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May 14 2013


Notable Narrative: “The Prophets of Oak Ridge”

Our latest Notable Narrative: “The Prophets of Oak Ridge,” Dan Zak’s 9,448-word Washington Post project—and, as of this morning, e-book—about a house painter, a drifter and an 82-year-old nun who breached the perimeter at the Y-12 National Security Complex, which produces nuclear weapons in East Tennessee. We’ll be hosting a live chat with Zak about the multimedia project this Thursday at 11 a.m., so please join us. David Beard, the Post‘s director of digital content, will also be with us, to talk about what the staff learned from producing two big digital projects back to back.

Screen Shot 2013-05-14 at 12.07.58 PM

Photo by Linda Davidson, courtesy Washington Post

The story: The activists wanted to make their point with fence cutters, graffiti, protest songs, and the thawed blood of a colleague who died in 2008 but hoped to “join” one last mission. Zak tells their story but also that of Oak Ridge, Tenn., built by the federal government as a bomb-making town. “Though you haven’t needed a badge to get into the town since 1949, Oak Ridge’s soul hasn’t changed,” he writes. “It’s still a company town, and the company is the government, and the business is bombs.” The facility housed “enough radioactive material to fuel over 10,000 nuclear bombs, which would end civilization many times over,” material used in warheads renovation programs that could take 25 years and cost $20 billion. The activists, who were convicted last week of injuring the national defense and damaging government property, each took different paths into custody. There’s riveting writing in Zak’s tale—

The lights of the Antichrist flickered through the trees.

The drifter prayed.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. For all the glory is yours, and on the last day Jesus will come like this, like a thief in the night, and the warmongering United States will fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy by beating its swords into plowshares.

He had duct-taped the head of his flashlight to reduce the beam to a sliver. On the downward slope of Pine Ridge, he moved in front of the nun, clearing branches and stones from her path. He was just a frail earthen vessel, he believed, but she was a daughter of God. He was her bodyguard.

On his head was a construction hat painted light blue, with “UN” marked on the front. On his breath was the stink of Top brand tobacco. In their backpacks, he and the nun carried twine, matches, candles, a Bible, three hammers, six cans of spray paint, three protest banners, copies of a letter they wished to deliver to Y-12 employees and two emblems of sustenance — a packet of cucumber seeds and a fresh-baked loaf of bread with a cross molded into the top.

And six baby bottles of human blood.

—and the presentation is beautiful, clean and striking. The Post ran the story on its website magazine style. Illustrations depicted the break-in, and still photos and a slideshow worked as secondary art. The 14 chapter titles alone tell a story: “Mission,” “‘…and the Earth Will Shake’” and “Sabotage.” Have a read, and join us back here on Thursday, to talk about how this project came together.


August 16 2012


Notable Narrative: “When My Crazy Father Actually Lost His Mind,” by Jeneen Interlandi

Our latest Notable Narrative, “When My Crazy Father Actually Lost His Mind,” is Jeneen Interlandi’s New York Times magazine story about an episode in her father’s debilitating bipolar disorder, and about deficiencies in the mental health system set up to help people like him. We admire the piece because it effectively uses the personal to illustrate a national crisis, and because it doesn’t flinch in the face of uncomfortable truths. Interlandi writes:

During the three months in which my father cycled through the system, he racked up five emergency room visits, four arrests, four court appearances, three trips to PESS and too many police confrontations to remember. He spent 25 (nonconsecutive) days in a psychiatric hospital and 40 in a county jail. The medical expenses alone — not including the police hours, jail time or court costs — ran upward of $250,000. These were costly months indeed — to the institutions forced to deal with him and, in more ways than one, to our family.

Interlandi alternates between her family’s history and that of a dangerously overburdened, underfunded mental health and criminal justice system. The personal narrative informs and balances out the public-sector story. You might think such a piece would be sorrowful through and through, but even in the midst of chaos Interlandi manages moments of levity, like one about Duke Ellington, and like this one, in which her father appears in court alone (his family is too afraid to join him) to defend himself:

Without his doctor or immediate family present, there was no one to describe the events leading up to his hospitalization or to explain the nature of his diagnosis. Instead, the argument hinged on a single line in a letter that my father wrote my mother from the hospital: “I will haunt you for all the rest of your life.”

