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September 16 2011


Corinne Reilly on trauma medicine in Afghanistan, after a decade of war

Our latest Editors’ Roundtable looks at Corinne Reilly’s print series “A Chance in Hell.” Part of a multimedia project from The Virginian-Pilot, the series brings readers snapshots from the lives of combat hospital staff in Kandahar. Reilly covers the military for the Pilot and joined the paper in 2009 after four years working at the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star. She has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan and Haiti. In these excerpts from our conversation, she discusses finding a different story than the one she had planned to tell, putting the reader in her shoes, and fighting war fatigue at home.

You had to go halfway around the world to report “A Chance in Hell.” What conversations did you have with your editors about the story before you left the U.S.?

I went to Iraq last summer with the photographer who went with me on this trip, Ross Taylor. That was his first experience embedded with the military, and as soon as he got back, he wanted to do it again.

I started broadly looking at what local units would be in Afghanistan at the time that we were talking about making the trip. A combat hospital was not even on our radar at first, but then we thought that something related to Navy medicine could be compelling. We’re a Navy town, and Navy medicine is kind of a big thing. They provide all the medical service for the entire Marine Corps.

I called over to the local Navy hospital that’s here, and that’s how we found out about the hospital. As soon as we started talking to people who had served there, we all knew that this was the story we wanted to go there for.

We had some meetings with my direct editor, and also her direct boss, and then also Maria [Carrillo]*, our managing editor, and our top editor Denis Finley, and came up with a plan for a topical series. I knew they treated members of the Taliban, or suspected members of the Taliban and enemy combatants. I thought that was really compelling and could be a story. I thought maybe there was also something general on combat medicine and the way it’s changed over the last 10 years of war.

But as soon as we got there and realized the power of the place and the access we would have, I immediately knew that our plan wouldn’t do justice to what was in front of us. So maybe the second day I realized I needed an entirely new plan.

So you knew you had to change the way you were approaching the project. How did you make that shift?

What really triggered it was the access we were given. Obviously, it’s a medical setting, so there are all kinds of privacy considerations to take into account. We just weren’t really sure what it would be, but it ended up being much wider access than Ross or I ever imagined.

That first and second day, I would meet patients or talk to patients, and it was not fitting into the plan that I came with. But it was so incredibly powerful, and I just thought, “The best way to tell this story is maybe just to tell it all, and it doesn’t have to be this neat topical series.” The way I think of the story is almost as one long narrative.

It took me a couple days of mulling it over in my head before it gelled that it could be a series of scenes, meeting a series of different people, with bigger-picture stuff thrown in at the right points to guide the reader. I’d exchanged emails with my editor, and we had one phone conversation where we decided that was the path we were going to take.

How long were you there?

We were at the hospital for two weeks – 14 days.

How do you report for narrative in that situation? What did you make sure to get while you were right there?

A lot of the particulars I kind of knocked out in the first couple days – things like how many people worked there, the lay of the land, what are the different departments, what are the different jobs. Once I had that, felt like I understood this place from that perspective. Then I literally wrote down everything. Anytime a patient came in that I thought could be a compelling part of the story, I tried to see that patient all the way through until they left the hospital.

I usually got to the hospital around 8 or 9 in the morning and then stayed until 8 or 9 at night, and then I would go back, and before bed, I would take a few hours to organize my notes. By maybe the fifth or sixth day, I had an idea of who I had met so far, and I had identified a few people I thought could be key characters. And then subsequent days, I would go back and spend more time with those doctors to fill in their stories.

You got a lot of sensory detail in there.

I feel like this story was very unique in that so many of the details in and of themselves were striking. Whatever struck me, I wrote down. There were definitely times I went back and used Ross’ photos, and he also took a lot of video, so I could use it to fill in. For instance I had a detail of a physician’s assistant wiping blood off of a patient’s face, and I couldn’t remember the color of the cloth she was using, but I wanted that in the story, so I went back and looked at photos for things like that.

But certainly things like smells I was trying to write down – even thoughts that were going through my mind. There’s a section where I kind of expand on “who is this person on the table?” You’re noticing details about him, and you’re wondering who he is. Those were my own thoughts in the moment.

It’s interesting that you brought that up, because it’s an unusual mid-story shift to the second person. Had you also seen the wounded soldier in the gym, as is mentioned in the story, or was that a shift to the doctor’s perspective?

I had not seen him in the gym. I guess that “you” was a hybrid of my thoughts and even conversations I had with Ross when we were standing there while they were prepping the guy for surgery – we almost had that conversation: “I wonder who that guy is. I wonder how long he’s staying here. I wonder when he’s going to get to go home.”

And then part of it was also conversations with doctors afterward. A lot of them said things like, “We keep these patients for 36 hours, and then we never see them again. We never get to know who they are or see them again after.” Once in a while they do, but so many patients come through that they don’t get to follow up with once they leave the hospital.

Certainly when that physician’s assistant said that she’d seen him at the gym, I thought that was incredibly striking.

When you got back, you had all this stuff. At that point, did you already have the story segregated into pieces in your mind? How did you approach dividing the material into separate stories?

I definitely wrote large pieces of it while I was there. I would come back after a day at the hospital to the place where we slept. A first I started out organizing my notes and my thoughts. I would say by the fifth or sixth day I had a plan for what I wanted the story to look like, and I actually started writing scenes. So if I witnessed something that day that I knew would be a significant scene in the story, I would write a first draft of it that night before going to bed. I felt like that was really essential to showing what it really felt like to be there.

So in terms of breaking it into a five-part series, that didn’t happen until much later. I just sent everything I had written to my editor, Meredith Kruse, and we talked about an order and piecing them together, and how many parts do we need – we figured that out together. We literally laid the pieces out and kind of outlined it. And then she said, “This is what I still think is still needed here.” And I went back and wrote the entire second section of the first chapter, the one that pulls back and says “This is where we are.” Those were the parts where I didn’t feel like I would lose details if I waited until I got back to write.

You’re playing an educational role in getting a lot of information across to your readers. How did you think about balancing facts with the more scene-based parts of the story?

I wasn’t terribly deliberate, but I definitely didn’t want the bits with the facts – things I might consider drier pieces of information – to weigh down everything else, to weigh down the people, and the emotion and the real meaning of the place. I tried to convey as much as I could about the place through the people who were there and their stories, so you don’t even have to come back and say, “We are at a combat hospital. We are in Afghanistan. We are in Kandahar.” By the time you get through that first scene with Cpl. Ward, you already kind of understand what this place is. I wanted to make it so that you need as little additional information as possible.

You tucked in a few graphic details, but not a lot. How did you approach pacing the use of sensory detail and the most graphic material?

I think through all of it, with the writing and the whole package, we were really worried. It’s a very fine line. You want people to see it the way it really is, but you also don’t want people to turn away and stop reading. I tried to include details that might be graphic if I thought they served a purpose other than simply being graphic.

Did you start with more of those details in and then took some out, or did you go back and add things in?

There were a few cases where I did take things out, because I thought they were too graphic, so I would say it was a little of both. When I was actually in Afghanistan, I did err on the side of putting more in, because not everything makes it into your notebook and it’s only going to last in your memory so long. So I thought I should do it while it’s fresh in my mind, and if it comes out later, fine.

We’ve been at war a long time. People have seen a lot of war scenes, and they’re also pretty conversant with medical stories. What were your strategies for making sure they paid attention?

I did think from the very beginning that was going to be one of the key challenges with this story. We’ve been at war for 10 years; people know that. One of the biggest challenges of this story was getting people’s attention and finding a way to say “this is why this matters now,” even though this story could have been written five years ago.

The second little part of the first chapter where I quote one of the main characters in the story, Ron Bolen, saying, “You know, I know this is old news and that what we’re talking about now is winding down.” The reason I chose to put that there so high in the story was because I thought, “Let’s just address that. Let’s get it out there.” Yes, this has been happening a long time, but I thought I could almost flip it and say maybe that makes it more important now. It’s kind of saying, “We acknowledge that, but look, they’re still here; they’re still showing up every day.”

*Maria Carrillo is a member of our Editors’ Roundtable but did not select this story for discussion and was not involved in any aspect of our coverage of it.

September 15 2011


September Editors’ Roundtable No. 1: The Virginian-Pilot on saving soldiers in Afghanistan

Our first Roundtable of September examines “A Chance in Hell,” by Corinne Reilly. Visiting a combat hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Reilly shows the endless challenges of trauma medicine just a helicopter flight away from the front lines. The project, which includes photos and video by Ross Taylor, ran last month in The Virginian-Pilot.

For full bios of the Roundtable editors, see our introductory post.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

I’m intrigued by Corinne Reilly’s use of “you” in the last section of her story. The second person perspective often results in awkward, self-conscious writing. The last time I can recall it being used to decent effect – more or less – was in Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel, “Bright Lights, Big City.”

