past and bad moments almost certainly yet to come. It is reminiscent in many ways of Joan Didion’s “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.” How did Lane DeGregory do this? How did she pack so much pathos, hope and dread into one short piece? How did she make us believe it?

Sneaky attribution. Readers need grounding. We want to understand how the writer knows what she tells us. DeGregory tells us so sneakily we don’t even notice. Right up top, in the first graf: “He remembers every detail.”  And, later, “Jenna knows all about Dan’s past.”  The attribution is there throughout, just camouflaged.

Just enough context. There’s no nut graf in this story, but it is studded with context and meaning. Every so often DeGregory falls back from the action and reminds us that this story is not just about Dan and Jenna, but about all of us – about America, that great theme of striking out on one’s own and starting over. But each time she does this, she does it swiftly, and then immediately brings us back to our main characters.

Examples:

Millions of people have done this, decided all their troubles would disappear, all their dreams would come true, if they moved to the land of eternal sunlight. Dan and Jenna set out for the same reasons folks have flocked to Florida for more than a century…

and

After we have been here for a while, it’s easy to forget what a weird, wonderful place we live in, where blue herons wander through gas stations and bushes bloom all year. … This young couple had journeyed more than 1,350 miles to find Florida. Now that they were here, things seemed so surreal.

and

All their lives they had been surrounded by land, the whole country hemming them in. Now, they were at the edge of everything, about to dive in.

No trauma, no extremes, no tragedy. Newspapers dwell in the world of extremes: The brave cancer patient, stoic to the end. The brutal murderer who kills someone in cold blood.  This story resonates because these kids are so ordinary. It’s easy to believe the story, because it’s so easy to identify with it. We’ve either done something like this ourselves, or know someone who has.

Details provide credibility. The more you learn about Dan and Jenna, the more you can picture them. The more you see them, the more you believe them. And so the details – Jenna blinking in the too-bright sun; her Hannah Montana purse; her vari-colored fingernails; her hoodie sweatshirt; the way she hid a photograph of her mother in a sock. Dan’s haircut; his inky tattoos; his crooked smile. I wrote that list without referring back to the story because DeGregory had made these people so real I couldn’t forget them.

Check back tomorrow for our interview with Lane DeGregory, in which she discusses how she found Dan and Jenna and the hard-luck epilogue to the story.

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