“ ‘Haunt’ is a bad word?” my father asked. “It’s on the television every day.”

Interlandi does what the best explanatory-narrative writers do: lend human dimension and dramatic arc to large, complicated issues. You’ll need digital access to the Times in order to read this narrative (our links route through the log-in page), but it’s worth it. Check back tomorrow for our chat with Interlandi about this story.

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April 26 2012


Kevin Sack and the amazing kidney chain

Imagine this as a narrative:

A man’s child needs a kidney transplant. Despite successfully enlisting an organ donor, the man finds the U.S. transplant network frustrating and ineffective. To spare other families needless anxiety, he sets up an independent kidney registry (the only kind of registry in this country, since there’s no centralized database) and uses his background in quantitative mathematics and data management to build specialized software that matches “Good Samaritan” donors to potential transplant recipients.

One chain of transplants grows, person to person, across the country, to an unprecedented length. And yet if just one individual changes his mind along the way, the chain breaks and someone could die. So, buried in the man’s algorithms are the fates of potentially hundreds, even thousands, of people, given the country’s escalating diabetes rate and demand for kidneys.

That single-protagonist scenario of the man and his chain has built-in narrative potential. Does the man succeed? Does he ultimately fail? Where does the story crest? How is it resolved? Whose lives are affected? Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that the man is an ex-Marine − an ex-reconnaissance ranger − with a Wharton MBA, and that he’s “Disney-hero handsome.”

Kevin Sack might’ve taken that predictable storytelling approach with “60 Lives, 30 Kidneys, All Linked,” a New York Times story that we’ve been eager to name a Notable Narrative since it ran in mid-February. But Sack, a two-time Pulitzer winner who covers health care for the Times, decided on a more surprising protagonist: the transplant chain itself. Between the first and last surgeries we meet women and men who literally gave pieces of themselves to others, a transfer of life that started, improbably, with a confessed curmudgeon who one day simply decided he wanted to give a stranger a kidney:

What made the domino chain of 60 operations possible was the willingness of a Good Samaritan, Mr. Ruzzamenti, to give the initial kidney, expecting nothing in return. Its momentum was then fueled by a mix of selflessness and self-interest among donors who gave a kidney to a stranger after learning they could not donate to a loved one because of incompatible blood types or antibodies. Their loved ones, in turn, were offered compatible kidneys as part of the exchange.

The narrative engine in this piece is both procedural (what function or dysfunction of the country’s kidney-transplant situation contributed to this chain’s success) and personal (desperate people, literally dying for a break).

Policy narratives, like investigative narratives, often focus on paper trails and bureaucratic breakdown at the expense of human emotion. Yes, you have to document the dysfunction; yes, go ahead and FOIA your little heart out. But the narrative journalist’s other job – the equal, and equally difficult, job – is connecting that reporting to the human experience. It’s not enough to simply find a family or an anecdote that represents the subject matter and then book-end the investigation with a couple of poignant scenes. The human factor demands equal consideration and reporting time if the overall piece is to reach its greatest potential. Some explanatory-narrative writers may consider the human reporting the lesser work journalistically and therefore spend less energy on it, but as Sack’s piece shows, the human reporting is entirely the point.

Coming tomorrow: Kevin Sack talks with Storyboard about how he and his multimedia team pulled this story off.

January 19 2012


Death by salt: Texas Monthly opens a case

In our latest Notable Narrative, “Hannah and Andrew,” Pamela Colloff recounts the story of a child and his adoptive mother, who was convicted of killing him by forcing him to eat salt.

At more than 12,000 words, Colloff’s narrative – which ran in the January issue of Texas Monthly – unfolds largely as straight chronology. It reads cleanly, with each section focused on a single piece of the story. But the reader can feel thousands of pages of documents lurking in the background, leaving a psychic trail on the page even as Colloff compresses events for readers.

We find out that the boy, Andrew, would have had to eat 23 teaspoons of Zatarain’s Creole Seasoning or 6 teaspoons of table salt to hit the lethal level. We learn about the amount of water in his stomach, which has implications for what happened in the hours before he received medical attention.

But along with information that seems to exonerate Hannah, Colloff also delivers the specifics of her delay in getting Andrew to an emergency clinic. Describing the trial, she writes that “just as the prosecution could not show exactly how Hannah had forced Andrew to ingest a lethal dose of salt, neither could the defense give precise details for how the four-year-old had come to have so much sodium in his body.”