(For a list of notable second person narratives, check out this Wikipedia page.)

But Reilly’s use of “you” is a stroke of genius, elevating an already strong piece of reportage to one that resonates deeply. Here’s why I think it works:

The reporter remains disciplined. As a narrator, Reilly keeps herself out of the story until the final section. Many writers would be tempted to tell the entire story in first person (“This is what I experienced, and I lived to tell the tale!”), but Reilly is wiser. Like most good narrative reporters, she checks her ego at the door and restricts herself to being a fly on the wall (to mix metaphors). When she does introduce the second person, she uses it sparingly.

The reporter surprises us. Reilly recounts the story in taut documentary style up until the final passage – and then the second person comes out of nowhere:

Looking at him now, quiet and still for the first time since he arrived, you begin to notice things about him besides his terrible wounds.

You notice how young his face is. You notice that he’s tall.

You notice his muscles, how lean and toned he is.

You figure he has to be an athlete.

Maybe he is – was – a football player.

You notice the two words scrawled on the back of his forearm, and you wonder whether, after this, he’d get them tattooed there again: “No regrets.”

It’s jarring. It makes the reader pause. And then it works, because it is jarring: The narrator is shocked to remember that, even in a situation that would desensitize most people, she and the people she is writing about are thinking, feeling human beings.

The reporter presents an epiphany. Reilly doesn’t dwell on her feelings, because they aren’t really the point, at least not in this story. Instead, she uses the second person perspective to present an epiphany: After wondering about the wounded soldier’s future from her own perspective and that of others in the room with her, the narrator suddenly reveals that, unlike so many wounded before him, this soldier is someone the trauma team knows.

You think about the long recovery, all the rehab, the prosthesis. You wonder what he dreamed about doing after the Army and whether he’ll still be able to do it.

Then you realize you’ve seen him before.

The reporter connects with the reader. By using the second person, Reilly avoids the more exclusive “I” and allows the reader to imagine being there in the operating room with the doctors and nurses. We can all relate to moments when we observe a person – someone we initially think of as a stranger – in one context and then suddenly recognize them from another context. It’s a universal moment, and one that brings a deeper sense of humanity to Reilly’s excellent storytelling.

Jacqui Banaszynski
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism

I’ll start with a dare: Read Part 1 of “A Chance in Hell.” Now try not to read the rest.

I had little intention of reading all five parts of Reilly’s series in one sitting. I figured I’d read Part 1 for purposes of this forum, then set aside the others to get to … someday. I had all the same excuses all readers do: Behind on my work. Errands to run. Friends to see. Tired. And not thrilled about reading yet another war story.

An hour and all five parts later, I am pondering why some stories are easy to put down, and why others pull you in and don’t let you go. (Why is it easier to figure out the former than the latter?)

Reilly has some particular challenges here. Among them: Multiple characters, an over-the-top subject, and the need to balance narrative and exposition (show vs. tell). I’m going to address each briefly.

Multiple characters. If I have an editor’s tweak about this series, it would focus on the opening grafs. I had a little too much trouble following the action. Doctors, flight medics, corpsmen, surgeons, nurses, the patient. Inside, outside, doors, helicopters. It took me awhile to realize the medic came in to brief the docs before the wounded soldier was wheeled in. But Reilly held it together, against those odds, with that wailing. And then once I was past that little hurdle, the story spooled out smoothly, blending the necessary chaos of the trauma hospital with the structural devices that turn characters into individuals (dialog, titles, roles and reminders).

I ended Part 1 thinking the piece was going to be just about Eddie Ward. But as the series went on, the power became the number of Eddie Wards who came through, and the focus was correctly on the medical community who takes this incoming, day after day after sordid day. The postscript at the end, about Ward and the other standout characters, was a simple but brilliant touch.

Subject. High-stakes hospital situations offer natural and dramatic narrative, but can be a turn-off if overdone. Reilly uses all five physical senses when reporting, including smell (a very powerful tool), and dares to use the sixth sense – emotion. But note how she doesn’t overdo. With the exception of necessary but spare description of grisly wounds, she usually errs on the side of understatement. She makes minimal use of descriptive adjectives. In the most horrific scenes, she tends to just state, simply, what she sees, hears, wonders. That allows me to see, hear, wonder, but not to be pushed past tolerance.

Narrative vs. Exposition. This is a fascinating study of news narrative, versus more pure narrative or fiction. Reilly starts us in a scene – a very dramatic scene. She returns to scenes often. But she probably spends as much or more time on exposition: explaining how the hospital works, the status of the war, who the subjects are, how this place has come to be and why it’s (sadly) special. I am not just dragged into an emotional soup; I learn a ton along the way: about the war, about this aspect of the U.S. military presence and about medical care.

It would be tempting to stay with or over-torque the narrative (scenes, action, description, emotion), and you could argue it always offers a more gripping read to do so. But Reilly’s in-and-out pacing carries me along the storyline while giving me both relief and enlightenment. Some patches use dialog that puts me in the scene, some more traditional quotes that offer stand-back observation. Some are in-the-moment, some are quick backstory. A good documentary would work the same way: camera close-ups of action and scenes, with pull-backs to commentary and context. That in-and-out is also what allows her to include multiple characters without losing the center of the series. News reporters who want to cover important issues and write narrative would be smart to study this approach to learn how each can enhance the other.

Check back tomorrow for our interview with Corinne Reilly. In the meantime, take a look at some of our previous Editors’ Roundtables.

Is there a story you’d like the Roundtable to tackle? If so, you can send a link to us at contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org.

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July 21 2011


July Editors’ Roundtable No. 2: The New York Times probes a murder in South Africa

For the second Roundtable of July, our editors looked at “Watching the Murder of an Innocent Man” by Barry Bearak of the New York Times. Bearak has spent the last three years as co-bureau chief of the Times’ Johannesburg bureau, and his June 5 story investigates the death of a young man at the hands of a mob in the beleaguered settlement of Diepsloot.

Our editors didn’t read each other’s comments as they wrote or see the email conversation between Storyboard and Bearak about his narrative. (We’ll publish that Q&A tomorrow.)

For full bios of the Roundtable editors, see our introductory post.

Paige Williams
Narrative writing instructor, Nieman Foundation

On using the first person:

Journalists tend to have strong opinions about whether we should put ourselves in stories. Some support first-person reportage depending on the circumstances; others suggest they’d rather dine on dung than appear anywhere in a piece of work, despite the fact that first-person presence has a solid history and an important place within the craft. Whenever I give a little quiz asking students to match short first-person passages to the author, even practiced journalists are surprised to find the writers are Dickens, Orwell, Gellhorn, Didion…

In the right situation, readers connect powerfully to story via the personal pronoun “I.” A writer should deploy the “I” as carefully as a surgeon chooses a scalpel. The device itself lends nothing without legitimate intent. To me, first person works in Barry’s piece for three reasons:

It isn’t gratuitous. The narrative/personal quest depends upon use of the first person and especially upon the author’s relationship with Golden, a trusted source and keeper of the pivotal crime-scene video.

It allows for authoritative class contrast. By revealing details about his own lifestyle Bearak puts less fortunate residents’ economic circumstances – and the larger societal issues of law and order/mob justice – into a more intimate context than readers would’ve read in a depersonalized account.

He keeps the spotlight on others by remaining a minor character and keeping a respectful distance. While the author’s journalistic quest clearly drives the narrative, being present in the story allows him to bear witness in a quiet but powerful way and to authenticate what otherwise would have been a secondhand account of a horrific event.

Jacqui Banaszynski
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism

On structure:

Structure is one of the peskiest challenges facing writers. Once you move past the basic (and backwards) logic of the inverted pyramid, questions of order and placement plague rookie and veteran alike. What stays in? What comes out? What goes where? Constructing a complex story can be like building a jigsaw puzzle of multiple dimensions, with images on all sides, ill-fitting tabs, no edge pieces and no box cover picture to follow.

In “Watching the Murder of an Innocent Man,” Barry Bearak does the most sophisticated thing a writer can do when confronted with that complex puzzle: He gets simple. Not that his story is simple. Far from it. Bearak leads us through more than 7,500 words, takes us deep into several distinct and difficult subcultures, introduces us to more than a dozen characters, weaves between present and past, and includes both intimately detailed narrative and sweeping social context.

