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January 10 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, you should be my wife, he said.

OK, she replied.

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

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

Naturally, it was Ashley who suggested they try it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 20 2011


AP will link back to newspapers who get scoops

News organizations that break big stories will soon get a little more credit — and maybe even a little traffic — from The Associated Press. Beginning Aug. 1, whenever the AP picks up a local story from a member for rewriting and distribution, the text of AP’s story will include a link back to the original report.

For example: When the Boston Globe reported that TV producers had doctored the CBS broadcast of the July 4th fireworks show, the AP picked it up and the story went national. The Globe got credit on the hundreds of news sites that carried the story — but no link back to the original story. That’ll change.

“The days are long past that you’re writing a story and you’re only thinking about…rewriting it so that you can put it into the paper,” said Martin Kaiser, editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who brought the idea to the AP. “Why spend the time rewriting? Why not link back?”

Pickups will now include a parenthetical bit.ly link to the original story, in addition to the credit. So in the fireworks story, you might see: “According to the Boston Globe report (http://bit.ly/pDHZ6h)…” The change will be most noticeable on state wires, where pickups are common. (Most of the AP’s national content is original reporting. Less than 2 percent of the national wire is material picked up from members.)

Kaiser said he has been pushing the AP for years to act more like an aggregator and less like a rewrite desk. And while this new policy doesn’t directly save AP staffers the time they spend rewriting a member’s copy, it’s a step toward more transparent credit and could drive some marginal amount of traffic to local news sites. 

Kaiser remembers breaking stories at smaller papers and seeing them edited, sanitized, and byline-less on the wire the next day. Several years ago, the AP added an “Information From” footnote to credit the news organization. Then the footnote got a link to that organization’s home page. About a year ago, the AP started crediting newsrooms in the body of the story.

Because the AP is a cooperative, it has no legal obligation to credit its members. But “that’s a legal point, not a journalistic one,” said Mike Oreskes, AP’s senior managing editor.

“We came to the conclusion last year that proper journalistic practice was to credit the member newspaper in all cases where an article was picked up, especially in an Internet age when the origins of information are really important to understand,” Oreskes said.

Oreskes said the linking rule does not change the AP’s existing attribution standards. “Nothing about this change alters our existing policy on attributing to other organizations information that we haven’t independently reported. Nor does it change our policy to give credit to another organization that broke a story first, even when we match it or advance it through our own reporting,” he said in a memo to staff.

The AP tested several link-shortening services, Oreskes said, before settling on Bit.ly. He was sold on the compactness of Bit.ly URLs (20 characters), the stability of the service, and the fact that Bit.ly links never expire (as long as Bit.ly is in business, anyway).

While more credit for original reporting is a good thing, and the Jeff Jarvis/link economy school of thought should welcome AP’s new policy, it risks running into one of the biggest potential roadblocks of any large-scale technological change at news organizations: the sometimes cruddy back-end systems that run news websites and print workflows.

The AP has been testing the idea in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and there’ve been some kinks. The URLs cross the wire in plain text, without the familiar-to-nerds <a href=”…”> HTML code that makes a link clickable. News sites will have to handle that digital chore, either leaving the links unlinked, automating that bit of HTML on each story, or dealing with the code by hand. (The AP’s change appears to have broken the code on several news sites.) And some newspapers may not see much value in putting URLs in to their print products, which would mean someone stripping them out in production. Oreskes said the AP will listen to feedback from members and continue tinkering with the policy to get it right.

The AP’s full staff memo follows. (“Elvis,” by the way, refers to the AP’s internal content-management system.)


Last year, we introduced a new policy for the crediting of other news organizations in our reporting. The goal was to introduce consistency into our proud practice of being transparent in our handling of information that originated elsewhere than in our own reporting.

Since that time, several of our newspaper members have asked us to take an additional step in offering additional credit when we “pick up” a story from them.

In addition to offering a link to the contributing member’s home page at the end of a text story in the “Information From” tag, they have asked that a direct link to the actual story from which the pick-up originated be placed in the text of the AP version.

We have tested this practice since the start of the year, and are ready to enact it as AP policy starting Aug. 1.