This journalistic restraint matters. Colloff shows that it is possible to create tremendous emotional engagement while giving readers enough information to interpret events for themselves.

She doesn’t seem interested in presenting a story of angels or demons, but writes on a plane where humans, often with unknowable motives, act. How do we evaluate those actions with imperfect information? Colloff suggests that the way we answer that question makes a difference. On the heels of a 2010 story that helped secure a man’s release from prison, she presents another problematic conviction, asking whether justice has really been served.

Check back tomorrow for our Q&A with Pamela Colloff about her story.

January 05 2012


The Tampa Bay Times unearths a tale of grief and justice denied

Our latest Notable Narrative, “Spectacle: the lynching of Claude Neal,” comes from Ben Montgomery of the Tampa Bay Times.

Montgomery reports that Neal, a 23-year-old African-American farmhand, was arrested in 1934 on suspicion of the rape and murder of a young white woman. Hidden from white mobs for days, he was eventually taken at gunpoint from a jailer. A lynching party was set up; invitations were issued. The governor of Florida, along with millions of others, knew of the publicly announced plans to kill Neal, but no state or federal investigators intervened in Florida. What happened afterward was horrific. No one was ever arrested or prosecuted.

The narrative sticks with the third person, and the writing is subdued and steady, as if to say, It’s okay, you can keep reading. I’ll be right here with you. The story is rooted deeply in place, and Montgomery evokes the landscape and the era in one beautifully compact paragraph.

Jackson County, Florida, 1934: Drip coffee, Purity Ice Cream, turnips, chuck roast, mustard for 15 cents a quart, 26 cents for a dozen eggs. Sun-bleached overalls, Baptists, Methodists, kerosene lamps, screen doors, mosquitoes, pine trees, knee stains, brick chimneys, K & K Grocery, and cotton, 12 cents a pound. Cotton on the roadside and cotton in the ditch and cotton in forever rows stretched across fields flat as tabletops.

While the details of the story are terrible, Montgomery keeps away from thundering indictments, letting events speak for themselves. It seems entirely possible that Neal did commit the murder that sparked the mob’s fury, but the community’s response was beyond barbaric, and the story shows how the devastation inflicted on the family continues to echo down the years.

Some of the living know who was responsible for the murder of Claude Neal, but if they were to name the killers (all dead now), what kind of hatred and judgment, they ask, would be heaped on the killers’ innocent descendants? Montgomery does not even need to point out what is implicit in the tale. If Neal’s executioners remain anonymous, his family will have to continue to bear the weight of history alone.

The ending of the story is a beginning – in the last paragraphs, the FBI arrives to investigate. No doubt there will be more to report in the coming months and years, but for now, the narrative draws literal and symbolic closure from the fact that justice has stepped in to address racism and vigilante justice, even if it has come 77 years too late.

Visit the Times’ site to see Edmund Fountain’s striking video and photos for the project. And check back tomorrow for an interview with Ben Montgomery about “Spectacle.”

December 08 2011


Elegy for an enforcer

If you’ve been on the New York Times’ website at all this week, or even the Internet, chances are you’ve seen or heard something about our latest Notable Narrative, “Punched Out: the Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer.”

The multimedia project tells the story of Derek Boogaard, a 28-year-old player found dead in his apartment by family members in May. Going beyond the well-done print piece and galleries of images, the Times has also produced a series of video interviews and – most notably – a triptych movie on Boogaard’s life.

Each installment runs about 12 minutes. The first chronicles his awkward childhood and his adolescent realization that the only way he would get to play hockey was to learn to use his fists on the ice. The second follows his unlikely entry into professional hockey and rise to popularity in the NHL. And the third traces the toll of his career: injuries and addiction that cascaded into a death spiral.

The storytelling technique is chronological and classic, following the arc of Boogaard’s life in three stand-alone sections. Boogaard isn’t romanticized – the filmmakers present him as someone who became an addict and was willing to hurt other people very badly in exchange for a lot of money. Yet there’s something glorious in watching him score a goal – a feat not commonly accomplished by an enforcer – and seeing the arena explode. This moment shows the life he really wanted, a life that might have let him stay in the league and survive. But that life was not the life he got.