It would be instructive (and fun, in a word-nerdy way) to diagram Bearak’s entire piece.  Lacking time and space for that, I’ll note these points:

Chronology is the core. That’s what I mean when I say Bearak gets simple. He starts in a searing moment that puts us in the scene and sets the stage for everything to come. After two paragraphs of narrative he pulls out into some establishing context. Then he quickly returns to the narrative through the first long scene, ending with a cliffhanger. But after that, the piece builds along a fairly straight chronology. We are pulled into the story in the same way Bearak was ­– through the video of the murder – and then follow him step by step as he tries to untangle the thicket of questions and characters he confronts. Pay attention to the places where Bearak uses a fairly direct time stamp to hold the story together: “… each day, widening the arc of our meander.“ “Within a week, Golden and I had become a marked pair.” “One recent Sunday afternoon…”

A quest drives the story forward. That’s true of any gripping narrative: The writer sets up a core question, then spends the rest of the story answering that question. (This is different than a story’s core meaning, or theme.) What makes Bearak’s story a bit different is that the quest is his. We are taken along on his search for answers. (A literary friend once told me there are only two storylines in all of human history: A stranger comes to town, and a man takes a journey. Bearak’s story encompasses both, and he is both the stranger and the man on the journey.)

Narrative is woven rather than broken. In complex pieces such as this, one successful approach can be a “broken narrative”– a structure that goes back and forth between narrative or action scenes and contextual or expository scenes. Bearak takes that foundation and makes it more elegant by weaving context directly into the narrative.  He slips a line or two of geography or history into the running story. As I read, I imagined a French braid with strands constantly being worked over, under and through. If you re-read the piece just to see how characters and their backstories are introduced, you’ll see that braid. Bearak is able to pull off that intricate weave because the core chronology is straightfoward and strong.

Characters are clearly identified. It’s tough for readers to follow this many characters in a piece. Yet we never lose track here because Bearak remembers to provide some brief reminder of who each person is. That’s just one of the ways Bearak answers the readers’ question when the reader needs the answer.

The story comes full circle. The chronology drives relentlessly forward, following Bearak’s quest. It ties together – is made whole – by ending where it began, with the boy who fingered the murder victim. This is also a tried-and-true structural device. But what makes Bearak’s use of it so stunning is that he comes back to Siphiwe not where the story started, but where the story took Sipihwe – to a place of defiant and inevitable despair. As such, Siphiwe was able to speak for the much larger defiance and despair of a country and a culture.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

On a sense of place:

Barry Bearak knows that evoking a sense of place isn’t just a matter of presenting a background landscape. He uses carefully selected sensory details – sights, sounds, smells – and movement to transport readers to South Africa.

“Put me there,” is a simple way an editor can encourage writers to think about the sense of place. The writer can provide context to the story by showing, rather than telling. She can also create a mood that permeates the story – anger, joy, sadness.

Bearak does this sparingly in his murder story. That’s important, because, at least in this story, we don’t want the plot to slow down and linger too long. Let’s pay attention to Bearak’s sketch of the South African township. We hear music; we watch women pinning laundry and storekeepers brushing away flies; we smell garbage and sewage; we learn that some of these areas have bureaucratic names like Extension 1 and Extension 2.

The road abounded with township life: good music playing over bad radios, women pinning laundry to droopy clotheslines, storekeepers brushing aside plump flies in the butchery. People were curious about the mob’s intentions, and some followed along as if dutifully joining a militia. In a few blocks, the pavement of Thubelihle gave way to hard-packed dirt and stones. A busted pipe had gone unrepaired for months, and the escaping water cut a trough in the ground that now carried a stream of garbage and sewage. The odor was bracing, but there was open air ahead, a large, marshy field that separated Extension 1 from the squatter camp in Extension 2…

What we see is that life goes on under some outrageous conditions. And we get a hint about why these conditions are a factor in the violence. People are curious. They don’t see things getting any better. They start to follow a mob. Who knows how ordinary people will act as the mob grows violent?

Bearak uses a second sketch to show the economic disparity in South Africa, the wide gap between the townships and the gated communities with beautiful names.

I live in much different circumstances, renting a house in the Dainfern Golf and Residential Estate, one of dozens of gated communities built in a city overwrought about crime. The perimeter is fortified with high walls topped by electrified wire; guards patrol the landscaped roadways and roundabouts. Houses are large, and many front entranceways are ornamented with waterfalls and fish ponds…

He’s also showing us this place because he wants to be honest about his comparatively (and understandably) sheltered life in South Africa. He may not be able to fully understand what life is like in the townships, and he’s being straight with us about that. He uses a sense of place not just to set a scene but to help define and explain the dynamics of his story.

Tom Shroder
Founding editor, www.storysurgeons.com

On keeping the reader engaged in a depressing story:

Everything about the subject of this piece – a mob in a crime-ridden squatter’s village randomly settling on an innocent man to vent their rage – screamed “Don’t go there,” and yet, go I did. Why?

Or to rephrase the question: When a writer wants to explore unremittingly depressing material, how can he keep the reader’s attention and deliver something that feels like enlightenment rather than a fist to the face?

Bearak accomplishes that here, through what I would call “elevation.”

I mean this almost literally. The reader is raised to a great, almost godlike height and allowed to view these hideous events as if from a mountaintop. Every piece can be seen in its relation to other pieces. What seems nasty and brutish on ground level is still nasty and brutish, but from the mountaintop it plays out on a scale so grand that the meaningless becomes meaningful, and the horrific becomes tragic. It’s the difference between watching a slasher film and Macbeth.

A word of caution for those of you who may want to try this at home: It is impossible to make a reader feel as if she is getting the Big Picture unless the writer has gotten there first, with full focus and resolution. It requires a mastery of the subject so complete that every detail, every factoid and quote, snaps into place.

But even that’s not enough. The writer has to find the right voice, the voice that communicates a buffering distance without sacrificing any of the intense reality. This is what Bearak does superbly here.

From the very start, he speaks in sweeping statements that never stray into overgeneralization. The central antagonist is “a bad boy wanting to become a worse boy,” and “an unlikely guide to lead [the growing mob] into their dark work.” These sentences are simultaneously simple and mythic, like those in a fable.

That same calm certainty continues throughout the piece, making the tale unfolding seem like the most natural course of events in the world, instead of a living nightmare. That works because, seen from the mountaintop, evil IS a natural part of our world; it has prime causes and immediate causes, and it flows downhill like a creek becoming a river. Consider this introducing paragraph that stays focused on the flow, even as it elevates to get the longer view:

A few men lifted him onto their shoulders so that the crowd, already in the hundreds, could see him better. Then an older man, wiser about these things, said to put the boy down. More than likely, they were about to kill someone. No one in the mob ought to be too conspicuous.

Elevation is again expressed by the impressionist dabs of paint with which the context is painted:

The road abounded with township life: good music playing over bad radios, women pinning laundry to droopy clotheslines, storekeepers brushing aside plump flies in the butchery. People were curious about the mob’s intentions, and some followed along as if dutifully joining a militia.

“Good music playing over bad radios” is classic, an observation wrapped in a description, and like any precise yet poetic observation, it becomes a metaphor for the larger reality. The elevated distance in the perspective is expressed time and again in word choice. When the mob emerges into a field with a busted sewer pipe, the odor is described as “bracing,” an obvious understatement that communicates the idea that living with filth is simply something to be endured.

Bearak is constantly choosing precise understatement over hyperbole. Notice the low temperature of the language when he places the immediate in the context of the general:

Mob justice is not uncommon in Diepsloot, and most often it involves the swift capture of a supposed criminal, the villain there to beat up, to stone, perhaps even to wrap in a petrol-soaked shroud. But this undertaking was something entirely different. The vigilantes had walked a long distance on a hot day in the uncertain pursuit of unspecified thugs — all on the word of this talkative boy.

The elevated view allows us to watch these horrors unfold and see for ourselves how a quest for vengeance and some kind of justice so effortlessly turns into simple thuggery. Note how Bearak refrains from labeling this transition point, but lets our Olympian ability to see inside the perspective of the participants do the work. Pay attention especially to his use of the word “despicable” in the following:

Siphiwe led the way, back along the dusty paths between the shacks to the edge of the marshy field. The spaza shop was locked, and though empty of people, it was actually well supplied with soft drinks, biscuits, beer, toiletries and paraffin. The mob nevertheless busted through the walls, and Siphiwe rooted around in a back room, collecting for himself two pairs of sneakers, a Nike track suit and a nylon jacket. The shop was set ablaze, again to the noisy approval of the crowd, though this, too, seemed scant retaliation against murderous thugs. Where were those despicable people?

“Elevation” does not mean glossing anything over. To the contrary, it means being able to look at things with the unflinching, unblinking acuity of an eagle’s eye. Note the calm tone, the accumulation of simple words and sentences that seduce us into watching, instead of turning away, as a very uncomfortable truth about the nature of human beings plays out before our eyes:

The video shows Farai already on the ground, using his left leg to try to block the blows of a man swinging a heavy piece of wood. Others are pelting him with rocks from behind and hitting him with sticks. At this point, it is still possible to imagine the young man’s escape. He can speak; his movements are spry; there is barely a smudge on the lilac of the shirt. But by the next scene, he is sapped of strength and badly injured. His frantic efforts to get away have failed, and he has landed in a filthy, water-filled ditch. As he crawls out, his hands groping at the dirt, a man in blue pants kicks him in the chest, and Farai flops backward with a splash. Some in the crowd, including children, scoot around to get a better look.

