Rebecca Woolington: The obituary ran six days after the death of Madaline Christine Pitkin. It recalled the sunny early October evening she was born. It told stories from her childhood, the time she wanted to jump rope like the older girls, the way she loved all animals except spiders.
It said she spent her time taking black-and-white photographs. It described her as spunky, candid, independent.
It didn’t say how or where she died — only that she “passed away unexpectedly.”
Her parents didn’t know much more then.
On the afternoon of April 24, 2014, a chaplain and deputy had come to the door of the family’s tan-and-brick bungalow in North Portland’s Overlook neighborhood. Mary Pitkin was alone, cleaning in the dining room. Russell Pitkin was at work, so the deputy met him at his office, told him the news, then drove him home.
The Pitkins’ 26-year-old daughter had dropped dead inside a jail cell earlier that day. No one could revive her.
The parents remember thinking: There had to be a mistake. How could this happen?
NiemanStoryboard launched an eight-week project showcasing the work of Michael Brick, which is collected in Everybody Leaves Behind a Name: True Stories. Here’s a Q and A about the book. And here’s the first story, with an essay from Wright:
The story of Mr. Todd Fatjo’s departure from his truly dope duplex loft is one of those rare pieces that manages to capture a subculture in a moment of transition, and were that all the story did, it would be a success. Most people wouldn’t have seen a flier and understood that modern anthropology begins, and often ends, with noticing something hiding in plain sight. In this recognition, and the mental hop-scotch from there to the wide angle lens, Michael Brick shows his reporting virtuosity. But there’s something else, a subversive undercurrent laced beneath the story, managing to both be a newspaper trend piece while also subtly poking fun at the entire conceit. The voice and language is confident, and reading it always makes me picture a young man, running flat out and roaring, in complete control. Even the use of the New York Times’ honorific isn’t perfunctory; he turns a stodgy rule of style into another weapon in his arsenal. There’s a line by singer-songwriter Jason Isbell that comes to mind when I get to the last sentence about building the city on rock n roll: “A vandal’s smile,” Isbell sings, and that’s what I imagine on Brick’s face when he finished typing this dispatch. He’d completely captured a world, avoiding the tropes so common with similar trend stories, and while evoking hipster Brooklyn and Mr. Fatjo’s transition from a DJ to “some guy with a job,” he’d left behind a finger in the eye of those who’d sling cartoons and clichés. He wrote a flawless story, while managing to spray-paint his name on the worst impulses of journalists, doing both at the same time. It is nearly perfect.
Interesting findings in this new study by Tim Rosenstiel for the Brookings Institute, who says the path toward sustainable journalism is being undermined by terrible data (thanks, John):
Major enterprise pays – The single biggest change publishers can make is to produce more major enterprise journalism. Major enterprise stories scored 48 percent better than others in a measure of overall engagement. However, just one percent of all content produced is classified as such.
People like long stories – The conventional wisdom that writing for the web needs to be short and fast simply is not true. “Long form” stories, those averaging 1,200 words, drove 23 percent more engagement and lifted other metrics such as page views (up 11 percent), sharing (by 45 percent), and reading time (by 36 percent).
The power of photos, audio, and video – Stories presented with a photo scored 19 percent higher in engagement than stories without photos. Stories with multiple photos scored 43 percent higher.
Crime as a staple of local reporting – Across the data set, crime ranked with food and dining as the topics audiences engaged with most. But in a digital world, what works best is somewhat different than it may have been previously. For instance, crime briefs—the classic police blotter of small incidents—do not perform well online.
John Ferro (thanks, Oliver): HIGHLAND – The small, frail man with an Italian passport would arrive unannounced, trundling a small suitcase behind him.
Like a wispy Willy Loman, but with nothing to sell, Anthony Monaco would appear from time to time at one of the motels along Route 299 in New Paltz or Route 9W in Highland.
He had no family there. No desire to go sightseeing. He talked at length with almost no one.
But he was known to local police, mostly because of his erratic behavior — eruptions of rage that would get him tossed from one motel to another, but almost never charged with a crime.
When his suitcase was found along the shoulder of Route 9W, Town of Lloyd police issued a missing persons report. They found his body days later, on Sept. 30, 2015, washed up in the Twaalfskill Creek.
Dan Barry: YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Numbered balls of chance rattle and rise two nights a week down at the cavernous community hall of Sts. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church. It’s called a good bingo when your number comes up.
But that last Saturday before Christmas offered no good bingos. The night was reserved for a boxing event billed as Season’s Beatings, which had prompted a newspaper deliveryman named Anthony Taylor to pull up in his clattering Dodge Caravan. Twenty-four years old, 5 feet tall, 115 pounds, about to turn pro.
