Making Sure They’re Not Forgotten

Mark Johnson writes: You’ve probably come across Dexter Filkins’ story in today’s Times. It’s a good example of storytelling in a war zone in the tradition of Ernie Pyle and others. One feature of this story seems quite remarkable for The Times. The story doesn’t introduce a nut graph until the ninth paragraph. Writers and especially editors rarely show that kind of patience. I doubt many readers will feel they needed to get the nut graph sooner.

Here’s the top:

A soldier was dead, and it was time for him to go home.

The doors to the little morgue swung open, and six soldiers stepped outside carrying a long black bag zippered at the top.

About 60 soldiers were waiting to say goodbye. They had gathered in the sand outside this morgue at Camp Ramadi, an Army base in Anbar Province, now the most lethal of Iraqi places.

Inside the bag was Sgt. Terry Michael Lisk, 26, of Zion, Ill., killed a few hours before.

In the darkness, the bag was barely visible. A line of blue chemical lights marked the way to the landing strip not far away.

Everyone saluted, even the wounded man on a stretcher. No one said a word.

Sergeant Lisk had been standing near an intersection in downtown Ramadi on Monday morning when a 120-millimeter mortar shell, fired by guerrillas, landed about 30 paces away. The exploding shell flung a chunk of steel into the right side of his chest just beneath his arm. He stopped breathing and died a few minutes later.

The pallbearers lifted Sergeant Lisk into the back of an ambulance, a truck marked by a large red cross, and fell in with the others walking silently behind it as it crept through the sand toward the landing zone. The blue lights showed the way.

From a distance came the sound of a helicopter.

Death comes often to the soldiers and marines who are fighting in Anbar Province, which is roughly the size of Louisiana and is the most intractable region in Iraq. Almost every day, an American soldier is killed somewhere in Anbar — in Ramadi, in Haditha, in Falluja, by a sniper, by a roadside bomb, or as with Sergeant Lisk, by a mortar shell. In the first 27 days of June, 27 soldiers and marines were killed here. In small ways, the military tries to ensure that individual soldiers like Sergeant Lisk are not forgotten in the plenitude of death.

The Journalism Theology Of Lieutenant Colombo

So David Barstow suggests that standard investigative journalism — which tends to include the “a (fill in the blank) investigation shows … bullet, bullet, bullet” nutgraph and three parts: overview, blown-up anecdotes and solutions — tends to feel like homework.

You know you should read it, but you don’t really want to. Some display good journalism, but they often fail to connect with readers. When readers see the lede and open to the body, graphics and two sidebars, they think it’s time to eat broccoli.

Narratives are not just for trials and horrible illnesses, he said. Working narrative elements into investigative stories can make them fantastic stories. Check out this top on A Trench Caves In; A Young Worker Dies. Is It A Crime?:

As the autopsy confirmed, death did not come right away for Patrick M. Walters. On June 14, 2002, while working on a sewer pipe in a trench 10 feet deep, he was buried alive under a rush of collapsing muck and mud. A husky plumber’s apprentice, barely 22 years old, Mr. Walters clawed for the surface. Sludge filled his throat. Thousands of pounds of dirt pressed on his chest, squeezing and squeezing until he could not draw another breath.

His mother, Michelle Marts, was the first in his family to hear.

“You just stand there like you’re suspended in blank space,” she said of that moment. She remembers being enveloped by a paralyzing numbness. He was her only child. She could not hear or breathe or move. Was this, she found herself wondering, what Patrick felt?

She called Patrick’s father, her ex-husband, Jeff. “It literally knocked me off my feet,” he said. “I lay there, right there on the floor, screaming and crying.”

Mrs. Marts next called Patrick’s wife, Crystal. “I remember running upstairs and just hugging my kid and thinking, `How am I going to tell her,’ ” Ms. Walters said.

Soon after, an investigator from the coroner’s office called Mrs. Marts. He could not have been nicer. Such a tragedy, he said. But by then, the first insistent questions had begun to form. Her son had often spoken about his fear of being buried alive. He had described being sent into deep trenches without safety equipment, like the large metal boxes placed in excavations to create a sheltered workspace.