The video then jumps ahead. Farai is again on dry ground, lying on his back, seemingly near death but still breathing. Blood is leaking from his head. He barely raises his left hand, and this trivial movement somehow becomes a cue for the beating to resume. A man wearing a white cap wallops him seven times in the face and neck with a plank, the assailant’s arms reaching high to amplify the force of his swing.


Check back tomorrow to read our interview with Barry Bearak. Or take a look at some of our previous Editors’ Roundtables.

Is there a story you’d like the Roundtable to tackle? If so, you can send a link to us at contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org.

July 06 2011


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


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.


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…


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.


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.

June 15 2011


June Editors’ Roundtable No. 2: The Seattle Times, a first pitch, and the Queen of Samoas

We’re fine-tuning our Editors’ Roundtable, moving toward more frequent postings and smaller groups of editors looking at each story. As part of those changes, today we highlight our second June Roundtable (if you missed the first, you can see it here).

One classic daily newspaper narrative is the story of the very sick child. A member of the Roundtable suggested this Seattle Times column about a Girl Scout named Kaila Cove as an example of how to handle the topic without resorting to melodrama. After establishing her cookie-selling credentials by outdoing every other Girl Scout in Western Washington, Cove was invited to throw out the first pitch for the Seattle Mariners last month. Here, without knowing any of the details of how he did the story, three editors address various aspects of columnist Jerry Brewer’s work. Check back tomorrow for our interview with Brewer.

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

It is hard to write a column about a sick child without becoming maudlin or sentimental. These stories are journalists’ stock in trade, and, sadly, have become almost a cliché. It’s so easy to stray into the tear-drenched world of adjectives and heroism. Jerry Brewer is careful to write about a sick child overcoming obstacles without descending into mawkishness. He does this in a number of ways:

He uses humor. Not belly-laugh humor, which would be inappropriate for such a topic, but gentle humor that makes you smile slightly. Such as: “There are many ways to illustrate Cove’s will to live, but let’s hurry up and get to the part about the Girl Scout cookies.”  The juxtaposition of “will to live” and “Girl Scout cookies” made me smile. It tells me that the story will be grounded in the realities of a child, not bathed in emotion.

He lists the facts of her situation without opining. No loaded words like “tragic” and “heartbreaking.”  Just concrete, straightforward statements: “Getting the flu could kill her … she can’t go to school because of the germs … she’s so small for an 11-year-old that other kids regularly and annoyingly think she’s much younger.”

He finds a story, and he tells it. It’s a small story, about how she got to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a baseball game because she had been such a powerhouse at selling cookies. He puts her in motion: watching clips; practicing her windup with her dad and brother. The more concrete he keeps the story, the more Kaila becomes a real person, and the more you care about her. This is the best way to tell an emotional story: Don’t tell the reader how to feel (as Brewer doesn’t). Let the reader get to know the subject as a real person (as he does).

If the column allowed for more length, there are other things I’d like to have seen. I’d like to have seen her throw out that first pitch. I’d like to see her making her impassioned plea for people to buy cookies. I’d like to hear her talk a little more. But given the constraints of time and length that a column operates under, Brewer did a nice job.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

As a writer, I’ve often found it challenging to describe people. I can resort to adjectives and physical details. But how do you get beyond the surface details to reveal character? Jerry Brewer uses several techniques to capture Kaila Cove’s personality in quick strokes.

Quotes. Brewer doesn’t just use quotes to convey information. He selects quotes that allow us to hear a person’s voice. For example, you hear Kaila’s spunkiness – and the fact that she’s very much a young girl who’s concerned about what most young girls are concerned about – as she interjects herself into this passage: “Sometimes, if a lot of kids are sick, she must wear a mask. ‘Which I don’t like,’ says Kaila, who is from Bellingham. ‘It looks dorky.’ ”

Dialogue. Brewer uses a snatch of dialogue to give us a glimpse of Kaila’s relationship with her mother, who by now must be used to Kaila’s ambitions and strong-headed ways. Brewer writes: “Kaila sold about 2,900 boxes of cookies last year. She climbed to 3,503 this year. Her goal for next year is 4,000. ‘Or, actually, 4,200,’ she says. ‘Oh, geez,’ her mother replies.”

Anecdotes. Notice that Brewer doesn’t come out and say that Kaila has a fire in her belly. He shows it through an anecdote: “She knew throwing out the first pitch was a big deal. There are YouTube videos to prove it. She watched clips of everyone from President Obama to Justin Bieber perform the ritual with varying results. She decided she needed to do two things: Throw the ball straight and keep it from bouncing. She practiced so much with her father, Willie Cove, and younger brother, Jaiden, that she made her arm sore.”

I would have loved to read a description of Kaila’s pitch on that Saturday night – to hear more about her movements and mannerisms. How did she interact with her parents before and after the pitch? How did she walk out to the pitcher’s mound and steel herself? How was the pitch? How did she interact with the pitcher after the pitch? How did she react to the ballpark crowd? Brewer could have added just a touch more to describe this powerful moment.

Jacqui Banaszynski
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism

(Full disclosure: I was still a senior editor at The Seattle Times when Jerry Brewer joined the staff. I did not work with him directly except for occasional coaching sessions, and to consult on his series, “A Prayer for Gloria,” which turned into a book, “Gloria’s Miracle.”)

This is an enchanting and disciplined piece. In barely 800 words, Jerry Brewer captures a newsy event, the context of that event, the special character and hard history of a little girl, and even a glimpse into a mother-daughter relationship.

Key to Brewer’s approach:

Focus: Brewer doesn’t try to tell everything about Kaila Cove. He zooms in on one moment, and writes only what is necessary to inform that moment. For example, he draws a straight line from the first-pitch ritual to Kaila’s story: “It’s a significant, century-old sports tradition that celebrates fame, achievement and inspiration.” (Take note that he ends that sentence with “inspiration,” which sets up the return to Kaila more effectively than if he had switched the order. He appropriately puts “fame” the furthest from her.) If you examine this piece for use of details and compressed background, you will find all of it in service of his primary focus.

Compression and selection: This proves the truth of “less is more” in the hands of a confident writer. Brewer is highly selective about the details that “show” the story, and delivers less important background in summary “tell.” For example, we know Kaila is homeschooled, but the detail is saved for her need to wear a mask around other kids. We know she likes to swim and play kickball, but the detail is saved for how hard she studied and practiced pitching. Brewer gives the briefest of litanies of Kaila’s illnesses, surgeries, treatments and limitations, yet drops in “congenital panhypopituitarism.”

He is equally selective with quotes. Many writers will turn a story like this over to quotes in the belief that they add more of the subject’s personality. But sparing use of the right quotes actually amplifies a subject’s voice and character. Kaila about her mask: “It looks dorky.” The mother about Kaila’s plan to sell 4,200 cookies: “Oh, geez.”

Brewer, who is a columnist, lets himself brush up against colloquialisms that could be considered clichés, most notably his use of “Never mind…” as a device in the third paragraph. But it fits with his conversational voice, and doesn’t tip over into maudlin. His reference to “blessing” and “miracle” at the end are drawn directly from the mother’s quote.

Check back tomorrow for our interview with Brewer, in which he talks about the constraints under which he wrote this story, the best way to ruin a column, and his advice for writing about people with illnesses.

May 05 2011


Ben Montgomery explores a mystery: “This is a story about grief”

Yesterday our Editors’ Roundtable looked at “When a diver goes missing, a deep cave is scene of a deeper mystery,” by Ben Montgomery. An enterprise reporter at the St. Petersburg Times, Montgomery was a 2010 Pulitzer finalist with the Times’ project “For Their Own Good,” which we featured on this site. He talked with me by phone about his latest story while the editors were in the midst of making their comments on it. As a new part of the Roundtable process, we’ve also invited him to respond to the editors’ comments at a later date.

How did you first hear about Ben McDaniel, and at what point did his disappearance become a story?

In late February. I’m trying to read the papers out of the Panhandle, large and small, because of my work on Dozier [School for Boys] and also because there are places along Florida’s hidden coast that are untapped. There’s very little news coverage, and what’s there often gets overlooked. It’s golden for someone like me who has the freedom to go up there and do work. I caught a small story in, I think, the Jackson County paper.

McDaniel’s family, Patty and Shelby, had announced a $10,000 reward, and the story was about Edd Sorensen, who in fact is in my story. He’s a pretty fantastic recovery diver and cave diver. Sorensen had told the local paper that this was dangerous – basically, “I can understand them wanting to find their son, but they’re going to get someone else killed by putting up this money.”