The visuals are stellar in their very mundaneness: The talking-head interviews with other enforcers and Boogaard’s family. The snippets of fight after fight, with spectators cheering in the background. The footage that has already aired on television, including some scenes we may even remember having watched before. We experience Boogaard’s life in part as a sports audience watching hockey footage, but also as an audience for a video that shows the price our interest exacted. While people who have never enjoyed hockey or been to a hockey game might not feel it, for sports fans the feeling of being caught between the two roles – the pleasure in watching the game, and discomfort over the toll that our pleasure took on Boogaard – lends a gripping tension to the Times video project.

The night the final video installment posted, I exchanged messages about the project with AP photographer and multimedia producer Evan Vucci. Asked why it impressed him, he wrote,

Anytime I look at a multimedia project online I go straight into critique mode – how was it shot – how was the editing, does the story flow, etc… Three minutes into the piece I forgot all about that and was engrossed in the story. I’m a HUGE sports fan – I’ve probably photographed hundreds of hockey games, and I’ve always assumed that fighting was just part of the game. This story changed my perception of something I thought I knew really well. I had never even thought to ask these questions. That is the key to engaging a viewer and making a powerful story.

There’s a devastating moment near the end during an interview with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, where he says that in the League “we don’t allow fighting. Fighting is punished.” And he points to the preliminary nature of the research into brain damage from hockey.

The finding of brain anomalies in dead players may still be an evolving story. But the Times video makes the link between Boogaard’s profession and his death more than clear, and underlines the central nature of fighting to hockey.

The story feels epic in part because of the stature that Boogaard attained before his dramatic, premature death. But the Times doesn’t go for the exposé or easy hit. Though the video raises questions, there’s no indictment of a single family member, coach or team. The Times is thinking bigger here, looking at the future, asking questions about human suffering and how willing we are as a society to deliberately cause it.

July 14 2011


George Packer sketches a narrative argument

In our latest Notable Narrative, “Iraqis Pass the Safety Test,” The New Yorker’s George Packer draws an arc through three apparently unrelated points by doing little more than setting up and repeating quotes from as many stories: The first centers on the father who recently fell to his death over the rail of a ballpark in Texas. The second addresses the 128 people who died when a cruise boat went down on the Volga River this week. And the third relates to visas for Iraqis who have assisted the U.S. military in the war effort.

Using narrative shorthand, Packer jumps from Texas to Russia in the first two sentences of his post. What is going on? Even the quotes he later offers about these two tragedies are off-kilter or unexpected: Nolan Ryan, owner of the Texas Rangers, seems to reject the idea of doing anything in response to the death of a fan at the ballpark. In contrast, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev delivers a surprisingly direct admission that the Volga accident might have been preventable, saying that something needs to be done about Russia’s aging ships.

But Packer has tucked the heart of his post into the third story – that of the Iraqis who have helped the U.S. yet remain behind as its soldiers leave their country. Linking to a New York Times story on foot-dragging by officials in charge of getting these Iraqis into the U.S., Packer makes clear that people seen as collaborators will be targeted as soon as the soldiers leave.

He gives the problem a face by quoting a man who has gone into hiding after two years of waiting in vain for a visa, noting that before long, America will face the same issue in Afghanistan. Then, in two short sentences, he binds his narrative together:

So here is another preventable tragedy for which culpability is diffuse. But unlike the ones in Texas and Russia, the one in Iraq is ongoing.

The question at hand: What would you do if you knew that someone would die, and you could stop it? And perhaps even a little appeal to patriotism: Could America really be so heartless?

Narrative devices most often compel readers to wonder what happens next. Packer can’t deliver an answer in this story, because it isn’t over yet. But he makes clear that if we continue to do nothing, we have a pretty good idea how it will end.

May 27 2011


Esquire goes home with Philip Roth

Our latest Notable Narrative turns cliché upside down to see what will fall out of its pockets. Maybe you can’t go home again, but Esquire’s Scott Raab wants to see what happens when you try. Raab’s narrative interview takes novelist Philip Roth back to his childhood neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, which has provided the setting for so much of his fiction.

Published late last year, the interview was pegged to the release of Roth’s 31st book but resurfaced last week when he won the 2011 Man Booker International Prize in a controversial decision. Roth has always provoked strong reactions, and here Raab falls clearly on the side of the admirers, haranguing doubters and raging against the Nobel Prize committee, which has passed over Roth’s body of work year after year.