“Was there a trench box?” she asked the investigator. He paused, she recalled. “He says, `Ma’am, no safety procedures were followed. None.’

“He was just so disgusted.”

(…)

There are problems with marrying narrative and investigations, though, he said. First, most great narratives involve a willing subject, someone who opens their lives for the journalist to bear witness. This is seldom the case with investigations. Second, most major ivestigations these days have some sort of database involved. Databases and narratives are not friends.

To achieve the goal, he said, we should look to Lieutenant Colombo.

Here’s what he means.

Colombo approaches a case with a childlike curiosity. When he goes in, even if he’s investigating politicians or celebrities, he is comfortable in who he is, a frumpy detective in a trenchcoat. He is never seduced by proximity to power or importantce, which gives him a moral authority to investigate. It gives him the ability to be completely comfortable asking the questions. This allows him to sort of bobble around collecting complexity until he finds a string to follow in the investigations. One of the biggest traps for investigative reporters, Barstow said, is becoming wedded to your hypothesis. Some reporters tend to put blinders on and never allow gray into their stories. Colombo, from the beginning, is gathering gray.

What’s also great about Colombo, he said, and this is important, is that Colombo in the beginning is underestimated. He plays the bumbling idiot and no one thinks he has the gumption to put the pieces together. But by the end of the show, Colombo is overestimated. People think he knows more than he knows. He’s constantly bluffing to get information.

It is for that reason that Barstow recommends talking to subjects early in the investigation. A lot of reporters start investigations by spending tons of time collecting information and documents, then, at the end, they approach the subjects. Barstow says he tries to go to subjects early to tell them up front what he is working on, who he plans on talking to, what types of questions he’s wrestling with. It provides a moral high ground that he doesn’t want to sacrifice. If we’re sneaking around in our reporting, it just doesn’t feel right, even if it’s ethically defendable.

Engaging early has a cost, obviously. The walls go up. They send letters from their lawyers. Everybody in the company is notified and told to direct your questions to the PR department. But this method has benefits. It alerts all the employees that you’re working on the story, so it can generate tips for you from those who wish to speak. It also establishes an early dialogue with the bosses, or their lawyers. Their defense could prove useful down the road as you learn more.

When Barstow was reporting on OSHA, he found all the agency email addresses and sent a mass email noting who he was, what he was working on, and the questions he wanted to ask. Next day, OSHA goes crazy and orders its employees not to talk, which prompts a small cadre to do just that.

The method shifts the rules of engagement, and you’re sending a message: Resistance is futile. “I’m trying to get to a point in my investigative reporting where they believe that,” he said. I want information, he said, but I also want to send a message to the company: you’re not in control anymore.

And the reporter, like Colombo, moves from underestimated to overestimated. The company or agency begins to think you know more than you really may know.

To make up for the lack of access, one must make the most of interview opportunities. When it’s time to leave, don’t. Think about the scene in All The President’s Men when Bernstein won’t leave that woman’s house. Drag out interviews as long as possible. Like Colombo, always look for the half-smoked cigarette.

Avoid anecdotal leads that only work because they have been trimmed so much. “What I’m trying for is an anecdote on steroids,” he said. In order to get that, though, you have to earn it. Narrative writing takes narrative reporting.

In the end, “it allows you, hopefully, if you do it right, to connect with readers in the heart and head and gut so you can carry them through to the end.”

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Thinking Through The Greeley Stampede

I got this email from Doyle Murphy: “I’ve pitched a project idea, and I hoping Gangrey readers can offer some advice. We have a giant rodeo called the Greeley Stampede that lasts for two weeks.

It has concerts, a carnival, and a host of other events. Every year the paper does the same stories, so after sitting through a meeting about this year’s reruns I decided to pitch a series modeled after Brady Dennis’s “300 Words”.

I’m going to be feature hunting with a photographer at the Stampede every day. I have a couple ideas but no set stories. The pitch was today. The series starts Tuesday. I’d love to hear ideas about how to make this work well. Can Gangrey help?”

