Gangrey In Fort Lauderdale

At these “writers’” conferences it’s almost always all about the reporting. This is important.

Today at the National Writers’ Workshop here in hot, breezy South Florida, it came up a good bit.

Mirta Ojito, formerly of the Miami Herald, formerly of the New York Times, currently teaching at Columbia, gave the morning keynote on using “I” to tell stories. She said it was not only as important but MORE important to report the hell out off personal narratives, memoirs, things like that, because people are going to doubt those sorts of stories.

“I reported my own experiences,” she said.

She didn’t just say it was hot coming over from Cuba. She didn’t just say the waves were high and scary. She checked the Herald way-back microfiche for the weather that day.

Ken Wells from the Wall Street Journal dropped a word I’d never heard. A good one. He calls writing without reporting “flash dancing.”

“It’s the reporting, stupid,” he said. Then: “The penalty for flash-dancing at the Wall Street Journal is death.” You get fired.

Saving Papers

From USA Today: Newspapers grappling with declining circulation and profit margins can turn themselves around if they quickly develop publications and affiliated websites packed with local information, according to an eagerly awaited industry report Wednesday.

“The land rush to meet local information needs has barely begun,” says Newspaper Next: The Transformation Project, based on a study of business models and practices sponsored by the American Press Institute.

For example, the report says that newspapers might assemble databases about parks, medical facilities and restaurants, information about schools, consumer-supplied ratings for restaurants, mechanics and contractors, as well as chat groups for parents and shoppers.

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Three For Thursday

Jeffrey Gettleman in Mogadishu: They call her the “Black Hawk Down” lady.

And in the corner of her dirt yard, beneath rags drying in the sun and next to a bowl of filthy wash water, she keeps a chunk of history that most Americans would probably like to forget.

It is the battered nose of a Black Hawk helicopter, from one of the two that got shot down in Mogadishu on Oct. 3, 1993, in an infamous battle that killed 18 Americans, led to a major foreign policy shift and spawned a big movie.

The Black Hawk Down lady stands fiercely at her gate and charges admission to see it.

“You, you, you,” she said on a recent day, jabbing her finger at three visitors. “Pay, pay, pay.”

David Montgomery watches Barack Obama: It’s one thing for Ben Cardin to joke about his charisma deficit. “Who says I’m not flashy?” he quips in a campaign commercial when a supporter suggests: “Ben’s not flashy, but he never stops.”

It’s quite another for him to invite Mr. Democratic Charisma himself onstage for a rally yesterday in the Cardin quest to become U.S. senator from Maryland.

Barack Obama didn’t even have to open his mouth to have a crowd of a few hundred under a powerful spell in a grassy outdoor amphitheater at the University of Maryland in College Park. The junior senator from Illinois — part Kenyan, part Kansan — stood tall and youthful and bronze in a black suit and a baby-blue tie, his eyes half-closed, studying the audience with a kind of seductive lassitude. His arrival sparked an ovation, and he shot a quick amiable wink to the many pols and hopefuls crammed behind him on the stage, mute witnesses to the magic.

Richard Fausset on ATMs for Jesus: Pastor Marty Baker preaches that the Bible is the eternal and inviolate word of God. On other church matters, he’s willing to change with the times.

Jeans are welcome at Stevens Creek Community Church, the 1,100-member evangelical congregation Baker founded 19 years ago. Sermons are available as podcasts, and the electric house band has been known to cover Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” A recent men’s fellowship breakfast was devoted to discussing the spiritual wages of lunching at Hooters.

It is a bid for relevance in a nation charmed by pop culture and consumerism, and it is not an uncommon one. But Baker has waded further into the 21st century than most fishers of American souls, as evidenced one Wednesday night when churchgoer Josh Marshall stepped up to a curious machine in the church lobby.

The Last Diver

Read his story: The old man still dreams about the bottom of the sea. He dreams about sponges, about tiger sharks, about big-hearted men he figured would live forever but are now gone.

“It is hard getting old,’’ the old man said. Of course it is. You outlive your friends. Your body rebels. Your short-term memory fails. And yet you can’t forget.

Van locked? I’ve just the thing!

Gangrey exclusive from Alex Zesch:

It wasn’t a congratulations on your new baby visit.

The woman said something about her van and her dog was inside and her insurance company. I gathered she wanted to use the phone, although she never said that.