A fist of nerves, he walked down the glazed-tile stairwell to the finished basement, a space used for church dances and wedding banquets, but now an open locker room. Chandeliers glittered above the fighters trying to warm up and calm down, while the crowds upstairs cheered on the amateurs, including a sleepy-eyed 11-year-old who would knock out his grade-school opponent.
Weston Phippen: Yevgeny Safronov and the four tourists landed in Los Angeles on a 70-degree dream of a day last May. They were Czechs, Slovaks, and Russians, here on vacation. It was a holiday, so the banks and much of government had closed, but not all of it. For at least six months investigators in federal agencies that watch the nation’s wild lands, its fauna and flora, had also kept eyes on these five foreigners, who would soon drive into the desert, where undercover agents would be waiting. The flight from Moscow had lasted 12 hours. Safronov and the others left their seats, then applied for entry into the U.S.
The investigation began when an agent in Denver found a European website advertising a trip. Written in Slovak, the blog post read: “Already this summer, I began to have ‘cold turkey’––I have not been in the U.S. since last June.” The post was written by the trip’s organizer and the site’s host, Igor Drab, who had planned a camping tour of state and national parks across the American Southwest, starting and ending in Los Angeles. “If anyone among you is interested to join,” Drab wrote, “you must do so as soon as possible.” The investigator alerted Fish & Wildlife Service in El Paso, Texas, and from there the Bureau of Land Management, Customs and Border Protection, even the crisp-brimmed rangers of the National Park Service.
Alex Tizon: They found what was left of him in the spring of 2014. Firefighters battling a huge blaze on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula first spotted a boot in the dirt. Then they noticed some bones scattered across a wide grassy area. Fire crews in Alaska are used to seeing the bones of moose, caribou, bears, and other large creatures that live and die in these woods. So it wasn’t until crew members found a human skull that they stopped to consider that the pieces might go together. The skull was resting on its side, the face angled toward the ground. A few blackened molars clung to the upper jaw. The lower jaw was missing.
The Alaska State Troopers arrived by helicopter and salvaged what they could. “The bones were close to being ash,” Lieutenant Kat Shuey later recalled. “They weren’t quite to the point where if you touched them they would disintegrate, but close.”
The remains were spread across an area about 60 yards in diameter, presumably the work of scavenging animals. Also found at the site were three hunting knives, two quarters, two metal buttons, a zipper, and part of a Samsung mobile phone. All of the items were charred to varying degrees, like most everything else in the path of the Funny River Fire, which burned nearly 200,000 acres in the western lowlands of the Kenai Peninsula, a remote corner of this remote part of the world, a place one local described as “the middle of the middle of nowhere.”
Tommy T (thanks, Oliver): The business I love has put a lot of good people on the street and left behind a lot of empty buildings. I love it anyway, and so do the people who came by the paper Thursday, not so much to say goodbye to the old building but to say hello again to one another. I did most of the best work of my life with those people, and had most of the good times I’ll ever have, and met the woman I married. Newspapers can break your heart. But I’ll let it be broken every time for what I got out of the deal.
We’ve been talking about Michael Brick’s craftsmanship here for years. Here’s your chance to own a remarkable collection of his stories in book form, including several I guarantee you’ve never read. This anthology, which debuted at number 1 in essays on Amazon, also features essays on craft from Dan Barry, Andy Newman, Michael Kruse, Thomas Lake, Tony Rehagen, Wright Thompson, Justin Heckert, Chris Jones, Erin Sullivan, Mike Wilson, Michael Wilson, Charles McNair, Tommy Tomlinson, Amy Wallace, Michael J. Mooney, Joe Sexton, Michael Paterniti, Charles P. Pierce, Kurt Eichenwald, Tom Junod, John Schwartz, Lena Price and me. Proceeds go to Brick’s wife and children.
Randy R. Potts: I waited in my car for 20 minutes. No last name, precise instructions: “Meet me at the truck stop at the corner of 259 and 144 and I’ll take you on from there. You should write it down because you won’t have cell service.” I found a truck stop but there wasn’t a sign for Highway 144; a man pulled up in a black pickup with a Pomeranian in his lap; you could see the Choctaw in the man’s kind face. I climbed into his passenger seat and he drove the rest of the way, talking, laughing like a school kid, like a 53-year-old man, like a grown man who’d never told any of these adult stories to anyone. “Few years ago, well, I was blowin’ this guy and I felt like I’d been kicked in the back of the head. Well, I had to stop, of course, and I looked at the feller and I said, ‘Something’s wrong, I dunno what, but you’ve got to take me to the hospital.’ So we go to the emergency room and finally I go up to the counter and I say ‘Ma’am, I need somebody to see me quick, I think I had a stroke.’ Well, they jumped up and they was lookin’ at me soon after, said there was a blood clot ’cause I’d had an aneurysm. So that was what happened the first time I ever give head.”