Anyone?

How Soft Is Too Soft?

I have a friend and colleague who often comments on my stories. Usually he says nice things. But today he had criticism.

It started with a question.

“When is a news story to be written as a straightforward news story,” he asked, “and when should a news story be turned into a news feature? Is there a threshold?”

I wish I knew the answer to this, and I told him so. Then I realized he was talking about this story:

Just after 1 p.m., on the last day of spring, a white sun glared over Janice Cook’s pool. Swimming conditions neared perfection. But the children stayed inside, and the water looked like blue glass.

Cook had mortgaged her house to pay for this pool. Now she could not look at it. She wanted to tear it apart and haul it away. She wanted Raiden back.

He was her grandson, 2 years old, blond hair, green eyes, heart-shaped birthmark on his hip. He was found in the pool on Monday afternoon, floating face down.

(…)

This is what my friend said about it:

“Today’s lede bothered me. If a child drowned in a pool, I wanna know that pretty soon. Tell how the grandmother can’t stand to look at the pool in the eighth graf.”

Now I bring this question to the Gangrey jury, because I think it gets to the heart of the tension between story and information, to the heart of why newspapers are here.

Specifically: Was this the right lede for a story about a child’s drowning? Why or why not? How could/should it have been different?

Generally: How earth-shattering must a story be to force narrative-happy writers like ourselves into a straight lede? Do we use them too often? Not often enough?

Can the arc and the pyramid love each other?

Simple solution

My man Charles Fishman passed this along (and even if you don’t much cotton to business journalism, his bestseller The Wal-Mart Effect is a virtuoso example of explanatory narrative and Fast Company is a treat to read every month).

20 June, the last day of spring 2006

Tuesday

Well, gang, here’s a great answer to the question: How can newspapers fix what’s wrong? You gotta love Ben Bradlee:

Bradlee knows what to do about falling newspaper circ

One exchange:

LEHRER: Do you think that the newspapers, faced with this decline in circulation, should reexamine what they’re doing?

BRADLEE: They’re examining, reexamining it. Boy, that’s topic A. Every, every paper you go to, they’ve just had a meeting and they’re discussing what to do about falling circulation. And there’s one word is the answer.

LEHRER: What is it?

BRADLEE: Stories.

LEHRER: Stories?

BRADLEE: Good stories.

LEHRER: So, when you say stories, what stories are they not doing, kinds of stories that they’re not doing?

BRADLEE: Well, I mean, they’re just well written stories, some story that makes you, you know, say I’ll be damned, that’s a good story.

(endit)

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The End Is Near

Read her story: There are a lot of really crummy ways we could all die, including nuclear annihilation or a flu pandemic.

And then, of course, there’s the possibility that we’ll be attacked by aliens. Or that robots might become smarter than humans and put us in zoos.

The Sci Fi Channel sponsored a discussion on Capitol Hill yesterday speculating on 10 exceedingly lousy ways our species might meet its end. It was part of an elaborate promotion for a television special called “Countdown to Doomsday,” which airs tonight at 9.

Amazingly, the channel managed to lure two congressmen and some serious experts to essentially shill for the show by talking about the various paths toward mass extinction.

Mayhem in Miami

Read his column: Smiling and hugging and screaming and dancing and blowing kisses and raising index fingers and pounding on their hearts and high-fiving and laughing and raising their arms in triumph, the best basketball team South Florida has ever seen held up the golden trophy at midnight here Tuesday night.

Mountain, climbed.

Basketball, conquered.

History, recorded.

Miami 95, Dallas 92.

And another: There is a mixture of angry defiance and unreasonable pride at the peak of the competition mountain. Up there, at the height of sports, you get your joy not from merely winning but by proving, overcoming, defying, silencing. It is why Glen Rice, Tim Hardaway and Steve Smith — some of the best basketball players in Miami Heat history — agree with golden child Dwyane Wade on this truth: It is more rewarding and fun and exhilarating to shut up a hostile arena than it is to lift one that is already on your side.

Quiet.