This new policy only applies to what we call a “straight pick-up” — when the entirety of the story is derived from a single member’s contribution. These are found most often on the domestic state print/online and broadcast wires, but on rare occasion move nationally and beyond.

As you are aware, AP sells only a selection of its staff-generated international and national news stories to Google and other commercial customers. A very small slice of this material sold to commercial customers— less than 2 percent— are picked up from member newspapers, and they typically are scoops credited to the papers.

Stories from member newspapers make up a larger piece of AP’s state wires — but the state wires are not available to Google and others outside the AP membership.

Nothing about this change alters our existing policy on attributing to other organizations information that we haven’t independently reported. Nor does it change our policy to give credit to another organization that broke a story first, even when we match it or advance it through our own reporting.

We should provide this new direct link attribution whenever we pick up a story from any single AP member, newspaper or broadcaster. (It’s important to note that we shouldn’t write a “straight pick-up” from a non-member news organization, even with credit.) It applies equally to stories that are limited to APNewsNows and those we expand into longer versions, and to spot stories as well as enterprise and investigative pieces.

As always, our standards editor, Tom Kent, is available to help think through the application of this new policy. In addition, David Scott, who oversaw the testing of this in Central Region, will be happy to consult. We’ll schedule a few WebEx tutorials on the new policy for later this month.


Mike Oreskes

Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News

Direct Linking FAQ

Q. In the United States, we’ve long given attribution to members with the “Information From” tag. What’s changed?

A. The way we consume information has changed, driven in no small part by the Internet and news online. Our members increasingly want us to drive readers to the specific content they have shared with the cooperative, and this is a way we can comply with those requests.

Q. Should we still use the “Information From” tag?

A. Yes. By using both, we address the concerns of members who want the direct link in the text and those who prefer the homepage link at a story’s conclusion.

Q. The “Information From” tag is generated automatically by Elvis [editorial system]. Will the new direct link also be inserted into our text automatically?

A. No. You will need to copy and paste the URL to the story into the text manually, using bit.ly to shorten the link.

Q: What is bit.ly?

A: bit.ly is a service that takes a long URL (and direct links can be very long) and shortens it into something that fits much more neatly in a text story. There are several tools that make creating bit.ly links quite easy, and they’ll be explained during the WebEx tutorials.

Q: What if the member has a paywall?

A: In those instances, the link will generally direct a reader to a page informing them the story they seek is behind a paywall and explaining how they can purchase access to that content. That will work for the purposes of this policy.

Q: What if our direct link gets around a member’s paywall?

A: If you find that to be the case, or receive any other complaints about this new approach, please email the member’s information to Tom Kent and your chief of bureau.

Q: Sometimes our reporting goes so far beyond the other organization’s report that AP’s story is substantially our work. In such a case, should we still provide a link to the member’s story?

A: No. We should only provide a direct link in text stories that are substantially crafted from a single member’s contribution.

Q: We often supplement a pick-up with some original reporting, such as to call an attorney for comment or to update the condition of a patient. Should we still provide the direct link in those cases?

A: Yes. In such an instance, the substance of the story is still derived from a single member’s contribution and should get the credit.

Q: What if I combine information from two or more members into a single pickup?

A: Do not provide a direct link in these instances. Instead, provide credit for the reporting offered by each member in the text of the story per the AP’s general policy on crediting.

Q: Often in a breaking news story, we begin coverage with a straight pickup that evolves over time into an AP story. Should we still include the direct link if we expect that to happen?

A: Yes. Include the link for as long as the text story remains a straight pick-up from a single member. Drop the link at the point the story evolves, but continue to include a “first reporting by” credit in the text on merits.

Q: What if I pick up a story from a print edition or an electronic carbon, before the story is posted online? Do I need to go back and add the link later?

A: No. Please check to see if there is an online version, but be quick about it. If there’s not, move on to the next story. If there is, please add the link.

Q. Does this policy apply to U.S. broadcast as well as newspaper/online copy?


New Pickup Crediting Example

BC-WI–Milwaukee Police-Complaints, 1st Ld-Writethru Report: 3 Milwaukee police officers still wear badges despite sexual misconduct complaints

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Three Milwaukee police officers who were disciplined after women accused them of on-duty sexual misconduct are still wearing badges.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Sunday that their cases show that without a criminal conviction, officers who are the subject of sexual misconduct complaints deemed credible by the department can keep their jobs even if the police chief wants them fired.