“You and I go back many years,” Raab tells Roth at one point, inserting himself into the narrative. Raab plays Boswell to Roth’s Johnson and becomes a character in a story of two men: an aging genius, successful but not universally admired, and a younger writer reflecting his subject’s eccentricities even as he works to assure his hero’s immortality.

In Roth’s hometown, the two visit the modest acknowledgements of his success: the green sign that marks the nonexistent Philip Roth Plaza, the simple plaque at his childhood home, the locals who recognize his name but not his face. It feels a little deflated and Roth-esque, but Raab captures the longing and love the author feels for the setting he has borrowed so often in his writing.

If the story seems unsettled, so does Roth, and rarely do style and matter match so well. As the two men wrestle for control over the final scene (who will get to decide how Roth’s story ends? not Roth!), Raab shows how characters are created and stories constructed, and maybe even that you can go home again, if you never really left.

May 13 2011


What’s in a name? Washingtonian renames and resurrects a story

This week’s Notable Narrative,”What If Osama Bin Laden Had Been Captured?,” recounts the interrogation of Saddam Hussein, taking readers through recent history to a more speculative present. The story, a book excerpt published in the April issue of Washingtonian magazine under the title “Cookies for Saddam,” gained a new title and an unforeseen second life as a result of the May 2 killing of Osama Bin Laden.

Washingtonian Editor Garrett Graff’s story traces the career of George Piro, the only Arabic speaker in the FBI’s Phoenix field office on September 11, spotlighting his role as Saddam Hussein’s interrogator:

At the first meeting, Piro introduced himself as “George.” Although the men would spend hundreds of hours together over the next seven months, the Iraqi dictator would never know Piro’s full name or what his position was. Piro existed only as a shadowy US government representative. “I told him that I was taking charge of his situation. We were going to be spending a lot of time together,” Piro recalls. “He said he knew what I was there for. Every part of him said he shouldn’t talk to me, but he couldn’t help it.”

As soon as Piro began to speak, Saddam knew the agent was Lebanese and Christian—a good background for the interrogation: Lebanese in the Middle East are generally neutral, and being a Christian meant that Piro didn’t have a bone in Iraq’s intense Sunni/Shiite Muslim rivalry. Saddam tried to be helpful by speaking Arabic with a Lebanese accent, even as, month after month, Piro’s Arabic acquired an Iraqi inflection.

The ghost in the piece is the dead Bin Laden. He flits briefly through the story when Piro asks Hussein about his links with Al Qaeda. But below the surface layer of the interviews lurks depth charge after depth charge, reminders of how mistaken our conclusions were before the second Gulf War. Saddam had not trusted Bin Laden. There were no weapons of mass destruction.

Via the hundreds of pages of recently declassified interview notes and Piro’s comments on the process, a different sense of Hussein emerges. While not exactly summoning sympathy for the former Iraqi leader, Graff’s story humanizes him. “You don’t expect,” says Piro, “to have someone like Saddam be, for lack of a better term, normal.” Osama Bin Laden is unlikely to ever appear that way to the American public, yet his death cuts off access to a potential gold mine of information. What things might we be wrong about now? What is it that will we never know? The simple re-titling of a piece creates a complete shadow narrative beneath an already interesting story.

Image of Saddam Hussein: AP/Nikola Solic, pool (detail)

April 28 2011


Going small: the fragile world of a single constituent

Our latest Notable Narrative is a story from The Washington Post about Clarence Cammers, a Wisconsin man who asks a question at a town hall meeting with his congressman.

So many of the narratives we choose focus on high drama: violence, natural disasters, illness or financial ruin. Here, the Post’s Eli Saslow offers a different kind of tension. Cammers is a lifelong Republican who is not sure that his congressman – also a Republican – is fighting the right battle in the budget wars. After four decades of working, he is now on disability for a knee injury and must painstakingly calculate the smallest of expenses each month.

His Social Security payments have not included a cost-of-living increase in the past two years, even as life has become more expensive. Elkhorn electric bills are up 30 percent over last year. The assessed value of his home has dropped 14 percent. Gas is $4 a gallon, groceries cost $110 each week instead of $80, and the town is charging an extra $2.50 a week to haul away his trash. So Clarence clips coupons, cuts back on dinners at Chili’s, drives less and spends more time at the desk in his basement, managing the budget.