I immediately recognized that this was a pretty fantastic story, and that if the material held up, it could be really great. You have a mystery, first of all; the guy went in and hasn’t been seen since. Hanging onto that mystery, you have some really interesting human conundrums: the grief of the parents and friends, and the risk for the cave divers.

Pride was involved as well, for the divers who’ve gone in and come out empty-handed. They’re saying, “Look, take our word for it. Trust us. We’re the best of the best, and Ben’s not in there.” They felt like the McDaniels’ insistence that Ben was in there was sort of an insult to them: “They don’t believe us. We’ve told them, and now they’re putting up this reward.” There were strong feelings of hurt and embarrassment as well on the part of the divers.

So it seemed like this whole mess of emotion swirling around this great mystery. I kind of held onto it for a little bit. I think I brought it up at one of our weekly meetings, just to see how people would react to it and whether they would have the same reaction that I did, which was “Wow, this has real potential.” I heard that out of the people in the room, so I took the opportunity to go out and do some real reporting.

How long did you take to report and write the story?

I was working on some other things at the time. I’d say probably I took a trip up there for three days. And then maybe another four or five days on the phone back home, reporting. And maybe four or five days writing. So two weeks, 2 1/2 weeks in all.

When you sat down to write, you had this material – I don’t want to ruin it for any readers – but when you sit down to write, you have a mystery without a simple solution. How did you approach structuring the story?

That was cause for great anxiety in the beginning, because I had the ambition to find Ben McDaniel myself. That was a real desire. I was thinking, “Maybe if I talk to enough people, I can find this guy.” Or at least find some evidence that he met his demise or that he still exists. That was the mindset that I went in with.

Three-quarters of the way through the reporting I was like, “I still don’t have an ending. I don’t know where he is, and people are still going to be disappointed if they read this story and then get to the end and there’s nothing to tie it up. It’s still as much of a mystery as it was in the first section.”

So driving back from the Panhandle, I called a friend, Michael Brick, who is down in Austin. We talk about stories a lot. I kind of called to hear myself tell him the story, to see where it went. We had really bad reception. Because of the spotty reception, I had to be brief. We kept getting disconnected. And so each time I would be like, “Forget all that. Dude’s missing. I don’t have an ending.”

And at some point I started to think of this story in a different way: This is a story about grief and how the dominoes fall when a man goes missing. And that helped, because then it became not a story about Ben specifically, but a story about all the people left behind to try to solve the mystery. Then it was just thinking about the story through that prism. Because there’s no ending with Ben, it gave the rest of us the ending.

You focus on Emily. Did she give you that ending herself?

Gene Weingarten sent me an email yesterday, and I think [Tom] Shroder may have put him up to it. Weingarten loved the ending, and he was wondering if that was mine, or if I just went there.

It came from her, but I felt like quoting her there would have screwed it all up. She is thinking very seriously about diving into that hole to see for herself if Ben is in there. She’s an open-water diver, and it takes a long while to get cave-certified. She’s thinking seriously about saving up the money to get cave certified and to go down in search of him. That came at the end of our talk.

We were supposed to talk at 7 on a Wednesday night. We had a hard time getting in touch. Our conversation wrapped up about 11:30. So 4, 4 1/2 hours on the phone. She and Captain Hamilton and Ben’s parents, they all entertain these theories. They’ve entertained some really wild theories: “Could he be in witness protection?” “Could his ex-business partner have followed him to Florida and killed him?” But after they run through the theories, it all circulates, and one theory leads to the next.

Near the end of our conversation, she was going back and forth about whether Ben had the capacity to commit suicide through going through the hole, or whether he had the capacity to leave and put everybody through this incredible grief. She was saying, “If only we could see down in that hole, then we could rule that out as a possibility.” It struck me to ask, because she had mentioned that she was a diver, “Have you ever thought of going down there?”

She said, “Yeah, I sure have. I know it would take a lot of money, and I know it would take some time, but that’s a serious part of my thinking right now.”

When I heard that, it gave me that – I don’t know how to articulate this, but there’s a spot that I hit sometimes in reporting… It’s like I have to stand up. It’s almost a mix of anxiety and happiness and sadness, these things that typically exist on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. But I felt that, and the light came down on me, and I thought “That’s perfect.” If the possibility exists that Ben went through the hole because of his brother, then the possibility exists that she’s going to go through the hole and pursue Ben. It just felt like the right way to end the thing.

So you realized that was an important moment right then?

When she said it, when that came out of her mouth, I thought, “That’s the end of the story.”

I noticed that midway through the story, you start throwing out questions. There are no questions asked in the first half, but the second half has 13. It’s an unusual approach to writing a mystery narrative.

That’s news to me, that there’s such an extreme change. I do know that up to a point, we know exactly where Ben was leading up to his disappearance. We have an unlimited amount of facts about the days and hours leading up to that dive. And after that it’s eight months of questions. So it’s not surprising to me that the story changed in that regard, because the rest of the story can be one giant question mark. It’s just a matter of handing it over to the readers to entertain the same questions that I had and the same questions that Ben’s family and the people trying to find him had.

Did the story change drastically in the process of writing or editing it?

The one big change was really just a matter of adding a line of the section about three-quarters of the way through the story that solidified the idea that if Ben was grieving his brother’s death so much that he abandoned this life, whether purposefully or with disregard for his own safety, if he went through the hole to deal with that grief, then it’s the same kind of grief that might bring Emily into that hole.

I wanted to make that as clear as possible without being ham-fisted. And so I added a line about something his parents had entertained and said, maybe not directly but close: maybe Ben wasn’t running from something; he was running to something. I wanted to put that thought in the readers’ minds before I hit that beautiful monologue that Chuck Cronin delivered about why people go into these crazy caves, and then sort of bring it down with the powerful ending that belongs to Emily. So it was just a matter of adding that line.

I overwrote the thing, which I always do, I think the first draft might have been 6,000 words, and it ran at 3,400. It wasn’t Bill [Duryea, my editor,] who cut a lot out of it. It was just me trimming a lot of stuff and removing the scaffolding – a lot of self-editing. And I had turned it over to some people, which is not uncommon, for general thoughts.

I got some good advice from Jon Jefferson, who’s half of the writing team of Jefferson Bass. He regularly makes appearances on the New York Times bestseller list for a series of books called “The Body Farm.” He writes with the guy who started that body farm at the University of Tennessee, Bill Bass. Jon just has a way of applying fiction techniques to nonfiction that I’ve come to appreciate. He offered some feedback and some good advice.

You mentioned overwriting. There are so many approaches writers take to organizing their stories, from meticulous six-level outlines to just sitting down and starting. How does overwriting fit in with your approach?

I outline, so I had an outline. I knew where I wanted to go. It’s weird, because the overwriting is not the excessive use of adverbs for me. It’s including too much information, stuff that might be unnecessary distraction. For instance, the first draft included the theory that Ben could have gone into witness protection, which is something his parents were leaning toward for a while. I reported that out, and figured out they don’t do that. The federal government doesn’t fake death to protect people. And beyond that, there’s nothing in Ben’s history to suggest that he may have needed to go into witness protection.

That theory was pooh-poohed, but I included it in there, because I thought readers might have the same question themselves. It was just four or five paragraphs going down that rabbit hole, and then shutting that idea down. So going back to trim, it seemed unnecessary. I thought, “I’m not sure people will make that jump, and if they do, that’s OK, I’ll just disregard it in its entirety, not even bring it up. It’s not going to hurt the story.”

There were a couple paragraphs in the first draft about why north Florida has so many underwater caverns. I talked to a geologist at Florida State University to set the scene a little more, including this chunky bit about how these caverns are formed over the years. I was trying to teach people about geology that I was curious about. And then I thought, “There’s not a place for it. I want it to be really tight.” Even if it’s 3,400 words, I want it to read like it’s 20 inches. It’s a lot of cutting and stripping away everything that is unnecessary.

Anything else you’d like to say about the piece or about narrative journalism more generally?

I find it so incredibly useful, beyond the editors who work at the St. Pete Times, to have a team of people who aren’t going to bullshit you, who don’t mind taking a look at what you’ve written and giving you feedback. I think I sent this [Michael] Kruse, Konrad Marshall, who is in Australia now but is a great feature writer. Wright Thompson read it. Jon Jefferson read it. And each of them had a different thing to say about it, like “in this part, I think you should go here.” “I need you to establish better the dimensions of the cave at the restriction.”

This is before I even turn it over to Bill. At the point that I feel like I have a solid draft, I want feedback from people who aren’t reading it for grammar mistakes or for style and spelling. I just generally want to know “How did this story make you feel? How could it be better?”