I handed her my cell phone and stayed nearby in the front yard, like the small, distressed woman with the massive knee brace was going to run off with it. As she got the runaround from 21st Century Insurance and I pretended to be picking up, we were both getting annoyed.

Did she want to walk back there? Yes.

She had a wire hanger stuck in the door, which wasn’t quite closed but locked all the same. I wiggled it back out then checked to see if any other doors were unlocked. As if she hadn’t.

As she grew more frustrated with her call, I tried to slide the hanger between the door and the window, like they do on TV.

She had stopped to get the morning papers because her friend had been shot over the weekend, she said.

Huh, I said.

She NEVER stopped to get the papers, she said.

The hanger was too thick. What’s long and flat and has some kind of hook?

I was trained in page design in my first job in Memphis. The girl who trained me gave me a pica pole. I never used it. It’s been in my tool box because it makes straight lines.

It’s long and flat and has some kind of hook. I went and got it. It slid right in between the window and the door. The small hook on the end found something to hook and I pulled. It slipped off. Then again. After four or five tries, something popped, and the door opened.

I gave her that look my friend Bjorn and I gave each other hundreds of times one night drinking until it became annoying, where you raise both eyebrows and do a quick nod.

Thanks.

You’re welcome.

She grabbed her Times and her Trib from the side mirror and climbed in.

Thanks so much. Have a nice day.

I looked at my pica pole and then at her van. That was awesome.

Bad Things At The Taco Bell

Read his story: If you believe their confessions — and the accused say the signed statements cannot be believed — the $2,500 Taco Bell heist was staged, a piece of criminal theater with a simple motive: drugs.

It was hatched in the Taco Bell parking lot, when the night manager’s friends convinced her that the cash from the night deposit could land them lots of Ecstasy pills.

Good Monday

I defy you to find more good stuff inside the Monday edition of a regional newspaper anywhere in the country.

Sports columnist Gary Shelton makes eloquence seem effortless.
Read his ode to the courage of injured Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms.

Michael Kruse made me roll on the floor laughing with this collection of overheard quotes from the streets of New York.

And then Erin Sullivan made me almost cry.

Enjoy.

Two From The Weekend

Michael Lewis with The Ballad Of Big Mike: As he drove into Memphis in March 2004, Tom Lemming thought that everything about Michael Oher, including his surname, was odd. He played for a small private school, the Briarcrest Christian School, with no history of generating Division I college football talent. The Briarcrest Christian School team didn’t have many black players either, and Michael Oher was black. But what made Michael Oher especially peculiar was that no one in Memphis had anything to say about him. Lemming had plenty of experience “discovering” great players. Each year he drove 50,000 to 60,000 miles and met, and grilled, between 1,500 and 2,000 high-school juniors while selecting All-American teams for ESPN and College Sports TV. He got inside their heads months before the college recruiters were allowed to shake their hands. Lemming had made some calls and found that the coaches in and around Memphis either didn’t know who Michael Oher was or didn’t think he was any good. He hadn’t made so much as the third-string all-city team. He hadn’t had his name or picture in any newspaper. Had Lemming Googled him, “Oher” would have yielded nothing on Michael. The only proof of his existence was a grainy videotape some coach had sent him out of the blue.

And Anne Hull with The Army vs. Spec. Richmond: Eddie Richmond’s son got back from the war in June. He wanted nothing in the way of a homecoming, no yellow ribbons tied around trees, none of the piles of boiled crawfish that sent him off.

While other sons came home from Iraq with duffel bags that spilled sand from the desert, 22-year-old Edward Richmond Jr. carried release papers from an Army jail.

A Broken Girl And A Slow Trial

Read his story: The friendless death of Nixzmary Brown in Brooklyn last January demanded a reckoning. She was broken and starved, 7 years old, left in a den her brothers and sisters called “the dirty room.” Child welfare workers, teachers, the police and the parents all came under scrutiny.

In some quarters, consequences were swift. A week after Nixzmary was found, the child welfare agency suspended or reassigned six city workers. Soon hundreds of children were placed in foster care, the police commissioner was summoned before the City Council, and the mayor created and filled a new position for the protection of children.

But the case against the girl’s mother, Nixzaliz Santiago, and her stepfather, Cesar Rodriguez, has followed a different schedule.

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