Melina Mara/The Washington Post

Cammers manages to live within his means and has little tolerance for deficit spending on a national level. But his 32-year-old son Tim’s severe attention deficit disorder and apparent inability to be independent worry him. He puzzles over what he sees as the options: ever-expanding debt and taxes or cutbacks to any kind of a safety net for his son?

Saslow has not written a policy piece. Instead, he brings forward one constituent without trying to make him represent the entire country. It is the vividness of these people and their dialogue that makes them lovely and sad: the father forced onto disability after four decades of work, the son, who does not come across as an entirely sympathetic character yet seems incapable of living on his own. With this portrait of quiet anxiety, Saslow shows how what we know about people from the outside fails to represent even the smallest part of their full lives, and in bringing a father and son to life, he sidesteps entrenched ways of talking about the budget and gets to the heart of pondering what kind of country we want to be.

March 30 2011


Mark Boal profiles “The Kill Team”

Our latest Notable Narrative, “The Kill Team,” recounts a series of killings in Afghanistan by American soldiers, one of whom recently pleaded guilty to three counts of murder.

Rolling Stone has made an extensive commitment to investigating the conflict in Afghanistan, and Mark Boal upholds that commitment with riveting storytelling. Many of the facts of this story have been reported before, but Boal brings those facts together by vividly recreating the setting in which they occurred. He marches through a staccato series of scenes, and presents convincing evidence that what the “Kill Team” was doing was not secret at all – suggesting that many in the platoon knew what was going on, but no one cared enough to stop the killing. The story reveals the trust and compliance of those killed, the rage of their communities in the wake of the deaths, and the disturbing lack of response from people who might have intervened.

Early on, one soldier describes Army Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs cutting a pinky finger from a dead 15-year-old boy, whom another soldier claimed was randomly chosen for execution. “He wanted to keep the finger forever and wanted to dry it out,” a friend says. Boal returns again and again to Gibbs’ collection of severed fingers, casting the stolen body parts as trophies to be shown to other servicemen or kept as a mementos. The fingers eventually provide the evidence that triggers a full investigation and charges against five soldiers. They work to unify the story, serving as a symbol of the soldiers’ arrogance – and also the mechanism of the Kill Team’s undoing. (Gibbs, whose trial will start next week, has maintained that the killings were all “legitimate combat engagements.”)

The events Boal reconstructs are agonizing to read about, their descriptions clinical yet somehow intimate:

To identify the body, the soldiers fetched the village elder who had been speaking to the officers that morning. But by tragic coincidence, the elder turned out to be the father of the slain boy. His moment of grief-stricken recognition, when he saw his son lying in a pool of blood, was later recounted in the flat prose of an official Army report. “The father was very upset,” the report noted.

A surprisingly large cast of characters – nearly a dozen – enter the story. And if readers do not come to understand each soldier in depth, they nonetheless get a clear impression that knowledge of the killings was widespread. In some ways, the platoon itself becomes the central character of Boal’s tale.

Good narrative moves in close while offering subtext that speaks to something beyond the bounds of the story. Those who lost their lives to the “Kill Team,” of course, are beyond the consolations of justice. But for Afghan civilians, and for Americans back home, Rolling Stone has once again asked what price is being paid for the war, and what exactly is being accomplished.

February 24 2011


The People V. Football: the case for the prosecution

In our latest Notable Narrative, “The People V. Football,” Jeanne Marie Laskas follows former NFL linebacker Fred McNeill into the abyss of his ruined life. Touching intermittently on the larger conversation about brain-damaged players and their short-circuited lives, Laskas returns relentlessly to what existence is like for the injured McNeill.

Laskas brings together two classic narrative strategies to impressive effect: she tackles big issues though attention to tiny details and tells her story largely through dialogue. The story opens and closes with extended conversations between McNeill and his wife, Tia, who left him in 2007 but still coordinates much of his care. In between, we get comments from an online message board, a discussion between commentators on “Monday Night Football,” and interactions between Fred and those who document his diminishing mental capacity.