Some of it you use, and some of it you disregard. I don’t know if I’ll ever turn in a story that I feel might be important without having distributed it to a few trustworthy friends to offer feedback early. I want to make that a regular part of this process, because I found it to be really useful.

That’s a new part of your process then?

It’s not totally new, but I think I probably sent this to more people than I have before. Normally, it’s one or two. Kruse is my regular go-to guy for feedback; we talk stories all the time. But sending it to five people? At first I thought that everybody would say something different, and it would confuse me. That’s not the way it went at all. Everybody did have some different thing to say, but I found it all useful.

May 04 2011


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.


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.


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.

February 02 2011


Time’s David Von Drehle on narrating tragedy and the evolution of his Tucson story

Yesterday, we posted our first Editors’ Roundtable, in which a group of word wizards did their magic on a piece of narrative nonfiction. Our debut story for consideration was The Real Lesson of the Tucson Tragedy,” written by Time magazine Editor-at-large David Von Drehle. While the prospect of having a group of editors poke around in a story might unsettle some writers, Von Drehle was curious to see what they would say and eager to talk with us about his piece. I interviewed him last week, before the editors’ comments had posted. What follows is a transcript of our talk, lightly edited for clarity.

Can you talk about how you got assigned this story and what reporting, if any, you did for it?

The shooting was on Saturday morning, and I would guess within an hour or so, I got a call or an e-mail – I think it must have been a call from Michael [Duffy]. He’s in Washington, and I live and work in the Kansas City area. He didn’t know what the story would be then, but he was pretty sure it would become big and important. He wanted me to be paying attention and getting myself ready to write.

By that Saturday night, I think he was pretty sure it would become the cover of the magazine. So that first day I was looking at that. And of course there was this enormous political firestorm among what I call “the cabal” in the article.

My reaction to that, the idea that this was a politically motivated act, was pretty extreme skepticism, just because I tend to believe in the Occam’s razor approach to events. The thing that happens most often is probably going to be the thing that happens again. Usually these kinds of mass shootings are products of mental illness rather than political motivation, and so I guess I spent a lot of Saturday going against the flow of where folks thought the story was going. Really that whole weekend was mostly spent just trying to sort out in my own mind what had happened, what it meant, and what was significant about it.

I did not go to Tucson. We did immediately send several people down there. My job in those first days was to figure out what had happened and what it really meant, what the takeaway should be. That was not an easy process. That was where being on a weekly deadline instead of a daily deadline was an advantage. I grew up in the newspaper business – I’ve only been in magazines for about four years. I definitely felt the advantage of not having to write my piece the first day.

You didn’t end up with a traditional news feature that says, “Here’s what happened.” But it’s also not a traditional narrative where you just build it from the inside out. It has a unique style. At what point did the story acquire that style?

This was a really interesting case in this ongoing figuring-out process that we’re doing at Time, trying to get clear in our own minds and for our readers “What is the function of a news magazine today?” Is it a digest of the past week’s news? Well, yes, it is a little bit a briefing. Is it a place for the tick-tock, the behind the scenes, the fly-on-the-wall stuff that was the meat and potatoes of Time and Newsweek for many years? Yes, a little bit of that, too – there still is some room for that. But where we really can bring value is in a story like this, where we can put the news and the meaning in a big frame with a new kind of angle, a new way of looking at it, and bring that all together in one place.

That was what I had in mind. That’s what I wanted to do. I knew it was not just going to be a tick-tock, though it needed to have some of that: “Here’s our sense of what happened there.” And it was not just going to be an analytical piece, but that it would have analysis in it. And that it would need to have a takeaway, where people would leave with an understanding of “What does this say about the times we live in and the meaning of life?”

That’s a big throwaway line, but one of my favorite editors that I’ve learned so much from over the years, Gene Weingarten, always taught us that really every good story should somehow be about the meaning of life. So I sort of tossed that off, but when you try to turn that into a real story, you are kind of  smashing several different genres, several different well-known styles, all into one. That’s kind of the challenge, the trick of it.

As part of that, you talk directly to the reader, using lines like “go ahead and cry.” That kind of second-person address can be a little dangerous. Can you talk about it as a srategy?

A couple of people have asked about this piece, “How long did it take you to write it?” One answer is that it took from Saturday morning to Wednesday night. But as far as the actual typing of words, the composing of sentences, it was really Tuesday before I started getting words on the screen. So it took all day Tuesday and then Wednesday morning finishing up the draft.

This theme emerged of “What is normal in America now, and why is our discourse distorting reality so much?” As I realized that was the theme, and that was what we were going to talk about, part of that was to speak to our readers. Time has a very broad cross-section of ordinary middle America, and the piece needed to enlist them in this idea that there is a normal American discourse that goes on where people are able to disagree civilly and are able to participate in a political process that is vigorous but not overheated and not violent.

As the writer, I was aware that people who buy our magazine and read it are basically – that’s them. They’re interested enough in events, but they’re not out on the political blogs 24/7. Most of them are not lighting up comment boards. So I decided that the way to kind of say to the readers, “I’m talking about you. You, my audience, are evidence of the case I’m trying to make,” was to come out from behind the curtain in a couple of places and speak directly to them.

I’m the father of a 9-year-old girl, and so the story of Christina Green spoke to me in some very emotional, powerful ways. That moment seemed like one where it just seemed right to momentarily erase the screen between the writer and the audience and say, “Look, of course I know what you’re feeling. You know what I’m feeling. Anybody would feel that way.”

Still, you’re right. It’s dangerous. It’s not a technique you would want to use all the time, but it seemed to me to underline the theme of the piece. That’s what you’re always trying to do as a writer: to get your sentences and structure to match your idea. It seemed to reinforce rather than distract from the theme. I actually wrote “Go ahead and shed a tear.” It was Duffy who made it, “Go ahead and cry,” which is so much better. In that vein of giving credit where it’s due to editors, he didn’t change much in the story, but he did change that, which made it a lot better.

What other edits did he make?

A few word changes. One paragraph was taken out, because it was biographical stuff about Loughner that was duplicated in another story in the package, but otherwise, no. A word here and there. That cry line was the biggest change.

If I recall correctly, in the lede, I said, “So much of the story is ugly and twisted that it’s best to start with something beautiful and good.” I had said that “So much is ugly and twisted that I want to start with something beautiful and good.” Duffy rightly suggested that since that was the only use of the first person, “Let’s take the first person out of the lede.” He was absolutely right about that, too. He’s an outstanding line editor.

Does he edit most of your work?

Yes. It changes if I’m moving into a different specialty. Mike runs the Washington bureau and is an assistant managing editor. So he runs my life, controls my schedule and edits the newsy stuff. But if I go off to do a science piece or a financial piece, I might end up being edited by someone else.

What exactly do you do at Time?

My title is editor-at-large. I don’t edit anything, so I don’t know why it’s editor instead of writer.  I am very much at large. Because of my background and Time’s appetite, probably about half of my time is spent on political stuff, broadly defined. Otherwise, I have always thought of myself as a generalist. So of the stories I’m working on right now, one is about neuroscience, one about history, one about monetary policy.

You were fed material for this piece. Do you usually do your own reporting?

I like to do all my own reporting. The Time tradition until just a few years ago was that there were people who reported and people who wrote, and they were two different things. Reporters would send files to New York, and then the writers in New York would write the stories.

For a variety of reasons, not least the very high cost of doing things that way, they’ve gone more and more in the direction of having people who report and write their own stories. And that’s part of the reason that I ended up at Time, because I like and can do both pieces of that puzzle.

In my newspaper career, being an anchor writer on a big breaking story was one of the skill sets that I developed and liked. So when we have a breaking news story, when we’ve got to pull in stuff from a number of places and people, I like doing that and know how to do it.

The reason I’m a journalist is that I have a short attention span, so variety is what I love. A long story this week, something 300 words next week, monetary policy, then going next to education, next to sports.

Is there anything else you want to say about the piece?

I’ve been pleased and a bit surprised. It did strike a chord. We got more mail on it than Time’s gotten on anything in years, so that’s intriguing to me. I think I did manage to put into words something that a lot of people were starting to feel. I wasn’t sure when I hit the done button what the reaction was going to be.

I’m never sure what the reaction is going to be, but after more than 30 years in the business, I know that sometimes it’ll be something that I like but it’s going to disappear without a ripple, because nobody else is going to care about it. There are other things that I think are completely benign and they set off a big firestorm because there’s something in there that I didn’t even realize was going to trip people up. This one I didn’t really know what to expect, and so I was surprised and pleased that a lot of people found it worthwhile.

I really had in mind lessons that I had learned from Gene Miller at The Miami Herald and then underlined for me by Mary McGrory at The Washington Post. Mary had the greatest line. She did this extraordinary work on the Kennedy assassination, and John Kennedy had been a friend of hers.