The Journal Sentinel report (http://bit.ly/gCChEq) said its investigation found that one of the officers, Scott D. Charles, served a 60-day suspension and was later promoted to sergeant. The other two, Reginald L. Hampton and Milford Adams, were fired but reinstated after appealing to the Fire and Police Commission, a civilian board that has the power to overturn punishments imposed by the chief.

Chief Edward Flynn said he has no choice but to live with the commission’s decisions.

“The decision was made by higher authority that they are competent to be officers,” Flynn said. “It’s my responsibility to make sure they’re properly supervised and are held accountable.” …

For Milwaukee police officers, it’s up to the Fire and Police Commission to decide if the “just cause” standard has been met. Commissioners conduct their own investigation but can also consider what happened in the internal affairs investigation, said Michael G. Tobin, who has been executive director of the Fire and Police Commission since November 2007. ___ Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, http://www.jsonline.com

Sponsored post

January 07 2011


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

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

Tell me how you first heard about Nicholas Volker.

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

That’s always a good sign.

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

Was the family or the hospital resistant?

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

At your paper?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did reporting work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything else?

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 05 2011


“One in a Billion”: a narrative window into the future of medicine

Our latest Notable Narrative, “One in a Billion,” tells the story of Nicholas Volker, a 4-year-old boy who has made more than 100 trips into the operating room to treat a disease doctors are unable to diagnose. In an effort to find the cause and stop what seems like certain death for the boy, doctors choose a historic approach: a partial reading of Nicholas’ genome.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters Mark Johnson and Kathleen Gallagher spearheaded the project, which mixes bleeding-edge personalized medicine with the story of a grumpy, spirited little boy. A kind of medical procedural, the three print stories follow doctors and parents as they try to make treatment choices when they don’t even know what problem they’re trying to fix. “One in a Billion” revolves around its written elements but makes extensive use of video, chats, and graphics as bells and whistles for those who want to explore elements of the story more deeply.

Photo: Gary Porter/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Johnson and Gallagher explain technology unknown to most readers, keeping the story humming along without making the medical science mysterious. When the doctors narrow the possible mutations causing the problem down from 16,124 to 1, the writing brings a sense of scale – and drama – to the accomplishment:

For the first time, his disease begins to make sense. If Worthey and Dimmock are correct, the holes in Nicholas’ intestine, the ravaged colon, all of it stems from a single misplaced base in the long chain of his DNA.

On the X chromosome, on the gene XIAP, the rest of humanity has the sequence thymine-guanine-thymine.

Nicholas has thymine-adenine-thymine. In the single-letter shorthand scientists use, he has what amounts to a typo, an A instead of a G.

The bases in this sequence make an amino acid, the 203rd in a chain of almost 500. That amino acid is supposed to be cysteine, and has been in all humans examined to this point.

But in Nicholas, the one-letter change produces an entirely different amino acid, tyrosine.

His tyrosine is part of a long chain that makes a protein, also called XIAP. This protein has two important jobs: it blocks a process that makes cells die and it helps prevent the immune system from attacking our intestine.

In Nicholas, however, the protein is made incorrectly. In his body, the immune system is at war with his intestine.

Since the human genome is composed of more than 3 billion base pairs, Nicholas’ mutation represents the smallest possible error in a vast blueprint. Imagine one letter out of place in the 55 million-word Encyclopaedia Britannica online edition.

Even this image does not do justice to Nicholas’ terrible luck. Not only is his misspelling unique among the human genomes examined, it is unique among the animal genomes Worthey checks. Fruit flies, rats, mice, cows, chickens, chimpanzees – every organism she can find makes cysteine at this position.

To Worthey, the extreme rarity of his mutation across the species carries an unmistakable message.

“If all of those organisms have (cysteine) at that position, then clearly it’s important because over all that time it has never been allowed to change,” she says, “(If it did) something bad obviously happened to stop that line from evolving any further. So everything has a cysteine.”

Except Nicholas.

Scientists find what they’re looking for. After treatment for a second, life-threatening condition discovered during the sequencing, Nicholas gets out of the hospital. Yet the real-life story is not over.