The dialogues with McNeill are doubly useful. As with any story, they reveal his character and let us see him engage with others. In this case, they also allow us to watch his mind sliding down the slope from intellectual prowess – he was an accomplished lawyer who graduated at the top of his class at law school – to utter dementia. Even in his current state, occasional lucidity allows him to carefully outline the challenge facing the NFL.

Laskas’ most striking accomplishment here is a subtlety with humor that scores big. She will not let the reader off with pity alone but deepens the connection by going for ironic and rueful moments that humanize everyone involved. McNeill’s wife is grateful that he has a girlfriend who takes him to karaoke during the week, relieved that someone else is also looking out for him. The end of the story provides a particularly comic moment between Tia and her husband, one that turns heartbreaking as it foreshadows what will happen in the long run. If “The People V. Football,” is an indictment, Fred McNeill is Exhibit A for the prosecution.

Scanned image courtesy GQ; photograph by Robert Maxwell.

February 11 2011


Political footnote or comeback kid? Robert Sanchez goes for a ride with Tom Tancredo

In “Down But Not Out,” our latest Notable Narrative, writer Robert Sanchez checks in with Tom Tancredo, who was a candidate for governor of Colorado just a few short months ago. Made famous by his statements about bombing Muslim holy sites and references to Miami as a Third World country, Tancredo had an outsize presence in pre-election coverage nationwide.

Appearing in the February 2011 issue of 5280 magazine, the story opens with a sentence that pulls readers in so close they nestle in Tancredo’s pocket:

Tom Tancredo is blazing east across a cold, empty stretch of blacktop near the Colorado-Nebraska border with two shotguns in the back of his wife’s Toyota minivan, a handful of cigars hidden in a coat pocket, and the radio tuned to a conservative talk show.

Sanchez delivers his tale in the style of Gay Talese, who excels at focusing on competitors in defeat. Yet even the first scene, in which Tancredo is stopped by a sheriff’s deputy for speeding, sends an early signal to readers that we should not count Tancredo out too soon.

Mental illness, issues about military service, Tancredo’s involvement in addressing the Sudanese crisis, and unlikely reflections on his life from those who know him pop like firecrackers across the narrative landscape. Yet what makes Sanchez’s story is the hunting trip ride-along that bookends the piece. At one point, Sanchez rifles through the detritus of Tancredo’s glove compartment in search of car registration and insurance documents to give to police. And after the former Congressman has successfully bagged a handful of pheasants, Sanchez rides home in the back seat with his subject – the better to watch him close up – and realizes that Tancredo still has his sights set on bigger things.

January 27 2011


Death and football: reconstructing the last days of Max Gilpin

In our latest Notable Narrative, “The Boy Who Died of Football,” Sports Illustrated senior writer Thomas Lake takes on the collapse of high school football player Max Gilpin during team practice in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2008. Gilpin’s subsequent death loads the story with power, and Lake labors under a kind of accountability to the dead, as well as an obligation to be fair to the coach who may or may not be responsible.

Along with family members and community officials, the narrative has a shadow cast of characters in the form of thousands of kids nationwide who will be playing football next fall and each fall after that. Could what happened to Max Gilpin happen to them?

Lake juggles elements of news you can use, the drama of the court case and a tremendous amount of reporting, folding it all into a chronology which moves back and forth between that last practice and later testimony. Writing about those who watched Max suffer, Lake directly addresses the challenge of constructing any kind of narrative at all:

The events of the next 50 minutes are a case study in the limits of eyewitness testimony. No video footage surfaced in the police investigation, and the roughly 140 spectators told stories that ranged from the plausible to the mathematically impossible. They couldn’t even agree on whether Stinson was wearing a whistle that day. Nevertheless, a parade of witnesses said they heard the coach say one thing that set the tone for the gassers. It seems strange that Stinson still denies saying it to the runners, because it wasn’t just soccer parents who said they heard it. It wasn’t just assistant coaches and disgruntled players. In the opening statement at Stinson’s trial for the reckless homicide of Max Gilpin, the coach’s own defense attorney acknowledged, “Jason said it.”

Lake brings all the information he can unearth to bear in an effort to understand what those last days were like for Max. The final section juxtaposes the best and the worst: a first kiss and a death scene. In combining them, Lake closes with events so universal their meaning seems clear – as if it might be possible to tell a story not by lining up the facts but by understanding one true thing.