The line went something like “In the face of great emotion, write short sentences.” That’s a rule that’s served me well. Sentences get longer and longer when you’re working fast, when you’re working with a powerful story. The best thing you can do to get hold of what you’re doing, to get it under control, is to shorten your sentences.

In a later e-mail exchange, Von Drehle added a coda to an earlier answer:

I didn’t quite close the loop on a point I wanted to make. I started to say that people have asked how long the piece took to write, and that one way of answering that is to say I started Tuesday morning and finished Wednesday morning. But the main thing I’ve learned about writing is that you can’t have good writing without good thinking, and so the process of thinking through the piece, getting the idea clear in your head, is as much a part of the writing as the actual typing (or should I say keyboarding). Thinking may look to the outside world like sitting around, or cooking dinner, or driving to pick up the dry cleaning, or working out on the elliptical. But all those things may be part of the writing process if your brain is in gear.

February 01 2011


February Editors’ Roundtable: Time magazine takes on the Tucson shootings

The narrative selected for discussion by our first-ever Editors’  Roundtable is “The Real Lesson of the Tucson Tragedy” by David Von Drehle. Appearing in Time magazine five days after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and so many others, the piece draws on reporting from six reporters who fed Von Drehle material from Tucson, New York and Washington. Michael Duffy, assistant managing editor and Washington bureau chief at Time, edited the story.

Tomorrow we’ll run a Q-and-A with Von Drehle about how the piece came together, but today we offer our editors’ responses to it. Comments appear in the order in which they were made, and editors with any relationship to Von Drehle have disclosed it in the opening of their comments. For full bios on the editors, see our post last week announcing the Roundtable.

Jacqui Banaszynski
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism

Ah, the most challenging of subjects in the hands of a master. David Von Drehle does so much to learn from, and all on a crazy deadline.

Verb tenses are counterintuitive but effective. Present tense puts us back in the scenes of that day. Foreshadowing restores suspense to a known conclusion. Von Drehle never cheats on the news, but there is hope in his chronological retelling: Maybe things can be different. (A nice underscore to his whole theme.) Past tense breaks the narrative for background and commentary.

Voice has unapologetic authority but an engaging casualness. The opening line is colloquial and intimate. All the little come-alongs (ie: “Let’s consider…” “Note the date…” “Go ahead and cry.”) make it feel like he’s talking to me over coffee as we ponder this senselessness.

Pacing that weaves short and long sentences, maximizing the power of short.

Character revealed through selected details. I see those third-grade teeth, and the woman young Christina Green should grow into.

The really big wow?  Focus. Von Drehle takes a subject everyone is writing about but chooses and sustains his core theme: the war on normal. Repetition of that word becomes a tool of structure, cohesion and theme-building. Even Christina Green as opening and ending: She’s not just the most innocent victim of one deranged man, but a metaphor for a better sense of America – Von Drehle reports it as a reality – under attack by “cabals” on both ends of a destructive screed.

Editor’s tweak: More sourcing written into the story or in an expanded byline box, rather than leaving so much to links. In the din of this screed, I want to know how reporters know what they know.

Finally, kudos to the reporters who provided the right raw material. Writing narrative means reporting narrative.

Maria Carrillo
Managing editor, The Virginian-Pilot

Jacqui did a wonderful job breaking down all the great things about this story. The storytelling is really strong and the reporting that feeds it is tremendous, particularly on what I imagine was a tight deadline. Watching the events unfold was gripping, despite having read so many accounts of what happened. Which is why we love narrative writing.

What I struggled with was so much time and attention on the response to the shooting. For me, it was definitely a case of less would have been more. The point is to call all those crazy reactionaries to task for having jumped the gun. It’s almost ironic that the cabal gets so much undeserved ink.

Yes, the story is about the war on normal, but the strongest message becomes the positive you can take away – that in America, this doesn’t happen that often. We disagree and argue and vote people out of office that we don’t like and shots are never fired, unlike so much of the rest of the world. That point is made, no doubt, but it’s drowned out more than I would have liked by the attention on Palin and Moulitsas and Ruddy, etc. Again, a little would have gone a long way.

I really appreciate a story that takes a loud event and brings it down quietly and forces you to think about something that deserves attention. And that’s what I loved about this story; I just wanted not to dwell so much on the madmen on talk radio and TV but on illustrating the fact that this day was an aberration and some of these people at the scene were amazing in their reactions. That was the power of the story, punctuated by that last line.

Kelley Benham
Enterprise editor, St. Petersburg Times

What struck me was the sense of control. Jacqui’s right, focus is the triumph here, and Von Drehle is a master at focusing a story even on deadline. It’s not just that he declares a theme and carries it out. He controls every element. Look how elegantly he tucks attribution and other necessities into the middles of sentences, how he saves powerful images for the ends of sections and how he slows time to let a scene unfold.

Paragraphs that in other hands would serve as mundane explanatory material become devastating by his word choice. Sarah Palin does not argue, she implausibly argues. He knows what he wants to say.

He writes with an unapologetic point of view, directly addressing the reader throughout. “Pay attention,” he says. “Go ahead and cry.” This signaled to me that as a reader I was in good hands. He was taking me somewhere and he had a plan. I don’t know that we could or should get away with so much point of view in a newspaper. But as an editor I’m usually pushing for more authority and not less. More narratives fall short because a writer is at the mercy of the material than because the writer is too much in control of it.

The risk with this approach is that it can feel heavy handed. I didn’t feel that way here until the last paragraph. Christina Green is an irresistible symbol, but by the time I read this piece I was tired of seeing her used as a metaphor. That’s a comment on all the coverage, not on this story alone, but I felt a bit manipulated by it. So the last line fell short for me, but only because the spell was interrupted in the sentence or two before.

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

I agree with the points made above – I love the urgency of present tense, the intimate voice, the pacing. I heartily agree that the reporting was stellar. And since so many positive points have already been made, I get to do a little nitpicking. I have four, but they are very small. Nit-sized nits.

Nit 1: Voice. It works so well through so much of the piece that when it doesn’t work, it’s startling. “Pay attention.” “How many times have we heard this story?” Those interjections worked for me. What didn’t work was when the narrator stepped too close, invaded my personal space.

“Go ahead and cry. … Feel the disgust rise up. … As any normal person would.”

If I don’t cry, am I not normal? These lines felt intrusive and presumptuous. They turned the focus from the story and onto me, and I didn’t like it.

Nit 2: I echo Maria’s observation about too much time and attention devoted to the cabals. What started as a great and gripping narrative took a jarring turn into a standard, almost shrill, opinion piece in the “Dramatizing the trivial” section and then, almost as jarringly, veered right back into great narrative when the section ended.

Nit 3: Sept. 11. That detail made me gasp when I first heard it, but because it was purely accidental that Christina was born that day, it almost immediately lost its power as a symbol. The ending would be as powerful – more powerful – without milking that date.

Nit 4: And, while this is completely unfair to Von Drehle’s great work, all of those hyperlinks drove me crazy. The last thing you need when you’re reading a powerful and engrossing work is a whole bunch of little clickable things that will take you out of the story. Let us remain immersed.

Tom Huang
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News

Here’s what I think writers can learn from Von Drehle’s powerful piece.

Structure and flow. Think of the narrative structure and flow as similar to a camera’s movement in filmmaking. We open with the camera on Christina Green, following her to the shopping center. We get a glimpse as to why Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is there. The camera turns to Jared Loughner as he walks up to Giffords. Then freeze the frame. We step out of the action for a moment and the narrator provides us with background on Loughner and the possibility of schizophrenia. Then “the first bullet strikes Giffords in the head,” and we’re back in the action, if just for a moment. Then pause again: The narrator takes us through a long passage of commentary (more on this in a moment). We don’t return to the action until Dorwan Stoddard “heard the explosions.” Pay attention to how Von Drehle moves the camera, then pauses it for explanation, exposition and commentary, then starts the camera again. It’s almost like a dance, the way the narrative scene and the exposition move back and forth.

Repetition to emphasize theme. Jacqui is spot on: Read the piece again and look at how Von Drehle repeats the phrases “war against normal” and “war with normal” and “war on normalcy” and, finally, “this is how normal fights back.” He’s doing that not only for the cadence and musicality of the piece, but to hammer home what the piece is about: “This is how normal fights back, by rejecting fear and choosing courage.”

Use of metaphor for instant understanding. The use of metaphors and similes is hard to pull off. I encourage writers, even veteran writers, to stay away from them, or use them very sparingly. Von Drehle is a master, though, and he uses two in a row that I found effective. “Elected officials in swing districts are always in danger of losing, and when one of them does, the creators of the target lists can boast of their fearsome power. It’s like standing on a beach as the tide turns and claiming to control the ocean.” And then another quick metaphor right after that: “Like the Wizard of Oz, the cabal’s entire authority hinges on this ability to exaggerate its power.” The trick here is that the metaphors need to be based on experiences and references that most readers will connect with immediately. If you have to explain your metaphor, then it’s not strong enough for your piece.