“One in A Billion” navigates the treacherous waters between a medical tale that ends on a happy note and the realization that genetic sequencing may or may not lead to any effective treatment for the original condition that ravaged Nicholas’ body for two years. In a remarkable responsibility to the larger story, Gallagher and Johnson raise issues brought up by genetic research in a moving way without pretending we have any clear answer on how to resolve them.

January 05 2010


California Watch: The latest entrant in the dot-org journalism boom

“Ten years ago,” says Mark Katches, editorial director of California Watch, “there were 85 reporters covering the California state house; today there are fewer than 25.”

Katches sees California Watch, which officially launched yesterday after a soft launch period and months of preparation, as stepping into a “big void in doing investigative work in California.” Katches has assembled the largest investigative team in the state: seven reporters, two multimedia producers, and two editors.

The site is focused on investigative watchdog journalism. It won’t cover the ins and outs of the California legislature or other governmental minutiae, aiming instead to “expose injustice, waste, mismanagement, wrongdoing, questionable practices and corruption, so that those responsible can be held to account and the public is armed with the information it needs to debate solutions and spark change.” Besides political topics, the site will cover higher education, health and welfare, and criminal justice.

Assembling the team

Based in Berkeley, California Watch has a four-person team in Sacramento, and hopes to open a Los Angeles office as well. 

The team’s credentials are impressive. Katches is a California native who lived in the state most of his life; he directed investigative teams at The Orange County Register and for the past two years at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The team’s director is Louis Freedberg, a longtime reporter on California affairs for the San Francisco Chronicle and other state and national publications. Senior editor Robert Salladay is a veteran of the L. A. Times; senior reporter Lance Williams has 32 years of California coverage experience and was one of the two reporters at the Chronicle who uncovered the Barry Bonds-BALCO steroid doping scandal.  Web entrepreneur Susan Mernit, a veteran of AOL, Netscape and Yahoo, supplies web strategy. Multimedia guru Mark Luckie (of 10,000 Words fame) is producing content. And longtime Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Robert Rosenthal, director of CIR, and others on the CIR staff supply development and administrative support.

I asked Katches whether California Watch is doling out the kind of salaries reported to be going to the top talent at recent nonprofit startup Texas Tribune ($315,000 to CEO Evan Smith, $90,000 to top reporter Brian Thevenot). “Not even close,” he said. Top California Watch executives are paid closer to what Texas Tribune reporters get, but Katches says the pay scales are competitive and appropriate for the levels of talent and scope of management involved.

The model

The site aims for up to a dozen updates every weekday, including daily blog entries by most staffers. A rotation of four top stories are featured front and center, followed by the “WatchBlog” and an inside-the-newsroom feature. Like The Texas Tribune, the site offers an extensive data center, currently featuring information about stimulus-funding distribution, campaign finance, educational costs, and wildfires. It’s not as extensive or interactive as the Texas Trib databases and document collection, but the intent is to build up its contents over time.

California Watch is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, the oldest nonprofit investigative news organization in the country (founded 1977), and joins a growing list of state and regional nonprofits that have in common a serious journalistic mission but take a variety of approaches to funding, coverage and distribution. The highest profile, best-funded members of that list now include The Texas Tribune, MinnPost, the St. Louis Beacon, Voice of San Diego, and (at a national level) ProPublica. “The dot-org boom” is really one of the top journalism stories of 2009, Katches says.

CIR garnered about $3.5 million in funding to start California Watch (roughly the same amount as The Texas Tribune), enough for more than two years of operations at its $1.5 million annual budget. Major funding came from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation [also a supporter of this site —Ed.], the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the James Irvine Foundation.

Going forward, California Watch plans to develop a business model that includes continued philanthropic support, along with revenue from sponsorship, individual memberships, advertising, and licensing. The site is offering its content to the state’s newspapers and other media on a fee basis. One of its first stories during the development period was carried by 25 of the state’s papers, all on the front page. (This fee-based model differs from The Texas Tribune, which is offering its content free to Texas media outlets for now; Texas Tribune also covers day-to-day politics in addition to doing investigative journalism.) California Watch partners with KQED in San Francisco for radio and TV distribution; with the Associated Press for distribution through its Exchange marketplace; and with New America Media for distribution of translated versions to ethnic media.

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