January 05 2011


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

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

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

Photo: Gary Porter/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except Nicholas.

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

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

December 20 2010


Telling their story, twins turn horror into hope for a different life

In our latest Notable Narrative, “Promise Not To Tell,” we meet Kellie and Kathie Henderson, two girls raped day after day by their brother, and later their father, for nearly a decade. Their abusers jailed, they are now trying to find a way to live the rest of their lives.

While narratives about family tragedy are legion, Roy Wenzl’s project in The Wichita Eagle differentiates itself in two ways. The first is that the story moves from recounting victimization to providing some sense of empowerment. It is the twin girls themselves, now 19, who take the lead in telling their stories. They are far from healed – such a word seems insufficient to describe whatever it is they will need to do in the long run. However, their willingness to talk – with the goal of helping others who are currently suffering – shows a kind of sufficiency, a possible future, that makes Wenzl’s story, if not redemptive, at least a vehicle for hope.

Kellie and Kathie Henderson in November 2010 (Photo: Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle)

The story’s other strength lies in its restraint. Though Wenzl doesn’t flinch from the facts at hand, he skips the word incest. He avoids the kind of graphic description he worried might make readers put the paper down.

Yet he finds telling details other places. One twin remembers her head hitting each step as she was dragged to the basement bedroom of her older brother. The scene in which the girls are rescued is agonizing, as the twins deny their abuse to investigators again and again, until their mother steps in. And even though we have already been told the mother knew, seeing her feign ignorance and then retrieve some vestige of her responsibility at the crucial moment is a triumph for the scene and a small blow for humanity in the midst of so much monstrosity.

When Storyboard spoke with Wenzl last week, the project was nearing 600,000 hits, with many responses sent directly to the girls and hundreds of comments posted on the site. The Wichita Eagle, whose multimedia project on a local priest we highlighted previously, once again makes use of video and photos. Such images make the story both more powerful and more mundane, in a good way, as if to remind readers that if it could happen to these girls, it could happen anywhere, to anyone.

December 08 2010


Somewhere over the rainbow: the past and future of Niagara Falls

AP Photo/McElroy Sil

A tourist attraction falls into decline. Grand urban renewal schemes fail to deliver. Residents talk about mafia infiltration, corruption and random arson.

What might sound like a lost Raymond Chandler novel is actually our latest Notable Narrative, “The Fall of Niagara Falls,” which ran last week in Bloomberg Businessweek. Andrew Rice takes a story that could have been as dry as the desert – think yet another American city that has lost its manufacturing base, its downtown, and much of its hope for the future – and he makes things pop.

Here’s the lede:

On a misty night in late October, a stringy-haired newspaperman bellied up to the bar at Frankie G’s, a musty dive in Niagara Falls, the decrepit city in western New York State that sits atop one of the natural wonders of the world. The editor, Mike Hudson, slapped down some cash and ordered a round of Labatt’s for the house, which consisted of five people, including the proprietor. Hudson, the founder of the weekly tabloid Niagara Falls Reporter, freely refers to his town as “a godforsaken place,” and it was hard to argue with the assessment in the neighborhood surrounding the bar. The area is the worst the city has to offer, a place of drugs and crime and boarded-up brick houses.

Hudson knocked back a shot of Sambuca and rummaged around for his cigarettes, shouting epithets and contributing jokes to a running discussion on local politics. “It’s been all downhill in this town since 1969,” said one of the other patrons, a ruddy-faced man who had his first name, Fred, sewn onto his windbreaker. “Ever since they knocked down the whole goddam downtown,” muttered the bartender, Frankie G. (short for Giaquinto).

Rice adds tension to his story early, contrasting the town’s distress with the thriving Canadian side of the falls. While it’s his lede and stellar kicker that most impress, in the middle, Rice moves from the past to the present, using a tour of the town and then an actual group of tourists to give himself a narrative scaffolding to draw readers through the piece.

The article doesn’t lay blame at any single person’s feet, but brings in a series of characters from the town to chronicle its missteps. As we hear about the Manhattan lawyer, the many mayors and the developers, we drop deeper into the hole in which Niagara Falls finds itself today. And if the blight starts to feel endemic or somehow inevitable, there’s always the city on the other side of the falls that shows it didn’t have to be this way.

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