Risk-taking. Von Drehle takes huge risks here. This piece is a hybrid, a blend of narrative (the shooting scene) and commentary (what are we to make of the “cabal”). I haven’t come upon many examples of commentary that weave in the narrative. (Fellow Roundtable editors, help me here if you know of any.) I suppose some op-ed columnists do a bit of this, but not to the degree that Von Drehle is attempting here. I admire that. Like Kelley, I don’t think we could run this piece in our news section, though we probably could in our commentary section. And like Kelley, Maria and Laurie, I would have encouraged the writer to scale back on the commentary — the passage that starts with “What is not normal is the reaction of a relatively small but very loud and influential cabal…” and ends with “The events of the past week should awaken us to the danger of further indulging their delusions.” Still: At a time when we’re all struggling to engage readers, let’s push for more of this risk-taking.

Chris Hunt
Assistant managing editor, Sports Illustrated

Full disclosure: I’m a colleague of David Von Drehle’s at Time Inc. and a longtime fan of his writing. He and I have discussed working together on occasional pieces for Sports Illustrated.

I agree with Tom and others about the power of this story and particularly the effectiveness of the narrative of the shooting. Great deadline journalism, vivid and immediate. But I also agree with Maria and Laurie that the section on the response to the shootings is too long and too jarring in tone.

“Cabal” may not be the best word for a group of commentators with wildly different political views, and it seems contradictory to say the commentators are “very … influential” but actually have a limited audience and exaggerate their own power. The section comes off as a rant against ranting, a bit out of character with the normality being extolled.

Still, the writing in the narrative is moving and beautifully controlled, and I admire the clear, strong voice throughout the piece.

Tom Shroder
Founding editor, www.storysurgeons.com

Full disclosure: David Von Drehle wrote for me when I edited Tropic Magazine and he was a Miami Herald staffer. He was also my roommate and hired me to work for him when he was Style editor at The Washington Post. I later hired him to write for the Post Magazine when I was the magazine’s editor.

To me, the major lesson here is the Big Picture. Von Drehle was wise enough to see what so many were missing, and smart enough to realize that he had an opportunity to point out the forest everyone else was completely missing for the trees. So much of the commentary and reporting after the shooting went directly to the presumably causative influence of the virulently nasty state of political discourse in the country. Then it went from there to the political fireworks around assessing the BLAME for the nasty state of discourse.

Instead of getting hung up in those weeds, Von Drehle was able to see right through them to an obvious truth most of the back and forth was completely ignoring: The shooter’s war was not the war the rest of us are fighting. It was his own private war, and it had nothing to do whatsoever with the nasty nature of political discourse. It was instead a duel to the death with reality – he’d lost hold of it. He was a man drowning in a sea of abstraction, thrashing about violently and a danger to anyone who caught his fragmented attention. The searing political query that prompted his fixation on his victim was not about abortion, immigration, or the size and intrusiveness of the government. It wasn’t about the right to bear arms or gays in the military, or any other culture war item. It was: “If words have no meaning, what good is government?”

It was about mental illness pure and simple, and if you wanted to throw it in, about how someone with extreme mental illness was able to buy and carry a semiautomatic weapon with an extended ammunition clip. Von Drehle also saw clearly that in all the noise about the name-calling and poisonous partisanship in Washington, all the pundits and pols decrying the status quo were perfectly mirroring and reinforcing the status quo.

To me, the real strength of Von Drehle’s piece was that his was the first and most eloquent voice saying, “The emperor has no clothes.”

Paige Williams
Narrative writing instructor, Nieman Foundation

Such great points, all. The pleasant problem with being the last Roundtabler to comment is that by the end of the process the Y-incision has been made, the skin and muscle and soft tissue have been peeled away, the organs have been excised and examined and weighed. The autopsy is nearly complete. Nevertheless!

It’s super hard to write a deadline narrative, especially one that’s fact loaded and compelling and insightful and endeavors to be moving. You’re at the mercy of the reporting that comes in from the field and your own clarity of purpose/vision. In a story as widely covered as the Tucson shooting, you don’t want to rehash events, which so often happens on the fifth or seventh day, but rather to tell the story through some original prism. The shooting broke on a Saturday and this story ran five days later, which may sound like a long time but isn’t. Few can do it artfully. Von Drehle is one of the best. (His Hurricane Hugo narrative remains a model of deadline poetry and made the rest of us who covered Hugo see ticking-clock storytelling in a whole new way.)

He led us into the piece with a single-sentence lede meant to ease readers into difficult material. It’s a good reporter’s trick akin to the old stand-by: “To understand why (fill in the blank) is important, it’s necessary to understand (fill in the blank) .” In doing so he sets us up for what is almost a parallel narrative, and though we suspect the conflict will unfold as good vs. evil, it turns out to be swampier than that.

Which may be why the author chose to use directives: “pay attention” and “go ahead and cry” and “take a moment.” They serve almost as an annotation of the event/political climate, but were they necessary? Yes, they added texture and conversational accessibility, but it’s possible that they intruded on the narrative, even undermined it. Also, “note the date” was meant, I think, to locate the infancy of this particular wave of political ugliness, but does the paragraph achieve that goal? Did the author seek to show how much the rhetorical landscape has eroded since ’07? If so, we needed a beat more.

I appreciated how, instead of simply telling us about the virulence of the competing “cabals,” he deftly worked in the consequences of the warring by showing ours as a government that can’t manage to seat federal judges or reform programs. That’s important context.

Little tiny editing things:

In all the Tucson coverage it annoyed me to no end to hear/read people talking about Christina Green’s impending “career,” so I groaned out loud to see it here. She was nine. Nine.

Those “See this! See that!” links are on par with pop-up ads. And why on earth would we want anyone to click out of this story?

Some may want to cage-fight me on this point but I don’t think he needed “The ugly and twisted part comes next.” Maybe it exists for the sake of lede repetition but we already instinctively grasp the undercurrent of multiple-level gnarliness. Likewise, we don’t need, “He was an unhinged young man at war with normal.” At that point the conceit has been established, and the section would have ended powerfully enough on “…he wasn’t an expression of some dangerous new American norm.”

I experienced a wee reflexive cringe at “she entered this world as a ray of hope,” but whatever. Here’s a positive: Like Tom, I loved the ocean metaphor – that entire graf worked.

With regard to whether such a piece would be suitable for certain news pages, why not call it News Analysis and let it fly? R.W. Apple spent half his career doing just that for the New York Times and often helped me understand political nuance far better than a straight news story ever could have.


A final word from Storyboard Editor Andrea Pitzer:

Pondering the Roundtable approach, Jacqui Banaszynski notes that there are pluses and minuses to so many editors putting their fingerprints on a story. This kind of scrutiny is always a little unfair, as it can never take into account all the time and reporting pressures that happen in real life or the demands incumbent on a given newspaper or magazine. Our hope, however, is that seeing each editor’s take will help readers think about how stories work and ways to make them as good as possible.

Stay tuned for the next installment in early March. 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 extended editorial tire-kicking.

January 18 2011


Calling all writers and fans of narrative: submit stories to our new Editors’ Roundtable

After three weeks of ice, you’ve watched every “Law & Order” spinoff in syndication from inside your snow fort. The long weekend is over, and you’re looking out the window through a mountain of empty Cheez-It boxes and powdered doughnut wrappers. You say you’re searching for inspiration? Something to get you through the rest of winter?

Look no further. Nieman Storyboard is here for you. We’ll soon be rolling out a new offering on the site: an Editors’ Roundtable. The roundtable is made up of legendary wordsmiths who have shepherded unforgettable stories that made a difference in their communities, won Pulitzers, became books and otherwise saved the universe.

Once a month, the roundtable will discuss an intriguing written narrative. Editors will pull at the seams of the story to show readers how it works and what makes it remarkable (and sometimes, what it might have done differently). It’s like “Car Talk” with Lamborghinis and red pencils.

And we need your help! In a few days, we’ll be introducing the members of the roundtable, but for now we want to extend an invitation. Send us links to the most interesting narrative journalism you’ve read lately. Submitting something you wrote is fine, as is passing along the work of others, whether you know them or not. What’s the best piece of nonfiction writing you’ve read in the past few months? Is it a story with scenes that made you dream, gave you nightmares, or just kept popping into your head in the days after you read it? Send a story you’d like to see discussed to contact_us@niemanstoryboard.org. If you like, tell us why you think we should use it.

We’re looking forward to seeing your submissions. In the meantime, we’ll be introducing you to the editors who will contribute their time and talent to the roundtable. Stay tuned!

Image courtesy Megan Garber.

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